Jeff McMahon asks:
On indie news site pitchfork.com, the following was one of the day's featured quotes: "'You might not care about this, but the more difficult it is for new artists to make it, the less new artists you'll see and the more British music will be nothing but puppets paid for by Simon Cowell.'-- Lily Allen, countering the Featured Artists Coalition's argument that piracy is actually good for music. (via Lily's MySpace blog)". I can personally think of many reasons why Ms. Allen is incorrect. Just the fact that she is signed to Capitol alone tells me that she has an extremely vested interest in what she is saying. What is your take on this and in what ways can/have record labels hurt new artists?
Regardless of the reasoning, or source of their attraction, record companies in the postmodern record business offered a series of incentives to induce artists to sign with them. First and foremost they provided a recording fund that usually included a cash advance to the act. Other considerations for promotion, tour support and video production were also negotiated. Curiously, no obligation to actually release the records was part of the deal.
The primary method of promoting a record was conducted at broadcast radio with singles being presented to the program directors on a priority basis designated by the label. The system was expensive and usually involved some form of payola that gave the priority record a better chance of being added at radio. A successful single usually stimulated album sales which provided very high profits to the labels.
The advent of digital distribution has completely altered the systems and protocols of the record business. No longer are large cash advances offered, or necessary. Anybody with a Mac a mic and a song can make a record, virtually for free. An ambitious and Internet savvy act can promote their records online at little or no cost. The game has completely changed for the better.
With the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing, and ubiquitous iPod use, new music is discovered and disseminated instantly without record company participation. The radio has become irrelevant since it is now a default mechanism for music acquisition and has little or no room for new artists. The power of record labels to manipulate the selection process has disappeared.
The fans are now in charge of the A&R process. The record companies are the last to find out what is popular. New artists created through talent TV and movies may or may not be demonstrating enduring skills. They are more a product of instant celebrity than quality music. This empowers TV and film producers with some control over the new talent. However, considering the number of artists exposed, and the minuscule number of successful careers produced from these sources, this method of discovering new artists will not support the long term survival of the record business.
The four major record companies will survive for some time on the low cost digital distribution of their catalogs and publishing holdings. If they continue to offer digital downloads at the same price as CDs they will eventually fade as a music delivery system. New artists careers will not be built from the record company penthouse down; they will be developed from the cyber-grass-roots up.
The major labels will follow the progress of artists growing their fan bases on the Internet and eventually offer huge advances to corral the best. This will be tempting to the rising artists who will be forced to choose between the high profits of personal sales, made directly to their fans at gigs and online, in return for a large payday that puts their catalog in the hands of third parties.
By the time new acts reach a level of success that makes them attractive to a label, they may prefer to own their records and publishing. By building an array of recordings that can be continuously offered to a growing fan base a permanent annuity will accrue to the artist. If an act has real talent and long term potential this may well be the best way to go.
Most hard CD sales for new artists will not be through the few remaining retail outlets. Superstores like Wal Mart, Best Buy and Target cater to established artists and generally offer a limited range of product that rarely includes new acts. Regardless of the outcome the challenge is to create an Internet profile that involves the development of a large fan base that results in millions of web hits.
Offering music free online is a key element in the promotion process for new artists. File sharing is the best thing that ever happened to musicians and their fans. It places the record labels on the back burner and gives the power of choice to the fan. All the extant content in every genre is available free to the customer; just like in the days of broadcast radio promotion dominance.
The cream will rise to the top of the Internet by the process of natural selection. If the talent is there, the fame will accrue and a demand for live performances will result. That's where the new artists can compete on a level ground under their own control. Successful artists will need to be proactive on the web and maintain a direct connection with their fans through Internet activity.