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Is The Music Industry In The Best Position Imaginable?

Nod Your Head

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nodyourhead Is The Music Industry In The Best Position Imaginable?Nod Your Head is a recurring column from CoS News Editor Chris Coplan allowing a space to expand on topics that he encounters beyond the quick news post. In this edition, he examines the current state of the music industry with regards to the ever-present debate on poptimism.

This July (the 17th to be precise) will mark my five-year anniversary at Consequence of Sound. In that time, not only have I traveled and met great people and heard awesome music, I’ve learned a few truths regarding my chosen industry. Like, how much money is actually put into releases (the figures might surprise you), why certain bands tour in certain cities/states (no, it’s not because everyone hates your town), and the way musicians really feel about the press and the whole industry machine (that’s a whole other article entirely).

Still, of all the insights I’ve gleaned over the years, there’s one, arguably of the utmost importance and significance, that has only recently been revealed to me:

Nobody in the music business (PR people, labels, bands, or critics) has any idea what they’re doing.

Let me clarify the whole notion that we’re adrift in a sea of ignorance and uncertainty. As the industry continues its slow and perplexing evolution into the digital age, a transition I feel like we’ve been talking about for over a decade, still no one seems to have any idea of what’s next. That’s not only in terms of bands and musical trends, but how monetization will develop, what will be the next step for marketing campaigns, whether streaming or downloads will win out in the end, what role labels will have in the coming years, and a few dozen other components that generally leave industry folks in the perpetual clutches of fear and self-doubt. But here’s something else I’ve learned:

All of that’s totally and completely a very good thing. Before your faces contort, let me explain.

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Last month, we published a Cover Story I’d spent an awful lot of time on, entitled “Uncertain Album Cycle”. By speaking to labels, marketing folks, publicists, bands, and other industry insiders, I sought to explore how the industry would right itself and find a better way to market albums in the future. What I found — other than a complete and utter lack of certainty — was that these folks are willing to do anything they can think of to get people excited about albums.

Sometimes it’s a little desperate (seriously, gold semi-trucks?), but mostly it’s invigorating to see an industry notorious for adhering to old and destructive models trying to seek out refuge in innovation and embracing creativity above dollar signs. Doing things like releasing singles via billboards and streaming albums from outer space may not be the saving grace of their profession, but trying these methods out is the only way to figure out what will work. That’s a beautiful attitude to have, one that makes it seem like things might be OK, even if we’re not any closer to a “solution.” As twisted as this sounds, the fact that people are scared enough to embrace things outside the norm actually fills me with a sense of hope.

And it should fill all of you reading this with a similar sense of hope. When the whole industry rewires or reconfigures, it’s all in the service of the consumer. When things look more bright and optimistic, it’s all verified in the movement and purchases of music fans. When labels and PR reps need to know what’s cool or what’s the most buzzy, it’s your Facebook pages and Twitter feeds they’re tracking. The world caters to you and your hopes and wishes, not only in how music is sold and marketed, but in the way it’s absorbed and disseminated.

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At the same time, as PR reps and labels are undergoing a creative resurgence, the other side, the bloggers and journalists, are experiencing a slightly different shift. In an article entitled “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism”, the New York Times‘ Saul Austerlitz warns readers of a rampant uptick in the titular trend, a “studied reaction to the musical past” that “wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more ‘serious’ artistic intent.”

While Austerlitz makes it sound decidedly cult-like in scope, it’s just a trend among the music critic community to embrace pop music at its most basic and pure, of finding a kind of romanticism in Lady Gaga and the rest of the Top 40 and treating it with the same kind of reverence and measure of artistic value as more traditionally laudable acts. For the poptimist, the stylings of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift aren’t the refuse of the masses but art to be consumed and lauded with vigor and endless words of praise. It’s a little extreme, yes, but not without precedent; as Austerlitz explains, it was born out of rockism, a similar, albeit rock-centric, brand of critical bias, which in turn was born out of the upsurge in gender and identity politics from the early ’90s. In essence, people are trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for, and oftentimes it seems easy to flock around larger cultural artifacts.

So, then, what do these examples have in common? They’re evidence that both “classes” (i.e., business and journalism) are in huge states of flux. More than that, there’s an invigorating (and somewhat volatile) mixture of pure optimism and total desperation. And, like I said before, that’s totally a good thing. Sure, they’re not exactly reevaluating priorities for the same reason, but that doesn’t matter. Both the business end and the journalism end are undergoing exactly the kind of transformation that they need to be experiencing at the most crucial time in the industry’s history.

