Where We Are Now

So can you still get rich playing music?

In the nineties we had megastars.  Boy bands that sold diamond, over 10,000,000 copies of their albums.  They could even sell two million in a week!

Did online theft kill those sales, or was it choice?

What does it mean to be a musician?  Is it the same thing as being a star?

We certainly learned what it took to become a star.  You had to be attractive and be willing to do what your handlers told you to.  And you had to play ball, deliver to MTV and terrestrial radio whatever they wanted.  If you got lucky, you became not only famous, but rich.

But anybody can become famous today.  That’s not that big an achievement.  It’s staying power that counts.  And, if you don’t stay, can you make any money?

Sure, we can round up thousands of wannabes to try out for "American Idol", but do they represent the heart of the music business, are they still what people want, or is the whole game positively old school?  Thirty million people watch each show and maybe the winner, if lucky, can sell a couple of million records?  With all that exposure, based on the nineties MTV paradigm, they should be moving TEN MILLION records.  What happened?  Did the public steal the music business?

No, the public tuned out the mainstream.  The public wants something different.  And without this concentration of ears and eyeballs on the usual suspects purveyed in the usual way, sales have dropped.  And they’re NEVER coming back.

I believe the overall music business pie, the total revenue achieved, can be greater than it’s ever been, if the acquisition of music online is paid for instead of slipping through the fingers of an industry that only wants to sell songs a particular way.  Shouldn’t be tough to get everybody to be a music customer, if the buy-in price is low enough, if they can sample and acquire a mass for a reasonable fee.  But is everybody going to buy the same limited amount of product?  Absolutely not!

We’re back to the days of musicians.  Oh sure, there will be a few mostly vapid stars perched atop the economic heap, but very few.  Most everybody else will have to work hard for their money.

We’re living in the era of niche.  Broadcasting is dead.  Just ask NBC, which reported its worst prime time ratings EVER!  People can now get what they want, exactly what they want, and they tune out everything else.  So, if you’re trying to assemble a mass, you’re screwed.  Hell, just look at the SoundScan numbers.  What, there’s one platinum release this year (Norah Jones)?

The major label model is history, except for the few superstars left.  Everybody else is going to have to slug it out in the trenches.

Everything the major depends on, the cross-promotions, the marketing, the airplay…almost all of it’s falling on deaf ears.  And those who’ve sold a record once?  The only people who might want their future product are diehard fans.  That’s what Paul McCartney doesn’t understand.  The failure of his solo albums isn’t a result of a lame label, or a lack of innovative marketing, people just don’t CARE!  It’s not like he’s going to sell millions at Starbucks.  Actually, the more he hypes the fewer he’ll probably sell.  Because scorched earth marketing makes you look desperate, especially if you’ve already had traction.  Just ask Jay-Z.

Should Jay-Z make another album?  Not unless he’s into it for the music.

Seems like Jay’s last record was a business exercise.  To clean up in the fourth quarter.  So he could have bragging rights re dollars, and his label could report good numbers.  Only problem is that not only do we no longer live in a hip-hop nation, not enough people are paying attention, there’s no MAINSTREAM!

All the institutions the business depends.  Gone.  Tower Records was just the first obvious domino.  Look at terrestrial radio, the ratings are constantly declining.  MTV?  It’s in trouble.  Both the "New York Times" and "Los Angeles Times" have reported the story.  And you know you’re in trouble when the mainstream press pillories you.  MTV’s  solution?  Get more in bed with its fans, make them part of the show.  If you think that’s a successful strategy, you’re just not old enough.  MTV gave up its core competency, its raison d’etre, MUSIC, for money.  Yup, music didn’t get good enough ratings, so they went where the bucks were.  But suddenly, there are not enough bucks in useless youthquake programming.

Same deal with the major labels.  It used to be about signing quality MUSICIANS!  And developing them over a period of years/albums.  But if you could gussy up one act, and sell millions of copies of their initial record, WHY WASTE ALL THAT TIME?  Well, that paradigm worked for a while, but now it’s finished.  Because the lowest common denominator stuff flogged so hard just doesn’t resonate with the public anymore.

If you’re in this business to get rich, get out.  Because the road to riches just got very windy, there are potholes, and unpaved sections, and there’s no map.  Now you’ve got to play because you love to.  And hope that you can garner a fanbase, that will deliver enough money so you can survive.

Oh, some acts will more than survive.  There will be new Dave Matthews Bands.  But they’ll be smaller.  Dave had a loyal college audience, but MTV and VH1 crossed him over to the mainstream.  You can’t cross over to the mainstream via big time media anymore.  You can just grow your base.

You can’t work at the label, they’re firing people, they can’t pay their bills.

The major management companies?  Well, the dinosaurs can tour till their dead, but many of them are nearing the statistical age when they will be passing from this earth.  Developing new acts that will generate millions in commissions?  Essentially impossible.

It’s not about saving what we’ve got, it’s about dealing with the new reality.

People have choice.  And they’re hard to reach.  They want something that resonates.  And what resonates with Peter might be anathema to Paul.  You’ve got to get the music into people’s hands, oftentimes initially for free.  You can’t push it, people have to pull it.  Which means it can’t be sold on mania, but quality.  And when you get traction, you have to build slowly, you’ve got no choice.  To try and take a short cut, to sign with a major and be the beneficiary of all their marketing, NO LONGER WORKS!  The major can’t blow up your indie act, there’s nowhere to do it!

It’s cottage industry once again.  The landscape will be populated by those truly into music, not those eager to earn a buck.  The old institutions will be shadows of their former selves.  Not only the major labels and management companies, but Live Nation too.  Live Nation depends on charging a fortune to see stars.  But what if there ARE NO STARS?

We’re not building new stars.  Not of the magnitude of the past forty years.  We’re building acts, that have to charge reasonable prices, that have to be in bed with their fans, have to treat their constituency with TLC JUST TO SURVIVE!  And the acts come first.  Without acts, you’ve got no labels, managers starve, and Live Nation’s stock plummets.

You might call it a crisis.  It’s just reality.

Music will survive.  It will be healthier than it’s been in a long time.  But scanning the landscape will be like flipping through the three hundred channels on your cable system.  You’ll recognize three or four things, but most of the rest will be foreign to you and you won’t be interested.  But it will be WORSE, because technology limits the number of channels on a cable system, whereas ANYBODY can make music and put it up on MySpace.

There are opportunities galore.  But to get rich quick?  No, that game is HISTORY!

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