Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The new music model

I heard a fascinating interview with OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash on NPR yesterday.  The jist of the interview was that the old world of major record labels picking and promoting new artists is dying.  In that model, labels would send A&R people out to find new acts. The label would then sign a bunch of acts with the notion, says Kulash, that one out of 20 would make it big -- the profits from the successful act would subsidize the capital spent on the 19 unsuccessful ones.

Today, however, you don't necessarily need a record label or a recording studio to make decent music.  This can be done at home with some instruments and a personal computer, and maybe a camera to make a video. So some artists are trying to work around the labels.  And, indeed, OK Go has done quite well for itself without a label's backing largely building on the buzz created by their free videos (see here for their brilliant Rube Goldberg one).

Now, I don't know how accurate this narrative is. (It may be a lot like candidate nominations -- there's a popular belief that with the demise of party machines, regular people have a shot at office and don't need the party bosses anymore, but this is largely untrue.) But to the extent it is, it strikes me as not necessarily all that liberating for struggling musicians out there.

Under the old system, A&R people could actually pluck artists from obscurity and give them the backing they needed to be heard. With the labels out of the picture, theoretically no one is selected out of the system, but it's a lot harder to break into the upper levels.  Maybe you really don't need the label to provide you with equipment and studio time any more, but not every band or artist can afford to tour, which is pretty vital to building a career in music. This means that wealthier bands have a bigger advantage than they used to.

Besides, if the old model meant that 5% of supported bands made it, what's that percentage now with basically every kid with a guitar and a Mac in the denominator? Yes, some bands figure a way to make themselves heard, but a lot more fall by the wayside. This strikes me as one of those societal changes that sounds more "democratic" but really means that more people are free to fail.


marc said...

The same discussion is happening in publishing: the old model was most similar, as a business, to sharecropping, but the new model is most similar, as a business, to handing out land to everyone, but making them sell the crop on the side of the road, rather than in the vegetable market. No one has any idea what to do.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

There are shifts from the old model in two directions.

One, the Disney Channel is moving in the direction of the old record studio model, where the studio makes its own stars rather than looking for them, by dint of auditions of individuals to fill them and massive promotional efforts.

The other is for the promotion function to shift from the record studio to local radio stations that take on the business of actively promoting and playing select local talent with an eye towards securing record contracts for them once they have proven themselves. KTCL 93.3 has been particularly active in this kind of activity in Denver, catapulting groups like 303, the Fray and the Flobots to national prominence and has a context each year to promote the winning local band aggressively. The free metro weekly Westword collaborates in this enterprise by promoting local bands and given them a name recognition platform, as do a couple of local concert venue operators like "Nobody in Particular Presents" and the owners of the 3 Kings Tavern on South Broadway.

Denver's music industry push was one that Mayor Hickenlooper has played some part in, as was recounted by the Fray's frontman at a recent political fundraiser concert for his gubinatorial run. Some of the inspiration of this came from the prior success of a similar effort in the Pacific Northwest that created the Grunge genre.

This trend isn't necessarily a bad one. It democratizes the band promotion process by putting more nationally distributed expert intermediaries with similar incentives to the record companies themselves in charge (de facto) of promoting promising talent, while in the old system, anyone who wanted to break out into the big time pretty much has to go to New York (all genres), Los Angeles (all genres), Detroit (for Motown and Rap), Nashville (for country) or London (for world music and technopop).

Book publishing and stage plays, in contrast, are far more dominated by New York City powerbrokers.