Rick has taken a historical approach, Historia de la Musica Rock Pt.1 to see if he can excavate some facts from the past in hopes that it can help to define its present day off spring.
Being that I am a self-serving narcissistic bastard, I've taken the low road of recounting my own personal history and thoughts, realizing that if all else fails, at least I'll have something to read while I'm jerking-off in front of my gold-plated mirror. Here is my first entry:
Last week I wrote a song, recorded it with my band, and posted it on the Reel To Reel Records digital download site, as I've done every week for this past year. The difference this time around was that it marked the finish of my yearlong journey, 52 REASONS.
A year ago, I signed on to record 52 songs in 52 weeks and put them up for sale and/or subscription on the Internet. My reasons for this were largely based on my frustrations with the recording industry I've been dealing with for the past 25 years. I was tired of waiting for a record to come out after completion.
This was a way to reach an audience immediately, literally a day or so after completing each song. As an artistic endeavor, it couldn't have been more exhilarating. However, as a substitute for the "old guard" hard goods of our trade, i.e. cds and records, it became a much harder sell, as well as not having anything to sell at gigs on the road. Merchandise is the life's blood of any tour these days. Without it, you might as well stay home.
So at this present time, at the last page of the last chapter of my odyssey, I can only wonder what my next step will be. What music business am I stepping back into? Should I go shopping for a new label as I've always done? I've been through the wringer with small labels over the years.
Here's an example: It took, in one instance, three years of wheeling and waiting for one of my cd's to hit the streets. When I finally got the cd's in my hot little hands, the label asked me to wait a month or so to get their distribution and promotion in order. Six months later the label folded.
Here's another: After finally finding an American record deal for my album with poet Gregory Corso, two weeks before the release, the label experienced a crushing 30,000 unit return from their distributor with a bill attached. Needless to say, the label and I limped out of the gate.
This last example is the freshest one: I licensed my last album, "Napoleon" with Texas Music Group, a small conglomerate of past and present regional indie labels that specialized in singer-songwriter sort of artists. One of the selling points to signing with them was their distributor, Rykodisc. I thought That due to their largely non-pop roster over the years, that they would be conscious of the "mom-and-pops" and music chains around the country more suitable for an independent artist. I even put up the buck's for radio, a South By Southwest appearance, and a trip down to perform at the Rykodisc convention in New Orleans. What I got back was the same "bottom line" approach to distribution that I would have gotten at any of the big boys. Their distribution was all about getting them out the doors. This meant that a large percentage of my product went into Best Buy and Wal-mart stores across the country. Have you ever tried to find an indie release at a Best Buy?
As a test, I went into one near my house about a month or so after my release to see if I could find one of my cd's. The store register said that there were 10 in stock. It took myself, and three Best Buy employees 45 minutes to find just one of my releases. Who knows where the rest were? I'm sure that they'll turn up when it comes time to return them. The other, more promising retail distribution Rykodisc employed with was the Coalition of Independent Music Stores or "CIMS" as it is commonly known in the biz. This is a group of "mom and pop" stores and smaller chains that have banded together to try and get a little market share in the music retail world. They comprise around 70 stores in 24 states across America, for the most part in smaller townships and cities. (None in Chicago or New York) Stores like these back in the 80's and early 90's, were the bread and butter of obscure touring bands like mine. This, of course was at a time when there were at least 200 or more of these types of stores around the country. Places where in-store performances were always lucrative and gratifying. (Remember Periscope in Champaign?) But the record store as a gathering place for the most part is dead, and the small record store is a dying breed or at least branded so by everyone you talk to about it.
The other place the "Napoleon" cd went was iTunes. This was a first of the digital retail for me as well as the label I was on. We were both excited about this and very interested in the outcome. What we found was that as my radio airplay around the country increased, the down load of the single increased with it. But only the single. One wonders if those same people who downloaded the song actually went out and bought or ordered the entire album? Hard to know for sure. This is the question that labels and artists are asking themselves around the country. Can we really survive on a non-hard goods music industry? As an indie artist who sells fifty percent of his music off the stage, I would have to say, no, although believe me, I see the download world as the only and inevitable wave of the future out there. But, I've just spent the last year releasing a song a week exclusively on the Internet for an entire year and although promising, it don't pay the bills. Not by a long shot.
Almost everyone I know who downloads music off of iTunes is ordering songs from their old record collection. Stuff or artists they're already familiar with or old obscure songs they remember from their past. Occasionally, they'll pick up a new song they've heard on the radio. I've yet to meet someone who downloads whole albums except for a certain shut-in friend of mine. (Hint: He has sharp teeth and fins.) iTunes is the only one making big bucks off of their service. It's a volume business if there ever was one. Songs for less than a candy bar.
I think the only chance for downloadable music to become a boon for recording artists and the industry is for the cd to become obsolete, as did cassettes and vinyl. If you can't get you're favorite music on cds anymore, you're apt to join the digital revolution. The music industry just can't handle two formats.
I'm told by a music insider, that the dirty little secret at Apple is that the windfall of downloads from all the sales of Nanos and iPods they expected over the Christmas season never happened. Again, folks are loading up songs from their collections. Is it possible to break a new artist from iTunes? Not yet.
Maybe the album is on its way out. This kind of saddens me. I've never liked greatest hits records. They lose all sense of a place in time. I've read some great books over the years. Some chapters run a little slower than others. If I lend a book to friend of mine, I don't rip out the slow parts to help streamline the experience. This, I fear, is what is happening to the album.
There is an inherent sense of impatience connected to the Internet. We can see its influence in magazines and newspapers today. Shorter stories, less pictures. Information cut and pasted together without source or style. You've seen it out there. One hopes that this does not spill into the way we listen to and enjoy music. Maybe it already has.
For now, it is consumer technology that has taken the center stage and become the world's rock star. Each new piece of gear has its moment in the sun, and its cheaper "Mercy Beat" offshoots. A must-have single that will inevitably be blown out of the water when its sleeker, "New!!! Improved!!!" sibling comes along to kill it in its sleep. The big difference in this comparison is that I'm pretty sure that in twenty years, there won't be a treasured rediscovering of the ipod. Today's hardware is neither ornate nor beautiful. Just a shitty storage space busting at its seams that must be replaced every season. And, for that matter, digital music still sounds like shit, as apposed to the old analog stuff. We've just gotten used to it.
I'm starting to realize why Rick decided to write his article in three parts!
Anyway folks, "I'm down at the crossroads," trying to figure out my next move, as I'm sure the rest of you out there in the music world are. In the coming weeks, Mr. Rizzo and I will be posting stories on a wide range of topics related to the past, present and most importantly, future of the music business. I'll be interviewing various people from around the industry to try and shed some light on the ever-changing and fucked-up biz that we musicians live in.
More importantly, though, Sharkforum is a blog in which the readers can, and should participate in. Rick and I more than welcome any help and/or insights from you out there into this feature that we've begun. Since this story affects us all, we should all participate in it. I call on all you recording artists and music biz types out there to throw down with us in hopes that it can help define the problems and possible solutions to this new and ever changing music business. In other words: Dig in, and maybe we can find a way to dig out. Dig?