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I wish I had a pseudonym
The Music Industry, Bad Analogies and a Revolution Part II: Record Labels
04/26/09 at 04:14 AM by goodarmcindy
This will be the second, and concluding, part of my blogs on the music industry. This blog will focus on the role of record labels in a changing industry. Again to make it clear I will mostly be focusing on what is deemed ‘rock’ music and thus the rock music industry. Echoing my first post I will try and apply some political theory to this topic and horribly, horribly stretch out the analogy as long as I can. *
Everyone knows the major players in terms of record labels, and most people have an opinion on them, and it is rarely a good one. Major labels make your favourite band sell out, they have no souls, they chew bands up and spit them out, they have been the cause of more than one band break up yet they still manage to make huge profits.
So why am I suggesting that record labels need to change? Well, I believe it is quite clear that record labels need to do something different if they are to remain relevant. The traditional role of the record label is being replaced by vast networks of bands, online communities and consumers. I’ll explain, record labels pursue profit, that is their aim. Their main weapon in doing this is agenda setting. Record labels had the power to determine what was popular and what wasn’t. This was accomplished by heavy media penetration and highly skilled PR people within the record label. Music was their business, and they made money off it. Lots of money.
If I were to apply a political theory to this I would use Gramsci’s idea of a cultural discourse. He claimed that the bourgeoisie were able to exploit the proletariat because the bourgeoisie had the power to make them believe their exploitation was natural, and that there was no other option. This is hegemonic discourse, it is the most powerful using their power to exploit a group in society without the exploited realising what is happening.
So how does this apply to record labels? Well, imagine this: record labels have for years had the power to set the agenda, when we talk of music fads and bandwagons it is the record labels who create these. When one runs its course (see grunge, nu-metal, rap-metal) they are replaced by the next fad. Bands in the current most popular genre are signed to major labels and then discarded when that trend dies. Major labels set the agenda, make us spend our money, and then change the agenda when the money has stopped flowing so liberally and the cycle repeats.
But, as I have argued before, this process has changed, record labels are no longer hegemonic in this discourse setting, the power has been socialised thanks to the internet. While we still have fads they are now, somewhat, more controlled by the consumer. The consumer now has so much more choice, thanks to the internet, in terms of the music they have access to that the record labels don’t have the power (as much as they used to anyway) to dictate what is listened to.
Typical record label jobs are becoming redundant. Take the job of the A&R scout. Their job is diminishing in importance, unearthing the new money spinner for record labels is as easy as looking at the MySpace music charts, or the Purevolume charts, or looking at who is being discussed on absolutepunk or any of the other hundreds of music related communities.
Typical roles of the record label are ceasing to be monopolised. No longer does major label backing act as the only road to success. Big bands are shirking record labels, smaller bands are setting up their own record labels, and websites like Amazon are allowing the distribution of small acts as freely as the distribution of the majors.
So what can record labels do? Well in my view there are a few major problems, one is their image in the eyes of the public, one is their reputation and stance over downloading music, and perhaps most simply one is the price they set for their products.
The reputation one is simple to solve really, and that is to stop being such bastards to their artists. For every major label success there are other bands who have been almost destroyed by the politics and demands of major label life (see the Starting Line). The allure of signing to a major record label has gone, because they no longer hold the only key to success as it seemd they used to. The game has changed, but they have yet to change with it.
Downloading music illegally is a major problem for record labels, and they do themselves absolutely no favours by throwing hissy fits and alienating everyone who buys music by trying to arrest and sue illegal downloaders. Take the Pirate Bay trial, do you think people who read about that thought: ‘Good work record labels, that is only fair what you did!’, or did they think ‘Major labels suck, they have enough money as it is, why are they pissing off the people who allow them to live such a comfortable life?’. It’s pretty obvious that most people fell in the second camp. I think it is telling that Pirate Bay is still up and running and has seen an increase in membership since the trial.
