Music, Myth, and Catalog Profits – The Future Perils of the Current Pop Charts

This is a Guest Post by Alex C. McKenzie

There was a sizeable brouhaha earlier this month in a small-yet-dedicated corner of the internet, after it was discovered that rock band Pearl Jam would be playing a private show for software giant Oracle’s Openworld Festival later this year in San Francisco.  A single ticket would in effect cost conference attendees $2395.

The typically loyal fans on Pearl Jam’s message board lashed out in droves, and within just a few hours, filled up nearly forty pages with posts vocalizing their disappointment, and the occasional attempt to rationalize the band’s decision.

“Its hard not to view this as anything other than a cash grab,” wrote one forum member.  Echoed another: “Why do I all of a sudden have Pink Floyd’s “Money” stuck in my head???”

The more pragmatic fans pointed out the reality of the situation: the band has been operating independently since their contract with Sony Music expired in 2003, and they have a whole slew of mouths to feed.  Functioning more like a small corporation than a five-member rock outfit, Pearl Jam has a financial responsibility to their sizeable staff, including their road crew, fan club and management, plus they take on their own product manufacturing, marketing, distribution, and legal costs.

This is a band that, twenty years into its career, despite having receded from mainstream consciousness sometime around 1996, is still able to sell out a stadium in nearly every market they hit.  They have a fan base most artists dream about, but for many of them the exclusivity of the Oracle event just doesn’t jive with the grass-roots image the band has propagated for their entire career.

The myth of Pearl Jam was something holy and sacrosanct, but now here was proof that the great mystery of Eddie Vedder & Co. was not that mysterious: Pearl Jam is a business, and they’re in the business of making money.

Myth and mystery are an essential part of popular music.  The exaggerated narrative that surrounds an artist can turn a song into more than a song. It can make the listener feel that by simply pressing play, they’re part of something bigger, deeper, and more meaningful.

When was the last time you just had to be there?  How many currently charting artists give you any sense of identity beyond your own taste in music?

Pearl Jam took great pains early on in their career to ensure that their music had meaning. There was Eddie introducing Gloria Steinem to a nation of suburban teenagers, and Eddie scaling the stage rigging to frightening heights, adding a palpable sense of danger to their performances. There were the countless benefit shows with proceeds going to any number of liberal causes, and, perhaps the most convincing example of the power of the Pearl Jam myth, their ramshackle 1996 tour after a long and public battle with Ticketmaster. Thousands of fans ordered tickets through old-fashioned mail, and then drove hours to funky, remote, non-Ticketmaster venues, because Pearl Jam was sticking it to the man, and you just had to be there.

When was the last time you just had to be there?  How many currently charting artists give you any sense of identity beyond your own taste in music?

Rihanna has been at the top of the charts for several years now, and it’s been maddening at times to watch her career arc after the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of Chris Brown.  She had an amazing opportunity to turn millions of young, impressionable women on to the notion that they are to be respected, that their health and well being is fundamental, and that men who disregard that fact are villains.

Had she done so, I don’t believe it would have been seen as a poor attempt to capitalize on a tragedy.  Rather, it would have been a righteous act that might have resonated with fans for years to come.

Instead, she chose to release a bunch of edgy sex-pop songs, while Chris Brown has gone on to exist as Ike Turner 2.0—though she’s no Tina.  Sure, Rihanna has still sold millions of records despite her lack of leadership, but something tells me that her fan base won’t show up for her comeback tour in 2024.

Without any deep, long-lasting connection—beyond the personal memories one might form while listening to sex-pop—the audience becomes fickle, and the artist becomes a passing fad, something rootless and ultimately forgettable.

“It’s vital that artists create long-term relationships with their fans, not only for their own career stability, but also for the industry as a whole.”

A recent post on Craig’s List New York is telling [the post is edited for clarity]:

We’re a rock band seeking a rhythm guitarist who can sing lead vocals.  We don’t trash anyone or any belief, we’re not leading a movement, we’re leaving that to other bands that like a limited fan base.

I wish they were trying to lead a movement, even if it were something wholly innocent and non-judgmental.

A band’s narrative certainly doesn’t have to be political.  The Flaming Lips have done a fantastic job of creating an entire apolitical world in which their listeners are able to exist.  People go to a Lips show for the outlandish props, the bright colors, the animal costumes.  And I’ll bet the fans will keep showing up long after the band falls out of vogue with the Pitchfork set, because the expectation has been firmly set: The Flaming Lips don’t just put on one hell of a show, they take you to another planet.

It’s vital that artists create long-term relationships with their fans, not only for their own career stability, but also for the industry as a whole.

With just four major labels left (soon to be three, pending approval of the Universal-EMI merger by a U.S. Senate Judiciary sub-committee), the dependence of new artist development on the profits of catalog sales is becoming quite precious.

Atlas of Rock, courtesy of Flickr user Mike Licht

The success of a “frontline” label like Interscope (home to newer pop acts including OneRepublic and Azealia Banks) depends in part on the profits made from the back-catalog sales of sister label Universal Music Enterprises, which handles releases by Nirvana, Elvis Costello, and Bob Marley (both labels are owned by parent company Universal Music).

I met with a senior music industry executive for this article, who requested anonymity. He states that “there would be no money to invest in new acts if there wasn’t a catalog spinning off new profits.  [The catalog label’s] job is to manage the portfolio of artists and music in which the frontline labels originally invested.”

Soundscan categorizes any release older than eighteen months and with a chart position lower than 100 as a “catalog release,” although it can actually take years for an artist to recoup expenses.  Even the most high-profile new artist can bring in just the slimmest of profits.

“Has Adele turned a profit in eighteen months?” asks the same industry executive. “That’s an extremely high bar, because of all of the marketing and recording costs expended by her label.”

He goes on to say that while catalog and frontline deals are structured in very similar ways, the marketing costs for established artists are much lower, and the return-on-investment from a catalog deal is therefore often much higher, although this is certainly due in part to a frontline label’s initial investment in the early stages of an artist’s career.

There’s a delicate give-and-take between the old and the new, and once the initial marketing push dies down and a record moves into “catalog” status, the narrative—or lack thereof—surrounding an artist will help determine not only his later success, but the potential for new artists to succeed as well.

The associations we have with our favorite artists have an enormous impact on their profitability, and it can take years for an artist’s public perception to generate a solid return.

Some songs might reach a transcendent status, like The Beatles’ “Come Together,” while others might find success as a novelty, like Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”; either one can be good business.  The point is further demonstrated moments later, when Boston’s ubiquitous hit “More Than a Feeling” comes on the radio, and the executive smiles.  “Here’s a great example.  I hated this song when it came out.  But you can win a lot of ballgames hitting singles and doubles.”

His point is not lost on me, but still, I’m frightened of a future record industry that is ever more dependent on catalog releases and reunion tours.

The Taio Cruz Greatest Hits package, sure to be released with a thud sometime in the next decade, could lead only to a minimal contribution on a label’s profits, and, in turn, new artist development.  Meanwhile, the Frank Zappa re-re-re-release (Now With 10% More Mudshark!) will probably do okay. Despite only having one top-20 single in the US throughout his entire career, the myth surrounding Zappa’s music remains immutable, and his narrative will still come across as fairly subversive once Ke$ha’s antics have long-since proven to be little more than crass commercialism.

It’s not that I have a problem with crass commercialism in and of itself; flipping the musical bird to the establishment is a great way for kids to figure out their own sense of identity as they enter young adulthood.  And I like some of Ke$ha’s songs –  some of those synth sounds are pretty cool, and the hooks are killer.  But once those songs have become dated, once Ke$ha’s synth sounds have been copied ad nauseum, what’s left?  What possible sense of identity could one derive from a song like “Blow”?

“Myth and mystery are essential parts of popular music.  The exaggerated narrative that surrounds an artist can turn a song into more than a song. It can make the listener feel that by simply pressing play, they’re part of something bigger, deeper, and more meaningful.”

I don’t believe that an artist’s mystique should trump the actual music, although sometimes that is the case.  Of all the Billboard artists who stand to forge a long-lasting relationship with their fans, Lady Gaga is certainly the most confounding, because she’s completely inverted the system: her “Be Who You Are” message is, to my ears, far more powerful than her actual music.

Or consider an artist like Pink.  Based on her music alone, one would assume she should have faded into obscurity a few years ago.  Yet her fans remain dedicated, always eager to hear her latest release.  It would be hard to argue that her political activism is coincidental. Rather, it lends weight and permanence to songs like “Dear Mr. President,” and her less topical numbers benefit as well—whatever she’s singing, you get the sense that she believes it.

With a little luck, both of these women could have the same kind of career longevity enjoyed by Madonna – an artist for whom the sheer magnitude of spectacle and story has driven merely serviceable singing to iconic status and sales.

I won’t claim some songs are more artistically valid than others; there’s just no way to quantify that.  If a song makes you feel something, then it has done its job.

But we run into trouble when a listener likes a song, and then decides to dig a little deeper, to find out more about the artist who just caused an emotional reaction.  So, like all true music fans, they begin to search out this artist, to put a personality to the lyric, in hopes of finding something reciprocal and long-term: If you keep making me feel something good, I’ll keep listening to your music.

Unfortunately, in today’s single-driven climate, the listeners are more apt to find Twitter-fueled noise than a truly inspirational persona.  As the aforementioned industry executive says, “Now every time an artist farts, they have to tweet about it.”

The immediacy with which an artist can now connect with fans, often heralded as a boon of a newly transparent age of marketing, can also be a terrible hindrance if used incorrectly.

The PR machine as it once existed—in which an artist’s image or message was carefully groomed throughout the longer production cycles of print-and-package-based media—has been replaced by something bloated, undefined, and inconsequential.

How is it that the Occupy Movement came and went without a single hit song written about it?  How does Kanye West show up at Zuccotti Park without a band, or at least a microphone?  And though I’ve seen more photos than I can remember of Yeezy and Kim Kardashian grabbing a scoop of Mississippi Mud, they do nothing to fuel my allegiance to this talented composer.

Kanye’s face is everywhere, yet his omnipresence does not equal myth.  I’m sick of seeing the face of a guy who hasn’t said anything interesting since “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.

Conversely, my curiosity for Frank Ocean’s music is piqued when I hear that he’s come out of the closet, an action that, in the hip hop community, still takes real courage.

Ocean’s homosexuality doesn’t make his music better, per se, but it might make me like it more.  The lyric “It’s a bad religion/This unrequited love” suddenly resonates with me in a new way, and his vulnerability is now marked by a special kind of bravery.  Even if it wasn’t his intention, the fact is that by coming out, Ocean has earned a fair amount of trust from the listener, and trust equals capital: there’s a good chance that the next time he has something to say, I’ll take a listen.

When I was in high school, the must-see tour of 1997 was one co-headlined by Rage Against the Machine and Wu-Tang Clan, with German electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot as an opener.  It might sound strange now, but at the time these three bands could not have appeared more different from one another, except that they were all making their own brand of “Fuck You” music.  Ticket sales were through the roof.

To those teens and young adults who managed to catch one of the dates, there was a galvanizing change going on.  Somewhere between the ear canal and the heart, your teenage resolve for a just world was strengthened, the commercial structure of your parents’ lives looked still more alien, and your sense of identity was ever more defined.

Afterwards, as you grew and faced new challenges in life, your views and priorities—much like Pearl Jam’s—may have changed into something more practical, and possibly, more comfortable.  But even if much of Zack de la Rocha’s politicizing might now seem contrived, when I hear a song by Rage Against the Machine today, I take pause.  Despite the avalanche of uninspired rap-rock that later stormed the airwaves—in the form of Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, et al, — a Rage track still resonates, can make you feel something deep, and might even inspire a listener to buy their music.  They earned our trust once upon a time, and like any human being in a trusting relationship, we’d like to believe that they’ve still got something to offer us.

