Wednesday, December 21, 2005

music and its discontents

Sorry folks, I have coffee in the late afternoon. Thus, the bloggerhea.

I am Ms. Crankypants right now. Mostly because I have been meditating on how ickypants the recording industry is. And from reading Domystic's most recent summary of the news this week and most of it very much chaps my hide.

"If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
If you're not, that's okay, give me a call. *clap clap*
If you're happy and you know it then your face will surely show it
but if you're not, that's okay, give me a call. " *clap clap*

The music industry sucks. It is a fact that most will agree on. From the point of view of the consumer and of the artist. Son't get me started on the consumer end. For now let's talk about artist development. There are heartbreaking stories of what happened to the great R&B artists of the past. People who signed over the rights to their songs for a cadillac and ended up in poverty while someone else made a fortune. And there are heartbreaking stories of what is happening to artists right now.

Courtney Love gave a speech at the Digital Hollywood Online entertainment conference in 2000 giving a breakdown of just how the life of a recording artist is like that of a modern day sharecropper. This speech is somewhat articulate and quite compelling. Turns out she can do more than throw things at people and get arrested.

Steve Albini has written a very famous essay about how the music industry will fuck you over. I did not realize that it was first published in a zine called Maximum RockNRoll (issue #133)

The songs that you write and record under a recording contract do not belong to you. They are considered work for hire and belong to the label. However you do not get paid for the work you do. You are given an advance. Out of that money you record and promote, license, and merchandise your music. Everyone is taking a precentage of the sales and you might make forty cents to a dollar per CD. You don't see any of that money until your advance is recouped by everyone else involved the label, the producer, the t-shirt guy, the marketing people, the "get you played on the radio" people.

Your favorite artist sees more of your money if you buy the CD straight from her hands at the merch table or if you mail him a dollar bill.

Everyone blames someone else when they look at what happens to the artists that get screwed over. They blame the radio for not playing their songs. They blame the artist for not being good enough or working hard enough to promote themselves. They blame the label for not supporting them.

The business people in the music business have relied on having a stranglehold on distribution, tap dancing circles around their bands with a shower of legalese, and the rule of radio to make their living. (the rule of radio: if you play a song enough times it will inevitably grow on the listener.) Note they distribute. They do not sell, write, or perform. The standard contract is written to favor the house.

I understand the distribution and exposure problem. Having booked three shows and lost money, I know that it's really difficult to get people to come out to see a band that they have never heard. No matter how much that band truly rocks.

With all of this in a major label's favor apparently of 4-6,000 artists that are promoted and distributed in a year only 225 turn a tidy profit for them. (factoid from a very old la weekly article.)

Why so few? Music is experienced in a very personal and emotional way even in a packed venue. It's hard to predict who will love what song, what band and why. And with each generation their taste is often a reaction against what used to be popular. How's a aging hipster supposed to recognize the net big thing? It is difficult to predict which bands will stay together and which ones will grow creatively in directions that the listener will continue to respond to. Added to that some say that labels are not willing to put the time into artist development. And perhaps label execs actually suck at the job they are paid a lot of money to do.

On the bright side of all of this is the threat that comes from the internet. It could indeed serve to topple the industry as we know it. Which is one way to create change. The structures would be gone but the demand for music would remain waiting to be filled. Perhaps the business will devolve back into the hands of people who really love music. And companies like Seagrams and Sony and Nabisco and Turtle wax will wander off to take a crack at other kinds of businesses. (calm down, the last two are obviously untrue and pure snarkiness)

Perhaps some of these ideas for micropay music distribution will happen. Or someone will find a business model that can run circles around the big labels without getting bought out or sued out of existence. Or someone will figure out new means for distribution or getting the music out to the listener. Or someone will bring an antitrust lawsuit against these media conglomerates that have consolidated so much of the media in our world.

Some folks have put together the Future of Music Coalition. they seem to be a lobbying and education organization. Very change the system from within kind of stuff. Not so glamorous but important.

There is the excellent CDbaby which has been selling CD's for independent artists. They have a excellent, if depressing, list of articles for indie artists. (they have links to the Albini and the Love articles.)

One interesting idea that is floated in one of their articles is that at the point at which artists are being wooed by record labels they should actually negotiate. They should ask for benefits. They should ask for healthcare. They should ask for a retirement plan during the tenure of their recording contracts. The refusal to agree to these things should be deal breakers. And any attempt to strip a band of these while under contract should result in their immediate release from their contract. They should ask for contract renegotation not renewal at the discretion of the label. They should ask for complete control over their merchandising. Or whatever it is that will help them break even/make a buck.

This is unlikely to happen. After all most artists are young and naive and foolish. Only 30 somethings ask about the benefits a job offers. (They had damn well better!) And I mean benefits beyond the potential for hot action and all the blow you can stuff up your nose.

Knowledge is power, kids.

I think the key here is that an artist is also in business. And should take active control of that aspect of his work. If he doesn't, the people that he does business with will screw him over. (that goes for the ladies too. TLC, Toni Braxton ...)

And don't even get me started on the whole live music thing.
Last I checked, in CU most bands rely on promoters and saloon owners to give them the opportunity to play. I don't understand why more of them don't take control. Rent space and promote and book their own shows. It does involve financial risk and hustle but in return they can decide when and where and with whom they play. They also have control over how money gets split up amongst the acts. All of these are very big things. In CU, it is the case that at some saloons local bands do not get paid very well (if at all) compared to touring acts. Which sucks.

Yes, it is a pain in the ass to self-book and self-promote. But it also gives you autonomy and control. Life is full of tradeoffs.


At 12:45 PM, December 21, 2005, Blogger fishlamp said...

Stick with it, as long as you love what you do. It sounds tough, and like something i would never attempt (even if I had musical talent).

From what I've heard so far, I'm there to support you!

At 3:20 PM, December 22, 2005, Blogger ergo said...

=) Thanks. The support and encouragement is greatly appreciated.


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