Thursday, April 8, 2010

Digital Music Business FAQ - Underground vs. Mainstream - April 8, 2010

Underground vs. Mainstream

Casares asks:

I was wondering if the indie and folk genres have what it takes to produce a musician comparable to a group like The Beatles or Bob Dylan. I question this because I see groups, such as Bright Eyes, who have the ability to sell out the Hollywood Bowl at a ticket cost of $100 + and yet, they are still very "underground" in a sense. What is keeping bands like these from surfacing into the mainstream and gaining a dedicated international fan base?

Hartmann responds:

Every generation puts a hero up the pop charts. The evolution of music is deeply attached to the cultural phenomenon we call "coming of age." Growing up is a process that nobody escapes; it just happens. Technology gave birth to the record business with the invention of Edison's phonograph. In the beginning recorded music was a luxury enjoyed by those able to afford the cost of the hardware and the records were essentially loss leaders designed to sell the machines.

In the early nineteen hundreds terrestrial, broadcast radio became the primary delivery system for recorded music. The stations were small and their audiences regional. The music itself focused on the genres and styles indigenous to the immediate locale. There was no mainstream music format. Each region of the country presented the music most likely to attract the largest audience in the broadcast radius of the station. Jazz, Ragtime and The Blues dominated in the deep South. Moving North, Country music proliferated. In the North East and West big band music reigned.

During World War II the record business suffered its first major decline. Seventy eight RPM records were pressed in shellac, a substance produced in a handful of Pacific countries. The war precluded access to this essential material and the business was stopped cold in its tracks. Pun intended. However, the war effort generated enormous advances in source materials, recording technology and manufacturing mechanics. Low cost, 45 RPM record players arrived.

This new playback systems liberated teenagers from their parent's music. Young people now had the unique ability to choose their own music one song at a time. The collecting and trading of singles became the primary bonding mechanism for the baby boomer generation. Searching the radio dial young people discovered the latest hits and scrambled to own them. Into this fertile marketplace exploded Rock & Roll music. The fuel was the beat and the superstar was Elvis.

The enormous popularity of The king of Rock & Roll and the consolidation of radio stations into broadcast networks enabled national exploitation of regional artists. The mainstream was born. For more than fifty years national radio formats have successfully serviced a ubiquitous audience. Technical changes introduced thirty-three and one-third RPM albums just in time to flood the exploitation of FM radio. The Beatles led the parade and rock music dominated the airwaves.

The tremendous success of John, Paul, George and Ringo enthralled the world and every young musician yearned to start a band just like The Beatles. Millions tried and many succeeded, but none quite as well as The Fab Four. Regardless of the degree of success enjoyed by any given artist, high fidelity and stereophonic sound kept the public engaged and the music industry flourished behind its two primary activities performing and recording. The concert business nourished the record business and the sale of records precipitated attendance at live events.

The music industry was strong and a myriad of record companies emerged as the dominant marketing force. They controlled both radio formats and built vast distribution systems to service the thousands of record stores across the country and around the world. In the mid-seventies an extraordinary breakthrough shocked the industry. The vast number of record players extant, combined with efficient delivery systems and massive airplay to provoke a new phenomenon.

A young artist named Peter Frampton sold twenty-five million copies of the album "Frampton Comes Alive." This seminal event changed the record business forever. Lured by the huge profits attached to gigantic album sales, and the booming concert business, giant multi-national corporations began a process of acquisition and merger. This has resulted in hundreds of record labels being shrunk down to four major companies. With the record business under the control and direction of a few executives it didn't take much to bring the whole thing crashing down.

One fatal choice brought the postmodern era to an end and obliterated the mainstream. The decision of the Recording Industry Association of America, to destroy peer-to-peer file sharing and to sue their customers for doing it sealed their fate. In an effort to maintain the high profit CD as the prime delivery system for music, the big four walked away from digital downloading and denied their customer base. For the past decade CD sales have been in a constant decline.

The game has come full circle. The public has consistently demonstrated an interest in individual songs as opposed to the album format. This return to the singles game has resulted in music fans refusing to buy ten or more songs to get the one they want. With the loss of high profit CDs the infrastructure of the postmodern era could not stand. The loss of the record business is the music fans gain. More importantly, it places the power in the hands of the artists and music producers.

Radio is no longer the primary delivery system for music. The brick and mortar record stores have all but disappeared and the record companies are stuck in the old paradigm with no rescue in sight. Digimodernization has opened up the Internet and provided every artist with the same power tool to exploit their music. The major labels can no longer justify the enormous costs associated with artist development. Sales can not support the old record business paradigm.

The good news is that a small group of corporate executives, lawyers and bean counters are no longer in charge of popular music. The former dictators of content, and arbiters of taste, must now wait to see what the fan base is embracing on the world wide web. Recording costs are low, distribution and promotion are free and every style of music has a well established fan base.

There is a channel open for every genre and each one has a clear path for artists and managers to follow. Success is no longer measured in multi-platinum sales. A platinum album is every bit as rare and unique as it was in the beginning of the postmodern era. Only a handful of artists have enjoyed million unit sales in recent years, and the number is declining rapidly. What the RIAA calls theft is, in the minds of the cyber-kids, no such thing. If it is on the Internet, it's free for all.

The liberation of the artist community from the iron handed control of the record labels is a sign of progress. The future is clearly in the hands of the creative community once again. Many artists are enjoying relative success in the music renaissance. Bands like Bright Eyes selling out The Hollywood Bowl, at $100+ ticket prices is no small achievement. They are making good money. This has been accomplished through a long process of nurturing their following through live performances. Their fan base grew without the benefit of massive, mainstream radio airplay.

Making a living from music is the first level of success and it is only accomplished by ten percent of the artists competing. The digital stage is set. The cultural interest in music is at its highest level in history. More songs are in play to more people than ever before. Into this environment a young artist will eventually explode. The fans will fall in love, just like we loved The Beatles.

This new found musical hero will inspire the public who will voluntarily pay for the music, when they could "share" it for free. This transition in thinking will only be provoked by a great talent, with a timely image and a lot of charisma. Such a superstar will make millions of dollars from the sale of downloads on a single day. Then the same monolithic corporations, who are running for cover today, will reassert themselves, buy up all the players willing to sell, and crash it all again.

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