Paying dues still the best way to make it in music industry
Last year, 13 millions tracks were put up on iTunes. Of those, 10 million failed to find a single buyer. Remember this the next time you hear somebody wibbling on about the “endless possibilities” offered by all the new music sites and, in particular, the music-oriented social network sites.
Allowing anybody anywhere to get their songs out has not resulted in a brave new DIY world; it just means the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Only one of out of 10 bands on a major label turns a profit. In the good old pre-net days, this meant there was a kind of filter in place (a 10 per cent return isn’t such a bad thing in the mad, bad music world). But now the filters are turned off and we are faced with an incontinent torrent of the truly execrable.
However, the music media is supposed to offer up a welcoming pair of arms to “new music” in all its forms. But a scene that celebrates itself (and sets up forums to do so) does nobody any favours. “We need to develop bands” is the catch-cry. Really? The Beatles developed by going to Hamburg and playing five shows a day seven days a week until they felt ready to approach a record label.
Go back to this year’s SXSW music industry talking shop in Texas. You’ll find that, away from all the incessant and completely meaningless twittering, the only real speech that mattered was by Steve Van Zandt, musician, DJ, E Street band member and ex-Sopranos cast member.
Van Zandt upset the “we’re all in together” mood with a speech that began: “Modern music sucks. It blows. Sure, nobody’s buying records. No shit. They suck. Over the past 30 years I’ve been witness to a crisis of craft.”
That crisis of craft is sorely evident on a daily basis in the pitiful excuse for music put on MySpace pages. “Get better, then get on MySpace” said Van Zandt. “Then when people come to see you, they won’t be disappointed. Don’t expect people to be patient and say ‘oh, they’re a developing act’. Wrong.”
Over 30 years the guitarist has seen how the instant exposure of the social networking site has replaced the once crucial bar-band stage, where “bands get the chance to play other people’s songs, analyse them, understand them. You learn greatness from greatness. The Beatles were a club band for five years and they played covers for five more years.” Not sure if he’s got those figures exactly right, but the point holds up.
That’s how Springsteen and the E Streeters did it. “When we played for 50 people, we knocked those people out,” he said. “That’s why when we came back, there were 200 people. Then 400 people. Then 1,000.”
It’s why so many of today’s potential stadium-fillers fall at the first hurdle, be they X-Factor winners or auteur indie types. They are snapped up in a reckless music industry gambling game and are flung at the public before they’ve played a dozen gigs. No wonder half of them end up crying all the way to The Priory.
Back in Van Zandt’s day, a band would be given up to their fifth album to make an impression instead of, as is the case now, being chucked on the rubbish tip after their first one failed to dent the top 10.
“If a record company knows they’ll share in the revenue when you’re playing arenas,” he says, “maybe they’ll be a little more patient with you.” And any band performing in arenas have literally built up that audience in tiny increments along the way by playing and playing and playing, not by having a nice MySpace page, not by having a “media profile” and not through any other assorted stunt.
Van Zandt: you can take today’s music and shove it