“I fear that music’s emotional content has been replaced by a sort of hollow edginess; a belief that by being loud, in either sound or image, an artist will somehow break through your brain’s natural bullshit detectors.  It’s hair metal all over again.”

I see no irony in the fact that I’m 31 years old, telling you that music should mean something.  It’s a cynical person who undermines the power of music to promote change, growth, or togetherness.  Only the most ignorant music fan could disregard the history of conflict illustrated, or in some cases instigated, by young people’s music.

But I fear that music’s emotional content has been replaced by a sort of hollow edginess; a belief that by being loud, in either sound or image, an artist will somehow break through your brain’s natural bullshit detectors.  It’s hair metal all over again.

Of course I’ve consumed my share of novelty acts, and without shame.  I remember when I was twelve years old I loved tuning in to the local “Morning Zoo” station, to hear their broadcast of the Casey Kasem countdown, anxiously waiting  for my favorite songs to come on.  I occasionally listen to those songs now on Spotify or Pandora, but I rarely pay for them.  Nor would I buy a ticket for a Positive K comeback tour.

Until this point, I’ve focused solely on major label artists, but as a producer, engineer, and indie musician, I’ve become quite weary of the “opportunities” that the internet and home-recording boom have afforded us.

I love self-funded artists; they put food on my table by paying me to work on their records, and it’s a great honor to share in the intimate process of capturing their music.  But many of these recordings leave something to be desired.  90% of the time that’s because the budget dries up, not the band’s talent.  New artists are so eager to get their record out into the digital market that they don’t set aside enough money for that extra day of vocal takes, or another day of mixing.  Nor do they grasp the intricacies of a successful PR campaign that might make their careers sustainable.

There’s often an unfortunate and massive discrepancy between the creative phase and the distribution phase of an indie record, in which too many artists serve unedited, lukewarm material up to the content providers simply because they can.  They’ve mistaken Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers for success.

But these content providers don’t put a dime back into artist development, leaving all costs of making a record resting solely on the artist, and because of this, indie careers are rarely successful. Without heavy touring and a steady, long-term approach to the promotion of their music, most never break even.

My own band doesn’t have plans for world domination, and so we’ve adjusted our expenses accordingly.  We are currently planning some benefit shows and gigs at multi-purpose venues, all in an effort to give some credence to our own indie brand; if we can cover our operating expenses, we’re happy.  But the profitable indie acts that have managed to nurture a strong core following—Shellac, Atmosphere, Flying Lotus—have done so after years in the trenches, honing their sound and aesthetic.  It takes a long time to nurture one’s art into something palatable, and simply exclaiming “We’re in a band, we make music!” isn’t really going to get you anywhere.

I would argue that it’s in fact more important for indie artists to craft their own unique myth, to create a story in which their music exists.  Over time, that myth can grow and take on a life of it’s own, and maybe after a few records and tours, you might actually turn a small profit.

But unlike some, I still believe in the major label system. I like the idea of a song touching millions of people, and I’m inspired by an artist who is able to say something that resonates with listeners on a global scale. I think the majors are still the best support mechanism for acts of that caliber.  But by focusing so heavily on vapid pop music, the labels have shot themselves in the foot, and they’ve set themselves up for a future disconnect between their own back-catalog and the prized consumer. I hope they figure this out sooner rather than later; I also think the independent music world will ultimately collate into something firmer and more financially viable.

Recently, the Russian band Pussy Riot made international headlines when three members were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” after putting on an impromptu anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral. They each received two years in prison for the crime.

With just one act, they’ve managed to earn worldwide front-page coverage.  I’ll not attempt to dissect the current Russian political landscape here, but man, when those girls get out of jail and put on their first show as a reunited band, you have just got to be there.

Alex McKenzie is a producer and engineer living in Brooklyn, NY.  He has worked in booking, promotions, PR, and music publishing. He has been known to use Email and Twitter.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Industry Trends, Rants and Raves, September 2012. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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