Thursday
May312012

FUCK. THIS. NOISE.

I'm telling you, you're coming along at a very dangerous time for rock n' roll. That's why I think you should turn around, go back, you know, and be a lawyer or something.

-Almost Famous


The first time I found myself alone with Jay-Z I was as wet as a drowned rat and an hour late to work.
My alarm clock, the bane of my existence, had let me sleep in again, and when I ran out of my dorm without an umbrella I managed to convince myself that the hoodie on my back would protect me from the unassuming drizzle outside. Forty-five minutes later at the mouth of the 49th Street subway station, the ridiculous delays I encountered on the tracks were explained by the torrential, apocalyptic monsoon erupting above. There was no saving me, and no turning back with my tardiness, so as I dashed west past the Ambassador Theatre toward WorldWide Plaza I prayed I would at least be able to slip in undetected, and wring out my hair in the bathroom sink.

 

I had wiggled my way into an assistant position at Island Def Jam at the age of nineteen while still going to school full time, and while this led to many sleep-deprived days and tedious all-nighters, I thought, most of the time, that it was worth it. I was supplementing my studies as a Recorded Music major with real life experience, gaining useful contacts, and getting paid moderately well; While I didn’t necessarily think I had found my dream job, I thought the credentials were worth the effort.

And, you know, I got into a lot of kickass parties.

 

You get a glamorous job like this (answering phone calls and packaging mountains of Fall Out Boy posters) by expending endless amounts of enthusiasm about any and all of the artists on the roster and uncomplainingly working for free, at first. When I moved to New York for college I started going into the office and helping with mailings on my days off, so when a position opened up I was already there, salivating at the prospect of thirteen dollars an hour. I had acquired three years of on-the-ground experience in high school while running their Street Team1 in St. Louis, so I was no stranger to the workings of the company-- I had watched countless bands try and fail to satisfy the colossal appetite of the major label system, as they were heralded as the next big thing for a time, and then unceremoniously kicked to the curb when the sales numbers didn’t meet projections. I knew that while the ideal of Artist Development was still alive, its practice was contingent on quarterly reports, and that in reality, it was the Finance Department whose opinion mattered most. And the longer I was there, the more I began to recognize something even more disturbing, something I hadn’t expected to find in this swanky west side office: the unmistakable stench of desperation and fear.

 

See, as it turns out, I came along at kind of a bad time for record companies, especially this one.

Did you know that music sales aren’t doing very well?

I won’t insult your intelligence with all the gory details, but let’s just say they’re down, and have been falling steadily since 2000. CD sales are spiraling into oblivion, and digital sales are not even close to making up the difference.

I hope I haven’t blown your mind.

 

Music Industry

 

Also, a little over a year before I got there, most of the upper echelon of the company jumped ship when head Lyor Cohen took the $100 million he made off IDJ’s sale to Universal in 1999 and ran off to the new Warner Music Group, where he was given a $3 million/year salary (plus up to $5 million in annual bonuses.)

Eventually just about everyone who was “anyone” went with him, though it wasn’t for that kind of money. (To be honest, I don’t really understand how a hemorrhaging industry that won’t give its employees dental insurance can justify over-compensating its CEO… especially when Warner’s share price has fallen 72% since 2005, and is downsizing every quarter to try and shed some of its debt… but this is corporate America, after all, and I digress.)

 

So Lyor, Julie, and most of the old guard I had come to know and revere, they were long gone when I first laid eyes on the lobby of 825 8th Avenue, but they had been replaced with far flashier names: L.A. Reid, former Babyface band mate and Arista head honcho, and, of course, the man I found staring at me when the elevator doors opened the day I left my umbrella at home.

 

Jay-Z’s office was on the floor above me, so my glimpses of him were rather rare and almost always in a crowd. Occasionally you’d find him walking through the halls to a meeting, sometimes having a conversation in a doorway, but usually people went to him.
Tucked away behind inconspicuous double doors with a private kitchen and a corner view, he was never on display, and when you did see him, the security and cohorts that were constantly in orbit made him less than approachable.
So when I looked up, still dripping from my two-avenue dip, and blushing from the security guards’ hysterical (and all the more reassuring) reaction to my arrival, I was not nearly as shocked by seeing him as by seeing him alone.

And, of course, bone dry.

 

Naturally, my heart rate skyrocketed, I turned a lovely shade of puce, and I stood there like a total idiot until the doors started to close, and I snapped to my senses and got in the car. As I stepped in, I noticed how good he smelled, and was even more embarrassed by what was certainly an aroma of wet, stanky cotton emanating from my own direction.

