Over the past decade the music industry has continuously adapted and evolved in order to survive the transition from analogue to digital. With the majority of artists and record labels turning to digital media to promote and distribute their music, though, the inevitable question still remains – who exactly are the main beneficiaries of this new musical landscape? Is it the artists or the record companies? Both? Or neither? Invariably, as is often the way in these Marxist types of man against the capitalist machine situations, much of the criticism is directed toward the profit-oriented multi-million pound corporations.
It isn’t too difficult to reason why, when many record companies have countervailed their falling revenue streams and profit margins by changing their business model from the traditional recording contract to the 360° deal – a deal which sees artists acquiesce to losing a larger percentage of their overall incomes, including record sales, touring and merchandise. Some might say that labels are being opportunistic and cashing in, but the truth is similar deals have existed since Berry Gordy started Motown Records in 1959. Except back then it was far worse and artists signed almost everything away except their souls. In reality, the industry has necessarily acclimatized in order to survive. Over the last few years the falling profit margins have not only led to a change of business model but also to the continual downsizing of the industry, with the two big mergers in 2012 between Universal-EMI and Sony/ATV-EMI Music Publishing effectuating a climate of trepidation in which many have been left fearing for their jobs.
As a result many labels and publishers are more inclined to play it safe and sign bands on their commercial potential and short-term blog appeal, rather than on artistic merit. Instead of looking for original sounding bands whose talents could result in careers with longevity, the posse of label scouts and A&R men scour every streaming site such as: Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp and Tumblr like a gang of wide-eyed feral cats in pursuit of whichever fad-driven buzz band is presently being championed by every so-called “tastemaker” under the sun – just so that their credentials and jobs are not on the line when it comes to the next round of industry culling. There are times it works, naturally, but most artists need time to develop in order to know what they are themselves.
A recent example of the pervasive short-termism that is now so evident within the industry is the ultra-quick demise of Chapel Club, who, after less than a year of being together, found themselves at the centre of a major label bidding war. Although they signed to Universal in what was reportedly a million pound deal, they were dropped after their debut album Palace only managed to peak at number 31 in the charts. Failing to recoup your advance when you’re a priority act usually only ends one way – just ask The Hoosiers or Viva Brother, or leave it a year and ask Mona.
I wouldn’t even in my most unhinged moments dare to ever compare any of those bands to Radiohead, but who would’ve believed that the same band whose debut effort was the underwhelming Pablo Honey would go on to be the seminal artists that they have become? No one. It often takes time for artists to mature, to really find their sound, but the advent of streaming sites has reinforced the ‘now’ culture and labels are increasingly abandoning their tenets and pandering to the kitsch tastes of Radio 1’s younger demographic.
Conversely, it could be argued that many of the changes brought about by digital media have provided a level playing field for those who would have otherwise remained on the periphery. With the cost of recording now lower than ever due to affordable home recording software like Pro Tools and the far more basic GarageBand.
It is regularly proclaimed nowadays that artists have become the masters of their own fates and are in a unique position to digitally distribute their music freely out into the ether. However, there are several reasons as to why so few acts break through in this way. Although there is now an array of platforms on which artists can be listened to, without the support of the gatekeepers – radio producers, DJs and now established bloggers, too – their music is extremely unlikely to actually be heard by a wider audience than the artists’ family and friends. And now bloggers are affiliated with labels, having been integrated into the industry to add to the hype-machine – just as many independent labels are in fact subsidiaries of the majors – it is getting more difficult for artists who fail to meet the Radio 1 criteria or are unwilling to whore themselves into a frenzied stupor to break into the mainstream.
The DIY route can always produce a surprise or two, but without the proper infrastructure and publicists in place to ensure visibility in an already exorbitantly oversaturated market lots of credible artists, whose aspirations extend further than knocking out a formulaic and instantly forgettable three-minute turd, are likely to continue to needlessly fall short.