We exist in such a dire crossroads because, once more, it’s all about you the readers. But it’s more than just about people looking to you to help guide their marketing techniques. As evidenced by the critical circle’s newfound obsession with pop, we’re seeking to connect back to something bigger. More than pop stars and shimmering divas, that means you, our audience. It’s not an attempt to merely kiss up to you (though, keeping you happy and well-informed is job one); instead, it means trying to make your role in the whole musical process all that more prominent. Collectively, you’re smarter and more savvy, so labels and PR folks have to think bigger than before. You show a clear love of Robyn or Ke$ha; it can’t be mere coincidence, then, that critics try and better familiarize themselves with such acts as a means of lateral integration.

For so long, the whole model of the music industry has been about doling out gifts and wisdom from on high, and now we’re seeing the people we serve have just as much at stake, if not more, so why not better include them? Same goes for bands: relying on the feelings and insights of the most crucial cog (the “machine” that actually makes the music we all sell, consume, and criticize) makes for a more efficient process across the board. Synergy is no longer just a buzz word, but a means of coming together and fixing something that could be so wonderful and life-affirming: listening to music and talking about it ’cause we love it.

So, where does it all begin, then? Undoubtedly with the labels and PR firms. With all due love and respect to those hard-working folks on the business side of things, they totally have all of this uncertainty and desperation coming. For so long, the music business has relied on one model, one with the same rollouts and album cycles, marketing campaigns, and tired old logic. Now, we live in a world where all that certainty, that sense of “one size fits all” promotional ploys, no longer exists, and practically every new album or project requires its own fresh set of ideas. It’s scary, but that whole “trial by fire” deal only breeds creativity and weens people off the old teet of safe and boring. With nothing stable under their feet, they’re forced to continually reinvent the parameters of their work, embracing freshness and excitement over, well, not having a job.

One could make the argument, though, that a sense of security does breed more creative freedom. However, look back at the industry in the late ’90s: for whatever reason, when people were making the most money from album sales, there wasn’t nearly as much creative freedom. Talk to any marketing whiz or publicist who worked back then, and they’ll tell you that only now, with so much uncertainty, do things feel free to shift and evolve organically. When you’re making money hand over fist, are you going to do anything to jeopardize that? Probably not, since rocking the boat means losing it all. Now, with most of the industry vets already in the water, now’s the time to sink or swim. This brave new world deal was a long time coming, but these label heads and marketing gurus should be celebrating its arrival (and not cowering in the corner).

And just why should the industry put on its brave face? Once more, for the readers. Most of the behind-the-scenes work will go unnoticed by most music fans. However, there’s bound to be a sense that if they’re being entertained, that someone is, say, throwing an Easter egg hunt for the new Adele single, then clearly someone is working to keep them happy and amused. And even if the industry is fumbling blindly from idea to idea, putting on the right face (i.e., one of certainty and focus) will make the whole industry look like it knows what it’s doing. You don’t want to be the guy standing at the edge of a cliff, waiting to be swallowed into the canyon below; be the guy who jumps over the edge and greets the great wide open with a sense of vigor.

Take, for instance, Jack White, a man who has never made a (figurative) cliff he wouldn’t swan-dive from. Blindfolded. In the past, White’s Third Man Records has done everything from singles via helium balloons to putting secret songs on double-decker vinyl LPs. For this year’s Record Store Day, White and Co. recorded, mastered, cut, and distributed a vinyl in just over three hours. Yes, rare is the commercial entity that can do what White does, and sure, it’s nothing but a gimmick. But look at the results: the entire run sold out, copies of the 7-inch went for as much as $600 on eBay, and the song garnered huge traffic through late Monday evening.

In this circumstance, a dozen things could have gone wrong, instantly smashing his chances at “World’s Fastest Vinyl Single.” But he took a chance, and it paid off. Even if it hasn’t in the past, it doesn’t matter. In conversations with TMR label manager Ben Blackwell, White’s been depicted as a man who acts in the sake of art and analyzes the outcome later. A similar event occurred when he released Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on vinyl; a run of a few thousand LPs turned into one of their biggest runs to date. The point is, only by taking a chance can you win. No doubt White can take such chances not only because of his wealth, but because he understands the tenuousness of the whole industry.

Fair is fair, though, and we journalists are in dire need of a good, old-fashioned reality check. As someone hooked directly into the community, I can’t deny the endless parade of apathy, ignorance, impetuousness, and blatant ego stroking that I see day in and day out. Not every one of my compatriots is like that, since that’d be blatant stereotyping, but rather it’s a distinct and noticeable trend. Critics and music writers as a whole represent not only intelligence and a sense of awareness, but they can also be some of the most spoiled and lazy and destructive individuals. In our hands, there’s an even split whether the pen will be used as a weapon for truth and earnest reflection or as a giant back scratcher to give the biggest and most undeserved pats on the back.