 

Understand, I had envisioned my talks with him many times, almost as many times as I imagined making out with Gavin Rossdale when I was in middle school, and it did not begin like this. From the moment I heard of his impending arrival as the new President of Def Jam I was so freaking excited about working for HOVA that I did not care that my former mentors had abandoned my label.
I had always been inspired by his intelligence and moxie, his musical talent, and ability to make shit tons of money;
He was not a business man, but a business, man!
When no one would sign him in 1996, he created Roc-A-Fella Records and released Reasonable Doubt independently, heralding in one of the most successful and iconic hip-hop brands of all time.

He was an entrepreneur, a comrade-- not a corporate dinosaur-- who could understand the new dynamic landscape of our industry.

 

See, when Napster was shut down in 2003, I remember realizing for the first time that it was very possible that the heads of the companies I was aspiring to work for had no clue what they were doing. They had, in essence, the largest audience in one place that they had ever had, and with the law on their side, could manipulate it to their advantage. Do you have any idea how many people USED Napster?2 Or how many people would have, if it hadn’t been sued into oblivion?

Had they not acted like stupid farty old codgers without the sense to realize the potential of such a tool, record companies would have been able to supplement (already) declining CD sales with revenue from the digital realm-- or, exactly what they are trying to do now, years later.

Jay-Z, with his appreciation of digital dissemination3 and new revenue streams (the man has his fingers in dozens of different pies,) would surely lead us into the future.

 

From my own point of view, aside from online ventures, I saw the rise of publishing and licensing as a potential boon for our own business-- Universal Publishing, after all, had agreements with all of our artists, and they were owned by the same company! And they made our artists money! And actually made money themselves! And what do you know, their departments were: Marketing, PR/Publicity, New Media, Advertising, Communications, Film and TV Licensing, Business Affairs, Creative/A&R, Finance… the same as us! Why, then, weren’t we taking our cues, or even merging our business, with them?4

This was what I thought about while sitting in class and in my cubicle: fresh, new, exciting ideas for the music business!

I understood the possibilities of the new digital age!

I was the new generation, and I had all the answers!

These were the things I wanted to say to Jay-Z.

Instead, with an embarrassed twitter, I managed, “Forgot mah umbrella.”

 

Yes. You. Did.

 

He smiled, thank the gods, and seemed to genuinely take pitty on me.

He saw that I pushed 28, and he knew I worked for him.

I felt the puddles in my shoes oozing onto the carpeted floor.

 

“Got a little wet,” he offered.

I laughed and nodded, mortified. When the doors opened, I put my arm up in a half-wave-Nazi-style-salute, and squished away with all due haste.

Moments later, I was greeted at my cubicle (which, did I mention? I shared) with another round of guffaws.

Life, mercifully, went on.

 

But that was certainly not the last time I would be laughed at in that office. As time passed and I continued to harp on my ideas about getting away from the old bastions of Top 40 radio marketing and CD sales, many of the people I worked with started to see me as a bit of a loony-- because at major labels these days, the employees basically fall into two categories:

Skeptics and Believers.

 

The Skeptics, with whom I will rank myself, are those that realize that the business model is not working, and in many ways, is getting worse for everyone.

I would guess that most of the thousands of record company employees who have been laid off in the last 10 years fall into this category as well.

The Believers, on the other hand, think that their brilliant new ideas (see: product-branded labels, 360° deals, and ad-sponsored music sites) will not only revive their companies, but make them even more powerful and lucrative. They also think that they are still the best solution for artists, and serve them better than other distribution solutions.

As a Skeptic, I think this is horse shit.

 

This opinion started to form in my brain even before I started working for IDJ, but didn’t really come to fruition until the following instance, which took place a few months before I put in my notice:

We are in (another) meeting, and we are talking about one of our new artists, Courtney Jay.

She is a 30-something singer-songwriter from somewhere, who reminds me a bit of Sheryl Crow, if Sheryl Crow made a rather mediocre pop record. But she can sing, and she is talented enough, and she will tour tour tour til we break her in some market.

Naturally I am thinking she will be on the Adult Contemporary circuit, and that we will put her on the road with a band or singer that draws the middle-aged women that will like her. She looks kind of old compared to most of our female artists, so I’m thinking dimly-lit clubs.

 

And I find out that L.A. Reid has decided we are going to market her to 9-15 year-old girls.

Because 9-15 year-old girls buy CDs.

My protests go unrecognized.

 

This is when I realize that we do not give a fuck about what is best for this artist, who we have promised the world and are sending on a suicide mission to The Limited Too.

