The new sharks

I get fed up reading about how Music 2.0 has levelled the playing field for artists, how it has released them from the deathgrip of exploitative record labels (major and indie) and allowed them complete and total control over their means of production; creative decisions; fan interaction; and financial strategy. I’ve almost given up trying to stay abreast of the slew of blogposts that I get links to every day, all of them taking the premise that there has never been a better time to be a musician; that nothing stands between musicians and their audience, etc. Two observations: the articles are, generally speaking, much more widely distributed than their contents usually merit. Mainly, I believe, because they contain the message that distributing recorded music for free is beneficial to musicians. That tends to be quite a popular message amongst those who spend their time distributing blogpost links, much more so than the unfashionable idea that recorded music – if it has any possibility of maintaining (let alone increasing) its quality and relevance – needs to be paid for. So, if one were to rely on Digg, Reddit or any other online indicator of blogpost popularity to get an idea of the zeitgeist, the overwhelming sense would be of a huge swing toward the free-music giveaway model as the risk-free, all-reward, no-pitfalls strategy that will benefit everybody – musicians, consumers, promotors. Everybody except the BigMusic fatcats in their cocaine-lined offices sobbing over an industry that they ‘failed to adapt to’. My second observation on the more popular blogposts that preach the benefits of Music 2.0 is that they are often written by individuals who derive a portion of their income from monetizing their proselytism. By which I don’t mean that they use the Music 2.0 model themselves as their sole source of sustenance (that would actually be quite encouraging). What I mean is that, quite often, articles written in favour of Music 2.0 are written by people who have as part of their career portfolios a vested interest in seeing the model embraced. Lecturers on new-media; members of professional think-tanks; speakers at conferences; authors of guides to the new economy, etc. I don’t dismiss their findings, or the methods they propose to musicians and music-workers. Some of the ideas that have come through the Music 2.0 revolution have been really useful. However, I do think it’s important to know whether the advice they give is entirely innocent of ulterior motive.

Doubtless, Music 2.0 is working for some acts. By Music 2.0 I mean: distributing recorded music for free via internet social networks, thus developing awareness of an act, thus creating a sense of brand loyalty, thus monetizing that brand loyalty through the sales of music or merchandise; utilizing web-based interaction as a method of fan-product-brand engagement; using recorded music and live performance as a tool in the building of brand loyalty, etc. I have no doubt that there are acts who have used it to derive a living. Crucially though, I think there are huge numbers of acts who are finding that it does NOT work for them. That’s the bit that doesn’t get mentioned. You see, I’m coming to the conclusion that the Music 2.0 route is as Darwinian and cruel as the BigMusic structure ever was. Only that failure in Music 2.0 costs acts a whole lot more than the old labels model ever did. At some point, every act needs an investment of cash to reach a level of recognition that is greater than they can achieve without it. Whether that money is spent on publicity, equipment, touring, costumes, lights doesn’t matter, it’s an expense. There always comes a point where a band needs to spend some money. In the traditional music industry, that money was provided by a label, as an up-front advance on sales income. The money was often subject to all sorts of horrible payback regulations and extorsions, yes, the old industry was shark-like in that respect. Yet, the money was provided – if the act was deemed likely to recoup the investment (by a factor upwards of 50 or more). In Music 2.0, an act is expected to come up with that development money via fans. Fan-funding is a big business now, not least to the companies who provide fan-funding platforms and charge a percentage for the service. But to fan-fund, you need fans, and there’s only so many of those you can make by sending free Mp3s to people’s Facebook pages. Fans come from the expensive stuff – touring, advertising, broadcasting, professional PR. Bands get impatient, they feel they need to accelerate the process. The ‘new sharks’ I refer to in the title of this post are the ones I really feel sick about. The new sharks are the pond-slime that are multiplying fastest in the music industry right now, and they are some of the sickest, most exploitative leeches that ever crawled the planet.

What they do is latch onto the dreams and hopes of the inexperienced, optimistic, positive, naive and downright desperate, and squeeze them for every penny they have. You may say that the old industry did the same – but at the very least, the old industry provided acts with either a) a bit of cash upfront or b) a short, sharp rejection. They also had a reason to make the product as good as possible – it’s success was where they made their money. What I’m disgusted by is the new exploiters, who capitalize on the musican’s belief that – now that distribution and retail is open to anyone – the only thing standing between them and a lucrative career as a musician is X (X being the service/product/contact that the leech claims to provide). X can be any number of things, but today I’m annoyed about rogue ‘producers’.

Have a listen to this vocalist:

Now have a listen to her again, duetting on another record:

One of these records was made here at BlancoMusic. It was produced by Robin Taylor-Firth.

The other was produced by someone else, whom I won’t name.

We can’t claim total innocence here. The BlancoMusic record was done a couple of years ago, we haven’t released it yet. The band has twelve members, sending them out on tour would cost 50,000 euros a year, minimum. When we have that kind of money to invest, we’ll do it, but until then the record has to go on hold. Obviously, that’s not going to accelerate the vocalist’s career, and she felt she had to do something to move herself on. That’s a good show of energy on her part, a pity it was exploited so ruthlessly.

One of these records was produced in a hired studio, with the producer being paid by the hour, with no interest in anything other than scalping the musicians for as much as he could get. No interest in making it a better record, in helping them come up with a better song, a better approach, to encourage them or spend any time sitting down to talk about what might be reasonably achieved with the record, where to market it, who to play it to, or anything of the sort of fucking decency, collaboration, empathy, expertise, knowledge or taste that a producer should bring to a project. You decide which song is which.

