Gatekeepers

[I wrote this for a music business blog in 2010 that’s since been deleted, but I think it’s still relevant so I’m reposting]

I have a vivid memory of the first time I visited a major label office.  It was 1990, and various major labels were courting my indie buzz band, the Blake Babies.  The A&R guy from one of the labels, Elektra, invited us to their New York office for a meeting.  I remember the sleek, modern architecture of the office, the impossibly beautiful receptionist, the state-of-the-art sound system in the A&R guy’s office, the vault of promo product they let us pillage.  It was nothing short of thrilling to breathe that air; I felt a bit like Dorothy (or more accurately the Scarecrow) in the Emerald City.  That office held the promise of everything I’d dreamed about since childhood: stardom, wealth, opportunity, free shit…

 

My band never signed that deal, or any deal.  We broke up, and eventually our independent label sold to a major (Disney), so all of our records ended up in the major label vaults anyway.  Our singer quit the band, signed her own deal, and became famous for a time.  Shortly after that courtship period the business changed dramatically when Nirvana became a surprise success.  Suddenly, to the major labels anyway, “alternative” rock went from a risky prospect with limited expected returns to a full-on gold rush.  I was stuck in my own deal, but I watched from the sidelines as modest, formerly independent bands cashed seven-figure checks from labels willing to bet on unproven acts.

 

With the CD the dominant format and singles all but unavailable, the labels had money to burn.  The business model went like this: sign a shitload of bands and assume that maybe one in ten will make any money.  But the one-out-of-ten will make a ton of money.  That was actually a sustainable model for a time.  What it didn’t take into account, however, was all the heartbreak it caused musicians.  Most musicians shared my feelings of destiny when embarking on their major deal.  They’d worked for…this.  Sign a deal, and then things fall into place.  But for the vast majority of bands that signed deals in the nineties, the major deal meant maybe a little money in pocket, a lot of money to managers, producers and (yes) attorneys, and then…nothing.  Heartbreak.

 

Things were weird (and pretty awful) in those days, but it was pretty easy to understand.  The major labels acted as the industry’s gatekeepers.  They had more money than God, and they could afford to bet heavily on something totally unproven, and write it off if it didn’t work out.  Because the controlled the all-important physical distribution and could provide access to all-important commercial radio, an artist’s commercial success depended upon the resources only the majors could provide.  “Going the indie route” in those days meant either you chose to take a vow of poverty to maintain artistic integrity or you couldn’t get a deal.  Musicians felt ashamed to admit that self-release was their only option.  In those days, self release meant failure.

 

You hear a lot today about the failure of the music industry, and it’s true, in a sense, that the industry described above has utterly failed.  But that’s the major recording industry, and it’s a business model that has become obsolete thanks to technological changes.  Revenue is down, but as revenue has diminished the excesses in the major industry have decreased.  The role of the majors has changed, and musicians not longer perceive the majors as the sole gatekeepers.  “Going indie” and self-release thankfully no longer carry stigma, and musicians are less inclined to perceive a major deal as an end in itself.  “Making it” in the industry is beginning to mean what it should have always meant: consistently making a living from actual revenue rather than borrowed funds.

 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say over the past decade the industry has fundamentally changed.  Major labels still thrive to some extent, though as digital distribution becomes more and more common, the majors’ lock on physical distribution becomes less important.  Physical product still exists, but it’s more or less relegated to the late adopters and audiophiles – we’re moving quickly towards a world where physical product will be an afterthought.  Commercial radio is but one way people find out about music, and the Internet is still something like a level playing field.    The net result of this fundamental change is that there are now many gatekeepers and many paths to success.  This should come as good news to independent artists, but it’s also scary as hell.  We used to focus on the “big break” – the bigtime manager or A&R person “discovering” the act; now we’re still looking for that break, but it’s not clear what form it will take.  How do you pursue something when you don’t even know what it will look like?

 

By way of example, I represent several independent bands that most people inside and outside the industry would regard as “successful” (i.e. selling hundreds of thousands of albums, selling out large venues, placing songs in major motion pictures, television shows and ads, etc.).  I asked the manager of one such client recently what he saw as his client’s big break.  “Easy,” he said, “the Pitchfork review.”  I’d worked with this particular band before and after Pitchfork, a popular tastemaker online publication, reviewed their debut album.  After the rave review appeared, things fell quickly into place for the group – recording and publishing offers from independent and major companies, opening slots for major tours, synchs…it’s like the review provided the momentum that made everything else possible.  Pitchfork definitely acted as the gatekeeper.

 

That particular client never seriously considered signing with a major (though it certainly was an option), but they’ve enjoyed major success.  Prior to the Pitchfork review I could never have shopped their music to major labels.  The style of music didn’t have a precedent as “hit” product (i.e. they didn’t sound like an established act, such as Kings of Leon), and they didn’t have anything quantifiable “going on.”  Even if the A&R person totally loved the music, they wouldn’t have signed the act.  Once upon a time major labels spearheaded what was known as “artist development,” meaning they financed an artist over the course of several albums and tours before deciding if the artist was commercially viable.  Artist development died gradually over several decades, its demise hastened by corporate acquisition and consolidation in the recording industry.  Development is just not a good fit when a company must justify quarterly earnings reports to shareholders.  So today majors pretty much only sign acts with something already going on, meaning that development has already occurred – on someone else’s dime.

