Additionally, the digital side of the industry is struggling as streaming sites chip away at sales, Rolling Stone reported
The music industry has struggled in recent years as consumers have shifted from physical CDs to MP3s, but even the digital side has been hit hard in 2014: Digital album sales are down 11.7 percent for the year, and à la carte downloads are down another 12.8 percent according to Billboard. Illegal downloading has no doubt eroded much of those digital sales, but it’s the emergence of legal streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora that has also chipped away at overall sales. Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” had 544,000 digital sales this week partly because the track isn’t available on Spotify, forcing fans to download the song (or watch it on YouTube, where it has already accrued 46 million views).
While the music industry has struggled to capture even five million units sold per week in 2014, things look slightly more optimistic in the months to come thanks to new releases from bona fide album movers like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett, Lil Wayne, Foo Fighters and Pink Floyd. Those albums, and Adele’s eventual LP, will help resuscitate things. However, if current trends continue, 2015 promises to be an even gloomier year sales wise for the music companies.
Maybe yes, maybe not.
Ever wonder why so many artists become one hit or one album wonders? Music consumers over the past decade have adopted the idea that the majority of artists are brought to fame using the “boy band” formula. This formula that label executives simply have an idea of an artist molded, find the talent to fill the requirements, and then easily market them to make lots of money sounds like a wonderful idea. However, that rarely is the way that an artist reaches fame. Unless the artist is connected to an already established celebrity, there is a long and sometimes strenuous journey that lies ahead of them and their business partners. This journey is known as the pipeline of events that must happen in making any ordinary musician with recorded songs into a successful main stream well-known artist.
There are many departments and people who will work hard on the development of a successful artist. Much like the many parts used in putting a car together on an assembly line, each part of the music industry pipeline must be properly put in place and work well in order for the ending product to be productive. A new artist, much like a successfully put together new car, must be then well maintained and closely cared for in order for success to continue. If any steps are skipped in the development process or with maintenance, failure is likely to happen. This of which is quite common. Hundreds of artists a year are attempted to be marketed and brought to fame, but fail due to missing or malfunctioning parts in the pipeline.
In this pipeline there is the Artist, Artist and Repertoire, Marketing, Distribution, Retail, Publicity, and Media personnel, all of which are working to get the artist efficiently to the consumer. Each member of the pipeline needs to stay well informed, and aware of the current status of the developing artist. Any malfunction in the communication process could lead to failure. Even Jimmy Iovine, chairmen of Interscope Records once said “if this company (Interscope) is about anything, its about discipline and staying focused”.
The first step an upcoming artist must take is to get noticed. There are millions of bands in the United States, from little jam bands who have never played in public, to huge top selling artists that are featured on covers of Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines. On a yearly basis, each of the major record labels and their imprint labels (Sony, EMI, Universal, and Warner) receive over 10,000 demos of aspiring artists. Of these 10,000 artists, only between 5 to 40 of them will actually be signed. The job of finding and sifting through these artists would go to the Artist and Repertoire person or team, depending on the size of the business. Since the 1960’s, it has been the sole purpose of the A&R personnel to research artists, go watch the artist perform, talk with the artist, the artist’s manager if they have one, and get an overall feel for them. The A&R person is looking for an artist that shows potential to be able to endure the process of becoming a successful part of a label’s roster. These attributes include, having an already stable fan base and marketability at the grass roots level, some sort of history in successful touring and recorded music, and the overall determination to cooperate and work hard with all the departments in the pipeline. The last point is very important. This being because once the A&R person finds an artist they believe is worth their time, they then must work hard in convincing the label executives they work for, and every member of the pipeline that this musician will be an asset to the label.
Looking from the artist’s point of view, the search to getting signed is a grueling and nerve racking process also. Some artists get so caught up in the idea of being signed that they will do anything to get a record deal. Many young aspiring musicians, who haven’t had any experience in the industry and are naive to contracts, sometimes find themselves with the record deal that has a ball and chains attached. Kevin Czinger, the founder of Volcano Entertainment said “In this business, the first rule is, never act out of desperation, because there is always someone out there looking to sucker you.” Many bad contracts will take away all rights of the artist to their music, and leave them with little to no credit or money for their hard work. But let’s say an artist was spotted by an A&R person from a credible label, was offered a decent record deal, and they accepted.
Now with that process over, the real path to success begins. From the A&R department the artist is handed over to the marketing team. The marketing team has the biggest steps to take in getting the artist up and going. The marketing team will analyze what the artist has to offer, what they have already accomplished, and what they are capable of in the near future. The marketing team is responsible for making the artist seem extremely appealing to distributors, retailers, radio and other media. The biggest factor in making an artist look like an asset is to show that they will make the business money. For retailers money means the artist will bring in sales and increase store customers, while for radio it means that the artist being in rotation will increase listeners. For other media like magazines newspapers, and online outlets it means the artist will create a buzz, and increase readers, hits and again sales. The marketing team can always make the artist seem more appealing by giving incentives to the businesses by adding deals, discounts, and promotions if they agree to take on the artist.
