Brands have taken over the music business. At least that seems to be the impression that has come out of Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. The first victim of commercialism is the festival itself. When the event started, nearly 20 years ago, it was a fairly intimate setting where A&R people would flock to find new unsigned bands. Now it is a huge event where “baby bands” play to empty bars while superstars steal the attention.
That is a whole other story. The more pressing issue is that the music business has become more about various brands using the platform of music to sell their chips, or drinks, or almost anything else. To someone who is a bit of a music purist this is very distressing.
Don’t get me wrong. There was an era at Columbia where you had to be “hip enough” just to get in the room. Big selling acts like Billy Joel, Journey and even Pink Floyd were given a more subservient role in the company and bands like Poi Dog Pondering, Chris Whitely and Jeff Buckley were elevated to elite status. No disrespect to any of these artists, but I recognized that without big selling acts that also sold catalog we would not be able to pay the electric bill. I frequently found myself defending the position that we needed acts like Journey, who among other things had one of the best selling greatest hits collections of all time. Eventually my way of thinking won out, but it was a fight for a while.
Record labels have a well deserved reputation of not being good to artists. The business model allowed the label to consistently underpay artist royalties.You have to be a very successful artist to actually get big checks from you label. One legendary artist told me that he would have to hire an accountant for $25,000 in order to get $100,000 that he was owed by Columbia. Lots of “creative accounting” was always involved. But the one main thing about labels is that most of the people that worked or even still work there, love music. We really can’t say this about the brands that are dominating the industry. For them it is all about money and nothing else.
For these companies it is all about using music to reach potential buyers. They concentrate on the most successful acts, leaving new and upcoming acts at a tremendous disadvantage. It is great for Doritos to jump on Lady Gaga’s back. Is it really that useful for the act? Sure it is money, but at what cost? Proof of the importance of corporations in the music industry is seen in the recent “List of the Top 100 Most Powerful People in the Music Business”. Many corporate execs are on this list, including a marketing person from Citibank who was with the Top 15. I don’t know about you, but when I think about music, I don’t think about my Citicard. But apparently many people do. Citibank has done a great job. The losers are new artists and the public.
Red Bull has a more refreshing approach. They have a record label whose main responsibility is to bring new consumers to their energy drink. They endorse everything from parachute jumps from the edge of space, to a soccer team, to musical acts. The difference is they spend lots of money developing their acts. Within the last few years they have established a band called AWOL NATION. They have spent millions in developing this once unknown band. There is no way this act would have gotten this attention at a major label. The label may have made money on this band but it has taken years. They have done a tremendous job on behalf of the band and it has also helped the core product, Red Bull. But unfortunately, corporations with this kind of commitment are few and far between.
For me it all comes down to this. The rich get richer and everyone else can go to hell. As if the deck has not always been stacked against the “baby band” the recent level of corporate involvement is just another dagger in the heart. I urge these corporations to find ways to help young acts develop. Red Bull has proven it can work. You don’t need to spend the money they have to achieve this goal, but there is a business model that will allow smaller acts to have a significant impact on a product. The public can discover a new band while it finds your product. The brand loyalty that will come from this marriage will be superior to anything involving a major act that the consumer already knows about.
This requires putting people who know something about music in positions at corporations that sell things other than music. People who can identify talent and involve new acts with tremendous potential for a fraction of the cost of signing on a major act. There are a few former industry people that have been brought into non-music corporations. But there are hundreds of very competent music experts that have not found suitable homes for their talents. There have not been many industries willing to recognize that their expertise in music and in marketing would be beneficial to their cause.
It is time for the corporate America to fully take advantage of all the amazingly talented people that could dramatically affect their bottom line. I am not talking about salesman, accountants and product managers, but MUSIC EXPERTS.