The piecemeal constitution of the nature of current hype continues apace with the latest examples being the launch of the NME’s Blackberry sponsored Facebook app and Brighton’s Great Escape Festival. In both cases, new bands and artists are offered yet another potential pipe to notoriety but the huge disparity between the loading end and the delivery end of this pipe are so dissimilar as to be almost distinct.
The sheer plethora of new artists getting some kind of attention is staggering. In one week a host of new names and tunes can cross my desk and those of others like me but the notable coverage of new artists is simply not of a scale to do justice to a fraction of those on display. It seems that a micro climate is developing in terms of new artists with a set of names per week which, over the course of that week, are culled in time for one of two to limp through to the start of potential media coverage and A & R Interest proper. Whether even these lucky few prosper is very much in the lap of the gods given that most are either far too under-developed to have enough substance to attract mass appeal or under far too much pressure to deliver too early, skewing their music, performance and outlook to a fatal degree.
It was not ever thus and on a more positive note it may well be that what we are seeing is the market adjust to new realities as sales fracture and the drop off rate for new acts gets greater and greater. It is certainly true that there are more indies / pseudo indies and self financed releases and, in many ways, the developing landscape at the smaller end of the scale is beginning to resemble the post punk explosion of indie labels throughout the 80’s. Much talk is often made about the immediate post punk indie explosion but this disallows the far greater development throughout the decade where names such as Pink (McCarthy who later became Stereolab early releases), Fire (Spacemen 3), Ron Johnson (Fuzzbox, A Witness), Reception (Wedding Present), 53rd and 3rd (Shop Assistants) and on and on joined the big boys in 4AD, Beggars Banquet, Stiff, Factory, Rough Trade, Mute and a young upstart called Creation. This varied landscape allowed the likes of Jason Pierce, David Gedge, Kevin Shields and more to make their mistakes (see the early MBV stuff if you want the definition of mistake) without blowing any chance of further recording by having to live up to inflated expectations. The burst of labels of current times certainly shows an increasing diversity of taste, aim and, ultimately, likely success which, in theory, should facilitate more lower scale / lower loss releases of this multitudinous new music.
This is undoubtedly a good thing at a basic level. If one thing has been lost by the music industry in its pursuit of a framework it feels is relevant to its holding of copyright then it is the concept of being at the vanguard of cultural change. The new labels to some extent show that the somewhat essential concept for those wishing to introduce new, non pop marketed acts of being, at least in appearance if not reality, on the outside of the current conventions is returning to recorded music. It may be no surprise that the one non pop genre breakthrough that does seem to have stuck is grime (in the likes of Dizzee, Wiley and so on) which happily existed outside the mainstream. On a single artist level, The XX have done this and reaped the rewards.
The major labels are in a tricky position as we all know. Part of the re-assessment of their position has, as you would expect, involved much sharper decision making than you would have found a decade ago. So, more bands who don’t achieve sales targets on their debut don’t get a second chance. In recent times there are plenty of examples of new acts being signed and then dropped two single releases in so as to avoid the album release, the marketing spend that would entail even at the most basic level and to allow some negotiation on the remaining third of their advance or remainder of contract. At a basic accounting level it may well be that such a decision makes sense, clearly if you decide something will tank you want to pull your remaining capital out quick but the problem with even reading the markets in a strict financial sense is you don’t always get it right; with art the chances are even more evenly balanced. In many cases, the lack of enthusiasm from the label, a feeling which travels fast at big companies, is a fait accompli for the artist. It will not work because we say it will not work is what the artist and management are left with.
