Space For Rent

Sep 27 2008

Sure, most songwriters and publishers would like their songs to be commercial– as in having the potential to actually sell copies, in one form or another. These days, most songwriters and all publishers have adjusted to the idea of their songs being IN commercials– as in having their song placed front and center for an Apple television advertisement.

But having your song BE a commercial? If you think that’s going a bit far, check out this story, from the Listening Post on WIRED’s blog network.

WIRED Blog

So here we have a very uplifting tale of the state of artistic life in American popular culture today. An agent representing as he said, “one of the world’s most famous recording artists” solicits a jeans company to participate in a “brand integration campaign”, in which said world-famous recording artist would work the name of the jeans brand into a song lyric… for a fee. No– the artist involved was not Bob Dylan, Rage Against the Machine, or Ani diFranco. But it was a pretty big artist, nevertheless– selling space in their song for product placement. Beautiful.

Of course, this is not the first time such things have been done. In fact, it’s become increasingly common in the industry— sometimes after the fact (when a song like “Pass the Courvoisier” leads to a subsequent tie-in with the brand) and more often, within the actual writing process. But unlike “product placement” in movies and television, the musical version of this practice is not talked about openly. In fact, the instance described here was revealed only because of a mis-directed email, which was mistakenly sent to an advertising, media industry critic, only too happy to post the email on his blog, as Exhibit #1 of the crass materialism and overzealous marketing machines that now permeate popular culture.

So what do you think? I’m throwing this one out to readers of the blog, as I’m curious to hear everyone’s thoughts Does placing a product name in your song (in exchange for a fee or endorsement) cross the line of artistic integrity? Is there even such a thing as artistic integrity anymore and does it matter? Is this (a) just another way to exploit music (which is a publisher’s job by the way) (b) any different than placing a song in a commercial, or working an endorsement deal with a brand after the song is already written (c) the end of pop music as we know it? It’s time for you to sound off. Let me know where you all draw the line, if you draw it at all…

The truth is, songwriters and publishers are going to have to grapple with issues like this more and more, as the economics of the music business change. Just as movie companies turned to product placement to cover the escalating costs of production, music companies are turning to things like this to make up for the revenue lost in falling sales numbers and illegal file sharing.

As record labels turn to 360 deals, in which they not only share in the income generated by record sales but also in income from publishing and merchandising, the pressure on the artist to take advantage of every branding, funding, or income-generating opportunity will only increase. Like it or hate it, the cost of one album track’s recording and production might be completely covered, or at least greatly reduced by one product placement like this. Imagine how a record company would feel if rather than having to recoup a half a million dollars for the cost of making a record, they had already covered that amount with the income from brand endorsements, before selling record one. Imagine how much that could make you as the artist, songwriter, or publisher…

But also think about this:

1. Nothing matters but hits. No matter how good the deal might look on paper, anything that reduces the effectiveness of your song’s lyric is not worth the exchange. If a line with a quick mention of a product feels a little cheesy to you when you write it– it probably is cheesy. It will make your song cheesy, and ultimately ineffective. There’s nothing wrong with dropping the name of a product in a song. No one complained about Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” or Sheryl Crow’s “bottle of Bud”. But it has to be the perfect fit, and that usually comes naturally, not when it’s being done for a fee. In the end, the only thing that will make your song matter to the record label, your audience, and any brand that might endorse you is whether or not your song is good enough to be a hit. That is always priority #1, and it can’t be compromised.

2. Everyone will want you to compromise. The VP of marketing will assure you that the song sounds just as good with the mention of Lee jeans as it did with “old jeans”, the A&R person will explain to you how such a powerful brand can transform your career, your manager will tell you that he didn’t even notice the lyrical change when he heard it. And your manager probably didn’t notice the change. That’s why you’re a songwriter, and he’s a manager: because you presumably understand the power of words. So on this particular subject, you have to trust your own instincts. Don’t be swayed by all the people who have a vested interest in making the product placement work. If you don’t like the way the brand reference feels– don’t do it. No matter how many people are weighing in, it’s still your name on the song.

3. As an artist, YOU are your product. Your long-term career, as an artist requires a certain level of credibility with your audience. Granted, this varies wildly, depending on the genre (some of which have virtually no long-term career possibilities anyway), your audience (some which might be outraged at the idea of product placement, and others which might actually enjoy it), your own persona and what you’re trying to communicate. Clearly, the same rules do not apply to Chris Brown and Jackson Browne alike.

But if you or your audience has sensitivity about the idea of a “brand integration” campaign, then it’s probably not worth the risk. If the brand integration is grossly in violation of your own values or how your audience perceives you, then it is clearly not the right move. Unlike everyone else in the process, from record label, to publisher, to manager, you have only one product to sell– and if you break it, you might never put it back together. Selling your soul is a bad moral trade– and it’s also bad business. Think long-term.

