Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Too many musicians

Okay, so here's another question: why can the big record companies get away with being evil?

Well, as with many such questions, there isn't a single, simple answer, but there are a few factors that come to mind.

First and foremost, we've got supply and demand at work. Rumor has it that there are 30,000 (thirty thousand!) albums released every year, with presumably even more submitted for consideration. That's incredible supply. And less than 100 actually get widely popular annually. This seems to mean that a given artist or group has absolutely no leverage against those who are buying the music (in this case, the record labels).

Think about that for a moment. If you're a record label, and for better or worse are in business to make money, you've got to wade through piles upon piles of crap just to get to the albums you're going to release, and then throw enough crap against the music listener's wall and hope some of it sticks. Why on earth would you be jumping all over yourself to provide good terms or service to your artists? Despite the fact that there are over 700 labels that make up RIAA alone, (and one would assume at least as many small, indie labels out there as well), it's still an incredible buyers market.

Just with these simple facts, it's surprising that artists get paid even what they do. Now, don't misunderstand, if a label signs a contract to pay a certain amount or percent, and then doesn't, they're in the wrong. But with artists complaining that they don't get better deals, S&D rears its ugly head and asks where the better deals are? They don't exist. They darn near can't, from a for-profit perspective.

In advertising circles, the reason you pound out advertising dollars is to distinguish yourself from the competition. You need to do that much, much more if the consumer has no other way to distinguish competitors, (short of advertising). In a world with 30,000 new releases annually, (and one would presume that many of them have passed at least somebody's quality muster), you've got to make a whole lot of noise to raise yourself above the din. That takes something: reputation or money.

Artists with reputation (fill in your favorite consistent big name from the past couple of decades) rise above the noise, because people know them. Lesser known artists scramble for big names to make guest appearances on their releases, to get the clout that comes from such "recommendations". Barring any of that, it's greenbacks to the rescue. Promotion dollars, in music as much as in cars or laundry soap, get your name out there, and get people curious. And get you heard, over artists of similar talent who don't spend the bucks, or even, unfortunately, over artists of greater talent. Remember that 30,000 number. That's a lot of noise.

So why else can record companies be evil? It's also been said that they control the music outlets. Where do most people get their music? Radio, and to a lesser extent, music videos. And to a much lesser extent, movies. Places where big-company ad dollars hold much sway. This would mean that the ticket to fame and fortune is to get in with a big company. And, as is implied, getting in with the big company means giving them all you've got. You're up against gazillions of others who want the same thing; to close the deal, you've got to bid more.

So what's there to do? Well, for starters, examine your priorities. If you've got to have fame and fortune, then go ahead and pop out your soul and hand it over. And then, don't expect either fame or fortune, but certainly don't expect fortune. It'd be interesting to know how many musicians there are out there who are independantly wealthy, or heck, even just comfortable. I'd bet it's not many, and I'd bet it's close to the number of artists over 40 with an established, big name, who release a new album every 2-3 years while not touring too much, (i.e. a number approaching, but not quite equal to, zero).

So what else can you do? Well, if you can pry yourself away from the fame (and the coke habit and rehab that follow), and realize that you're not going to get fortune, there's still the joy of creating. You know, creating? It's why the rest of the world plays music. It's why the whole world used to play music, until perhaps some time around 50 years ago.

In my article on Replacing RIAA, I mentioned the appearance of non-evil record labels, and the possibility of self-publishing. Of course, without the ad dollars mentioned above, it gets really hard to get noticed, but again, we've put fame/fortune behind us, right? If we're doing this for the love of music, then it's worth doing simply because it's worth doing, not because we expect anyone to allow us to make a living at it. So we keep our day jobs. So what.

The whole thrust of this article is to point out not so much that it's futile to try, but that it's near futile to try if all you're after is the fame/fortune. Putting that aside leads to the real joy in music, which is what we should really be about anyway. Why can the big guys be evil? Their evil is greed, and greed is an artist evil, too. Without the latter, the former would fade into a bad memory.

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