Last week, in between demoing a few new songs and earning a pauper's living, I met up with a few Music Biz soldiers. The meetings could not have been more enlightening or interesting, as I try to catch-up with all the deep changes that have shaken'n'stirred the music industry to a mushy granita pulp.
Music as a commodity, as a product to be consumed is a fairly recent Modern Life phenomena, kick-started in the early 19th century with the increase of commercially available sheets of music. Traditionally, throughout history, artists would: 1- rely on Patronage, 2- rely on family wealth, 3- live in resigned poverty and die in obscurity.
The crucial and fundamental difference between having a Patron and a Record Deal, is one of intent and expectation, derived out of two very different desires: The Patron supports an artist because it wishes to see him carrying on producing. The Record Company, understandably, to remain a viable business, needs the artist to keep producing works that sell. This is no subtle difference.
So, you'd sign up with a Record Company, survive on the non-recoupable advance, and hope that they would remain as keen on your work as the day you put your autograph on that magical dotted line. Record Companies' less-than-prudent generosity was equally matched by its artists' and management driven extravagant expenses.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? It was fun, I should know it, as Drugstore's history was partly-paved by the 90's golden goose that kept laying irresistible mini-Fabergéeggs on our doorstep.
But all that fun didn't necessarily translate into a good long-term working model, as inevitably, the day of reckoning arrives for all labels and artists: that sombre morning the Accounts Department wakes-up with a real bad hangover. It was a fast and furious Pop-Music based model that worked in the Industry's favour for many years, but one that would ultimately leave behind many bands, artists and labels stranded on the pop-superhighway.
Its Achilles heel was to create a black hole of expenses, that most artists would've never been able to climb out of, when they should have instead applied progressive investment, which nurtures and reacts to an artist's growth, as it grows; And a failure to fully accept that different artists generate different numbers, and that's ok, as not all music, thankfully, is suitable for hardcore mass-consumption. The opposite problem, sheer lack of investment, was faced by the hundreds of small labels who tried to create an alternative to the system, and failed. Only the few labels, indies or majors, that managed to strike a decent balance between investment and growth, survived, just.
Drugstore's 2nd album (White Magic for Lovers) is a good/bad example of the mistakes made both by bands and Record Companies in the 90's. Recorded over nearly 3 months in a ridiculously expensive studio in Spain (I had the same stunning suite used by Bjork and the same phenomenal cook). It turned out to be our worst sounding album. There's a simple explanation here: You take a band from 2 years non-stop touring straight into the studio, give'em a swimming pool, an open cellar, a no-limit credit-card, throw in some sunshine and... what do you get? Erm... A bunch of mates playing too loud, hangin' round the pool, having a little too much Rioja. "Shouldn't we take a little time to reflect on the sound we're making?" - "... Nah, Mañana!"
The follow-up (Songs for the Jetset), recorded under opposite circumstances, suffered from the other extreme of the spectrum: recorded over 1 week, without any promotional budget. Although a more coherent piece of work, it never quite fulfilled its potential or reached its full audience.
The Digital Era has completely turned the industry on its head. And no matter how hard Record Company Execs keep saying that 'everything is fine, really', no amount of positive spin can hide away their nervousness, for, unlike the short-lived DIY punk fever, this is the 1st time in its history where artists can genuinely have working careers without the backing of a fat label advance, but, as it follows, labels cannot survive without artists. Labels know that, and will have to start offering artists tangible advantages. I believe the smart ones will do so, and it's their turn to show us how creative they can be. The value of recorded music itself has dropped, and my feeling is that it will continue to do so, but fortunately, so has the amount of cash needed to produce good recordings. The new coalition of artists against illegal file sharing, led by the likes of Ed O'Brien from Radiohead and Little Miss Allen, fails to recognise the inevitable fact that developments in technology are as unstoppable as the sunrise. And going against the invisible web flow, is going against everything that keeps the web and its technology fresh and still an exciting place. Instead, they should be putting their creative minds together, to work out new possibilities, concentrate on the opportunities, regardless of the pitfalls. I don't think the focus should be on the kids who want to download it for free, but on the fans who are willing to support the band.
So, it's really not all doom'n'gloom out there, neither for labels nor artists; Labels are already reacting to the new landscape and creating deals that are not only more realistic, but offer more flexibility and fairer percentages. Artists are finding completely new ways in which to carve a new space for their music. I'm still trying to grasp the implications of 360 degree deals, where record companies are involved in every single aspect of an artists' life, including that long last bastion of revenue for most artists: merchandising, but I'm beginning to think that the long-term answer for both labels and artists may not lie in the bands' t-shirts, as not every band want or can sell 200-plus units each gig, but the solution could be blowing in the Publishing wind. This is a golden opportunity for both Artists and Record Companies to regain assets and get into an area where its potential income, under the digital age, is yet to be fully realised. Publishing will keep on growing, and growing. It is also a considerably safer investment. If Record Companies are prepared to beat the Publishers, and to offer artists better deals, one can easily guess who we're gonna want to sign with. And for artists, it could be the one reliable source of income, where enough capital is generated to finance, or part-finance recording and living expenses.
Record Companies also need to be weary of careless over-spending.
I'm not, by any means, advocating a complete turn to prudishness, after all, this is still rock'n'roll, it's got to be a little crazy, it's got to be a lot of fun too, and artists need to be happy and feel that they're appreciated and well-looked-after, and that there's enough commitment being placed on the table.
But it seems to me that the obscene amounts of money that was once wasted on keeping bands locked in expensive studios for months on end, waiting for inspiration to turn-up, can be put to better use, and more sensibly, in other areas - supporting the artist, promoting its work, exploring new avenues etc. So, the collapse of the fat-cat deals is a very good thing for everyone.
I also believe that, regardless of P2P, there will always be value on owning something that can be held and treasured. A few months ago, while I was packing my gear up to move into the Cave, I came across some of my old vinyls, a small collection, one that has not seen the light of day or the pleasure of the needle in a long time, but nevertheless, one that I feel unable to get rid off, as just looking at the beaten-up artworks is a great emotional trip in itself, a slice of your life, memories to be cherished. Mp3s will never match that, no matter how cool your bleedin' I-player is.
Real fans, long-term supporters will always want les objets du desir, and will be happy to pay-up, specially for something special, created with extra care and love, just as it should be. When we consider the sheer overwhelming amount of garbage that relentlessly shouts for our attention, I'm in no doubt that a small, but ever growing number of intelligent, sensitive music lovers, will happily choose to support the few real gems that occasionally crop up in this vast desert dotted by cheap diamoniques.
It is also clear that the live scene is doing better than ever, with more venues, more festivals and events to suit any budget, taste and size. That the price of gigs has risen is only a positive reflection of how much people value and appreciate the uniqueness of a live performance. As an artist in a band whose music, ethos and pathos comes crashing together on a stage, and that has always thrived on the live environment, this is good news indeed.
So, as I'm pondering on which will be the best route to take forward, whether getting a label or publisher involved, or finding some kind of patronage, which might even be a co-operative of fans, I'm beginning to think that these are exciting times both for the industry and artists alike. Although the ground is shakier, there is more flexibility and therefore more possibilities. There is also a lot of genuine, smart, cool people in the Industry, who combine professionalism with their passion for music, those with good ideas will, as always, move the industry forward. A band like Drugstore, whose music thrives on the personal and who always gave themselves away, passionately, could well find a little viable space in which to carry on operating our mini-empire.
Have the music, vision and the drive, now only need to find a cool Patron to get me into that elusive pair of Prada boots and out of the Instant Mr.Mash diet, so I can focus on doing what I do best, writing songs, and being Isabel in a band called Drugstore.