Strange words I know, coming from the music business weasel. Maybe it’s because I’m old– old enough to remember when even having a song in an advertisement was a little questionable. Old enough to have seen the pressure that marketing departments can exert on artists and writers to compromise creatively, often in well-meant attempts to help an act get a leg up on the competition. Old enough to know that the pendulum always swings. I wouldn’t be surprised if a new artist, or group of artists, with a fiercely anti-commercial, purist point of view suddenly emerged and grabbed a mass audience fed up with these relentless marketing and branding schemes.

Let me know where you stand on this. I’ll look forward to hearing your comments. And by the way, if you’d like your brand or product mentioned in this blog, please make your offers immediately. I’m not that proud.

What Goes Around…

May 19 2008

In the beginning, there was… publishing.

Not many people know it, since not many people in today’s music industry were around to see it, but the real beginnings of the music industry were not in those old vinyl discs or the antique phonograph with the RCA dog sitting next to it. The commercial music business started with music publishers, who first figured out how to move music beyond an endless succession of live shows, and turn it into an industry back at the end of the 19th century… through the sale of sheet music.

Back then; music publishing was the only game in town– both for songwriters hoping to eke out a living from their creations, and for audiences eager to be able to enjoy music outside of a concert of dance hall. Music stores would feature a piano player, who would perform the hot new songs of the day for customers passing by. If they heard something they liked, customers could come in and purchase their own copy of the song that they had just heard. Granted, that “product” had a definite do-it-yourself quality to it– it required the music consumer to take the sheet music home and learn to play the new song. Nevertheless, it represented the first time that people could purchase music as a “product”, enjoy it in the comfort of their own home, and songwriters could get paid on a mass scale.

From there, the business moved from sheet music to “piano rolls” from which the music played itself (the first actual “mechanical” exploitation of music) and then ultimately into the broadcast and recording era that has been the basis of the business we now know and maybe something less than love. Of course, sheet music continues to exist, and in fact, is undergoing a revival of sorts, thanks to the Internet and companies like Music Notes (Music Notes). But certainly, the industry has come a long way from the days when publishers were the primary game in town.

Or has it?

My friend Jerry Lembo, a legendary music figure himself and a great student of the industry (check out his blog at Jerry Lembo MySpace Blog), sent me an article today, titled Rock’s New Economy: Making Money When CD’s Don’t Sell. The story describes a terrain familiar to anyone in the music biz in 2008: falling CD sales, leading to an increased reliance on touring and licensing in order to generate income. And no one knows licensing like a publisher. After all, publishers created it.

Imagine how music publishers initially reacted to the advent of radio, and even worse, records, back in the early days of the 20th century. Probably with the same love that record labels now show Limewire and file-sharing college students. After all, publishers had just figured out a way to get rich selling music printed on paper– the last thing they needed was someone coming along and beaming it straight into people’s homes, or giving them plastic recordings they could play anytime they wanted. That’s when the publishing community hit on the bright idea that would carry them through the next nine, increasingly prosperous decades:

Licensing.

A company didn’t need to make a physical product. Just by controlling the underlying “rights” to a song, publishers and songwriters could make anyone who wanted to use that song, on the radio, television, records, or in films, advertising, nightclubs or elevators, pay for the privilege. Anyone using a song in public way for commercial purposes had to obtain a license, and the publishers controlled the licenses. This quickly became a very profitable business. The company, for which I work, Shapiro Bernstein, is one of the oldest music publishers in existence. Back in the early 1900′s, they had dozens of actual printing presses around the country in order to manufacture the sheet music to the latest Tin Pan Alley hit. Today, there are less than twenty employees in the New York office, and a scattering of employees and consultants in LA, London and elsewhere. And yet, profits continue to rise, year after year. Which leads us right up to the present day…

The music industry is growing and contracting, all at the same time. Music is selling less, and being used more than ever before. What publishers learned a hundred years ago, and what record labels are just starting to learn, is that licensing is far more efficient than manufacturing. It takes fewer people, fewer factories, less real estate and carries less risk to license music to people that wish to use it, than to create a physical copy of music for people to purchase. Bands are learning it too. It’s much easier to make money by licensing music to video games, advertisements, TV shows, and websites, than to create small pieces of plastic that has to be distributed and sold around the world. When the labels talk about a “360″– they’re more accurate than they know. The business of being a music creator has come full circle. Just as in the 1930′s, when sheet music gave way to broadcasts and recording, the game once again comes down to creating, performing and most importantly, licensing.

It used to be that old-school record business veterans almost boasted of their lack of knowledge about publishing. It was seen as a pennies business– a stodgy old conservative uncle who had somehow wandered in to the 24-hour party thrown by the high-flying, jet-setting record boys. Now most of those vintage music weasels have retired. The ones who haven’t are trying to start up music publishing companies.

