New Releases

I can’t get over what a non-event the release of an album is today.  Oh, the media trumpets the dropping of these discs like the second coming.  But no one’s paying attention.  Well, that’s not really true, VERY FEW PEOPLE ARE PAYING ATTENTION!

We used to live in a small universe.  Fewer than 5,000 albums were released a year.  And people like us, we knew every one.  Now nobody knows every one, and not many people care that they’re uninformed.  But it gets worse, sales superstars like Avril Lavigne release "monster hit singles" that nobody hears.  "Girlfriend"?  A hit in the media, but most of America has never heard it.

Then there’s Patti Smith’s covers album.  She just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she’s riding a wave of publicity she hasn’t been the beneficiary of since the seventies.  But will anybody buy her record?

Not many.

Doesn’t matter how good it is, most people don’t care.

And it’s not Patti.  If you’re a heritage artist putting out a new record…nobody wants it.  They just want to hear your old stuff.

And if you don’t have a big time rep, then you’re not going to break through, unless you sell your soul to the promotion/marketing machine, and then you STILL won’t go platinum probably, and you’ll just be a footnote in the history of music.

What the hell is going on?

Back before publications like the L.A. "Times" printed new album previews, we were hungry for the new discs of our favorite bands.  We wanted to hear all the new albums, maybe someone would surprise us and we’d BECOME a fan.  Now, an act has a hard core of dedicated fans and that’s IT!

But it gets worse.  Household names?  They don’t have a dedicated sales base.  Oh, they might be able to tour if they’re from the classic rock era, but all those famous people from the last forty years, they can’t sell tonnage.  NOBODY CAN SELL TONNAGE!

Oh, let’s not make it black and white.  There might still be phenomena.  Nickelback is a phenomenon.  Then again, their initial monster hit predated this new era.  People were still listening to Top Forty radio and watching MTV when "How You Remind" me broke.  Same band releases same initial single today?  Much less impact.  Hell, let’s look at it this way, if Nickelback’s latest album had come out at the turn of the decade, at the height of CD sales, it would have gone diamond, done in excess of ten million in the U.S., I have no doubt.  KID ROCK went diamond, and he had FEWER HITS!

We read about these new discs, it’s as if these acts can sell records, but they can’t.  And sure, there’s no more Tower and the big boxes are stocking fewer albums, but the real story is there’s just no focus.  There’s a coterie of not quite adolescent girls following the mainstream, and then everybody else is off in his own niche.

Used to be an album release was just the beginning.  It was like starting a fire on "Survivor".  Once you had your flint and your logs, you were gonna blow on the tinder, if you did it right you were gonna have a  CONFLAGRATION!  Now the PEAK is when the record drops.  It’s all downhill from there.  Oh, a few discs build.  But most just fade off into oblivion.  They’re run up the flagpole and then they disappear, as the media runs another record up the flagpole.

Acts used to be excited.  We’ve got an album coming out!  We and the label are going to build it into a raging success!  No you’re not, if you’re lucky you already have a road audience and you’ll sell the disc to the people coming to the show, or actually AT the show.

Don’t buy the hype.  All those stories, all the reviews, almost nobody’s paying attention!  Who could, it’s overwhelming!

But the media and the music business don’t stop.  If the public isn’t interested in reading the reviews of a zillion new records and stories of how they’re being made, how come they’re printing this stuff ANYWAY?  And if you can’t release a record with the hope of it going platinum, why are you investing so much money, time and effort?  If you’re only going to sell 25,000, maybe you should cut the album more cheaply and maintain a really good mailing list to get the word out, rather than employing high-priced publicists who try to reach the masses who don’t give a shit.

This is reality.  The blockbuster era is done.  The business is living a giant lie, the purveyors are participating in a giant circle jerk.  The public has tuned out, and is only listening to each other.

It’s not about beating acts or labels up.  It’s actually depressing that the scene is so saturated and there’s so much choice that it’s almost impossible to go gold.  In the future there could be a new avenue of exposure that builds hit acts, then again, maybe not.

So don’t be impressed when you read about so and so’s new album.  There’s nothing going on other than this story.  It’s a cardboard facade with carney-level sales figures behind.

And if you’re a musician, realize that it’s about those who you know, serving your fan base, growing it organically.  Your dream of a big break and mass appeal?  That’s not gonna happen.  And, if it does, like a flash mob, the audience will move on to something new soon thereafter.