While the marketing team is working hard, they will usually hire an image consultant to work with the artist or band on creating an image that will catch the eye of their demographic. Ever since the debut of MTV and large color music magazines, the image and style of musicians has become one of the most valuable and important selling points. Many artists will despise yet go along with image changes and adopt certain character traits to fully create the persona their label and image consultant believe will work best for them.
Once an artist has their image ready and a solid album recorded, the next step is to physically get the artist out to the public. This process is much more difficult than most would think. It involves an important middleman, the distributor. Most major labels have a distributor of their own, and many smaller labels as well as independent labels, will rely on the distributors of the majors because it is not an easy job. When a label has a completed album they will send the master to a duplication factory with an order of how many pressings they need. That factory will then pass the CDs on to the distributor. The sole job of the distributor is to hold the albums safely in their warehouse and to efficiently ship out albums when a retailer requests them It comes back to the marketing department whether or not there will be a demand from the retailers for the albums. If no stores want the albums they will sit in the warehouse collecting dust and the label as well as the artist will loose a lot of money.
It becomes very apparent how closely linked each department in the pipeline is and how much one effects the success of another. Now the demand from the retailers, that is go greatly wanted, will depend on the overall success and growing popularity of the artist in the public spotlight. A retailer will not buy a bunch of CDs from an artist just for them to sit on their racks, take up shelf space, and eventually make the effort to send them back. (In which, yes, retailers have the right to send back albums that do not sell, and for a full refund too.) Therefore a buzz in the media that is reaching the consumers must be on going. No matter how big of a scale or little of a scale the label is working on, the artist should be doing interviews for press, magazines, and newspapers on whichever level they are in. For example if a major label is working with the artist on a big budget, appearances and interviews could be done on widely known media outlets like SNL, Billboard Magazine, late night shows and big radio stations. For a smaller budget and label, local newspapers, smaller magazines, and college radio stations should be having coverage, as well as an efficient online campaign.
The media is a very important factor in an artist’s success in the mainstream world of technology today. A growing attribute in media has been the Internet. The Internet has become the most popular medium for consumers to receive information as well as find music and videos. This transition has also brought the record industry into a different realm for the first time since physical recordings could be mass-produced. The digital recording or the mp3 originally gave the record industry a big scare with significant decreases in sales. This was due to large amounts of illegal downloading, allowing consumers who usually would have paid anywhere from 15 dollars to 25 dollars for a CD, acquiring the same material completely for free. This left the record labels with less income from sales and many distributors piling up returned or unsold albums. The industry has since found ways to use technology to receive a handful of new streams of revenue. Sales in cell phone ring tones, online mp3 stores, such as iTunes and Amazon as well as many online streaming radio formatted stations have become extremely helpful in making up for lost sales. Atlantic Records back in 2007 even announced that, “more than half of its music sales in the United States are now from digital products, like downloads on iTunes and ring tones for cellphones.”
The online streaming stations like Last FM, Pandora, and AOL Radio offer thousands of popular as well as upcoming artists for consumers to listen to and also offer spotlights and capabilities of purchasing songs listeners like. Along with the Internet buzz importance of an artists personal website as grown as well.
Two departments, some that work right within the label, and some who are independent and work on retainer for a label are the Promotion and Publicity companies. Both of these companies are two more important factors deep within the pipeline. The job of a Promotion company is to get radio stations to add artist songs to their rotation. In theory, but not always, it is suspected that a largely played artist on the radio will bring in lots of revenue by touring. The publicity company has what could be a never-ending job. Their duty is to dish out human interest stories, some a little stretched from the truth, and enlarge the public buzz of an artist. As an artist becomes more famous the demand for insight into their lives and their background will grow. Sometimes like we have seen in cases like Britney Spears, the demand can grow to an unacceptable level.
If every member of the pipeline has worked hard and the artist has received a profitable release of an album, a following of more singles being released and music videos will usually occur. Along with a successful release will also usually come a large tour with big ticket sales. Once all of this has happened, the artist and the label will then turn into the maintenance part of the pipelines job. Maintenance is a crucial part in any artists career and will indefinitely determine the longevity as well as the stability of it. Along with this new success an upcoming artist will experience a change in personal relationships with friends and family as well as adapt to the new relationship with their newly found fans. Artists will work closely with their publicist as promotions team to make sure everything stays on track.
Soon after the tour or even sometimes during, the artist will start to work on their next album due to the fact that most contracts bind the artist to a three to four album contract. In most cases this is to ensure that royalties are being paid and all recoupables have been fulfilled. Recoupables are the monies that an artist owes back to the label. The majority of albums will cost thousands of dollars start to finish. The label will pay for everything upfront, but once revenue from the album starts to come in, the artist will usually not receive any more money until all the debt has been paid. In the meantime the artist will usually have received an advance of money when signing the record deal and hopefully was smart enough to ration the spending of the money until they could ensure the album would be profitable.