Illegal downloading is taking money from the record labels, and there is no quicker way to anger them than that, but the current solution of trying to sue everyone is not working. The solution lies in being innovative and, while not supporting it, at least acknowledging that illegal downloading is a problem that it is unlikely they can find a solution to. There are ways around it, for example, when people buy a physical copy of the record link them to a site where they can download a lower quality copy of the album to tide them over until the CD arrives. Just something that shows some initiative, or far more simply, lower the price of CDs.
I find it really galling, as someone who buys a shedload of CDs, that newspapers can give away millions of CDs for free yet HMV, Zaavi and various other retailers (Amazon you are now involved in this - I have noticed your prices rising even before the credit crunch/moneygeddon) can charge me £12 and upwards for a single CD. I wonder why the biggest downloaders of music are teenagers, is it perhaps because they can’t afford to build up a CD collection? I think that may have something to do with it.
But perhaps they have let the problem exist for too long and major record labels are dying out. I’m sure the credit crunch/moneygeddon isn’t helping the situation, but they cannot use that as an excuse. Major record labels have brought about their own demise and perhaps that is the best thing for the music industry.
Tags: music, record labels, revolution, Gramsci
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The Music Industry, Bad Analogies and Revolution
03/30/09 at 09:09 AM by goodarmcindy
The music industry is constantly changing. It has to reflect changing tastes, trends and technology and somehow find a way to make a profit. Those who sit at the top have always found a way to do this whether by being innovative, one step ahead of the bandwagon (or even creating it) or by being ruthless in dealing with artists. Yet things have, and continue to, change. It would be tabloid-y of me to claim that CDs are a dying medium, but the way bands and labels go about their business has to change. Yet it seems that it is bands, and not labels, who are embracing the new way faster.
This blog will look at ways in which bands (specifically rock bands) are adapting and, in some cases, flourishing without the business “nous” of labels. Firstly, why have things had to change? Well really this is all down to the internet – we could be broader and say technology in general, but quite clearly no other factor has had as big an impact as the internet has. Traditional measures of success for bands are becoming increasingly redundant, physical sales of albums and singles are falling year on year, and the ease at which home-recording and cheap marketing have become available to even the smallest bands have changed the world in which those in the music industry aim to make a living. Specific to UK bands, the idea of ‘breaking’ America has also become almost irrelevant.
While the music industry 20 years ago was confined to those who worked for record labels, and bands who were signed to a record label, the internet has acted like a huge battering ram and destroyed the gates that protected those “in” the industry from the outside world. Suddenly bands have found that they do not need a label to achieve success. In fact the concept of success has been redefined. A band who creates a music video no longer needs to get it on MTV for it to be successful, many of the most popular videos on sites like YouTube are music videos. A band who releases a single no longer looks at the Radio 1 Top 40 or the Billboard 100, but checks the stats on Purevolume.com or MySpace. Things that were once the sole preserve of successful bands have been made achievable to any band that wants it.
For instance, merchandise and tours, the lifeblood of any band, has been made accessible to any band with a bit of money and a few songs and designs. A quick Google search for ‘band merchandise’ will come up with thousands of results for people more than willing to print you some t-shirts, posters and badges to distribute at your shows. And equally, getting a show is now so much easier. Before the rise of the internet bands would have to send demo tapes to local venues in the hope of securing a small slot but now bands can link to their MySpace page for organisers to listen to their songs or videos of their band on YouTube to highlight their live performances. Add to this the fact that bands who befriend each other over the internet can collude to create small tours in and around their local areas and the ease at which bands can arrange shows increases exponentially. Just as importantly is publicity. An advert in the music press or a good album review in NME was usually a precursor to an increase in public awareness, but things in this department have changed as well. I have already written about this topic so I won’t repeat myself more than I already am. But needless to say, forums and online zines have changed things in this respect as well.