2 Responses to New Releases »»


Comments

  1. Comment by Steve Okun | 2007/04/28 at 22:27:13

    Hi Bob,

    I’ve never written to you before, so you don’t know me. I agree with everything that you say about new releases, except one thing… It’s not hopeless. It’s not over. We just need to go back to what works.

    We can’t even blame the music industry for this demise… at least not exclusively. It’s the fault of the age of mass-advertising. Blame anyone who created a new way to sell ads. I remember the first time I saw an advertisement on a parking gate. Alone in my car, I actually laughed out loud that someone had decided that the three seconds I sat waiting for the gate to lift was enough to make an impression on me for some financial service or another. Now we have people wearing ads on their foreheads, even tattooed on their bodies. I’ve heard that there are cows in pastures carrying sandwich board signs. Where will it stop? Well, it won’t. So as people with limited means we have only one defense mechanism. Ignore. Ignore everything. Completely ignore any attempt to get our attention through mass-advertising. So unless the ad is for something that we’re ALREADY connected to… it doesn’t affect us at all.

    Just about every musician that’s ever "sold tonnage" started by working their asses off traipsing around the world trying to build a core group of fans. The ones that were good at doing it created a following. The music industry has never really been interested in acts that don’t already have a substantial following of their own. They have almost always chosen to build on something that was already growing. If we look back on how that used to work, we should learn something.

    In the end, a band is a bit like a religion. Possibly more like a cult. But those are controversial terms, so I’ll choose another one: lifestyle. If you prefer, substitute your favorite term below and I won’t be offended. What a REALLY good band sells is a lifestyle. You have said that "it’s about the music", and you’re right… to a point. But where do you think the music comes from? It generally comes from a unique set of beliefs that the musicians hold dear. The music is a form of expression that carries within it the musicians’ reaction to the world around them. Remember, "Life Imitates Art". Not the other way around. It is the art that takes us to a new place. A place that is conceived by the artist. To get there we must participate in a new lifestyle.

    Let’s look back on a few of the bands that sold tonnage. It is almost impossible to separate our memories of early Beatles from images of screaming girls stampeding towards a car, a plane a stage, or whatever. Remember one thing. We saw the band through the fans. We couldn’t even really hear the band. We heard the fans. At the time, they called it mass-hysteria, but that’s an over simplification. It was really just a big group of fans who all wanted to participate in a lifestyle. It just turns out that the lifestyle was the hysterical pursuit of a pop idol. The girls went first, and the guys followed the girls. Perhaps The Beatles were what was needed at the time to allow people to break free from an unnatural sociological structure that existed at the time. And so people signed on to a lifestyle which would allow them to break free from all of that. Then the band told them that it was all about Peace. And so it was.

    What about Pink Floyd? Lifestyle. Go into a psychedelic drug induced state and break free from the bonds of society. Well, of course it was more than that, but that’s basically how it started, and we can’t separate the band’s early days from those psychedelic images. The Beach Boys? Lifestyle. Jimi Hendrix? Lifestyle. Janis Joplin? Lifestyle. You could argue in fact that it has NEVER been "just about the music" but rather it has always been "what the music was about" that made a band huge.

    Now let’s think back on why we remember these bands this way. Clearly it wasn’t a billboard poster that created the mass-hysteria of The Beatles. And it wasn’t a newspaper ad that gave us the psychedelic image of Pink Floyd. And it wasn’t a TV commercial that gave us our image of The Beach Boys or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin. The difference was that the music industry used to build on what the bands already had going. They went to the place where the BAND was, and promoted THEIR image.

    Today, sadly, it’s the reverse. At some point, record promoters realized that they could accelerate and accentuate a band’s growth by taking out ads, and that was the end. It became a highly addictive reckless pursuit to spend the most money and make the biggest impact with advertising. Of course, it worked to a point. Just enough to encourage a reaction similar to the feeling a gambler gets when they finally "hit the jackpot". It was a downward spiral that led people AWAY from the music rather than towards it. When a record company gets involved with an artist today, they tend to alienate the original group of fans. We have a new term for that now. It’s called a "sell-out".

    It’s not that the original fans don’t want to see the band become successful. They just don’t want to see the band compromise the lifestyle they were championing in order to sell more albums. When a new artist gets put through the meat-grinder that is the music industry today, everything comes out the same. The music becomes a manufactured by-product of the machinery that has been assembled to produce it.