Royalties are monies earned from songs or sound recordings that will come in from many sources like CD sales, digital sales, and synchronization to commercials and movies. Royalties are given to the entity with the copyrights to a song. In most cases the label will demand that they hold ownership of all songs recorded; however many musicians that are also songwriters will fight for their right of ownership to their music. The RIAA, the Record Industry Association of America is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry in Washington. Their mission is to manage and enforce US copyright laws and to make sure the owners are receiving the proper income. Almost 90% of all professional sound recordings produced and sold in the United States have been created, manufactured or distributed by RIAA members.
The function of maintenance will be ongoing for the rest of the artist’s career. They must now keep a good relationship and work with their managers, publicist, and label to sustain a solid career and credible view from the public. Main stream success is almost impossible to reach and even more impossible to maintain through the years, with so many eyes watching, people pulling for their side to have the biggest say, and struggle over rights, it is definitely not a joke. As your grandmother always said be careful what you wish for!
The first time I ever heard of someone making a mix tape was in 1978. Robert Christgau, the “dean of rock critics,” was writing in The Village Voice about his favorite Clash record, which just happened to be the one he made himself: a tape of all the band’s non-LP B-sides. One aspect really struck me – Christgau said it was a tape he made to give to friends. He had made his own personalized Clash record and was handing it out as a memento of his rock-and-roll devotion.
In those days, tape decks were as essential as turntables and just as bulky. But then Sony came out with the Walkman. I suppose the record industry expected consumers to buy cassettes of the LPs, and some surely did, but hey – why not just buy blank cassettes and record tracks from LPs instead? Of course, this is what every Walkman user did, and before long there were warning stickers on records and cassettes, stating: home taping is killing music! It was a quaint forebear of today’s industry paranoia over downloading and CD burning.
Around 1980, there was a spontaneous scene of young bands recording singles of superfast hardcore punk – Minor Threat, Negative Approach, Necros, Battalion of Saints, Adolescents, Sin 34, the Meatmen, Urban Waste, Void, Crucifucks, Youth Brigade, the Mob, Gang Green. I was fanatical and bought them all as soon as they came out. I was just a dishwasher at a SoHo restaurant – not exactly raking in the dough – but I needed these sides!
I also needed to hear these records in a more time-fluid way, and it hit me that I could make a mix tape of all the best songs. So I made what I thought was the most killer hardcore tape ever. I wrote H on one side, and C on the other. That night, after my love Kim had fallen asleep, I put the tape in our stereo cassette player, dragged one of the little speakers over to the bed, and listened to it at ultralow thrash volume. I was in a state of humming bliss. This music had every cell and fiber in my body on heavy sizzle mode. It was sweet.
On a Sonic Youth tour in the mid-’80s, we decided to get a cassette player for the van. One idea was to install a dashboard unit, but that was pricey. There was a street trend in NYC of hip hop heads blasting rap mix tapes through massive boom boxes, or “ghetto blasters.” So I went into this Delancey Street store and, using the band’s limited funds, bought the biggest boom box on display: a Conion that took 16 D batteries. The Conion – we nicknamed it “the Conan” – was almost like an extra body, about the size of a small kid. My solution was to stand it on end between the two front seats, facing the back. As we drove through the Holland Tunnel and began to distance ourselves from the city, I jammed in the first of the rap compilations I’d made, and the boom box sounded superb.
We had it onstage with us when we played, and I miked it through the PA for between-song tape action. Kids gave us cassettes all across the US – some of them hopeful demos and some mix tapes, and we’d jam them all. By tour’s end, there must have been hundreds of tapes strewn about the van, with their plastic cases stomped and cracked.
These days, CD technology has displaced the cassette in the mainstream, and mix CDs have become the new cultural love letter/trading post. For those of us who think that digital delivers a harsher sound than analog, it’s a sonic nightmare dealing with the new world reality of MP3s. They’re even more compressed and harsh than CDs, and in the case of vintage grooves – be it Led Zeppelin, Bad Brains, or Pavement – sound even more detached from musical vibration.
But even if MP3 music sounds lame, as long as it’s recognizable in form, free, and shareable, it’s here to stay. It will get better as more sophisticated methods of replication emerge. For now, its clunk is glamorized by celebrity iTunes playlists. ITunes has become the Hallmark card of mix tapes – all you gotta do is sign your name to personalize it.
Once again, we’re being told that home taping (in the form of ripping and burning) is killing music. But it’s not: It simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control music sharing – by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along – is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.
Adapted from Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore, to be published by Universe in May.
Note: Originally published by COPYFIGHT
CCCB Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona.