A reader named Aaron sent us a link to an editorial by Huffington Post contributing writer and aspiring singer-songwriter Nathan Harden – an article titled “The Generation That Killed Rock ‘n Roll”. I reluctantly ran through the ill-informed drivel that the opportunistic young artist poured onto the page, in his effort to convince us that we’re killing the very thing we love by downloading and sharing our music for free.
Aaron was curious as to our opinion on the piece, and I felt compelled to oblige. After all, we started this site to do more than slaughter the sacred cows; we’re bringing attention to music we believe in and raising awareness to the ever-changing landscape of the industry. And when hack amateurs with their heads up their asses spew fountains of false propaganda, we’re thankful to have a platform to counter it.
Mr. Harden opens his article with an immensely original assessment: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing the death of Rock and Roll,” supporting this daring new idea by rattling off declining album sales figures and pointing the finger at illegal downloading. He mourns the thinning numbers of music’s corporate tastemakers and trendsetters, the big business machines that built the superstars of generations past, while decrying any notion that the Dead Heroes of yesteryear would bother themselves with adapting to a new promotion model in music.
“Can you, even for a moment, imagine Janis Joplin pouring [sic] over HTML manuals, or Jimi Hendrix spending hours each day spamming potential fans on MySpace?” he asks, before answering it himself. “Not likely. Had those two tried to make it in today’s marketplace, we may never have even heard of them.”
Symbolic imagery aside, you can bet your ass that Hendrix and Joplin would be doing what every other talented unexposed act is doing now, if all the other absurd hypotheticals were in place to make their work relevant today. Their world was a very different one, but if they were around here and now, they’d be analyzing the changing landscape and focusing their attentions on the audience that’s going to have the greatest potential to get into them. And “spamming potential fans on MySpace” is anything but the way to handle yourself if you’re an artist trying to get recognized and respected.
Fuck your billboards, your bus benches, your MySpace blasts and MTV promos. When I see something with an MTV logo on it, I’m headed in the other direction. I’m clicking away from there. The tastemaker that once ruled the roost is now the leprous laughingstock, now more famous for its reinforcement of ugly stereotypes (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, et al.) than anything remotely musical. The best promotion an artist can have is to get sent between appreciative listeners, to be on the stereo in somebody’s car or apartment, a button-pushing endorsement in front of their friends. No, I’m not talking about radio. Radio’s fucking dead, and has been long before Howard Stern left for less-censored pastures. It’s the human connection that matters now, and there’s not a single wacky morning DJ out there who grasps that concept.
“Winning new fans and staying connected to them requires tremendous marketing sophistication.”
This is entirely untrue. Amanda Palmer is the embodiment of what one person can do with a devoted vision and a little bit of creativity. She talks directly to her fans. She stays at their homes with her band when she tours, eats the food they make and provide. She’s able to do this because her fans respond to this woman pouring her everything into a song, a blog, a twitter account, a spontaneous webcam bedroom concert, drunk on wine in Vienna with a friend. She can be relied upon to never compromise, to always speak her mind and attack her demons with warpaint and banshee shrieks. Naked, honest and vulnerable – three of the most reviled concepts in any promotion scheme.
Amanda Palmer built her own brand. She’s surviving, if not thriving, on a basic, pure model. She does it because she walks the walk, and while Nathan “draws the line at downloading,” a thousand more talented acts with better songs are going to get heard and spread around because they weren’t so precious about their material. They pissed all over conventional wisdom, and knew that it’s inherently fucked up to insist on owning your money before you knew what you were buying. And a few of those acts, likely the ones that put in a little more time and effort into figuring out the best way to present themselves as well as developing a presence somewhere on the internet where people can find them, are going to go even further. But if you don’t want to have to learn what the hell Spotify is or how Twitter can help you, you’re not gonna cut it.