Whether this poptimism thing is good or not, it shows that, at the very least, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction occurring among music writers. People are looking for something big and meaningful and connective, and they’re willing to search the shiniest and most saccharine parts of the music landscape for it. If nothing else, it gives critics a purpose, or something to search for; even if they have to dredge through the sweetest muck, it demonstrates a sense of concreteness in a critic’s otherwise abstract pursuit. It doesn’t take away from the lousy, selfish behavior, but it does demonstrate that even within that same context, critics are looking to find that pure sense of interconnectedness at whatever the price or source it trickles from.

So, when you get pure desperation and a burgeoning sense of innovation, and you mix that with a parallel sense of creative hunger and a near-audible outcry for perspective, what exactly do you get? Opportunity at its most rich and pure. With such a rich vein of sentiments and concepts and energies to tap into, there’s room for drastic improvement, both individually and as one larger organic industry.

I didn’t talk much about this in my Cover Story, but last year, Dan Deacon released an app where fans could turn their iPhones into a light display at one of his concerts. Talking to his rep, the idea was born from Deacon’s interest in mobile phone tech, which he used to reach out to and work with a few designers, eventually even founding his own app-based development company. Sure, the idea was a little hokey, but think about the end goal: it was a totally inclusive idea, stemming from the artist to other components and contributors and to the fans who downloaded the app and the writers who wrote about such a fun-loving lil’ gimmick. It isn’t the most groundbreaking idea, but it tied everything together, a feat which few other “campaigns” can truthfully tout.

While the business end has clearly already begun to explore new ideas, there’s a sense, at least in my day-to-day, of some trepidation. Now, however, is not the time for that, and instead labels and PR reps need to cut loose and really explore the possibilities with pure gusto. There’s no hiding the fear and insecurities anymore; it’s time to embrace them head-on. I’m not saying to do whatever ideas come to their collective skulls (because I’m sure that could lead to, like, edible vinyl LPs or laser etching “New DMX Album 06.09.15” on the moon). Rather, there shouldn’t be any hesitation in using whatever means or ideas are available. So many of these “revolutionary” ideas (scavenger hunts, farming content via fan contests, and having celebrities leak album details) feel only slightly inventive and still deeply connected to the “old model.”

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One of my favorite such ploys came with the surprise release of Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album. With nary a whisper, Queen Bey dropped an amazing record on some random Thursday. It’s a simple idea, but that’s what makes it so elegant and impactful: you create a spectacle, and not one drawn out of arbitrary circumstances, but one that generates a surge of hype and interest before immediately granting the people some much coveted tunes. That’s how some of the best ploys or tactics work, by offering people something that whips them into action or a sense of emotion and pays off their vigor and interest with something real and concrete. That’s got to be the way of the new model, a distinct break from snow jobs and needlessly jumping through hoops. If it primarily emphasizes spreadsheets, embeds, mailing lists, or I can just torrent the song myself, it’s probably safe to say it isn’t a truly revolutionary idea after all.

This inability to really pull the trigger is going to be the one, true final nail in the (not so) proverbial coffin in the modern music industry. (I can read the epitaph now: “They Wanted To Act But They Were Scaredy Cats.”) With nothing to really lose and a whole lot to gain, it only makes sense to bust out the big guns every day. What that means, though, I can’t say. Through all the talk of the music biz’s downfall, the one constant has been that labels and PR reps claim they provide an invaluable service, even as the market looks increasing like a Wal-Mart after a pre-hurricane scavenging. Now is definitely the time to prove that human innovation and insight actually mean a damn. Otherwise, what good are we doing fans and readers? If we’re supposed to be a “guiding light,” why would we blow it for ourselves by adhering to dangerous and destructive behaviors like ignoring ideas and scuttling away from new opportunities.

In a similar lack of versatility, journalists and critics have adopted poptimism like gangbusters. Again, though, I don’t see the whole poptimistic perspective as a bad thing, just slightly misguided. What if critics approached every genre, review, news story, discussion, etc. with the same kind of child-like wonder? What if we treated the new Britney Spears album with the same reverence as the latest from, say, Animal Collective? I’m not saying treat everything like it’s the most amazing thing in the world — only that it could be. To me that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Namely, it evens the playing field, helping to remove the whole genre-based caste system and allow people to look at art objectively, free of the filters of bias and favoritism.

