Thanks, but no thanks

Dec 04 2010

Now that the glow of the Thanksgiving holiday has worn off (although the extra five pounds remains), the mind turns inevitably to slightly darker topics. Like things that really !@#$*F! me off. Maybe that’s a little strong— but when I start thinking of all the nice things that I’m thankful for, I can’t help but also contemplate the stuff I really can’t stand. So as a brief, but inevitable rejoinder to last week’s grace-full meditation on all things good and positive in the music biz, here’s a brief blast of negativity and bile. ‘Tis the season.

FIVE THINGS NOT TO BE THANKFUL FOR:

1. Myspace Music.

Maybe it’s your space– it’s not my space. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s space anymore. In a new record of corporate bungling, within what seemed like only months of having purchased Myspace for $580 million, Rupert Murdoch had turned the once-essential site into the most awkward, slow, cumbersome, ugly, ad-heavy and useless social network of them all. Then, over the course of several years, after several revamps and corporate upheavals, the wizards who were going to make Myspace the hub of the music world actually managed to make it worse. At this point, any A&R guy faced with the prospect of having to search through Myspace to source talent should receive hazard pay. The time it takes to load, the number of pop-up ads, and the generally ghastly design make it a mind-numbing experience (and most A&R’s minds are pretty numb already). Plus, it’s just not cool.

Rupert Murdoch

The point is: If you’re sending a link to an A&R guy, make it to your own website, or YouTube, or SonicBids, or any other music site– but please, no Myspace. No one has that kind of time.

2. YouSendIt and other file-hosting sites with expiration dates and pop-up ads.

So you send it. Then it arrives in an A&R person’s box. But they’re out of town for three days. Then it’s the weekend. Then they come back and listen to the 15 things that their boss or their artists are screaming about. Then, on the seventh day, they open your email and go to listen to your music. But alas, the link has expired, and now the A&R person must email you back, and start the whole process all over again. There are plenty of file-sharing services, like Box.net, that do not carry a time limit on them. Go with those, or don’t send it–instead you can provide a link to your website, or YouTube, or anything but Myspace.

The point is: To songwriters and artists submitting material, a week may seem like a long time. To people that receive dozens of submissions a day, a week is not a long time. Your time-frame is not their time-frame. These arbitrary deadlines are not realistic.

3. Sendspace and other file-hosting sites supported by advertising.

This is not a sending space. It is advertising space. It is free for you– but for the person receiving the email, it is not free. It is cheap and tacky. Give one misguided click on any of the half-dozen pop-ups invading your computer screen, and suddenly up flashes “Congratulations! You’ve won!” . But of course, you haven’t won. You’ve merely been trapped into a whole other burst of online advertising.

The point is: you’re running a business. You’re trying to establish a brand. Businesses and brands do not send out emails filled with cheesy advertisements. Use something that looks clean and professional.

4. American Idol

I admit, I never liked it from the start. By combining the aesthetic quality of karaoke with the overwrought emotion of reality television and the B-level production values of a cut-rate beauty pageant, this show has always managed to both offend and depress me at the same time. Still, I have to admit it– over the years, it has launched some genuine stars, like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, and maybe even Adam Lambert. And, as sad as this is, it has kept the music industry, and especially the songwriting and publishing business afloat at a time when there was very little else that caught the public’s interest.

Kris Allen

But now it’s dead. We all know it. So please– spare us the revival with J-Lo and Steven Tyler. Spare us the “new” “bigger and better” version. For all the stars launched by American Idol, it has killed dozens of other potentially interesting new artists, who simply couldn’t compete with a karaoke singer already seen weekly by 20 million people. In fact, most labels have all but ceased signing mainstream pop artists, with the knowledge that American Idol has essentially owned that particular market. To call the show a mixed blessing is to be generous.

The point is: Simon is gone. The fat lady has sung, again and again. This game is over. Let’s stab it with our steely knife and kill this damn beast.

5. Walmart, Best Buy, and other false friends.

A major label A&R guy recently explained to me Walmart’s new innovation in music retailing– downloading stations where you can compile your own six-song collection for a dollar a song. Of course, this is one more effort to reduce the amount of retail space given to music and to kill off the 10 song CD altogether. Given Walmart’s position as the leading mass retailer of music product, it will almost inevitably work to do exactly that. If you have any attachment to the “album” format, sound quality that exceeds an mp3, or some kind of old-fashioned, perverse pleasure in actual physical product, you’d better buy what you want now. Because music retailing is going to disappear entirely, to make way for a greater selection of jumbo shampoos and paper towel 20-packs.