The key issue the labels have is the level of investment they feel is necessary to break an artist. Sony’s Mike Smith was quoted as giving a figure around the million pound mark for a new artist which seemed to be accepted by those at the other majors. I am not about to argue with Mike over the figure, he knows what it costs Sony (and it would seem the other majors) to break a new artist. However, I can question the statement as clearly it does not take all artists anything like that amount to break to the level of 2,000 seater gigs in London, 1,000 out of London or album sales anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 which, to my mind, is breaking for a new act. If it really does take 1 million major label pounds to break an artist to a realistic scale for a major label then they should realise their position and remove themselves from the non pop market new bands bidding. At present, their strategy seems to combine a mix of looking for alternative revenue streams (360 deals) to fill the hole, pouncing on the latest new big thing hoping that it will be another White Lies / Ting Tings seller and reverting to old type and signing bands that they genuinely love but have no realistic hope of sustaining through to the later albums that would pay dividends. The net result is an increasing amount of artists walking out of major label receptions with an unreleased debut album and into a smaller indie / joint venture deal to make profit out of that investment by the major.
The simple truth is that in the current landscape the way that majors try to introduce new acts involves an unwieldly approach, focused around impact dates and reliant on a degree of control over the distribution of the music that is both unrealistic in a digital age and counter-productive in marketing terms. The growth of new music to its audience now encompasses all the media of a decade ago plus trad based music websites through to blogs and individual / p2p / social media interactions that are both resistant to marketing and pr if not downright hostile. The more you push on these doors the tighter they close. For the structural change required for a sensible marketing approach to these new realities to happen, the labels would have to take themselves apart and start again. They are at their best when they have artists to sell in volume and can call the majority of the shots with media. At present they are at their worst when they are trying to come into the game at the basic entry point.
But this malaise goes deeper than that and may explain why they haven’t. With career artists in addition to those seeking to break through, the investment choices of the big labels are at least open to question. What were once year or 18 month long campaigns are contracted into half the time. Releases go single / album / single or two singles then album then radio silence as the sheer scale of investment versus return brings back the answer that it is cheaper to pull the plug. Of course, the problem with this theory is that it is always statistically safer to keep what you have than gamble but if you don’t gamble, you don’t make anything. First rule of business.
Major labels need to find new ways of keeping their artists in the game for longer. I have lost count of the publicists, radio pluggers, tv pluggers and so on who have said to me that a campaign was just catching fire when the plug was pulled. As the ability to target a campaign in the short term has dissipated with the change of weekly for monthly, web bleed for specialist radio, spotify for the home made cassette tape, the way audiences of scale discover music has elongated, a combination of plethora of choice, crowded information and that narrowing at the top meaning it takes longer to get there. (The upside is, as a band like Snow Patrol or Keane will tell you, that once you are there the media can drop away but you are still at the peak).
This is not a question of the budget starved labels spending more, but spending better from a greater position of strength. By entering the game at a later stage a host of possible benefits would accrue for the labels. They would have a clear basis for their marketing projections in terms of potential audience, they would know where they stood at radio and tv, they would also be working with artists who had developed their view from the usual starting points. This is what worked for REM and a host of others throughout the 80’s and the reason it worked is because it fits the market.
Of course, the situation is far more complex than I am suggesting here for brevity but the headlines are stark and obvious for all to see. Whilst XL, Domino, 4AD, Wichita and others put new acts on the map and control the direction and priorities of the new alternative scene, the major labels look distracted and erratic in their signing policy and approach to new acts. Many of the staff realise the game has changed but no one across the big three is really looking as though they know the rules by which to play. For now, to allow the scenes to flourish and to protect itself from further unwise and costly bad investments the sensible major label should focus on catalogue and known artists. It isn’t a panacea but its a way forward for a group of companies that look to be in serious need of new strategies.
The problem is the way that majors look to break artists and a sensible accountancy response would be to aim not to break artists to that level but to take them from those who can for less money. (You could also question here the major approach to signing most new acts, involving massive competition with their competitors and even other labels within their parent group, soaring demands for advance fees from managers and artists at the centre of such bidding was and, consequently, massively optimistic projections of potential sales leading to farcical investment decisions that would make a Greek Finance Minister weep but that’s another story). Then the million pound for a second or third album artist with that level of fanbase would be a more reasonable and realistic aim and a more prudent investment. This is exactly what happened in the 80’s and into the 90’s (pre grunge when the major plot changed in terms of alt-rock and then Britpop) and seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder one of the big three hasn’t already done it and cleaned up.