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All the wrong places

July 22, 2009


The New York Times yesterday posted an article on irony. Well, it was really on how musicians are trying to find an audience in the Internet age, but the Times either ignored or didn’t get that they’re facing an almost identical problem. All media industries that were based around a physical product are having a rough time of it these days, above and beyond the recession we’re in, and the Times thought that they’d found a novel answer to the situation. I’d like to contend, though, that they’ve not uncovered anything new, or even anything particularly helpful for the average aspiring musician. More after you jump.

One of the ‘helpful’ alternatives to trying to get a major-label deal they outline in the article is to be being famous already and start your own record label to shill your next record. Obviously, they meant this to be more an example of how everyone’s hurting nowadays and everyone’s having to come up with creative ways to combat the drop off in CD sales (-20% in 2008 over 2007), than an effective method for musical rookies. What amazes me, though, is that this article mentions self-released records and independent labels only as stepping-stones to major labels. Artists like Bon Iver and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have found a fair amount of success from releasing their records on their own, both of whom are signed to indie labels now, and seem to be doing quite well for themselves. Another (over-used) example they could have gone with is the Arctic Monkeys, who went from having a couple of songs on their MySpace account to having a record deal with Domino and becoming the most popular band in England since Oasis (at least that’s how it felt in the mid-00s). Not every musician wants to be the next Shins or Death Cab For Cutie. Some are happy enough to stay on Sup Pop and never make the jump over to the (step-)parent company of Warner. Granted, if you’re just in it for the cash, that’s exactly the path you’re going to follow. Or, sign to a major from the start and just get bigger, more annoying and more produced by Brian Eno.

The Times article also mentions Radiohead manager Brian Message’s new record label Polyphonic (no website as of yet, ironically), which is supposed to be a label for the 21st century. It, like Flickr, MySpace Music or even this fair site, allows the artists to keep the copyright on their published work, even though the label will be doing most of the work to make money off of it. There will also be something closer to a 50-50 share in profits between artists and label. It’s a great idea, but unless a lot more labels with backers of Message’s quality spring up soon, it’s not going to mean much for you and me (if you’re also an unsigned musician). It already feels like you’ve won the lottery when you get signed, so it’s going to feel like winning the Mega Millions signing to Polyphonic, but how many artists are they really going to sign in a given year? They’ve got $20m in capital they’re willing to throw at the Polyphonic project, and if they stick to their $300K-per artist guideline, that’s about sixty-six artists they can sign before they run out of money, assuming they put every penny of their disposable capital into the artists. In all reality, it seems for now that the best way to ‘make it’ is through the hyper-word-of-mouth promotion that sites like MySpace and Facebook provide, and praying more than just your friends at those at your open mic like what you’re doing.

The Times also tried to describe how major labels have tried to become more flexible in these changing times, but the only positive example they really gave was of EMI’s new services to help unsigned musicians. They’re now offering touring and merchandise to new groups, which to me is a rather “let them eat cake” answer to the fact that they’re unsigned and broke. The bands won’t be able to afford new bootstraps after they’ve ripped the ones they have trying to pull themselves up by them. The fact that Steve Albini’s essay from 1993 is still applicable in 2009 shows an industry unwilling to change from the top. Then again, perhaps looking in the New York times for ways to change physical media industries wasn’t the smartest place to look.

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