For this, the music industry has no one to thank but themselves. By chasing after Walmarts, Best Buy, and other large chain mass retailers, often offering them better pricing or exclusive promotional programs, or even exclusive rights to superstar product, the industry managed in one decade to kill off both the small and large music-specific retailers. These business-owners, most of whom were genuinely passionate music fans, and most of whom knew far more about music than most of the people at the record labels, have been replaced by people who have absolutely no inherent interest in music, and no vested interest in the music industry. We killed our friends, and sold our souls to the bean-counters. In these retail environments, whoever sells the most, gets the space. It’s not hard to see where this is going.

The point is: When you make decisions as an industry to diversify the way you sell product or to support new outlets, you have to think about how it will affect your business partners. This is particularly important as we now see the pressure to support new “free” music spaces like Spotify. While we all want to find new ways to create income, we’d better stop to think how “cloud-based” businesses will affect our current partners like iTunes, who actually do manage to sell alot of music– even if it is for a dollar a song. We don’t want to kill off iTunes before we know if these ad-supported services can actually make us more money.

Okay– I know it’s a lot of negativity in one big blast. I think of it as a sort of pre-holiday purging. Now that all that’s off my chest, I can face the holiday party rounds next week with a smiling face and the good cheer one expects of a Music Weasel at an open bar. Hope you all have a great holiday season!

Never really pictured myself making a call for songwriter solidarity. Not that I have anything against the organized labor movement (I was even a card-carrying Local 802 member for awhile). But as I’ve mentioned many times, songwriting is a pretty lonely task– it doesn’t breed the kind of personality that finds strength in numbers. At the same time, there’s also no escaping that the music industry is one of the most competitive environments on earth– so the idea joining hands with all of the other people trying to get the same cuts, or record deal, or radio play that you are, and singing “We Shall Overcome” seems a bit far-fetched.

However, the time may have come. If you haven’t heard, things are getting increasingly ugly between YouTube and some of the music industry’s primary licensing agencies– culminating in a recent move by YouTube that pulled off all music videos for UK-based users, much to the chagrin of PRS (the English version of ASCAP, BMI & Harry Fox) and many UK music fans. Here in our neck of the woods, it’s gotten so ugly that Warner has pulled off many of their videos, even blocking A&R execs from watching YouTube in their office (now what will they do all day?)

Surprise, surprise: the issue centers on money. After years of negotiation with the music publishers, labels, and songwriter organizations, YouTube continues to fight to lower rates for use of music on the site– even as they have hardly paid up the monies that they owe for the past five years. The tentative deal that have been struck, which is what’s kept music available on the service thus far, have resulted in rates so low that they are almost meaningless (have you ever heard an artist or writer claim they’re really cleaning up on YouTube royalties?)– even as YouTube continues to grow in popularity and overall profitability. Given that a huge percentage of the videos on YouTube use music in one way or another, the music industry would like to see a healthy income from this service and others like it. Is that asking too much?

Apparently so. YouTube is continuing to stall negotiations and press for lower and lower rates. Perhaps they figure if they stall long enough, all the major labels and publishers will be out of business and the industry as a whole will be reduced to a bunch of individual artists desperate for any small opportunity for self-promotion. We might not be far from that point.

Not surprisingly, just as some labels are determined to go to battle, others are ready and eager to cut a deal. While Warner and PRS are taking a confrontational approach, YouTube and Univeral Music have recently announced the formation of Vevo, a “premium” partnership channel that will feature Universal Music artist’s videos and presumably charge higher ad rates, from which the profits can be split between Uni and YouTube.

It’s a nice idea, if in fact the consumer draws any value from a channel that shows videos exclusively from one label. Every marketing survey ever done has indicated that most music fans have little or no idea which label their favorite artist is associated with, and little interest in finding out. The real value in the new venture, at least from YouTube’s point of view, may be in dividing and conquering– pulling one of the industry’s biggest and most powerful players over to their side as a business “partner”, just as the others are getting ready to march off to war. I doubt this is an example of the music industry unity that NARAS, NMPA, and the RIAA were trumpeting in a recent Billboard article.

