Caught in Time: The Music Industry's Struggle to Adapt
Guest post by Justin Stansbury (@twentyeyes138) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.
Not too long ago, I was discussing with a friend of mine what we felt our purpose in life is. For some, their purpose may be to become a writer, a doctor, or a lawyer. But for me it's music. Regardless of how tough and unstable that may be at times, it'll never change. In the middle of our conversation, in the midst of voicing my frustrations and concerns regarding the future, my friend calmly repeated a phrase his father said to him during trying times, We just have to adapt."
Several weeks later, I started work on a new tour and that quote really hit home. I kept running into the same issues over and over again with different promoters, venues, and bands all over the country. It seems to me that the majority of people I come across are operating as if they're living in a different decade; be it past, or in some far off futuristic land, it makes no difference. They all appear to be completely unsure of what their roles are, standing on opposite sides of the fence, shouting back and forth to one another over who has the better plan of action for the artist.
Most record labels have spent the past decade trying to play catch up while the rest of the digital world has taken off and evolved at a rapid pace. What once was the biggest threat to labels has now become the very thing they're trying to monetize. The mainstream market is flooded with releases that are simply soulless; music that's thrown against a wall with the hopes it'll stick. But nowadays people don't have to spend money on an album of mostly filler to hear the hit singles.
Some record labels have embraced this shift in dynamics and are pushing towards more music streaming services as an alternative. Independent label Beggars Group is currently making 22% of its digital revenue off of YouTube and Spotify, half of which is being paid directly to artists. Another label, Cooking Vinyl, is making roughly $5,000 per million views. But in order to make that revenue you have to be selective and align yourself with quality artists. Rather than pursuing this model however, the major labels have instead decided to try their luck at it another way.
For instance, the recent case of Google removing over two billion fake YouTube hits for Universal, Sony/BMG, and RCA artists. Did they not realize things like this were detectable? It seems an awful lot like a new digital form of payola where they're paying off companies to add hits to rake in cash from ads. Not to mention they're literally stealing money from advertisers using fake views, which is something that should be punishable with more than just a simple lowering of their hit counter.
While major labels are busy being stuck in the frantic rush to avoid having to make money the honest way, and come to terms with making a smaller amount than what they're used to, the independent market has grown substantially over the years. The downside to this: the Internet has created too many options. People's attention spans have now become too short. There's too much competition on the web. It's tough enough just to get people to like you on Facebook and follow you on Twitter, to expect anyone to pay attention to the boring music video you post on YouTube when there's 20 different cat videos on the side of the page is simply wishful thinking.
But most artists aren't thinking along these lines. They're still putting their faith in traditional radio or full-length albums that will gain them label attention. They aren't taking the time to realize we're living in a world where music listeners decide the fate of most artists, not labels. Listeners don't want to wait a year or more for another new album. An artist must strike now and continue striking with a consistent flow of quality products to keep them at the top of people's playlists. If you as an artist can turn out captivating records on the regular then great. But know that most people's lives are too busy to deal with CD's or vinyl unless they're the hardcore fans.
It's simply not enough to upload a track to YouTube, now artists have to add a video to go along with it, one that can offer the viewer a look into the song and the creative world of a musician. Take this video from indie artist George Barnett, for example, that was posted on The Pirate Bay's home page (that's right, those pirates are good for something) just a few weeks ago. It now has over 120,000 views and, shockingly, most of the comments are very positive. Barnett also has his entire second EP up to stream for free, and released two EP's in 2012. The goal is no longer to have people purchase full-length albums every few years, but to listen to the art you create.
If you can create an army of listeners, you'll succeed in establishing a built in word of mouth marketing machine that's far more effective than any targeted ad you pay for on Facebook or promotional campaign you buy on Twitter. People are more susceptible to listen to their friend's opinions, far more so than an ad they can tune out on Internet radio. But for some musical genres having an online following simply isn't enough. Some fans demand the live music experience. This creates a complicated task for indie artists: how exactly do you go about doing that on your own?
I just finished up a 27-date tour for two independent bands. No label backing or large marketing push. Everything is funded by the bands themselves and from ticket prices, down to local acts on the bill; we play a very large part into how each and every show is built. By working closely with promoters on tours like this, it becomes apparent how crucial they are to the continued success or potential fall of artists. They've become a new form of gatekeepers. But there's still the frequent amount of problems. Some promoters don't get that the definition of a professional musician does not start and stop at what label they belong to anymore, but more so the performer's mentality and ability to be self-sufficient. To often do I see promoters giving subpar attention to independent touring acts who can easily draw a larger audience then some signed touring acts in their genre.
Recently, I read an article that aimed to tackle the question of who's to blame when a show flops: the band, or promoter? While I agree with many of things that critic Jessica Hopper states, I still can't help but feel the argument is a bit one sided. In the story, Hopper claims, Assuming it's the promoter or club's job to get people to the show is one of the common fallacies of young bands." Perhaps they forgot the word promote" is included in their title. Of course it's the promoter's job to bring bodies in the door, just as much as it is the bands. They both share in this responsibility. Both parties are ultimately going after the same goal: to get people to show up to the live event.
In the case of independent touring acts, they have to rely heavily on the promoters to bring in people until they've built a following in that region. Artist's plans can't simply stop at YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter; they've got to include playing as well. In order to do that, promoters have to be willing to dig deeper to help boost awareness of talented acts that are trying to break into different regions instead of expecting the bulk of the workload to fall onto the artist's shoulders.
The power no longer lies solely in the hands of corporate juggernauts; it's evolved into something much more. It's now the artist's job to find creative paths to push their music forward, and most of those diverge from the methods of old. But to undertake that task alone is nearly impossible, and to expect them to do so is unrealistic. The roadblocks all parties face will continue to remain firmly in place until creative minds find creative ways around them. Whether that calls for a complete overhaul of how record labels handle business, only time will tell. In order to achieve the level of success in which everyone strives for, we all have to learn to adapt. The listener already has.