Despite repeating the mantra that content is king, the major labels never believed this. Nor did the movie studios. Distribution is king. If you can’t find something in the store, in the theatre, it’s like it doesn’t exist. And the major labels controlled the store just like the movie studios controlled the theatres. Sure, they had to compete with each other, but there was no issue of renegades entering their domain, until the Net flattened distribution, made it available to everyone. Any act can sign up with TuneCore and get its wares on iTunes. Giving up a hell of a lot less in the process than they would if they made a deal with a major. And getting paid too, assuming they sell.
And secondary to distribution was marketing. That was the driver in the nineties. That’s what Tommy Mottola was all about. Working the media into a frenzy, driving the public into the record shops. Once again, it was a limited universe. The individual, the so-called indie, had no access to major media. Couldn’t get on the "Today Show", never mind Top Forty radio or even MTV. Labels would pick their priorities and hype them to high heaven. They were good at this. But now they’re flummoxed, how do they reach a public that’s not paying attention?
First the strategy was street teams. Not only at the gig, but online. Thought was if you just paid enough kids, they’d spread the word on the Web. The audience is stupid, it can be influenced.
Only one problem, it can’t.
Have you visited a message board recently? The hypesters and trolls are usually outed in one post. Fake hype just doesn’t work on the Web. The culture of the Web is to out fraud. Pulling the wool over the public’s eyes is a failed strategy…
And look at the biggest success online. Google. It does essentially no hype. Google triumphed because it was good. Be good and the public will spread the word, users will flock to you, you’ll reach critical mass.
Success on the Web is predicated on quality. Sure, train-wreck value is important too, kind of like a novelty record. But those sites don’t tend to last. Unless they’re all train-wreck all the time. Then there are the MySpaces and Facebooks. Those are like new music genres. They don’t have to be executed perfectly, they just need to be new and different.
So it’s about the idea. And, ultimately, the quality of that idea. It’s not about distribution and it’s not about marketing. And the old guard doesn’t like this.
And the new wave isn’t enamored either. Because the new guard believes it should have the success of the old guard. Musicians who toiled privately in the past are e-mailing everyone they know, what can they do to become successful, what’s the secret? The secret is being good. And most bands, like most Website ideas, are not.
Google wasn’t the first search engine. I was addicted to AltaVista and HotBot. But I didn’t tell anybody about AltaVista, it was too hard to use properly. And although I spread the word on HotBot, Google came along and being better, succeeded. Your band has to be good.
Musicians hate hearing the word "good". They like to believe their sound is unique, the more different it is, the higher value one must ascribe to it. But most of these musicians purveying these incomprehensible sounds want a larger audience and are frustrated. Bottom line, the audience determines what will sell. Its criteria for good might be different from yours. But there are criteria nonetheless. The mass audience tends to like tunefulness. Sometimes a beat, sometimes a melody. New and different score points, but you have to be able to get it on the first or second listen. If it takes fifteen tries, the mass audience isn’t interested.
Does this mean everything of quality will gain a mass audience? Does this mean marketing never plays a part? No. But the emphasis is now on the underlying product, and it hasn’t been for eons. You’ve got to start with quality.
The most important employee at any label is the talent scout. The A&R man is king. Just ask the manager. He doesn’t sign a hundred acts. He sifts through the offerings until he finds one. Which he nurtures for years. This is the model of the future. Finding the one or two or three acts with quality, and sticking with them, climbing the mountain step by step, not going into outer space on a rocket ship fueled by television.