The problem is, venues like YouTube are the only game left in town. No one sees music videos on MTV. Radio is shrinking like a cheap shirt. Record sales have fallen to the point where last week’s #1 Album sold less than 90,000 units in its first week, the lowest #1 sales total since they started keeping track of these things. For most young consumers, music exists on YouTube, MySpace (like an old legendary club that no one goes to anymore), and iTunes.Of course there are live shows, which are great for established superstars, but pretty limited in their earning power for everyone else. Today’s reality is that the music industry has to make money off sites like YouTube, because it’s the only money there is.

In light of that rather dire situation, I think I have to side with the Warner approach, as opposed to Universal’s “embrace the enemy” tactics. Before our industry disappears entirely, we might want to heed a call to arms. Perhaps its time that the chief segments of the music industry– record labels, artists, songwriters and publishers AROUND THE WORLD– quit acting out of mutual antipathy toward each other and start facing up to our common cause. Maybe it’s time for all the labels to pull their videos off of YouTube. Maybe it’s time for all the publishers to shut down every video that offers a bad karaoke version of a song from their catalogs. Maybe it’s time for music executives to quit watching YouTube (this has become one of the primary spots for quickly finding new music, and I’m as guilty as everyone else), and for artists to start encouraging their fans to do the same.

Unfortunately, the music industry has put itself in a very weak bargaining position– in which the myriad of services like YouTube know that the labels and artists are desperate for the outlet that YouTube provides, and thus unlikely to ever actually treat the service as the blatant copyright infringers that they are (and have always been). It might be worth reminding them that YouTube without music would be a collection of news snippets and people doing funny stunts with their pets. That Susan Boyle video that made the rounds would not have been very interesting without sound.

I’m not normally a militant. But I’m not quite sure how the music industry somehow has managed to find itself on the verge of defeat in a battle that should have been a slam-dunk. There is no question that YouTube has been using music without permission or licenses. There is no question that the right to use music synchronized with visual images requires the negotiation of a sync fee and the issuance of a license. There is very little debate that eliminating all music from YouTube would be extremely damaging to the service. And yet, we find ourselves struggling to negotiate a fair rate. Now, we’re even starting to lose the public relations battle, being branded as greedy profiteers by the very people who have been pirating our music to build their own financial empire.

It might be time for an uprising from the creative community– not complaining, or begging, or negotiating, or tolerating or hoping for better, fairer times in the future. Maybe it’s time for actually making a stand and making some demands of our own, and doing it together.

So… enough of the feel-good blogs.

In a couple of recent postings, I’ve relayed the happy news that the Copyright Tribunal has come down firmly on the side of the creative community, the songwriters and publishers, with their recent rulings regarding the mechanical royalty and ring tone rates. So far, so good. But as we come up on the Halloween holiday, it’s good to remember the first rule of the “fright night” movie:

Just when everything is looking good—
–SOMETHING UGLY IS WAITING AROUND THE CORNER…

And you can be sure that he, she, or it is just waiting to stick the knife in you. As pleased as music publishers and songwriters should be about recent political and legal developments that could mean big money for creators and copyright holders, we should also remain vigilant, and keep one ever-open eye trained on our real enemies in the long-term battle to keep the creation of music a viable business pursuit.

Indeed, just like in the slasher movies, the bad guy is seldom exactly whom you think it is. It’s not really the DMA (Digital Music Association), the ones who wanted to slash royalty rates from 9.1 cents to 5. It’s not even multi-million dollar corporations like Yahoo, AOL, and YouTube, who have built their business on the back of music which they have resisted paying for. It’s almost certainly not the casual illegal downloader, grabbing tracks off of illegal sites and thereby depriving Doug Morris and Steve Jobs of their 99 cents. Those groups aren’t helping us– but they’re just decoys, distracting us from the real killer lurking in our midst.

