16 January 2011

We hope you will enjoy the show

Simon Sweetman wrote an interesting blog a few days ago about the state of the modern music industry.  He argued that the key to success for contemporary performers is to focus not on music sales through major labels, but instead on selling the live experience offered by great concert performances:
We remember the artists we saw live - and we talk about the ones we want to see. This is the true measure [of success]. This is what keeps us coming back - the thrill of a decent act. And it's a level playing field too, when you think about it. I can go and see AC/DC rock a stadium with Hells Bells or Lil' Band O' Gold thrill a pub with their superb repertoire - a cover of Lazy Lester's Sugar Coated Love one minute, some Bobby Charles the next. Lil' Band O' Gold didn't need the giant bell to swing from, but they weren't playing in a stadium. AC/DC paid dues on the pub circuit and became one of the elite. Both acts know how to serve their audience - it doesn't begin and end with the album.
Stop thinking about the album as the starting point - it's not. Learn your instruments, learn to write songs, learn to handle criticism, learn to play with the same enthusiasm to 20 people as you do when there are 200 or if you are lucky 2000 - or 20,000.
The relationship between great live performances and musical stardom has traditionally been based on a solid footing of financial rewards from sales of recorded music.  But the rapid decline in music sales revenue due to the rise of internet file sharing and consumers' declining willingness to pay premium prices for music may well kill off the traditional music distribution networks.  This is not necessarily a wholly bad thing.  Instead, Sweetman argues that the potency of quality live performances will sustain the best acts - the ones who build a strong bond with their audiences and deliver great and memorable entertainment in their stage acts.

Gordon Campbell recently wrote an interesting piece on the state of music retailers in Wellington, but the story isn't constrained to just one city - the decline of music retail profits in physical premises with all the associated overheads has been documented for several years.  In the article, retailers appear resigned to adopting survival strategies to minimise the impact of a shrinking market: one, Real Groovy, is focusing on its second-hand sales and hopes to sublet some of its space, while another, Slow Boat, is fortunate to survive on a lower cost structure due to a canny business decision in the mid-90s to buy the building in which it operates.  The article highlights the struggle faced by music retailers, sometimes with decades of experience in the market, who are having to come to terms with the new retail orthodoxy: 
The self-defining musical question among baby boomers may have changed from ‘What was the first single you bought’ to ‘What was the last single you bought”….as if that phase was now over for good. Yet like Alice, people are going through the mirror and finding themselves in a world where people are buying individual tracks online – not albums so much – and so, the singles cycle has begun again. And will expand, as the industry tries to figure out how to leverage as much money online as it used to do from conventional retail outlets.
This begs the question: as the traditional model of music retail fades away, how will people hear about new acts?  Certainly, the mainly youthful fans who form the largest section of the music listening market are still going to rely on word of mouth and the newer opportunities presented by online recommendations and music blogging.  But these fans are also increasingly unwilling to part with their currency to purchase intellectual property, and instead rely on file-sharing methods to build enormous collections of music without forking over a penny to its owners.  If bands are to make a living they are, as Sweetman observes, going to have to learn how to use recorded music as a drawcard to advertise their live performances.  Ticket sales will have to form a much stronger part of their revenue streams.  Whether this will be sufficient to support bands in the absence of plentiful sales of recorded music is a moot point.  From the New Zealand perspective, perhaps the situation isn't as perilous as might be expected; after all, few New Zealand artists can make a living on album sales anyway.

But the live music industry, which is dominated by the promoters who speculate which acts to invest in to draw a crowd, faces a growing problem.  Certainly, there will always be a market for the student and indie bands that grow up with the support of student radio - the mainstream pop success of Goldenhorse in New Zealand, don't forget, was preceded by the tireless support of student radio programmers.  But the major event concerts sprinkled throughout the calendar, in which overseas artists are flown to New Zealand to perform, are based on a finite resource.  