Somewhere along with all this freedom of Music 2.o, somewhere along with all its wonder and optimism, the message has become twisted to ‘success is there for everyone now – the gatekeepers are gone, the evil corporations are destroyed and it’s all yours for the taking’. And with that the sharks have just gone into a feeding frenzy. I know that the naive and innocent will always be prey. I know the comments board is going to explode into lists of reasons why I’m wrong about this, and they’ll be very well-made points, and will prove me to be absolutely misguided. I know all that, but I also know that I am sickened to my core by what that ‘producer’ did. Don’t tell me that Music 2.0 is fair.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The new sharks

  1. Yes, the second record is horrible, and shows the difference a decent producer makes – it shoulds like a rough demo.

    But was it really necessary to put a 12-piece band on the road before you could release the first record? Listening to it, it doesn’t sound like it needs anything like 12 people to reproduce it live – a duo or trio could probably do it justice, albeit with a stripped-down arrangement.

    • @Tim
      Just lost a quite extensive reply to your comment somehow, so I’ll have to re-do it quickly.
      Patricia’s song is quite simple, you’re right. It wouldn’t take much to reproduce live. However, it’s the only song on the album that she appears on. The rest of the band are scattered all over the place – Cuba to the west, Germany to the east, and a number of spots including Leeds, Ibiza and London in between. They’re all pursuing their own music careers to varying degrees of success at their locations, and also, raising families etc. Putting BudNubac together for a ‘tour’ would be logistically a little like the first half-hour of The Blues Brothers, and would need to be a more definite source of guaranteed income than I can currently offer them.
      They did a small tour in 2006, when the first album was released. It came out on Faith and Hope records. They stumped up some tour support, it was back when live shows still had a reasonable impact on record sales, as did tv and radio promotion. The album when to number 2 in the Spanish charts, which was where all the promotional push was centered. It wasn’t a huge success, no gold or platinum sales, but it recouped and everyone got paid. Since then the Spanish market has collapsed, and BudNubac’s new album is sitting on BlancoMusic’s shelves waiting for the market to change again to some sort of structure that would allow us to take a chance on a band that size. That change seems to be coming, albeit slowly. In the interim, 2-pieces and solo acts are our only feasible option. The record will come out, but we need a healthier market before it can do so. Spain isn’t that market (although it’s nobody’s fault but our own that we’re based here, I’ll concede).

      As I wrote, Patricia’s song was one of the simpler ones on the album, the album preview on the player below gives a better idea of the band’s sound:

  2. Sam

    @Tim
    You’re right – that song would only need two or three. Voice, guitar (or mandolin), and a bit of keyboards. It’s also the only tune on the album that she sings on. The album in question – BudNubac’s ‘See the Sunrise’ is what we’re euphemistically calling in the office ‘a producer’s record’. There are probably ways in which it could be stripped down into a manageable live show, given that there is also an earlier album by the same band which has some simpler tunes on it too. That said, the record has, over its course, the following personnel:
    Vocals:
    Sara Garvey
    Patricia del Olmo
    Dhaphne Porrata
    Justo Salas
    Andrew Lovell

    Percussion:
    Andrew Lovell

    Bass:
    Rawle Bruce

    Flute
    Henrick Linnemann

    Trumpet:
    Enrico Marchese

    Keyboards/Guitar:
    Robin Taylor-Firth

    To reproduce the album live, with all parts covered, would mean taking on another guitarist, because Robin can’t do guitar and keys live. The earlier album also featured an additional vocalist, a dj and a guitarist, so would need extra musicians if that were to be reproduced.

    The band did actually play out live in 2006, when the first album was released. It came out on Faith and Hope records. They were able to support a certain amount of expense in the traditional tour support = record sales model. The album performed reasonably (it would be a lie to say it did well. It recouped though). BlancoMusic now handle everything BudNubac, and our resources aren’t such that we can put the band out live right now. The issue isn’t so much that the travel and accommodation costs are prohibitive (they are, but that’s just an expense to be factored in). The real problem is that the musicians on the record came over to Spain to record, as much out of friendship as anything. Apart from Patricia – the singer I wrote about in the original blogpost – they’re all deep into other pursuits, other responsibilities. Sara’s got a boy in school; Andrew Lovell has a frenetic career as a solo percussionist; Dhaphne and Justo have, I believe, returned to their native Cuba; Enrique plays in an orchestra; the others all have projects on the go that they’re devoting their full attention to. It would be a bit like the opening half hour of The Blues Brothers actually trying to put the band back together, only with fewer gigs available. It’s not a dead project by any means, but it needs the landscape of live and recorded music monetisation to change from the subsistence levels that it’s at right now. Mind you, I think that is happening, albeit slowly. Until it does though, there’s just no way we can ask a bunch of people to drop what they’re doing and take BudNubac out on the road.

    As you pointed out, Patricia’s song was fairly simple in terms of necessary personnel. The player below (if it works in the comments thread) is an album preview, and gives an idea of what the more complex tunes sound like:

  3. Bah! That player doesn’t want to embed in the comments section. I’ll set it in a new post so you can have a listen.

  4. Ah, mystery solved. I wrote the first ‘disappeared’ reply without realizing that I wasn’t logged into wordpress, and that it was still logged in under the account of the previous user (office computer – multiple users). Hence, my comment went into the queue of comments to be approved. Oh well, you can’t say you didn’t get an extensive answer.

  5. Pingback: SubMachena « dadasonic

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