In the same way that not pulling the trigger is bad for the business end, the critical community needs to learn to pull the trigger, too. I think part of the “pernicious rise” of poptimism is that there’s a sense that “Well, we’ve tried rock, and then even rap to some extent, so I guess we better do pop music next.” There’s a kind of stratification going on, even as critics appear to be becoming more open to new ideas and musical concepts. Everything should be fair game at all times, and only by making the whole notion of “-isms” moot can there be something truly meaningful to be found in the appraisal of music. If all we focus on is service label garbage and adhering strictly to labels, then we leave less and less room for thought contemplation or raising legitimate questions. So many reviews now, while intelligent and entertaining, get caught up in themselves when they could so easily find a vein of truth to explore. Otherwise, it just seems like, as opponents claim, more posturing for the sake of almighty cool points and a (false) sense of cultural superiority.

I originally was thinking that with all this talk of peace and love and embracing the abyss, business and criticism could come together hand-in-hand, maybe even sing “Kumbaya” or something. I don’t think it’s gonna be like that, though. I’ve spoken in the past about how both the business side and the writing side need to communicate better, and I still stand by that. For instance, I’ve had frank discussions with PR reps about sharing album details before they actually announce whatever new project. It’s a futile thing in the long road, but knowing in advance allows me to craft a better, more informed article, which only helps me to better serve my audience base. It’s like if there’s a company making tires, and the rubber guys never spoke to the assembly line; how would any tires ever roll out on time?

By talking to business folks for the Cover Story, everything felt really scattered and non-cohesive. These folks are doing this, while this company’s doing that, and those guys over there still think promo CDs are the way to go. Among the things I’ve learned, this profession/industry loves to get together and talk, and I can’t say if promotional campaigns are a major topic of discussion, but they should be. The industry created its current operating model by stratifying the concept amidst its ranks. There needs to be more of a sense of communication and co-mingling around some new ideas to really give them the traction needed to take off.

As my father once told me, communication is the ocean of any relationship, and without it there’s no way for anything to happen. My awful tire analogy aside, the music biz is a lot like an assembly line: if all the parts aren’t working seamlessly together, nobody makes money because nobody’s buying a product. The more cohesive everything works, the more credibility it lends, and the more it seems like labels and critics have merit in their positions, the more consumers can trust in the system as a viable commodity.

Same goes for the journalists: I talk to my colleagues all the time, and some of them were even surprised about the poptimism deal. It seems to me, if a major bias occurs within a rather specific genre, people in that field should know about it and talk about it. Otherwise, what happens is more of these sub-movements pop up and they further splinter writers one and all. If we can’t understand one another’s desires and tastes and cultural shifts, how are we ever going to be able to properly inform a much wider base in our respective audiences? We need to be addressing our own sense of unhappiness or even excitement and figure out how that impacts our collective ability to effectively disseminate information and critique culture. Not talking just means that we’re adhering more and more to what nasty things people already say about music writers.

I haven’t even officially hit my five-year mark, but I’m already looking ahead to the future. I can’t say with any real certainty what’s going to happen; PR folks and labels might try beaming subliminal messages into our brains, while journalists might only be concerned with remixes of Tuvan throat singing. Either way, I just hope that there’s still something resembling a music industry in the next 5, 10, 15 years. It seems almost impossible that there won’t be, as at least some people will undoubtedly always buy music.

I’ve tried my damnedest to explain that the industry needs to serve the people. However, it’s not a totally one-sided relationship, as fans need us almost as much. In any given week, upwards of a couple hundred albums drop, and unless fans have endless free time, they’re going to need a voice, someone they trust, to help decipher the good and bad. Plus, those bands you love, as much as they may be creative renegades, sadly need someone to help keep them focused and to worry about stupid stuff like taxes, licensing, and, ugh, paying bills.

If this system goes away, people will still find music, but does anyone think it will be as readily available as it once was? We as a business might not be able to survive without an audience, but the audience’s life is much easier and more enjoyable for our existence. It’s possibly a wee bit egotistical, but a continued dynamic, one rebuilt with new ideas and operating procedures, only helps the listener’s journey all the more.

But who can really see the shape of things to come? That’s why we have to be prepared. Part of that preparation is being aware not only of limitations, but of what’s really possible when the chips are really down. It’s going to take a little know-how, some perseverance, and a buttload of ingenuity by all parties, but I can see myself still at this in a few year’s time, working in a field that’s truly learned its most vital lesson: nothing’s ever set in stone, and there are always lessons to learn.

Oh, and I also hope the Misfits reunite by then.

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