HOW THE MUSIC INDUSTRY DESTROYED ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
Tues 3rd Oct 2006, Tim Briffa
I was talking to a friend of my brothers’ recently about our mutual disillusion with the current music scene.
“I remember when I was a kid,” he said. “You’d switch on Top Of The Pops and there’d be David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, T Rex, Roxy Music…all these fantastic tracks coming out every week it seemed. And now…it’s almost nothing.”*
(*To anyone who thinks music is as good as its ever been I suggest comparing a current chart to one from thirty or forty years ago and then ask yourself honestly which set you’d take to a desert island.)
He asked why I thought this was – as a musician – and if it was simply that the great songs had all been written.
I’ve heard this idea before, but I don’t think creativity really works that way and between the different notes, rhythms and personalities of the players, there should be a near limitless potential for great music.
I then gave my explanation for the decline which can more or less be blamed on one thing – the music business itself, which is now based around a major label monopoly concerned solely with maximising profits. Couple this with advances in technology that allow literally anyone to sound like a professional artist as well as the increased acceptance of things like on-stage backing tracks, miming etc the incentive for labels to seek out and nurture original talent has been markedly reduced, resulting in the dearth of truly memorable and affecting music we are now witnessing.
I added that there probably is some genuinely amazing music being made at the moment, but because of how the industry is structured, the chance of either of us ever hearing it was close to nil.
While the industry has always sought to make money, in the early days studio technology was so basic, with few effects and almost no way to correct a mistake, an artist had to be of a high professional standard just to make a record. The song also had to be well arranged and strong enough to stand up in such an exposed setting. If only from self-interest, labels had to find and develop genuinely talented artists and songwriters and the most successful ones were usually owned or employed by people like Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler, Albert Hammond, George Martin etc. – skilled musicians in their own right and with the ability to recognise talent in its nascent stages.
Promotion was also a more innocent affair back then, often just a matter of mailing a few singles and press sheets to stations and music papers. A large campaign might have stretched to a week or two of press ads. This made for a relatively level playing field where smaller labels could compete and if a song was good (or at least catchy) it tended to chart and if not, it flopped.
Juke Box Jury – one of the most popular TV shows of the fifties and sixties (and briefly revived in the seventies) – was based on this simple premise, including a panel of artists and industry insiders listening to the latest releases and then voting whether they’d be a ‘Hit’ or a ‘Miss’.
It would be difficult to revive Juke Box Jury now, not because of its basic format, but because it would be virtually impossible to predict if a song would be a hit, without knowing what was being spent on promotion. In fact if you knew the budget, you could probably guess its chances without having to hear it.
That’s only a mild exaggeration. In the late sixties, labels started to experiment with full-sized billboard ads and blanket radio campaigns. As they woke up to the power of marketing, it started to become the main focus of the operations and we’re now at the point where as long as the act looks good and the song roughly fits the current scene and isn’t completely awful, you can virtually guarantee a Top 40 placing just by spending on promotion.
I’m not only referring to obviously manufactured stuff, boy bands, dance acts etc. This also applies to supposedly credible genres like rock and indie – it just requires a more subtle approach.
Let me show you what I mean by describing how a major label usually launches a new signing.
The first stage of the campaign is what’s known as ‘creating a buzz’, basically getting the act’s name out there via small reviews, new band features, gossip column mentions etc.
As well as their in-house publicity people, the label will usually hire an independent press person whose job is to schmooze their industry contacts and call in favours.
Press ads are also effective and carry an additional advantage of increasing the chance of being reviewed (and positively) as music papers depend of advertising revenue to stay afloat and will usually do their best to please those paying.
I first became aware of this when our manager paid for a couple of ads in Time Out and NME and we immediately received our first reviews and suddenly started having our phone calls returned.
Street posters can also help to get the name out. If they’re kept to a modest size, they can also lend a subtle credibility to an act due to a romantic image many still hold of the band themselves sticking them up in the middle of the night, perhaps while one of their girlfriends keeps look-out for the cops.