 

These days majors want to see that the artist has developed a following in ways that are quantifiable, such as SoundScan sales figures, attendance at shows, gross income, etc., and they want to participate in all existing and foreseeable revenue streams.  Therefore, for the artists just out of the starting gate, the majors don’t really exist even as prospective gatekeepers.  Artists are expected to work social media, interact in person with potential fans, develop a cottage industry – so that the majors can take something that’s already happening “to the next level” (meaning huge commercial success).  But in order to get things started, artists must appeal to these smaller gatekeepers before becoming even potentially available to major labels and publishers.  I know from hundreds of conversations with indie artists that his chicken and egg conundrum is extremely vexing.  Bands that could use a deal to get things rolling are too risky and expensive for majors to sign, but bands that have developed themselves to the point where majors would be interested often reach the conclusion that it’s in their interest to remain independent.

 

So who are these smaller gatekeepers?  I mentioned Pitchfork, which is an obvious example.  Pitchfork is not genre-specific, but it takes its role as a tastemaker publication very seriously and is often accused of snobbery.  Pitchfork has a large and devoted readership, so getting a positive review is a bit like winning the lottery for a small, independent artist.  Nevertheless, a positive review in Pitchfork by no means guarantees commercial success, and the vast majority of acts (particularly overtly commercial acts) will never appeal to the editors of Pitchfork.  But Pitchfork is far from the only online publication acting as a potential gatekeeper.  There are hundreds of respected music blogs and publications that desire to get credit for discovering the next important act.  It’s rare for the major online publications such as Pitchfork to cover an act before the act has received a groundswell of coverage in other, smaller publications.

 

On the Internet, with a vast sea of options, gatekeepers are the agents that focus our search for new music.  Sometimes independent labels serve a filtering function as quality distinguishers, and that is a sort of gatekeeper function as well.  If an artist releases a record through a small independent label with a loyal following, then the people who follow the label presume that the artist is of a certain quality simply because they are on the label.  This is a function that independent labels have served since the dawn of recorded music.  It’s also a bit ironic, because many of the current major imprints, including Atlantic, Motown, A&M and Blue Note, began as independents that served the same filtering function for consumers.

 

Another class of emerging gatekeepers is the music supervisors who place music in television programs, motion pictures, advertisements and video games.  The cliché is that these media have “become the new radio,” and there is some truth to that.  It’s rare that a single “synch” placement will provide the elusive big break for an artist, but one placement often leads to other placements, and there certainly have been instances where a single placement has provided that momentum, such as the Pitchfork review did for my client.  New companies seem to crop up every day offering to “pitch” music to supervisors for synch placements for a percentage of the take, and some of these companies are very good.

 

The point is there are many gatekeepers and many ways to get music out to a broad audience.  There’s also an enormous amount of competition.  It’s a good thing, in my opinion, that musicians make money when they actually connect with fans and sell products and tickets.  The problem is taking advantage of these new opportunities – finding ways to be heard above the din.

 

It is a frustrating situation – we know that there are numerous opportunities to be “discovered” on the Internet.  Still, it’s a challenge to kick open the doors.  You simply can’t force the sort of success my client had in receiving a breakthrough review in a prominent publication.  But you can figure out ways to get out there and get noticed.  The crucial fact to understand is that at least 90% of the music being promoted on the indie level is shit.  The people and companies trying to provide a filtering function are constantly fatigued by the barrage of aggressively marketed bullshit, but the upside is that the good, thoughtful, well-crafted music that contributes to the culture is fairly easy to quickly recognize.  I’m personally turned off by aggressive marketing gestures, and the vast majority of the time the music that’s aggressively marketed is awful.  The point is, if it’s good and you make focused, reasonable efforts to reach the people who are likely to respond, the music will get noticed.

 

Here’s another music industry myth: there are no overnight successes.  In the old industry that was absolutely true, but these days overnight successes do happen.  The problem is that it typically takes years for an artist to get the right breaks to find that sort of success.  Once you get that review or synch or your video goes viral or some mega-prominent artist name-checks your band, then things can happen very quickly – literally overnight.  But the challenge is finding those essential gatekeepers to enable things to happen on that level.

 

So here’s my advice: don’t put it out there until it’s actually good and original.  There’s a glut of shit out there right now; don’t contribute to that.  Make good, thoughtful music and then make a clear, focused plan to get it out there.  Then it might or might not happen – but at least you’re not sitting around waiting to be discovered by some douchebag wearing a $500.00 hoodie who only listens to the first ½ of a song at your showcase.  And the best part: an artist can be successful without transferring ownership of songs and recordings.  The new industry is just taking shape, but at the moment it’s possible for artists to find success on their own terms and to remain in charge of their careers, and that’s definitely a good thing.

 

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