My boy Kip put me on to this great rant from someone that sounds like they’re in a similar position to me. So I’m gonna do my best to respond. It may have no point, other than to add to the ranting.
I hate to sound like a defeatist, but he’s right, we are all fucked. The industry has gone in a direction that can’t be reversed. Music is no longer tangible. It is a digital file – not a CD, record, or cassette. And that causes a lot of problems. First, mentality, it loses value to the consumer. There are few things that people value that they can’t touch and hold. And as computer speeds and hard drive spaces increase, consumers don’t have to worry about where they are going to “keep” their new music. There is so much free music out there now (legally and illegally, from blogs, mixtapes, bandcamp, etc) that many people, myself included, acquire so much music so quickly that there’s probably hundreds of songs in their collection that they’ve never even listened to.
Additionally, promoting recorded music doesn’t make financial sense anymore. The amount of money that needs to be spent to break most new artists or projects is fine, if the end result is people spending $10 to $15 on an album. But today’s reality is you have to spend the same amount, but the end result is the purchase of singles. Do the math. 500,000 albums sold at $10 each equals $5 million. That was the old days. But today, it’s more like 1 millions singles sold at $1 and 100,000 albums sold at $10. That’s $2 million dollars total. You reached more than twice as many consumers, but made 40% of the money. It just doesn’t work. And there’s no turning back. At least not that I can see. Once people have become accustomed to being able to pick and choose the songs they want, how do you get them to revert back to being an album buyer? When I was younger, if I liked 2 songs by an artist, I bought the album. Now, people spend $2 and get those 2 songs. And that’s the people that are willing to pay.
The middle ground is also gone. A few years back, if you kinda wanted the music, you either caved and bought it, or your friend copied the CD on to a cassette. You got the music, but lost the quality. Now, if you kinda want it, you steal it. And if you REALLY want it, you might by it.
I know people will say “but if the artists make a better album people would buy the whole thing.” Yes, sometimes that is true. But those are exceptions, and the industry can’t thrive on exceptions. Plus, albums don’t exist like they used to, especially in pop, r & b, and very much in Hip-Hop. I used to buy a Public Enemy, EPMD, Gang Starr, even Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince album without even hearing it. Why? Because I knew it was the same people creating this album as the last one. So if I liked the last album or two, odds are I’d like this one. That isn’t the case anymore. Take B.o.B for example. And I say this as a big fan of his album. But speaking more generally. Let’s say I heard “Nothing On You” w/ Bruno Mars and I loved it. So I buy the album. But Bruno Mars didn’t do the rest of the album. So I might hate the rest. I would have been better off buying the single. And that’s what the industry has become. Albums aren’t albums anymore. They are compilations of collaborators based around a certain artist. You never know what you’re gonna get. Labels and artists pay big money to get A-list artists on a new artists debut single to lure people in. But if that A-lister (rapper, singer, or producer) isn’t on anything else on the album, then why would I like the rest.
This trend started a few years ago. When people still read magazines like The Source and XXL, the countless adds that were included to promoted albums didn’t include quotes from the press about how great the album ones, or even mention the artist’s accomplishments. In big bold print, they said things like “With Appearances By” and “Production By.” You weren’t asked to buy that artist, you were asked to buy the guests. And with the internet allowing people to collaborate without being in the studio together, or sometimes even meeting, how can we expect an album to flow together? The producer making one track may not have heard anything else I’m doing, so how can he be expected to craft something that fits in with the rest? The same goes for songwriters. At the VMA pre-show, they revealed that B.o.B. and Hayley from Paramore never met before that night, despite creating the song “Airplanes” together. Maybe today’s kids aren’t surprised by that, but if I heard that when I was a teenager, it would have killed me. When I’d hear a collaboration, I’d think of the superstars in the studio working together, and it was magical.
To that end, collaborations have gotten out of hand anyways. They are a crutch, and they aren’t special anymore. It used to be exciting to grab a CD and see a special guest, or even to hear a collaboration was coming. But now everyone works with everyone. Think Jay-Z and Eminem’s “Renegade” in 2001. That was a huge deal for them to be on a track together. If it happened now, it’d be noteworthy, but just for a minute. Now, to make a collabo noteworthy, it needs to be shocking. Eminem and Elton John for example. Maybe if Chris Brown and Rihanna did a song together I’d be intrigued. But only if you told me they were in the studio together.
Major labels, or some other filtering system, will always be necessary though. For all those that say the internet levels the playing field, it also crowds it. Like I said, it is already impossible to listen to all the music we have access to. But imagine if there weren’t any companies helping (what is supposed to be) the cream rise to the top? Having worked on many different sides, let me tell you, it is very idealistic to think that without major labels it would be easier to get on MTV or the radio. Yes, you may find one radio programmer, most likely in your hometown, that will play your song. But every city and every station will have that going on. Without that filter of people they trust, programmers would be overloaded. If you’ve heard of the long tail theory, it would be that times a thousand. Yes, a lot more artists would be able to say their music was on the radio. But it would be a smaller reach and not as significant.
Labels do have their role, and I think 360 deals are the best idea for them. If an artist gets endorsement deal, a tour, merchandising, whatever, it is usually because of the work they label did to help expose this artist, even if it doesn’t translate to album and single sales. So I don’t blame labels for trying to get a piece of everything. Whether it is right for the artist will vary depending on that artist. And if 360 deals sound a lot like how managers work, it is. Labels are going to look more and more like management companies, and vice versa. A lot of managers already employ their own staff of digital marketers, tour marketers, publicists, and product managers. And if they don’t, they can hire indies.
So to JJ’s point, let me say this. I’d love to hear of a solution. I don’t have it, but I wish I did. The reality is that the solution is how do we get people to keep buying singles, and the occasional album, while the artists/labels/managers greatly reduce their costs. Right now a label judges their year based on how much $ they lost. They go in each year expecting to lose money. The goal is to not lose more than they’ve planned. That isn’t a winning philosophy, but it’s the best they can do right now.
If you think you have the answer, let me know. I’ll go halves on it with you and we’ll take over the world.