There has also been a globalisation of music. For many globalisation is a hollow term in which many complex economic and social changes are lumped together into an umbrella, buzz word. In this case I think globalisation is actually fitting to my argument. Consider the idea of a UK band ‘breaking’ America. Many successful British bands have struggled to make an impact across the Atlantic and seen their success limited to the UK music market. However, this indicator of success has also changed. With the internet the music industry has been globalised, in which to some extent, the nationality of the band is not a pre-determinant as to which music market they will be successful in. Some genres are region specific (see country and western) but others such as rock, will generally be “global”*. Thus a band who achieves success in the revisionist sense of the word (MySpace plays, YouTube hits, downloads) may not see the greatest success in their home country. A band need not have played an shows in their local area, or built up a grass roots following to achieve success in the current market. This is due to the professionalization of non-professional bands.
Professional sounding recordings were usually the sole domain of signed artists and bands. Small, unsigned bands usually had to demonstrate their potential on grainy recordings done in garages and by requiring label reps to come to their shows. These days recording software and equipment is readily available for any band willing to stump up a bit of cash to live their dream. Trawling through MySpace, you can hear countless bands with studio polish and sheen, yet most of them will not have recording contracts nor will they have achieved much success. Usually they will have only been together a short time and decided to go to a local studio or take advantage of a friend who happened to have a digital multi-track recorder and some editing software. Recording a CD to distribute at shows, or give away for free on the internet, has been socialised.
If Marx had been into rock music, he would have crapped himself at the thought of a system in which anyone was able to record their music on the cheap. The record labels (the bourgeoisie in my horribly forced analogy) had their CDs and contracts (private property – let’s keep this analogy going) taken away from them and redistributed to the kids in basements with a laptop and 3 songs (proletariat – job done!). As stated earlier, getting t-shirts printed, having professional sounding recordings, playing shows and going on tours are now viable options to almost any band with a bit of drive and ambition. Barriers to entry into the music industry have been thoroughly demolished by the internet. This cannot be a bad thing.
Whereas before the innovation came from the record labels, who really had very little incentive to do so, now the innovative bands are those who are shunning labels (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails) and are at the forefront of the internet revolution (more Marxist analogies, these work everywhere!). Bands generally see very little return on CD sales, so really the biggest losers in the current declining CD market are the labels. Bands mostly make their money on merchandise and tours hence why small bands are often so eager to head out on tour and implore you to buy their t-shirts while distributing their EPs for free on their websites.
The music industry is no longer controlled by the record labels, its controlled by music fans. Surely this is a good thing? Well yes I think so – power to the people and all that jazz. But really it allows for greater diversity, it allows more people to pursue their dreams and puts more music out there to change people’s lives. Unfortunately it also allows absolute tosh like this to become popular, but I suppose that is a small price to pay.
The second part of this will focus on what labels can do to adapt to the changing situation – and that will be written when I can be bothered, probably not for a couple of weeks.
*In this sense global becomes an empty phrase, it really means Western, comprising of the US and some Eurpoean markets
Tags: music industry, internet revolution
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Is the scene dead?
02/15/09 at 05:44 PM by goodarmcindy
I was struck recently by the blog entry: “The Scene is Dead” by anamericangod. It received a lot of attention, hitting the news screen and prompting 182 people (so far) to, for the most part, agree with what was said. The writer was eulogising the ‘scene’ he had grown up with and, eventually, seen the end of. The obituary he wrote was moving but wholly pessimistic, lamenting the end of his favourite bands he proclaimed: “very little music that is being made today compares to any of the early work of said artists”. It was, said he, the fault of MTV for mortally wounding the scene but the internet, and more specifically Myspace and the Myspace generation, that finished it off.

I am not going to waste my time trying to defend what he far more ably criticises, as for the most part, I agree with what was written. There is something fundamentally different with the way music is ‘consumed’ today. I, at 4 years younger than the author, was that much later to the scene than he was, so presumably I am less qualified to talk of it. Perhaps more pertinently I live in the UK so the DIY ethic, the basement shows, the 5 track self-produced EPs that went round the local music shops were all lost on me. The scene I was involved with was wholly conducted on the Internet, yet I still felt a part of it. Has this died? Yes, probably. Will it, like Lazarus, eventually rise again? Probably. Shall I try and crowbar in a phoenix rising from the flames reference? Why not.

Despite the pessimism in the original blog, the fundamental truth is that the scene cannot die out. It can die, but soon it will be resurrected, like a phoenix from the flames, it will rise again, potentially better. The point is, it is up to us to ensure this happens. The author talks of the kids who haven’t yet had a chance to listen to music yet, how they won’t, or are at least less likely to, have their lives changed by music as he was. Well, I think that isn’t pre-determined.

While it seems I am simply debating semantics so far, I felt that the seeds for the preservation/resurrection of the scene were already prevalent in his proclamation of its death. It is easy to blame the internet as killing music; it sure as hell has been responsible for some horrific music. But it has revolutionised the music industry, the scene is now global. The scene I spoke of, the one conducted on the internet, now more closely resembles the scene that existed in 2003. Those 5 track demo EPs still exist. They are no longer just handed out at shows, but uploaded on the net for everyone to get hold of. Kids are inspired to record their music and put it on the net. This medium is completely levelling the playing field. I am not saying anything new here, but the ease of which music can be put out into the world is astonishing. This undoubtedly leads to a lot of chaff surfacing, and “making it”. I don’t have to name names. Everyone here knows a band that they feel haven’t earned the success they have, or perhaps don’t even deserve success. But think of the other bands you have found, who do deserve it. The only people who can give them that success is us.

The record industry as we know it is dying. The time when record companies dictate the musical taste of the masses is dying out. Cheap 4-track recorders, a myspace page, and free downloads have seen to that. Bands can release professional sounding records themselves, the middle man has been cut out. When anamericangod talks of Thursday being told to be the new Nirvana, that is far less likely to happen now. A new band can sound how they want to, because they control their own destinies. If a band is willing to put the work in, it will be rewarded. The scene has changed but the ethic hasn’t. Yes, some bands will gain instant success, but that has always happened. The chance for success has been increased by the internet, and what is considered success has also changed. Getting a record contract is no longer the ultimate goal. It is all about the fans now. It is all about us.

I will draw attention to a band I discovered on the forums on this site: Snowmobile. I listened to the songs on his myspace page, and downloaded his albums. He is not massively successful right now, but he could be. He has fans, he has got his name out there and he has the chance to really make it. The scene that exists now takes place on sites like this. His music is not fashionable in the sense of what is “popular” right now but that hasn’t stopped him developing a fan base. He has released two albums on his own, the success he desires is not solely getting a record deal, it is just about getting more and more fans.

However I describe the current situation one things remains constant; it is ever-changing. Anamericangod calls it “a revolving door”, I could label it a Hegelian dialectic, a merry-go-round, basically anything that is cyclical and constantly re-inventing itself. Just as the current trend is popular for a while, it will soon lose favour. Grunge, rap-metal, nu-metal and nu-rave have all had their time in the spotlight in recent years. Just like previous trends, dancecore/brocore or whatever the current “thing” is called will fall from grace. The record companies, in their moribund state, will hang their hat on the next bandwagon and artificially generate a new trend, a breeding ground for commercially successful, but wholly divorced of integrity, bands. The internet has sped this process up, but it has also created a new process. One for those of us willing to put the effort in.

I remember days trawling mp3.com and purevolume.com, trying to find my new favourite band. Those days haven’t gone, in fact the process is far easier now. The infrastructure for finding new music is constantly improving. Forums, full of our peers, exist solely to give recommendations. Once we find our Thursday it is up to us to make sure they get the popularity they deserve. We buy their records (as well as, or instead of downloading them), we go to their shows and we buy their merch. But more than that, we write about them, we recommend them to friends, we promote them, we interact with them in forums, we tell them not to stop. In what is an oversaturated market, I can only imagine how many hurdles a new band has to overcome, but we, as fans have to do our bit.

When anamericangod laments his scene, he is contributing to the new one. He is in it right now. We, the fans, have the chance to save, revive and reinvent the scene. Start making music, start reviewing CDs, start promoting your favourite bands, start searching for more music on the net and keep listening to music. The moment we stop, is the moment the scene truly dies. There is good stuff out there waiting to be found amongst the tonnes of pure garbage. The ‘Thursday’ moment that anamericangod experienced is still possible. It might not be in a pick-up truck, in fact, chances are, it will be at your lap-top, through your headphones. Chances are it will be from a band from somewhere halfway across the world. Chances are it will be a bunch of kids playing music inspired by the scene anamericangod called dead. And chances are, that band, could end up being made up of the people who will read blogs like this and go out there and try to do something about it.
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Last Updated: 04/26/09 (3,330 Views)
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