If you’ve ever attempted this, you’ll know it’s actually not the police you have to worry about as much as the shadey cartels who control the postering business. If one of their guys catches you in the act, expect the threat of violence at the least.
There does need to be some product, usually a low-key single or two (limited edition, vinyl only?) ahead of the album when the real push comes. This is still mainly about establishing the name at this point, so they won’t be expecting full hits.
If it’s a band, they will be expected to play live, so some showcase gigs or mini tour will probably be arranged or the label may pay for them to support a more established artist.
You read that correctly. People are often shocked to learn the openers for stadium level acts usually had to pay for the privilege – buying on as it’s called – assuming they were chosen purely on merit.
That used to be the case – in fact it’s how many of the headliners got their first break, but it rarely happens now. Something to consider next time you’ve forked out half a weeks wages to stand at the back of a huge arena, drinking over-priced, warm lager.
Assuming the first stage of the campaign went okay and the band are still talking and haven’t developed any major drug problems, the album should soon be ready for release. To sell in any significant quantities usually requires a full chart hit and for that you need radio play. Even on stations like XFM and GLR only allow a couple of their DJs to play what they want and even that’s usually limited to one or two tracks per show. The rest must come from the official play-list which the station programmer compiles each week after meeting with various plugging teams – most stations won’t even consider a track unless it’s come via a plugger.
You might wonder why a programmer needs someone else to tell them what to play, especially knowing they’re paid to promote them. Mainly it’s to filter out the really amateur stuff and also anything that doesn’t suit the station’s ‘demographic.’ The last thing a programmer wants is for people to turn the dial because of one track that’s completely different to their tastes. This why you’ll rarely hear a heavy metal song on Radio 1 even if it’s already a hit.
Another reason for meeting with pluggers is to hear what kind of marketing campaign the label has planned. The bigger and more targeted to its typical demographic, the more likely they will add it. They may even offer to co-ordinate plays around the stages of the campaign. So again, the more you spend on advertising the more additional benefits you gain, in this case airplay.
These days you only have to sell around a thousand copies to make the Top 40, so you’d be unlucky not to have at least made the lower reaches by this point, after which it may gain momentum and start climbing of its own accord. With a chart hit to their name, the label can now ramp things up, with full-page press ads, billboards etc. and it will simply look like a response to their growing success. Labels are so confident of these strategies, they will often book a new signing into 1000-plus capacity venues months in advance, knowing that by the time the campaign has run they’ll be able to fill them.
With prohibitive buy-on fees, plugging costs, plus murky deals whereby TV shows, festivals etc are only given access to bigger acts on the condition they take on newer signings, the result is a virtual stranglehold where anyone not signed to a major or a major-financed independent is all but barred from competing. In some cases this is explicitly so e.g. in the US where many radio stations have deals preventing them from playing independent acts during peak listening times.
While this state of affairs would appear to benefit the majors, it’s become so expensive to launch an act (half a million is considered average) that it’s usually not until their second album they start to recoup their costs – and that’s assuming it sells, which is where the system starts to break down. It’s one thing persuading people to buy one so-so album, but by the time their next is finished and ready for release, newer, fresher acts will have come onto the scene to compete for their fans’ fickle attentions.
With the first CD sitting near the bottom of the pile unplayed and unloved for some time, it will require an even harder sell for them to risk burning their fingers a second time.
Rather than continuing to throw good money after bad, labels often cut their losses at this point and simply drop the artist, which is why so many acts disappear not long after their second release.
What they’d really like is an act with both wide commercial appeal and longevity, a Blur or U2. But these don’t come along every day, so rather than go to endless gigs or sift through endless piles of demos a quicker, easier option is to poach anyone with promise off the independent labels (who will have done most of the hard work for them) and then use their marketing muscle to break them onto the mainstream.
Most independents are run on a shoe-string and will usually let an artist go for a reasonable sum. Persuading the act to sign can be more difficult on account of the majors’ reputation for creative interference in order to make them as commercial as possible.