This is when I realize L.A. Reid still thinks we can make money off of new, unbroken artists with album sales.

In the following months, I will send street teamers out to disperse Courtney Jay stickers at screenings of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and the week her album Traveling Light comes out, it will sell about 600 copies. Courtney will be dropped before a single quarter passes, and soon her A&R will follow.

 

Today, you can’t even find Courtney Jay on the internet-- a major label artist that was released nationwide cannot even be Googled. What does that say about her promotion and marketing, the promise of which was probably the main reason she signed with us to begin with?

What does that say about our ability to keep any kind of promise to our artists?

 

Every time an artist is signed, you hear the obligatory chorus of “Welcome to the Family!” from all corners of the company; every time one is dropped, it’s hushed up like a back-alley abortion.

And this will continue as long as artists themselves are Believers-- and that mindset, apparently, simply will not die.

 

The majority of musicians believe in their heart of hearts, I think, that they need a major record label to be successful, or at least think that being on a major will increase their chances of success. For most, this is the tragedy of their careers.

In order to prove them wrong I guess I will need to present some evidence to the contrary, so I’ll just go back to our friend in the elevator, who sparked his career with his own brand, his own label, and a healthy dose of hustle. Now he’s worth almost half a billion dollars.


Why, then, won’t artists take the high road?

Sure, it might require a little more legwork in the beginning, but the rewards of owning and controlling your own art, image and brand are worth it if you plan to have any sort of longevity. The way is more open than ever, but everyone keeps turning back.

I’m assuming this is because the myth of the major continues to lure them in, and few artists have the willpower to resist.

Resisting, however, is the way of the future, and it’s easy to see why: given the increasingly hopeless state of their primary source of revenue, labels are now turning to “360° deals” while laying off large portions of their staffs.

 

A 360° deal, or an All-Around Ass Fucking, as we Skeptics (ok, me,) like to call them, usually looks something like this for a new artist:

-The label gives you an advance to make or finish your record.

In the case of a band that is upstreamed from a feeder label (an increasingly popular practice) or that is already enjoying some independent success, they may give you a signing bonus since your record has probably already been made or written and will require less investment.

That bonus, and any money they give you to record-- less and less these days-- is of course totally recoupable.

Once the album is finished, the label

-Owns 100% of the recordings

   -Forever

   -Often even if everyone you know at that label leaves and goes somewhere else

-Can reject any/all of the material you give them and force you to change it

-Will make you agree to accept a lower, fixed royalty rate, forcing you to sign away the privilege of enjoying the rights afforded to artists by federal copyright law

-Makes you forfeit royalty rights

   -on 15% of your albums (free goods, baby!)

   -then reduces your royalty rate to a fraction of what it started as, through a series of stupid, sneaky tricks, like imposing a 25% CONTAINER charge on DIGITAL sales

-Ensures that any debt you owe them from previous albums rolls over to new ones

-Ensures that you cannot break up with them, but they can break up with you.

   -Whenever they want

 

This is all status-quo, nothing new, the norm in the Biz.

We’ve all seen that Behind the Music: TLC where they talk about selling millions of records and never seeing a dime, right?

So that’s just the jump-off.

Now:

-The label starts talking about “profit sharing,” like some wise investor that is going to help you get your company off the ground.

   By “sharing,” they mean they are going to tap into your other sources of income, like merchandise, touring, licensing, ringtones, sponsorships, partnerships-- basically, all of the aspects of the music industry that are still making money, and that artists until now have made most of their income from.

-You sign away a portion of virtually all music-related revenue you receive. Now, aside from paying a cut to your manager, lawyer and agent, you get to pay your label for doing the same thing it did before you agreed to give them so much more of your proverbial pie.

-The label devotes the same amount of time and energy to you as they would have if you had just signed away the rights to your master recordings.

 

Oh and by the way, they’re still going to keep downsizing.

And paying their employees less than people doing the same jobs at other music companies.

And posturing like they have all the money in the world by paying their CEOs ridiculous salaries and throwing lavish Christmas parties.

 

So there are fewer people working for you, trying to do more with less, and now they want to take a chunk of your merchandise sales.

Also, I think it’s important to note that they aren’t even making money from your music anymore. They’re making money from your “brand.”

Remember “all about the music?”

Psht.

This is all about the TAG Body Spray.5 And your t-shirts.

 

Now, like I said before, I have friends at these majors, and most of them are still Believers.

360° deals, they preach, allow labels to stop focusing on the BIG HITS, and start focusing on artists’ careers.

Paramore LOVES their 360° deal, I’m told.

Well, I get why they love that they are touring, selling t-shirts, and getting press.

