Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Illusion Of Bigness

Part of the reason I've made the paycheck jump from indie music to new media is that I remember the days when it wasn't so hard. When I first started my label way back in 1989, the whole scene was different. In addition to the whole hardcore punk genre being a true sub-culture (and thereby more engaged in seeking out music,) the technology and skill barriers to entry into the label biz were significant. (Anyone need a tutorial on how to cut some rubylith?)

At that point Blackout! was one of a handful of labels from NY doing HC with any degree of regularity. It was not unusual for early releases to sell 5,000 - 10,000 copies, and they would sell without a ton of promotion- mostly via ads in a handful of zines like MRR, Flipside, and Suburban Voice. The money generated was always plowed back into the label, so we could record new music, release new stuff, and try to step up the promotion. Even then, I was only able to run the label full time and hire an in-house staff for a very short time in the mid/late 90's.

Since those pre-internet glory days, it's gotten much more difficult to release new bands, spend the money you'd like to make them successful, and actually see a return enough to be self-sustaining, let alone profitable enough to make a real life from. (note about real life: I'm talking about buying a house, paying for a kids college, and medical insurance- not champagne taste and caviar dreams.) My bottom line is that for an unestablished baby band it costs about 5x as much to sell 1/5th of the little shiny things it used to.

Many could argue that Blackout! just has shitty bands now and that I've personally lost touch with what the kids really want. While I'd debate you on the accuracy of the statement, I'd also counter that with ... it's not just me. I've had this same conversation with three other label people over the last few weeks, all three of whom run labels with significantly more annual billing than Blackout! One guy described it as "a war every day", while another said "what the hell else am I gonna do?" It's a perpetual cycle of praying your returns don't outweigh your sales on a month-to-month basis. One hiccup in that cycle and boom- the label is teetering on disaster. Two or three? You get Lookout.

So what's the problem? The perception (and pursuit of) bigness. It's the only source of legitimacy. If it isn't all over the place or a household brand name, then obviously it isn't any good to the industry or the kids.

Labels buy into this. Victory is great at the bigness game and uses it to their advantage. They have massive zine and web ad campaigns, do TV commercials, and lease huge chunks of real estate in primary retail locations. In turn the marketplace responds with success stories like Hawthorne Heights, Taking Back Sunday, and Thursday. All of which wipe away the red ink on losing releases. Lefsetz is right about Victory, it's exactly the major model. I know this isn't possible, but I'd love to know the financial details and what percentage of their revenue comes from "hits" and what their overall P&L is.

Fanzines and big magazines buy into this crap also, cuz it's easy money. Journalistic integrity my ass. Bigger magazines who are regarded as the "alternative bible" are just as much in the pocket of the labels who supply their ad revenue as Republican Senate were led around by the nose by Jack Abramoff. These mags spin it as "we need to show you are supporting your artists with advertising" but the lines are clear- buy ads or we won't write about you. Those who get the press are the ones buying the ads.. or haven't you noticed? Too bad there's really nothing Elliot Spitzer can do about this one. (BTW, all you Williamsburg daddy-pays-my rent bloggers who your cues from NME can step up and join the suck-ass club too. If I see one more fucking Arctic Monkeys post or a glowing review of some other c-list Joy Division rip off band I'm gonna go postal on Bedford Ave.)

Worst of all, the kids, especially the hipsters, buy right into it like the consumer drones they are. Since MTV made rockstars out of the first punk bands- bigness is the name of the
game. It's all about cool. Well little Lindsey Faux-han, you aren't cool becuase of what you buy or buy into. You're still the sheep in punk rock clothing.

The good news? The web is leveling the playing field. MySpace has proven that a social network can be a valuable tool to reach people, albeit with a flawed and selfish model. When someone figures out the equation on how to make it really work for bands and indies, record biz 2.0 will really take shape. Which brings me full circle: I'm just as excited about how these technology advancements will enable music powered by people more and more as I was to hold the colored wax on my first Blackout! LP way back in '89.

1 comment:

William Li said...

My very first job was folding and gluing together record sleaves for one of the first Blackout EPs that you had pressed. I think it was for "Sheer Terror."
Your comment about Lindsay Lohan makes me wonder if this hasn't always been so. Lindsay Lohan comes from a long line of child actors who agreed to be a part of the Disney stable for their youth rather than be exploited by the world at large. That is to say two things (1) that Lohan's fame is the epitome of the industrial process that you hate, but not in any way a new phenomenon (2)it is not a given that Lohan will not linger on past her heyday to have a surreal post-fame fame. On the 2nd point I am thinking of Annette Funicello, who was the one of the first Mouseketeer to be a huge teen star. Her draw as a teen star was basically the 60's version of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. So what? So... "Back to the Beach" is one of those surreal movie watching experiences where you feel as if someone has hijacked the production and randomly mixed in counter-cultural references. My point is: Well I don't really have a point, but I would like to observe that Fishbone is in the movie and to my frustration, no one in my middle school new who Fishbone was except for the three or four people who said "aren't they that lame-ass band that played 'ska ska ska jamacia ska' in the frankie & annette reunion movie?" and I said "I haven't seen the movie and no" but both of those statements were untrue.