To prevent this, their A and R man may offer a ‘creative control’ clause in the contract ensuring no key decisions can be made without the act’s consent. These are usually as good as worthless, as should you go against their wishes, all the A and R man has to do is threaten to withdraw promotion (which as we should all know by now will virtually guarantee commercial failure) though being an A and R man he’s more likely to phrase it as something like:
“While I love your idea of using …. (insert name of legendary, but currently out of vogue producer) to do the album, rather than ….. (insert name of flavour of the month producer who makes everyone sound like everyone else that he wants to use) I’m just not sure I can persuade Marketing to get behind it.”
He will then suggest another flavour-of-the-month producer who he insists can get just the sound you’re after, but with a slightly more modern twist to appeal to contemporary tastes.
If you still refuse, he may hint at terminating your contract (while the artist is tied to the label until they’ve delivered however many albums are stipulated in the contract, the label can drop you at any time.)
If he wants to play hard-ball, there’s an even nastier weapon in his armoury known as ‘shelving’. This is where they neither release anything, nor allow you to leave the deal, meaning you can’t even work.
So rather than risk everything over the choice of producer, you concede – telling yourself the occasional compromise is okay if it means being heard by a wider audience.
But it won’t stop there. Like the descent into prostitution, selling out tends to happen in increments – a tweak of the EQ here, a slightly naff video there. No one act awful in itself and each justifiable as part of some greater good, until without knowing precisely how or where, you will have crossed that line and become just another bunch of corporate cock sucking rock-whores, while your original fans are left wondering how it is bands always seem to end up losing it whenever they sign to a big record company.
Of course, many acts don’t mind being told how to sound or look, but for those with a strong or unique vision, having to fight over every decision can be an exhausting and demoralizing experience that ends up sapping them of all their creative energy.
From who gets signed, to who receives the most promotion, the safe and formulaic are favoured over the innovative, passionate and risk-taking. Aware that labels are mostly looking for more of the same, emerging acts may also start tailoring their music to whatever is currently in fashion, everyone copying what no one was that into in the first place and compounding the problem even further.
Fortunately great bands do make it through, un-fucked with from time to time, but this should be the norm, not the exception.
Some argue that we are still talking about a business and on that level at least the Majors have been very successful.
But despite the award ceremony back-slapping, the industry is actually in a pretty terrible state right now and continues to be shockingly wasteful (witness the recent £60 million deal given to Robbie Williams.)
Ironically most of the majors wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the revenue coming in from their back catalogues – genuinely great acts signed by people who knew what they were doing and weren’t afraid to take risks.
For all its cool pretensions, the music industry is the enemy of great art and the last bastion of Thatcherism.
I only gave my brother’s friend a short summary of the above, after which he said, “But isn’t that all changing now? What with the internet, Myspace and all of that? Surely bands don’t need labels any more?”
It’s true you can now record and release your music without having to be signed, which is brilliant, but the flipside is that it’s meant there’s probably a thousand times as many people now out there calling themselves artists. So unless you’re happy mainly being heard by a small circle of friends and relatives, the need for a label is perhaps greater than ever.
And because labels are now using the internet as their way to discover new acts, the ones most likely to get their attention are those either good at self-promotion or with the know-how to draw traffic to their sites, the very people I think we should be trying to discourage, while the true geniuses are languishing in the outer reaches of Myspace with fifteen fans. Because if there’s one thing rock history should have taught us, its that the real greats tend to be a bit dysfunctional and not that at ease with the world, rather than someone with good HTML and organisational skills.
If you think my disdain for the industry is born from bitter, personal experience, you’re not entirely wrong, but it’s not just because of what I’ve been through.
A couple of years after coming to London, I saw a band I thought had everything: brilliant musicianship, charisma and above all a fantastic set of songs – each one sounded like a hit. I saw them about a dozen times when a notice appeared saying they’d split up without so much as a 7-inch single to their name. They’d done everything a band is meant to do – flyered, postered, gigged extensively, even a couple of publicity stunts.
Had just one label or journalist done what they were supposed to do, I’m convinced they’d have been at least as important as The Smiths. I’ve seen some other great acts disappear without a trace and it truly breaks my heart to think how much other incredible music must have been lost to the world.
In Memoriam The Cool Rays.