But do they LOVE paying twice the price for the same service?

I mean, they have a manager. It’s his job to “focus on their career.”

It’s the label’s job to get them on the radio.

 

If not for getting you a Top 40 hit, what the hell can they do that an independent promotions company, your booking agent and your manager can’t do?

And if your label is going to be your manager, why are you still paying everyone else?

 

In my view, it’s the manager’s job to protect the artist from the label-- with a deal like this, he’s not only letting the artist give up way more than they have to, but he’s basically saying that his own job is obsolete.

And if you think you need a major label to “brand” you, you obviously haven’t met the press, a publicist, or the internet.

 

And this is where I think there’s the most evidence to support my theory that new artists have no reason to sign to a major: with the possibilities of today’s increasingly independent music-service sector and the rise of digital distribution, there is absolutely nothing a major can do for you that with a little hustle, you can’t do for yourself.6

You can put your music on iTunes or any other online store, make a website, book and promote shows, find fans, post music, and sell CDs, t-shirts, booty shorts, and tickets all from the comfort of your bedroom. Hell, you can do it for free at the local library.

You can find coalitions of independent artists and venues with a simple Google query; you can find management, booking, legal representation, publicists, agents, distributors, stylists, photographers, directors, band mates and back-up dancers without ever going near a label.

You can get recording gear at more and more affordable rates, or go to the Apple store, fire up Garage Band, and record a song for free.

You can decide what you look and sound like, and you can decide where all your money goes.

Most importantly, you can get money from the same sources that labels are now trying to dip into without a middle-man.

 

Even for established artists, for whom it might be worth it to buy into a major deal for the large advance (and given their leverage, easy terms,) it is now clear that sidestepping the label can be a far more lucrative and empowering move. Case in point: Madonna and Jay-Z’s multi-million-dollar deals with Live Nation. Though they are in effect entering into 360° deals, the enormous amounts of cash offered (advances of over $15 million, it is reported, just for signing the deals, and up to $120 and $150 million respectively over several years) make up for giving up a share of their various revenue streams. Labels simply can’t compete with those numbers, especially up front, so for artists that are already brand-names, there’s really no reason to settle for the more controlling and less rewarding environment of a major.

 

This is perhaps what Jay-Z was thinking about when he recorded:

Forget this rap shit I need a new hustle

A little bit of everything, the new improved Russell

I say that reluctantly cause I do struggle

As you see I can't leave, so I do love you

 

in 2006, just after I left Def Jam. He did the same at the end of 2007, probably so he could finalize his Live Nation deal.

Despite loving [Def Jam founder] Russel [Simmons], he did leave, and so did most of his Roc-A-Fella camp.

Everyone should leave, if you ask me.

 

And on that note I’m going to turn to kindred spirit Steve Albini, producer and musician, who summarized the jist of this argument a decade and a half ago better than I ever could:

"Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.

Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the lackey says, ‘Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim it again, please. Backstroke.’

And he does, of course."7


I like to think that on the other side of that trench is me, Steve and the other Skeptics that still care enough to stick around, despite the rancid stench.

We will be there if and when you claw your way out, and we will even lend you our soap.

C’mon out, and we can change clothes and go.

 

 

 


1 A few words on “street teams”: they offer wearisome positions that often entail annoying and humiliating activities, like pretending to be a rabid sign-holding Hoobastank fan outside of TRL. The good ones, however, offer perks that make up for this—namely, they will pay you to go to concerts and get you free tickets in exchange for sticker and flyer dispersal. This is why, from ages 15 to 20, I never had to pay to go to a show.

2 28 million in 2000.

3 Remember when he released all those a cappella tracks for DJs to remix? And Danger Mouse made that awesome Beatles mash-up that EMI soon quashed? That was fun.

4 Forcing artists to sign with the in-house publisher has been the norm at those labels that have them for a good long time, but publishing houses have never really managed to establish the sexy brand loyalty that certain labels historically have-- and perhaps that's why many artists don't realize it's THOSE guys who can probably make them the most money.

5 IDJ recently announced a new imprint, solely funded and sponsored by TAG.

6 Except, again, maybe get you on Top 40 radio. Radio promotion is a weird incestuous facet of the industry that I don’t quite understand, and won’t try to here—I mean, without payola, what’s the point?

7 “The Problem with Music,” MAXIMUMROCKNROLL #133.

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Reader Comments (2)

Brilliant post, nicely done. And thanks for mentioning all those blogs - you have introduced to me to three new blogs and I love them all! Cheers.

July 26, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterxnxx

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August 9, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterxhamster

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