Monday, February 1, 2010

A case study in the music industry

Although I regret watching almost every year, I found myself watching the Grammy Awards yet again this year. All but 1 or 2 of the performances are completely forgettable, with the majority being new songs that the labels are trying to push to a captive national audience, along with trying to help various artists crossover into new fan demographics. Nothing new there.

What really got to me tonight was listening to the Recording Academy president give his speech toward the end of the show and essentially say that illegal downloading threatens the artists we love and the quality of music we are accustomed to. While it may not greatly affect the biggest artists in the business, he said there are 1,000s of artists below the mega stars who are dependent on a successful recording industry to make ends meet. Something to that effect at least.

That's where I really lost patience with the whole show. I don't download illegally, nor do I support it. I rarely download live shows from bands without having also bought music from them as well. I recognize that the industry needs money to make music happen, and I know that record labels have played an integral part in facilitating the production of the music that we all grew up on. However, what downloading really threatens is the excess and control of the music industry. Major label artists are mostly a manufactured product now anyway. Labels have dropped hundreds of bands over the past decade, because those acts couldn't make back for the label the huge advances and expenses that were standard with major label deals.

However, the quality and diversity of music has only gotten better. In the last 10 years, we have already seen a huge reduction in the number of bands signing to major labels, and many more operate as independents or on smaller labels, and I would have to say that quality music is more accessible to fans now than it ever was. The artists predate the industry and I assure you they will outlast the industry. (Should I repeat that line? Just back up and read it again.) The big shift is that the industry no longer gets to control what bands get heard, and inevitably that affects their profits. In the 1980s, the labels dictated probably 95% of the music that the general public heard, and as a result, they profited hugely from that. Did they ever question their huge profits and wonder if they would last? Not really -- they just kept raking in the money and throwing out generous sums to the bands, knowing that only a certain percentage had to be really successful to finance the entire operation.

Enter the internet age, and suddenly, labels aren't in control of what you hear anymore. Downloading has been a part of it (and probably played the biggest role in causing this shift), but at this point in time, it is more about the wide availability of music and the seemingly infinite number of outlets from which to acquire your music that has transformed the industry.

My personal example involves two bands - Old 97s and the Avett Brothers. Over 15 years ago, the Old 97s got their start as a band, gained a small cult following, and ultimately were signed to Elektra in the mid 1990s. I expect they made good advance money from the label, and subsequently made one of the greatest albums of all time - Too Far to Care. Whether you are on board with that last part is immaterial, but at least humor me when I say that in 1997 the Old 97s were on top of their game, and they were really, really good. The problem was that Elektra still didn't really know what to do with them. TFTC didn't really have a radio single that would fit anywhere at the time, because radio was still highly compartmentalized and dominated by the major labels, and so they became just another major label band with a small fan base. They probably picked up a number of new fans (myself included) through promotions the label provided, but there simply was no outlet to send their music through to reach their target audience. Nowadays, the band has a comfortable following and makes a decent living, but they never really got big because the system in the 90s only allowed a few people to get really big through a few official channels, at least as far as major label bands go. They'll always be a favorite of mine, but I think they've missed the window to become as popular as they might deserve.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and you have the Avett Brothers. They are another band who built a cult following around the country, although already by the mid '00s, they had a seemingly better trajectory as far as popularity than the Old 97s. Why? Because there were many more outlets for people to hear them. The rise of myspace, blogs, and radio and festivals that were more open to indie bands (or even specifically devoted to indie bands) allowed them to grow at a much faster rate. They did not have to wait to see if Atlantic or RCA was going to push one single of theirs really hard to make them the next big thing. Rather, they just did it on their own, as countless other bands have done in the past decade. Do the Avetts have any qualities that are far more appealing than the Old 97s had back in the late 90s? There are differences, but all in all, I don't think they do. They are an amazing band that is at the top of their game, and there were simply more ways this past decade for them to get big than would have been available 15 years ago. Now the band has signed with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, but no matter how that business partnership turns out, they have already cemented a huge following that will allow them to be successful in coming years no matter their label status.

Both literally and figuratively, the labels don't really own the music world any more. They are still a major player, but they refuse to let go of their model of creating huge artists to make them huge profits, and as a result they fall farther and farther behind. They try to blame illegal downloading, but it is only symbolic of the control they have lost on the industry. It is a business that refuses to acknowledge its mistakes and will not accept that it is no longer in control. The Recording Academy president's statement was a weak attempt to ignore the elephant in the room, and as a result he insulted our intelligence by asserting that the quality of music will decline without a healthy (read: wealthy) industry running the show. Instead of giving million dollar advances to unproven artists, labels could give out 100 $10,000 advances to promising artists and I guarantee they would make better profits, assuming they are willing to nurture and develop those artists as labels once did. I'm not worried about it though. We don't actually have to tell the labels that we're letting them go. I fixed the glitch. It will work itself out naturally.

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