In a fragmented, declining music market, the age of monster bands with almost universal appeal is dying out.  Indeed, it's lasted much longer than initial predictions, which held it to be a universal truth that once the big rock gods of the 60s and 70s - your Rolling Stones, your Bowies, your Eagles - stopped touring when they entered old age, there would be nothing to replace them.  How wrong that supposition turned out to be.  For one thing, the graduates of rock's golden age just didn't stop touring: the Rolling Stones (Mick, aged 67; Keef, 67; Charlie, 69; Ronnie, 63) are still out there performing big concert tours and making loads of money.  In addition, a fresh burst of mainstream rock acts came along in the late 70s through to the 80s in a last gasp for the traditional megagroup - U2, REM, and to a lesser extent bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC.  But now those acts are getting long in the tooth, and there are few contenders with a decent chance of achieving lasting fame and success to replace them.  Indeed, it was recently reported that the rock age has passed, in the UK at least: only three out of the top 100 singles of 2010 was by a rock act, and one of those was the 1981 track Don't Stop Believin', popularised by teen TV behemoth Glee.  Hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of rock gigs.

In recent years the opportunities for New Zealand music to get airplay has improved from the very poor situation in the 80s and 90s.  The eventual radio support for perennial acts like Dave Dobbyn and the coterie of Finn-related projects is welcome, but it should be remembered that these too are acts with decades-old roots.  TV exposure doesn't help much to generate long-term careers either, with the niche music channels generally focusing on flash-in-the-pan popstars.

Does the answer lie in student bands snowballing their way to greatness?  In 2007 I attended an indie showcase bill at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with friends who live nearby.  It's a hard-working college radio audience venue, a capacity of a few hundred, with cheap tickets and low ceilings.  I'd never heard of the top band on the billing, an Arizona group called The Format.  They turned out to be great performers, but the interesting aspect of the show from my perspective was that the audience, a young crowd presumably consisting largely of UNC students, seemed to know all the words of the songs the band played.  This may have been through radio airplay, multiple listens on Myspace or Youtube, internet file-sharing or a combination of all of these factors, but the fact remains that a band without major label backing and from a town 1800 miles away was able to perform in front of a crowd that knew all the words to its material.  This is at least an indication of the power of word of mouth in the internet age, even if it's not a great indicator of success for The Format - sadly, the band called 'a hiatus' in 2008. 

The answer may not lie in the conventional wisdom of the music industry.  Witness the fickle fortune bestowed by the now traditional January BBC announcements of bands to watch in the coming year.  Or indeed many if not most of the new crazes espoused by the NME; arts writer Fiona Sturges wrote recently that it was all rather more miss than hit:
When it comes to fabricated hype, the worst perpetrator over the years has been the NME, a magazine so keen to be seen at the vanguard of the latest scene, and on first-name terms with the hot new artists, that it has killed many a career stone dead. For evidence one need only look at the fates of Birdland, The Unbelievable Truth, Ultrasound, Menswear, S*M*A*S*H, Gay Dad, Terris and The Datsuns – all bands that were breathlessly declared pop's new messiahs by the NME but whose music failed to connect with the record-buying public, prompting them to sink swiftly into oblivion.
But, Sturges argues, perhaps there is some scope for optimism, because despite the failures of the mainstream media to recognise new talent, the music scene still throws up interesting and appealing new artists:

Whatever the industry predicts for the coming year, there are always the less anticipated and invariably more interesting bands that manage to break into the public consciousness, propelled not through hype but through the more organic process of building interest through word of mouth, low-key releases and the live circuit. Last year both Midlake and Mumford & Sons took off on a large scale with only modest industry and media backing while, the year before, few predicted the commercial potential of lo-fi American indie acts such as Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver.
I hope she's right.  The late Hunter S Thompson once observed, 'the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.  There's also a negative side'.  It would be a sad world indeed if the 21st century grows to maturity without a healthy music business to lend an air of talent, glamour and decadence to proceedings.
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