Interestingly, the real enemy lies in corners of the media intelligentsia– egghead authors, columnists and pundits with whom most songwriters and publishers have little or no familiarity. But for those that read the Wall Street Journal, Wired magazine, and other decidedly non-music oriented publications, you may have caught a glimpse of the masked monster lurking out there in the dark. If you want to meet the enemy, check out the Time magazine Business & Tech section’s review of Lawrence Lessig’s:

“Decriminalizing the Remix”

Lessig is a Stanford University Law professor, and one of the most outspoken and engaging critics of the nation’s copyright laws. He advocates reforms that would make it far easier for his heroes, the remixers, mash-up makers, collage artists, and other “secondary users” (i.e. not the people that came up with this stuff, but the ones that found it out there scattered around the pop cultural landscape) to create derivative works without the permission of (or without compensation to) the original creators. This is not an unpopular view.

In fact, it’s a view that is gaining considerable intellectual respectability– far more than one would have anticipated even ten or fifteen years ago, when copyright law was considered a fundamental requirement for an advanced economy. Lessig is also a columnist for Wired magazine, which has been one of the champions of copyright reform. That magazine is also the source of the famed “long-tail” argument, a theory that was supposed to save the music industry, but which has instead proved to be pretty much a complete bust (see my blog “The Long Tail Was A Very Short Tale”).

Other critics of copyright have emerged in Europe, where there is a growing movement against the “stifling” effects of laws that protect creators, and grant them the right to control the use of their creation. Now even the documentary film makers are getting into the act, with the recent release of writer/director Brett Gaylor’s movie:

RiP: A Remix Manifesto

Everyone seems to love the remixers these days. Strange that the remixers don’t manage to sell more records. But I suppose that record buying isn’t exactly the ethos of Lessig and Gaylor.

The danger here is that this is how real change happens in our society. The discussion begins on a very intellectual level, safely disconnected from the real world of commerce and big business. Theories are discussed, books are written, positions are debated, but the discourse remains pretty well isolated from the day-to-day lives of the everyday person. It would be safe to say that few music licensors, and frighteningly few music creators give a great deal of thought to the basic existence of copyright law. It’s simply assumed as a given by most of the industry built upon it. But it’s not a given. Nothing is. Like most every social construct, copyright law exists only so long as the majorities of people in the society respect it, value it, and are willing to defend it.

Whether you agree or disagree with things like the “non-smoking” movement, the “green” movement, or even the “neo-con” movement against things like excessive government regulation, the seeds of change usually begin in the form of intellectual ferment within universities, think-tanks, intellectual journals and the like. Gradually then, they begin to take root in the mass media– until they ultimately start to affect the way the general public views a particular issue. Twenty years ago, who would have thought it would one day be illegal to smoke in an outdoor space? When the public changes its opinion about a particular subject or principle, the laws will eventually change to reflect that shift. As a generation of young people raised with the concept of “free”, download-able music come of voting age, the writings of people like Lessig will find a receptive audience. There is every possibility that ten years from now, the general public support for the idea of copyright law will have simply melted away.

In some ways, it could hardly be surprising. In his movie, Brett Gaylor centers on the DJ, remixer Girl Talk– a king of the mash-up, who borrows liberally from dozens of well-known and obscure musical copyrights to form his new musical “collages”, and is, as he was once described in the NY Times magazine, “a lawsuit waiting to happen”. To Gaylor, Girl Talk is a victim– a creator of a new art form (not that new actually) being unfairly restricted by conventional copyright law. In the same way, Lessig is a champion of the “amateur culture” propagated by outlets like YouTube that encourages consumers to “create art as readily as they consume it”. Let’s face it, if it’s an us or them battle between creative professionals and amateurs, between people that want to build their lives (and incomes) around creating art and selling it, and people who just want to have fun goofing around with music– there are a lot more of them (the amateurs) than us (the professionals). In a democracy, that’s a dangerous position in which to find ourselves.

Let me be honest: I’m a big fan of Girl Talk. One of my all-time heroes was Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, who arguably took sampling to its ultimate level with the Public Enemy records of the Eighties and Nineties. I like a funny video on YouTube as much as the next guy. I spent my life in dance music, and had the good fortune to have my music remixed by some of the greatest remixers ever– including Todd Terry, David Morales, and Masters at Work. And I recognize that copyright law can make life miserable for people that work in the art of mash-up, mix-up, and “found” art.

