Is The Democratization of the Music Business a Complete Failure?
I grew up in the 1980’s. That was the era of the big labels, big tours, and big hair! Lot’s of $$$ was made. Bands from the 60’s and early 70’s would talk about how they had been screwed but that these 80’s bands were raking it in. Go back and watch Billy Joel’s or John Fogarty’s episodes of “Behind the Music”. Bands were getting screwed over left and right from everyone including promoters, managers, and record labels. The attitude among the ruling elite of the music business was, “These are hippies. Keep ’em doped up and make sure they have a lot of groupies and they’ll be happy. They don’t know how to handle money. So, we’ll just take care of that for them.” This is why many artists from the late 60’s and early 70’s ended up penniless once the ringing in everyone’s ears had faded.
Thankfully, by the end of the 1970’s things were changing and in the 1980’s with the advent of MTV, smarter artists and a legacy of horror stories from a decade before the music artist ruled the planet. The artists of that area were some of the most influential people in the world and some of the most financially successful. Some of the 70’s and 60’s artist also enjoyed major come backs and financial success during that period. The image of the music artist. The exact opposite of today.
So what the hell happened?
Gene Simmons and many others would like to blame the current state of affairs on grunge. In the early 1990’s rock music under went an over haul. From an artistic stand point, it appears to have been necessary. Grunge was sort of a reset button and while some artists of that movement were very understated in there performances band’s like Rage Against the Machine had crowds gathered in mosh pits. It wasn’t all dark stages, depression, and shoe gazing. Keep in mind that any time there has been a major change in the world there are always several galvanizing factors. For instance, the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassination, experimentation with psychedelic drugs and Watergate all went in to the pot that created hippy movement. It wasn’t just one factor. With that in mind let get back to the “glory days” of the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
In the 80’s it was very expensive to record an album, master it, do a video and promote it. Record labels would spend thousands before the song or album was even released and without ever knowing what kind of return on investment they could expect. Why was it so expensive? It actually takes a village to get a band recorded, video recorded, and promoted. Many of you reading this now have learned this the hard way. We will get back to that in a minute. Albums like Purple Rain, and Born in the USA had scores of people making sure that everything got done and the it was done well. This was still no guarantee of financial success but records were really well made. The artist concentrated on writing great music. The band concentrated on playing that music perfectly live and in the studio. The video director and his team gave the video their complete attention and the people at the label worked hard to get the record and the video played and supported (paid for) the tour. It was a good model. Rather expensive but it worked, and it gave a lot of artists of that era a lot of financial and social capital. Then some one had a “better” idea…
Winy whiners whining…
So we have this well oiled machine, but still some people weren’t happy. Many artists felt that major labels controlled the business. The big evil corporations were squelching the true artists. Many cried “No fair!” That was their right to do so. The war raged for about 10 to 15 years and when the smoke cleared. The label system was dead. The indie artists had won. The music business was now completely “democratic”. We wanted a “fair” system… and guess what? We got our wish. The business is completely democratic. You can record a great sounding record in your house. There are mastering services that will master your record very well for very low price or you can even do that your self. Technology also makes creating a video very inexpensive and quick and there are literally HUNDREDS of marketing services aimed at the indie musician’s price point. The internet allows your to promote yourself all day and night practically for free. Now everyone can be a rock star!
Where are all of these Rock Stars???
With all of this technology and free promotion why isn’t EVERYONE a rock star? If you are a musician reading this, you have probably noticed that while all of this democracy sounds good… I mean democracy HAS to be good right? Why don’t have I have the success that I feel I should or even feel that I deserve? About 20 years ago something disturbing started happening. You would buy a CD from your favorite artist only to realize that the only good song was the one that you heard on the radio. This is REALLY what happened to the music business. The push to do more, spend less, and get that return on investment quicker lead to albums being cranked out with maybe one good song, instead of an album’s worth a great material. Fans began to become skeptical. I’m not making this up. This became a huge topic in the music press at the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s. Bands like Hootie and the Blowfish would put out an album full of great material. They sold millions and in an effort to duplicate that success they rushed to do another record. The second album tanked. This happened with many artists of that era. You cannot pull a bait and switch on your customers. You will loose EVERY TIME!
Album sales were declining. Internet downloading was increasing. People thought… “Hey his last record was pretty weak. Why should I spend $14.99 on his CD only to be disappointed when I can get it for free on the web?” I’ll digress here for minute. Did you find $14.99 price for a CD rather high in the last sentence? That was actually a bargain price for a CD at the time. Many CD’s were selling for $17.99 and some as high as $19.99. It’s hard to image people these days spending that kind of money on a CD, if they would even buy one at all. This is how bad things really are. The combination of weaker material, customer disillusionment, internet down loading, the money drying up, and more options for people to spend their entertainment dollar on non music related things is what got us to where we are today.
Democracy in Action!
So… fast forward and it’s 2014. The business is heavily segmented. Most of the music that makes it on the radio does not translate well live unless you are the original artist. So even cover bands are struggling. Hip-hop and Country have surpassed the success of rock many times over. Now that it’s all democratic, artist has too much on her plate. She needs to write, record, produce, mix and master her own record. book her own shows, do her own promotion, film her own video and carry her own equipment. Most record labels are just that “labels”. They are just the business structure that the artist herself must set up. There is a lot of freedom these days but with freedom come responsibility. This is why everyone isn’t an indie sensation. Very few can maintain this work ethic. It’s a bitch doing it all yourself. Remember you STILL need to keep the lights on and feed yourself. A lot of people get all excited when they see how wide open the business really is. It is wide open. There is a lot of really unique, interesting, fun, catchy, and downright great music out there. Many artists who could not find a platform even 5 years ago are on tour and making a living at it. But they busted their asses to get there. They joint ventured with other artists and businesses. They learned how to out source a lot of their promotion costs. They barter. They find a way. They have learned that it really does take a village.