Songwriting

Well, I was going to sit down and write all about EMI’s chief executive officer quitting the label yesterday. He says something like: ‘I cut out the deadwood and ramped up the profits’, they say something like :’er, we’re £30BILLION in debt this QUARTER!’  Anyway, I was going to talk again about how the major labels pushed so much money into mega-deals with the likes of Coldplay and Robbie Williams (£100 million advance to the latter, I recall) way back when filesharing was something gangs of inmates did in prisons when there were a lot of bars to cut through, and when the global financial crisis was still just an ickle credit crunch. I was then going to link seamlessly into some opinion of the IFPI’s (International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry) little report, published yesterday, in which they rather desperately assert that the role of the record company in the twenty-first century is as relevant as it ever was. The IFPI is the leading provider of statistics and data about the very nuts-and-bolts end of the music industry, if you ever need to see the real numbers behind the ‘cd sales down by 18.34% this quarter’, or ‘Beyonce tops streaming revenue for 2009’ headlines, and if you like pi charts in bright primary colours, theirs is the site to visit. Anyway, their report was an answer to the oft-cited opinion that tends to get thrown around a lot by new-media voices at the moment, namely that, with digital distibution, fan-funding, Soundcloud, Bandcamp  etc, there really is no real need for record labels to exist at all; that the keys to international megastardom are in the hands of bands and acts already; and if they can’t manage to turn a profit with the tools that are out there, they must just be workshy layabouts.

To this, the IFPI’s response is something along the lines of. ‘Hmm, yeah, hmm. You know those, ahem, er, ‘internet success stories’, like, oh, Arctic Monkeys, Nizlopi, Sandy Thom, those bedroom acts that broke through with nowt but determination, web-savvy and talent? Er, we might have just accidentally given them a bit of help, like.’ Actually, no offence meant to the Monkeys, who were packing out gigs for years before they ever got an album cut, but no, unfortunately, big success from home-grown methods is not quite so common as it might seem. In fact, the IFPI report says that breaking a new band costs at least a million US dollars, with a breakdown being along these lines: $200,000 is paid out in an advance, $200,000 is spent on recording, $200,000 is needed for three promotional videos, $100,000 goes on tour support and $300,000 is pumped into marketing and promotion. They also mention that for a label to consider an act as a ‘profit centre’, it needs to sell 600,000 units. That’s the point at which they start returning your calls.

As a small label with a budget in the low four-figure region, those statistics look a bit gloomy, but it’s a different business altogether up there at the majors, and shouldn’t really be confused with what we and other small labels do. What I can say is that, if you have a roster of hundreds of acts and a business model in which devoting a single member of staff purely to think of clever ways of selling product on the cheap is unfeasible; if your business has reached the size and success where people demand to be paid for their work rather than doing so out of favours or the promise of paid work ‘when we get set up’; if you’re servicing the demands of the acts who do sell 600,000 records – then that figure of $1million is very believable. In fact, the only part of it that seems a bit fishy is that it’s actually quite low. The IFPI statement was a way of pointing out that although there are many acts who have managed to find some other entity to act as bank in the business of breaking a record into the public consciousness, 99% of the time that bank will be a record company. And we all stroked our beards and thought, yes.

Then OK! Go, (EMI signees, internet innovators, youtube darlings, car-insurance salesmen and, apparently, musicians) came out with their own statement that they were quitting EMI, mid-campaign, because they felt they didn’t need a label. EMI are a bit miffed by this because they’ve been chucking money at OK! GO for months, funding a marketing jamboree and tour, but not seeing anything like the sales that the expenditure would warrant. The band are famous for interesting videos, one paid for by a car insurance company. EMI didn’t get a cut of that money, and pissed the band off by asking them not to let bloggers embed the vids in their blogs. YouTube hits can be moentized, blog embeds can’t. OK! Go can count on 2million-plus YouTube hits, but that doesn’t equate to record sales in the kinds of numbers EMI needed to see. The band claim they can make a better living out of their own approach than they can from the traditional ‘write songs, record ’em, play ’em, sell ’em’ model that all those old fogey purists would have them take. Sell records! Why not write car insurance jingles instead, you pathetic dinosaurs!

Anyway, I was going to write about all that stuff, but decided not. Instead I’m going to talk about songwriting. Today and over the weekend I am going to have a crack at writing a song. Well, lyrics anyway. Never done this before, but I’m in as good a place now as any to start. One of our acts has a lovely melody recorded, over which the singer – not having any words written yet – sang some made-up gobbledegook just to give an idea of where the song might go. I have that recording now and am going to see if I can come up with something meaningful to put in where the words should be. Seeing that I scorn any songline of a lesser intriguing quality than Joni Mitchell’s Amelia, this could be a long few days:

I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
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