Once upon a time, the record labels searched for talent. Known as the self-appointed gatekeepers of culture; if they believed you were good enough, they would sign you and market you. They would give you money to go away and write songs. Some of those songs would end up on album, some as b-sides, some would be given to other artists and some songs would just remain as demo’s.
What the labels failed to tell the artists, is that the label would own all of those songs and the money the artist received as an “advance” would need to be repaid back to the artist.
Today, the labels are a very different beast. All they want is something they can sell. And they do that by copying what is successful.
So what we have is a plethora of acts that all sound the same.
Of course it does. Go back to the Eighties.
In 1983, Motley Crue broke out and suddenly the labels signed bands that looked and sounded like Motley Crue.
Quiet Riot, Ratt, WASP, Kix, Krokus and Mamas Boys are a few bands that benefited from Motley Crue breaking out of the L.A Sunset Strip scene. The labels even made bands that didn’t look like Motley Crue, look like Motley Crue. Accept, Fastway, Helix, Saxon, Kiss, Tygers of Pan Tang and Dokken are a few bands that had a “look and feel change” to their wardrobes.
Then Bon Jovi breaks out towards the end of 1986 with “Slippery When Wet” and suddenly we have the labels signing bands that look and sound like Bon Jovi. Plus they also make bands that didn’t sound like Jovi, create albums that sound like Jovi. Kiss delivering “Crazy Nights” is a perfect example of a pre-existing band delivering a Bon Jovi sounding album.
Then two years later, Guns N Roses breaks out and suddenly we have the labels signing bands that look and sound like Guns N Roses. Roxx Gang, Skin N Bones, Bullet Boys, Plus they also make bands that didn’t sound like Guns N Roses, create albums that sounded similar.
Thrash metal as a moment broke out by 1985 and suddenly we had a plethora of labels signing bands to write thrash music. Then Metallica breaks out commercially with the Black album in 1991. This time the labels didn’t sign any new acts, but all of the trash bands on labels were asked to deliver albums that sounded like the Black album.
Then Nirvana breaks out and brings the sounds of Seattle to the masses. So what do the labels do? They drop nearly every hard rock/metal act and go and sign acts that play the Seattle sound. They even get existing bands to look like Seattle. I remember Megadeth wearing flannel shirts in 1994. Same deal for Motley Crue with Corabi on vocals. Metallica went even more Gothic/Surrealism/Industrial like with their look in 1995.
See a trend happening here.
The labels didn’t give a shit about the artists. Once the artist stopped selling, the A&R reps stopped calling.
So what do we have in 2016?
It’s all about the money. The label is only interested if you can generate dollars, right off the bat because in the past, all of the money was in the recordings. But the artist also wants to be paid as soon as they put up a song or an album for release. What happened to the saying “It’s all about the music”?
Sure, money is important, but in reality (and between the Seventies and the late Nineties), only 1% of acts who crossed over, got paid some serious dough. The others got advances, which they had to pay back from sales. This in turn led to a lot of artists classed as unrecouped. And while in the past, the money was in the recordings, today the money is in the touring and all the rest that comes with it.
But the money tree is changing. There will be more money from recordings again as streaming gets more market share and revenue rises. The labels are making more money now than they’ve ever been.
While a lot has changed, one thing that hasn’t changed is that good records still sell and remain in the charts and in the public conversation for a long time. While in the past, MTV made bands into Platinum stars and built their careers overnight, today’s quest for stardom is more in line with that of the Seventies era, which was run by rock bands.
And what did the rock bands do?
They wrote music, played shows from city to city. TV was irrelevant for success in the Seventies and it’s irrelevant again in 2016. The only time TV sold music was during the Eighties and Nineties when MTV led culture.
In the Seventies, you built up your career, from band to band, city to city, cover band to cover band and whatever else you could do that put you in front of a live audience. Today you build up a career online, from YouTube video to YouTube video, from Facebook post to Facebook post and whatever else you need to do to get your name in front of people.
We’re never going back to the past. To participate in the present, it’s all about earning and maintaining attention. Financial rewards come many years after, but you need to be around to capitalise on it, building that ongoing relationship with your audience.
Which means you need to be a lifer in music.