Not understanding music-publishing means not understanding where the music business came from. But much more importantly, it also means not understanding where the business is going. If you want to get the picture in 12 easy steps, check out Music Publishing 101 at Berklee Music or “Making Music Make Money (An Insider’s Guide To Becoming Your Own Music Publisher)”. It’s time to go back to the future and start all over again.

What Goes Around…

May 19 2008

In the beginning, there was… publishing.

Not many people know it, since not many people in today’s music industry were around to see it, but the real beginnings of the music industry were not in those old vinyl discs or the antique phonograph with the RCA dog sitting next to it. The commercial music business started with music publishers, who first figured out how to move music beyond an endless succession of live shows, and turn it into an industry back at the end of the 19th century… through the sale of sheet music.

Back then; music publishing was the only game in town– both for songwriters hoping to eke out a living from their creations, and for audiences eager to be able to enjoy music outside of a concert of dance hall. Music stores would feature a piano player, who would perform the hot new songs of the day for customers passing by. If they heard something they liked, customers could come in and purchase their own copy of the song that they had just heard. Granted, that “product” had a definite do-it-yourself quality to it– it required the music consumer to take the sheet music home and learn to play the new song. Nevertheless, it represented the first time that people could purchase music as a “product”, enjoy it in the comfort of their own home, and songwriters could get paid on a mass scale.

From there, the business moved from sheet music to “piano rolls” from which the music played itself (the first actual “mechanical” exploitation of music) and then ultimately into the broadcast and recording era that has been the basis of the business we now know and maybe something less than love. Of course, sheet music continues to exist, and in fact, is undergoing a revival of sorts, thanks to the Internet and companies like Music Notes (Music Notes). But certainly, the industry has come a long way from the days when publishers were the primary game in town.

Or has it?

My friend Jerry Lembo, a legendary music figure himself and a great student of the industry (check out his blog at Jerry Lembo MySpace Blog), sent me an article today, titled Rock’s New Economy: Making Money When CD’s Don’t Sell. The story describes a terrain familiar to anyone in the music biz in 2008: falling CD sales, leading to an increased reliance on touring and licensing in order to generate income. And no one knows licensing like a publisher. After all, publishers created it.

Imagine how music publishers initially reacted to the advent of radio, and even worse, records, back in the early days of the 20th century. Probably with the same love that record labels now show Limewire and file-sharing college students. After all, publishers had just figured out a way to get rich selling music printed on paper– the last thing they needed was someone coming along and beaming it straight into people’s homes, or giving them plastic recordings they could play anytime they wanted. That’s when the publishing community hit on the bright idea that would carry them through the next nine, increasingly prosperous decades:

Licensing.

A company didn’t need to make a physical product. Just by controlling the underlying “rights” to a song, publishers and songwriters could make anyone who wanted to use that song, on the radio, television, records, or in films, advertising, nightclubs or elevators, pay for the privilege. Anyone using a song in public way for commercial purposes had to obtain a license, and the publishers controlled the licenses. This quickly became a very profitable business. The company, for which I work, Shapiro Bernstein, is one of the oldest music publishers in existence. Back in the early 1900′s, they had dozens of actual printing presses around the country in order to manufacture the sheet music to the latest Tin Pan Alley hit. Today, there are less than twenty employees in the New York office, and a scattering of employees and consultants in LA, London and elsewhere. And yet, profits continue to rise, year after year. Which leads us right up to the present day…

The music industry is growing and contracting, all at the same time. Music is selling less, and being used more than ever before. What publishers learned a hundred years ago, and what record labels are just starting to learn, is that licensing is far more efficient than manufacturing. It takes fewer people, fewer factories, less real estate and carries less risk to license music to people that wish to use it, than to create a physical copy of music for people to purchase. Bands are learning it too. It’s much easier to make money by licensing music to video games, advertisements, TV shows, and websites, than to create small pieces of plastic that has to be distributed and sold around the world. When the labels talk about a “360″– they’re more accurate than they know. The business of being a music creator has come full circle. Just as in the 1930′s, when sheet music gave way to broadcasts and recording, the game once again comes down to creating, performing and most importantly, licensing.

It used to be that old-school record business veterans almost boasted of their lack of knowledge about publishing. It was seen as a pennies business– a stodgy old conservative uncle who had somehow wandered in to the 24-hour party thrown by the high-flying, jet-setting record boys. Now most of those vintage music weasels have retired. The ones who haven’t are trying to start up music publishing companies.

Not understanding music-publishing means not understanding where the music business came from. But much more importantly, it also means not understanding where the business is going. If you want to get the picture in 12 easy steps, check out Music Publishing 101 at Berklee Music or “Making Music Make Money (An Insider’s Guide To Becoming Your Own Music Publisher)”. It’s time to go back to the future and start all over again.