    So how can we go back to the old way? Ask Wilco. They are an example of a band that hasn’t compromised the lifestyle they promote just to sell more albums. There are many examples of course. And no, they don’t sell tonnage. Why? Because no one is focusing on them. And if they did, they would probably screw things up.

    Here’s a mantra for musicians that will help to restore order in the music business. I hope that you will help to refine this:
    - First it’s about the music, but then it’s about the fans… never turn your back on what THEY have created
    - Don’t allow your image to be plastered all around town on bus shelters… if you’re lucky the ads will be ignored (if you’re unlucky, they’ll call you a sell-out)
    - Think of yourself as the promoter of a lifestyle… live your life in a manner that is consistent with the lifestyle that you are promoting

    There is a long history of neglect in this regard, so it will take a lot of work to clean up the mess. But there is one crucial difference between today and the original heyday of the music industry… The Internet. Sorry music industry… It’s no longer in your hands. Hold on to your existing publishing contracts as tightly as you can, because they’re the only thing that you still control. In the new world, the fans will be in charge of promoting music. And the fans will never sell-out. It will take a while for new tools to be developed and for everyone to start using them. But rest assured, it will happen.

    People haven’t stopped loving music. And musicians haven’t stopped making good music. The only problem today is that it’s hard to make connections in an environment with so much noise. But we are on the cusp of solving much bigger problems than this, provided that we put our faith in the collective strength of the many rather than in the weaker hands of the few.

    Music isn’t dead. People still care. Look at the following that you yourself have created. Why is your mailing list so big? Because people still care. Given the right tools, they will carry us out of these dark times.

    Regards,

    Steve Okun
    (someone who cares)

  2. Comment by Neil Haverty | 2007/04/28 at 22:28:31

    I’ve been meaning to write you for a while but only found some time today. I’m at work and everybody else is in meetings so I’m stealing time to do what I want. I’m a musician living in Toronto, trying to balance a full-time job with an obsession with music. This is pretty common practice for me and a lot of folks I know. We all spend 40 hours a week doing jobs that we don’t care too much about, dreaming of the whistle at the end of the day when we can go home and create. Nobody I know considers working a day job to be a hold-over before we get rich and famous (as I’m sure a lot of musicians do); most of us have come to terms with the fact that this is the way its going to be for the rest of our lives. And I think, for the most part, we’re all okay with that.

    I would never assume that we were the only ones who felt this way but I can say that I feel Toronto has a pretty unique thing going on. Let me give you a little background on what it’s like to play music here…

    This city has experienced a cultural renaissance over the last few years and, even though I only moved here in 1999 and am by no means an authority, it’s generally agreed that Toronto’s music scene has never been as healthy as it is now. I’m not talking about Nu-Metal bands playing for a line of teenagers at the Reverb. I’m not talking about shined-up rockers who brag about the A&R reps that were at their Friday night showcase at the Horseshoe. I’m not talking about buzz bands that swing through town for a one-off at the Phoenix. I’m talking about the real homegrown community that exists here, that peculates below the surface, sustained entirely by the people who create, contribute to and take part in it.

    My introduction to this world came thanks to the Wavelength music series. As a freshly minted Torontonian, the weekly series gave me a window into what was really going on in the city. You could always count on unique and interesting bands on Sunday nights and, as time wore on, I could see what it was doing to help plant the seeds for a vibrant climate for independent music in Toronto. Partly inspired by Jonny Dovercourt and the other folks who helped kick off Wavelength, it seemed that every forward-thinking guitar player or show-goer started to try their hand at putting on shows, putting out records and generally throwing their two cents in the pile. It’s continued exponentially since then and now there’s almost too much to see or do in the city every week.

    Labels like Blocks Recording Club and Fig Records have made it possible to work with like-minded people that live where you live, venues like Sneaky Dee’s, the Boat and the Tranzac have opened their doors to the weird and wonderful underbelly, promoters/booking agents like Eric Warner, Keith Hamilton and Steve Himmelfarb have ensured that good bills are happening all the time and new series like the All Caps all-ages shows (booked by Ryan McLaren) and the Poor Pilgrim experimental weekly (booked by Matt Cully) have provided a consistent supply of amazing live music. Surrounding cities like Hamilton and Brantford have come on board too, building strong communities of their own and providing more outlets for people just like us to play.

