Today’s Music Industry Explained: The Deadheads Won
I recently came across a Hollywood Reporter interview with producer/musician T-Bone Burnett that serves as a perfect summation of today’s music business. Let’s get right to the heart of it as Burnett describes the titanic struggle that led to a prevailing ethos best described as “Why pay for it, dude?” (Sorry for the heavy lifting, HR, but I needed to share this particular argument in its whole with my loyal readers.)
“It’s as if the Grateful Dead and Metallica got into a fight. This whole thing went down in northern California! The Silicon Valley cats were acid freaks and loved the Dead – not all of ‘em, but the vast majority. The whole Internet culture grows out of Grateful Dead culture. The Grateful Dead was not a recording band; they were too high to record. They didn’t mind that their fans would tape their shows and pass them along. It was just spreading the word. They didn’t value the tapes; they were live performances. That’s where the art was, all that live improvisation. That’s the way the Internet went, because those are the people controlling it. The Internet went into: ‘Everything wants to be free, give your stuff away, pass it around, we don’t care about the definitive version – the hive mind will take care of it. Leave it to the wisdom of the crowd, that’ll work it all out, and everything will be fine in the end’… The other camp was Metallica, who said, ‘No, we like to play live, but we also want to create the definitive version. So we want to maintain copyright; we don’t want to do this free thing.’ But naturally, the people who were offering things for free won in the short term. In reality, we all lost.”
So much to chew on in just that one paragraph… The great irony here is that the very people who gave rise to this ethos are the ones who made scads of money from it, because they set up the system and built the machines that made file-sharing and other forms of digital thievery possible. And when you consider that today’s preferred listening medium is mobile/digital, those machines and the online sources that feed them now generate far more revenue than any other stream in the music business. Meanwhile, hard-working musicians (and their slacker counterparts… more on them later) are left holding the bag as the market value of their recordings dwindle to virtually nothing.
I point this out as someone who did a fair amount of thievery myself, and I rationalized it with this kind of thinking: I spent a small fortune in the Seventies building a fairly respectable record collection (keep in mind, an album cost about $5 back in 1974… adjusted for inflation, you’d pay more than $25 for a new LP today). Then in the Eighties and Nineties I replaced many of those albums with a shitload of CDs. Then, when I finally realized I could’ve bought a second house in Florida with all that money, I didn’t feel too bad about passing around mp3s with family and friends.
On the other hand, I approach this blogging thing a little differently than many of my online brethren who simply offer up entire albums for download. Sure, I’ll sample a lot of music (for purely “educational” reasons, of course). But I use my Amazon tile at the end of every post to encourage folks to support the featured artists – and me, since I get a small cut – by purchasing the whole enchilada (by all means, spring for the box set). I also have a running tab with iTunes to quench my occasional thirst for new music.
In a way, Rubber City Review is on the losing end of the “music for free” model too. Several years ago, we agreed to be an official blog for the music streaming service MOG, which offers great features… an easy-to-use interface… 16 million songs at your fingertips… But apparently no one wants to pay $10 a month for ad-free mobile access, because a struggling MOG recently was purchased by a new “curated” service called Beats Music (the same company behind Beats by Dre headphones). So instead of relying on some quirky algorithm, Beats Music hired Trent Reznor as its Chief Creative Officer. That means a large share of your alt-rock playlist might be hand-picked by a guest curator like Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Sounds promising… except for the part where RCR loses a sponsor during the switchover. But I’ve thrown my name out there for consideration as Beats Music’s curator for American roots music. Call me, Trent.
Fact is, you’d have to be out of your mind to get into the music biz today (or even blog about it). And the only real perspective I have on this statement, oddly enough, is from witnessing the amazing success of my nephew’s band, The Black Keys.
When the band formed in 2001, the boys had already seen the writing on the wall. Although Napster was forced to close that year due to numerous legal challenges, the damage was done – kids were conditioned to expect that all music should be free. So realizing that they probably weren’t going to get rich selling CDs, Dan and Pat decided to follow a slightly different route. Here are just a few of the things they did right, from a business standpoint:
- Record their first two albums for about $50 (more on that here)
- Tour like dogs
- Come up with some cool merch and posters
- Lock into favorable deals with supportive labels that gave the band a lot of autonomy
- Accept a ton of offers to feature their music in commercials, TV shows and movies (because radio sure as hell wasn’t going to play their stuff during the early years)
- Keep their support system lean and mean
- Tour like dogs
- Sue any hapless bastard who tried to steal their music (e.g. Pizza Hut, Home Depot)
The band had already reached an enviable level of success when radio finally caught on to songs like Tighten Up, Howlin’ for You and Lonely Boy. Then Dan and Pat discovered the power of a hit song – mainly, the compounding effect of songwriting royalties generated by airplay on hundreds of stations around the world. And now they live comfortably on their own private islands in the Caribbean (not really, but check back in a couple years).
But here’s the real lesson for up-and-coming bands: If you’re hoping to land a deal with a major label and get a hefty advance to record at a proper studio with a big-time producer, you’re probably trippin’. And even if you get signed by a label – any label – don’t start counting the money. The only people who still buy CDs are country and hip-hop fans who shop at Walmart, and the digital stores and streaming services don’t pay shit.
What about funding your album through crowdsourcing (Kickstarter, etc.)? According to Burnett, it just makes you more indebted to fans who should be challenged by your art, not coddled. “I don’t believe in crowdsourcing because you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over again,” Burnett said. “People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want – yet. I’ll tell you this. I won’t follow an artist who will be led by his audience.” Then there’s that sense of misplaced guilt (and ultimately fatigue) that sets in among people who just want to do the right thing for their starving-artist friends. I get a lot of requests to promote Kickstarter campaigns on this site. You can thank me now for turning most of them down.
My advice to new bands? Read the interview with Burnett… refer back to numbers 1, 2 and 7 on the list above… and eat lots of ramen noodles.
Reminds me of a great quote by Louis CK: “Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.” Or, in the case of The Black Keys, give it about 10 years of hard slogging across several continents.
I’ll close with another one of my favorite quotes – actually a comment we received on this site three years ago: “I did not read this post as it featured no sweet-ass music clips.”