Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be

arcade_fire.jpg“Affordable & portable.” I was having lunch with my friend Ed Bennett last week and we discussed the difficulties facing the music industry and the affect it has on new artists trying to gain footing in these increasingly slippery-slope days. He coined that very apt above-referenced phrase to describe the need to streamline a musician’s business approach. I couldn’t agree more. In these days of dwindling CD sales, the death of retail record chains such as Tower, and the decline of the importance of labels (not all, but certainly many), musicians need to be aggressive marketing juggernauts. If musicians are to find their way into this new frontier, they must use any means necessary to distinguish themselves from the hordes of mediocre acts. Any and all social networking and music sites plus low-cost, high profile local campaigns that can be spun out nationally and hopefully internationally. And most importantly, they should have a satchel full of music that is worthy of the effort. Joe Public doesn’t need any more marginalized talent being funneled into an already over-hyped and over-crowded digital portal. It has become increasingly difficult to sustain a music career that has a lasting importance in today’s market because most of the talent is not that good. Quick, name an act in the last two years that will last ten years…. Bands/musicians need to reach the people in the flesh. Let all of this compressed music be heard in a breathing, organic fashion (even if it is digital in nature). Beck does this quite well. A handful of hip-hop bands (Mos Def, Ghostface, the late J Dilla, to cite a few). Moreover, you better be able to get in your van and hit at least a dozen venues a month. No better test than before a live audience to see if your music is valid. And don’t whine about getting a crowd to hear your music. Get on your mobile phones and start text messaging your fans about your next gig. (Culture Catch recently grabbed a Verizon text message code. But I’ll save that story for another column.) Or if you’re moderately tech savvy, shoot some video of your band in action and post it all over the place. And if you really have legs -- and a helluva lotta luck -- get your music in some hip indie flick and pray that one of your songs becomes an anthem of your generation. (Let’s face it, that’s a major crapshoot.) Or become press darlings on the Internet through the dozens of cool music/culture sites. (Can you spell A-r-c-a-d-e F-i-r-e?) Preferably all of the above. But still music has become a pretty disposable commodity. More and more music is being given away by many young bands in an effort to attract fans to see them play live. They’re content to make money on the live gigs and merchandizing end of the biz. This must freak out the suits at labels that over the last few years have been become more concerned with profit margins – thanks to the mega-mergers -- and stopping illegal downloads than signing and nurturing real artists. Remember the salad days of record labels when A&Ring meant that an artist was part of the label’s family and would be handled as an artist first and not a sales widget? Matador is still one the best indie labels for nurturing talent and maintaining artist-friendly deals. Ditto for Sub Pop and Bloodshot Records. But you don’t need a label either. You can control all aspects of your career if you have some moxie, and can pay attention to the details of controlling your career. Or find an enthusiastic and knowledgeable manager to do so. Okay, I admit I have a problem with this new music paradigm. Music = free. And I know authors and painters would never give away their work. Yet I wonder why music is not considered a viable commodity the way books and paintings are. After all, it is all intellectual property. Is music any less important in the pantheon of culture than dance, theater, literature, film, etc.? Why then do so many music fans feel that stealing music is no big deal? I’m a songwriter and I don’t mind giving away music on occasion, but I can’t tell you how many gigs I’ve done where I’ve offered a patron a CD for $5 and the patron said he couldn’t afford it. Odd that he or she could afford the table full of $6 beers and cocktails. But then again, music is everywhere – television shows and commercials, movies, games, commercial-free Internet radio, terrestrial radio, elevators, everywhere you roam with your mp3 player. I guess people feel that because it is everywhere, the need to pay for it does not register with them. Though when pressed, they claim they wouldn’t take a painting off of a wall at an art gallery or a keep a book from the library. Perhaps music should be available only in art/music galleries to bring it back to a viable source of revenue. Yes, the musician today better be a lean and mean marketing machine. Portable and affordable. And even give away their music for free. Until they’re big enough to sell it at Target or Wal-Mart. Converge. Dusty dusty5a.jpgMr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!