    The masses don’t know about this stuff and the weekly papers only just scratch the surface of it but the people who are surrounded by it rarely think of anything else… and I think you’d be surprised how many of us there are. Shows by local bands are constantly sold-out, hand-crafted CDs are flying off the shelves at Soundscapes and Rotate This and people who just live down the street are responsible for the most important pieces in our record collections. Records by Glissandro 70, the Constantines, Rockets Red Glare, Les Mouches and many more are far more important to us then what would normally be considered a "classic" record.

    Aspirations for the big-time just don’t come into play. Truthfully, the real big-time seems pretty ugly to most of us. In Toronto, we aspire to impress our peers. We set up shows with our favourite local bands and try to out-do one another. Most of the people who show up in the audience are other musicians and the mutual enthusiasm for each other’s work is what keeps us coming back. If we do look outside of Toronto, we look to similar communities and people around the world (something like this exists, to varying visibility, in ever city) to latch onto what we’re doing and visa versa.

    There’s been a lot of international attention put on people like Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Final Fantasy lately but I don’t think that would have happened if those people didn’t get their hands dirty in this community first. Sure, a couple favourable write-ups in Eye can give way to some coverage on CBC, which can give way to a Pitchfork review (and from there, world adoration), but all of those musicians would tell you that it was the local support that truly launched them. And that’s why you still see Kevin Drew or Leslie Feist or Owen Pallett at the Boat on a Friday night or watching some new band at Sneaky Dee’s on a Wednesday. They know the terrain and, I think, they’re just as eager to boost up Toronto as anybody still operating within it. And the cycle will continue… when the world starts talking about Jon-Rae and the River, Oh Bijou, Great Lake Swimmers or any number of local bands poised to take things to that next level, those bands aren’t going to forget where they came from. In fact, they’re gonna try their hardest to bring their friend’s bands along for the ride.

    It’s this support system and overall good vibration in the city that makes it easier to play music without making tons of money. Nobody really makes any significant dollars around here, a lot of people lose some with every show, but the reaction that we receive from the crowds or the encouragement we get when somebody says "Hey, I want to help you put out a record" is more than enough.

    I guess I just wanted to give you a glimpse of what’s going on here, if for nothing else than the fact that it’s a pretty remarkable model of where I think things could go in the music "industry". We buy locally, we go out and support our friends, we don’t wait for somebody else to put things together for us, we just try it out for ourselves…

    Without that, I’m sure we’d all be left wondering why we spend 40 hours at our jobs and another 40 at home recording or practicing every week. With it though, there’s really no other way to live. I could work a shitty job for the rest of my life, just as long as I got to play for friends and peers in the city every few weeks.

    I don’t doubt that this phenomenon is happening in cities all over the world – an alternate music industry that never wanted much to do with the old model. The more that this localization and collaboration spreads, the less relevant big time marketing and publicity stunts seem to matter. I could avoid ever listening to a mainstream pop act again if I wanted to and I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. I’m interested in seeing what this community and other like-minded people in suburbs and cities elsewhere have to offer and I spend my time scouring the Internet for the chance. I haven’t been into an HMV in 4 or 5 years and I haven’t paid $50 for a ticket to a show or a t-shirt since I was 15. It’s going to stay that way and I know that there are a lot of people who have made a similar vow.

    Anybody that thinks they need marketing dollars and radio plays to feel successful is missing the point entirely. To really feel like you made it, all you need is some supportive people around you and a local community that cherishes its own.

    Best regards,
    Neil Haverty (of Bruce Peninsula, http://www.bruce-peninsula.com)

    PS – if I’ve piqued your interest about Toronto, check out these links…

    Wavelength Toronto – http://www.wavelengthtoronto.com – weekly music series still going strong

    Stillepost.ca – http://www.stillepost.ca – local message board, responsible for a lot of community bonding/bickering

    Poor Pilgrim – http://www.myspace.com/poorpilgrim – local avant-garde music series

    All Caps – http://www.allcaps.ca – all-ages show promoter Ryan McLaren

    Aperture Enzyme – http://www.apertureenzyme.com – local photo galleries

    Over the Top – http://www.overthetopfest.com – Eric Warner’s annual music festival

    Fig Records – http://www.figrecords.com – new label with lots of local releases coming up

    Blocks Recording Club – http://www.blocksblocksblocks.com – well-known Toronto-loving label

    The Ford Plant – http://www.thefp.ca – amazing all-ages venue in Brantford, ON

    Oh Bijou – http://www.ohbijou.ca

    Great Lake Swimmers – http://www.greatlakeswimmers.com

    Jon-Rae and the River – http://www.theriversings.com


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