I’m sorry about that. But I’m also a trained musician, and at the risk of sounding elitist– when it comes to music, I am one. The ability for the best musicians and composers to make music not just a hobby, but also a very lucrative profession has served American culture quite well over the past hundred years. The world of “professional” musicians has given us Gershwin, Leiber & Stoller, Motown, Cole Porter, and plenty of others. If I have to sacrifice a couple of homemade videos of someone’s infant dancing to a Prince song in order to preserve that, I’ll take the trade. I watch Myspace as much as every other A&R weasel– and I’m not sure that any of us would claim that the talent pool has increased in quality simply by giving the world access to posting their own creations. The truth is that creating music demands a certain investment of time, talent, creativity, and sheer hard work in order to get it right. People that make that investment need and deserve to be compensated for their work. That means protecting what they make, and allowing them a reasonable level of control in the way that others use their work. It also means preserving some level of (dirty word) professionalism (that is, the ability to make this work a profession) for those who wish to spend their lives in the trenches of the creative community. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Beware!! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water– here I am to warn you of sharks. But keep an eye on the disciples of copyright “reform”. Though they may masquerade as the friend of the aspiring musician, they’ve got a dagger under their coat. Copyright law may not be fundamental to music, but it is certainly the foundation of the music business. If you want to make this your life’s work, I suggest you keep a tight leash on that elephant in the room…

The Secret To Success

Oct 21 2007

As the annual CMJ music marathon staggers to a close, and hundreds of bands, singer-songwriters, and other aspiring musicians pack up their gear and get back in the van, I thought the time might be ripe for a quick cost-benefit analysis of that thirty-minute showcase at Mercury Lounge. After all the costs of an NYC trip, gas, transportation, hotel, gear rentals, publicity, registration, not to mention an evening’s work with no pay, did the gig pay off? Did that A&R guy on the guest-list even show up? Are there more bookings or better bookings to come, as a result? Did it add signficantly to the fanbase? Will the people who saw the show still remember your set, after the next four bands did their shows? Has any artist or musician ever once bothered to do a cost-benefit analysis?

Have you ever thought: “There’s got to be a better way” ?

Maybe there is. Here’s one very simple approach that just might work. It’s an old solution, with an excellent history of success. But for some reason, it seems to have fallen out of favor in the indie rock and singer-songwriter world these days– although it remains quite popular in the world of urban music. It’s main advantages are that it’s low-cost, it can be done from anywhere, and it can transform a career overnight. Ready?

Write a hit.

Okay. I didn’t say it was an easier way. I just said it might, under certain circumstances, be a better way to move your career ahead as an artist. Rather than scraping money together to record your own album, or even an EP; rather than an endless succession of pay-to-play showcases in LA and NY; rather than sending off material to an increasingly irrelevant array of record labels; maybe it would be better to focus all efforts on creating one great breakthrough song. Don’t write and record 12 good songs. Just make one hit.

A hit means:

It fits a radio format. It has a concept–it’s about something interesting, provocative, funny, unique. It’s memorable (with a chorus, or at least a few lines that repeat).It’s definining– the lyric and music capture and express exactly what makes you or your band unique. Most of all, it’s reactive– it’s different enough, shocking enough, touching enough or exciting enough that a casual listener will stop what he or she is doing, and try to figure out how to hear it again. Here’s a fast-acting recipe for success:

Step One: Write and record one song you truly believe is a hit. Testing it in front of an audience is a good idea– especially an audience not pre-disposed to like it.

Step Two: Put the song up on Myspace. Do an inexpensive, home-made video (hopefully something creative and interesting) of the song and put it up on YouTube. Just to give it a fighting chance, you could do a little viral marketing to drive your audience to see it.

Step Three: Watch what happens. If you wrote a hit, people will react. That’s how hits work. Look at “Bubbly”, “Hey There Delilah”, “Crank Dat”, “Beautful Girls”… All of these songs broke largely out of nowhere, with little or no marketing campaign beyond a YouTube and Myspace following. All of these songs catapulted the artist to an entirely different level of their career in less time than it takes to write and record a four-song EP. If you write a hit, you can be sure that labels, booking agents, management, and media will come to you– rather than you chasing them.

If the songs don’t get much of a reaction, then the truth is: you didn’t write a hit. So try again. Repeat as necessary.

No one said writing a hit was easy. Neither is an endless succession of self-produced albums, industry showcases, and hunting for a record label. It might be time to try a new “old” road to success.