It’s 1968 All Over Again

Youngsters might think that Jimi Hendrix was the beneficiary of a huge hit.  But although "Are You Experienced" exploded in 1968, "Purple Haze" was never heard on AM radio.  Nor "Foxey Lady". Hendrix was anathema to Top Forty radio.  His sound was too different, he was ignored.

Focusing on Joel Whitburn books, one might think that singles mattered in 1968.  But that was the year that underground FM radio truly took hold.  It wasn’t about evanescent hits, but album-long statements.  Music wasn’t a ditty, it was a contemplated effort that evidenced the head space of the people who made it.

You no longer went to the show to see a multitude of bands perform their hits, you wanted to go to the Fillmore to see a band most people had never heard of stretch out.

Underground music became so powerful, so successful, that Lee Abrams ultimately created a format around it, known as "Superstars", and AOR took hold and ran the land.  You were nothing if you didn’t have a hit on the FM band.

But then came corporate rock, bloating, labels and acts were trying to second-guess the radio playlists and disco snuck in and defeated the rock juggernaut.

And then came MTV.

MTV fueled Top Forty radio stations on the FM dial.  A format given up for dead was suddenly resurgent.  And it’s been that way for nigh on two decades.  But those days are through.  We’re back to 1968.

If it’s on Top Forty.  If it’s exploited in the media.  The music junkies don’t care.  And it’s the music junkies who support this industry.  Which is comprised of not only music sales, but concert receipts and merchandise sales.  True, you can overhype a few Top Forty acts, like Beyonce, but today’s hit Top Forty acts are the sideshow.  The real acts are the ones filling buildings, oftentimes at a low ticket price, selling merchandise along the way.

The old game just isn’t working anymore.  You might be able to sell a million singles on iTunes, but you can’t sell out an arena.  Even though Jethro Tull could do this with almost no AM chart action in the days of yore.  In other words, the game the major labels have played for the last two decades just isn’t working anymore.

It doesn’t pay to spend a fortune to reach an ever-shrinking audience of singles buyers.  What you need is a higher price point.  You need fans to generate revenue from multiple streams.  And even though a major might have a 360 deal, that doesn’t mean there’s going to be significant revenue from areas other than recorded music.  Furthermore, at what cost?  You might make a commercial deal, but we all know television burns out acts, never mind their credibility.  Who wants to see Vanilla Ice today?

It’s time to recalibrate.  Don’t even worry about hits.  Uniqueness plays to your advantage.  It’s about growing your niche to the point it can support you.

The major labels are completely marginalized.  The labels of yore wanted to be in the blue sky business.  Signing something different and nurturing it.  Today’s major wants insurance, a multi-format smash.  So, the landscape is left completely open to entrepreneurs.

Focus on how you can keep your core satiated, how you can grow that core, not how you can leapfrog into major media exposure.  Because major media exposure doesn’t generate significant profits.

In other words, would you rather have the revenue of touring behemoth Dave Matthews or the recording revenue of Lil Wayne?

Better yet, do you want to be in the Conor Oberst business or the Jessica Simpson business? Conor Oberst has been building his career for years, without a hit.  But he can sell out shows everywhere.

I don’t even like Mr. Oberst’s music.  But I appreciate that it’s honest and not made to formula.  And that he’s got an audience.

It’s not about impressing the gatekeepers, but making sure your audience has enough music to listen to, to pass along.

Don’t swing for the fences.  Don’t focus on that one big hit single.  Grow the audience you do have, don’t try to beat people over the head to get them to listen.  They won’t.  They’ll only be alienated. And if everybody was listening to radio, Clear Channel wouldn’t be on the verge of bankruptcy.

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