Pay­ing dues still the best way to make it in mu­sic in­dus­try

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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

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