Stardom is manufactured, and it’s not measured by talent. Nobody over fourteen is under the impression that cookie-cutter stars Nickelback and Miley Cyrus are the pinnacle of musical achievement, but they’re international phenomenons with staggering sales and exposure. This simpleton argument that we’re killing this beautiful, universal essence by cutting Goliath off at the knees is, reliably, one of two things: either the desperate rantings of the fatcats and middlemen just beginning to feel the gears of this beautiful New Machine tearing into their flesh, or simply the reaction to the cold slap of reality when a hack artist realizes that they’re actually going to have to spill their blood and eat the dirt that comes with paying their dues and building their craft into something respectable, something people want to pay for.
The exception here is Susan Boyle, an unseasoned anomaly completely unfit for the public eye, but she defied every odd in the book. She became William Hung 2.0, and topped the Billboard charts in the process. The internet set fire to that woman with a hundred million clicks, and her resulting flame is strange and bright. But when she burns out, it’s not going to be pretty. She’s a lottery winner, and she’s bound to follow the pattern.
Bob Lefsetz is a brilliant analyst and philosopher on the industry, but he’s got Lady GaGa pegged wrong. She’s more than a lot of flashy distraction – she’s the new model of category-defying ubiquity, marching to her own tune, changing alien outfits a thousand times and engaging in outrageous theatrics onstage. That’s not her label, that’s her. She may be tied to Interscope, but it was through a mix of shock value, talent and brand-building that she’s amassed an army of followers. The tabloids can’t get enough of her, and she’s got the gay community in the palm of her hand – a very powerful demographic scrambling for a new hero now that Cher’s out of the picture and Madonna’s a veiny velociraptor without a shred of creativity left. Want proof? Look at her numbers. Nobody knew who GaGa was at the start of 2008. Less than two years later, she’s got 8 million albums sold, 35 million digital singles and counting and reference points all over the musical spectrum, at a time when the heartiest cash cows are hanging by their hooves in the slaughterhouse.
The internet isn’t killing record labels, it just gave everybody a place to collectively call bullshit, as well as to celebrate a flash-phenomenon during its short shelf life (like Pants on the Ground). Who says file sharing is the problem anyway? That’s bullshit. We’ve covered this already.
Greed, a lack of fresh ideas and stubborn reluctance to meet the rising tide of new media options are what’s killing the majors. As music lovers, students and collectors, we’re not going to ignore what we’ve seen behind the curtain and continue to subsidize the gluttonous unnecessaries that claimed to have our best interests at heart but only got fat on our gullible adherence to the hit cycles, the formulaic promotion schemes. It’s over.
“Consequently, our music is becoming less diverse.”
That’s the most rancid nugget atop the steaming fecal load that Harden’s HuffPost piece is. Whatever sand pile Nathan’s got his head stuck in must not have a good internet connection, because there’s an explosion of music happening right now that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Full-throttled boundary smashing experimentalism is happening everywhere you look.
Now the options are limitless. Down is the new up, and if your music sucks, or even if it’s great and you’ve got a half-cocked plan of action, you’re fucked in the long run. You think Adelita’s Way or Sick Puppies have what it takes to go the distance? Not a fucking chance.
If you think you can fool even some of the people all the time these days, you’ve got a rude awakening headed your way. There’s nobody out there willing to spend jaw-dropping amounts of money to get your music heard, and the ones that do will own you. So you’re going to have to do it yourself. But Nathan, instead of romanticizing about enslaving yourself to a label (giving nearly all revenue to a third party, abandoning creative control and ownership), you should really save yourself the hassle, frustration and wasted time and look into other career opportunities, like shilling for Pantene. Because your music is terrible.
Trent Reznor broke it down cleanly for artists setting sail in this new business climate:
Parter with a TopSpin or similar or build your own website, but what you NEED to do is this – give your music away as high-quality DRM-free MP3s. Collect people’s email info in exchange (which means having the infrastructure to do so) and start building your database of potential customers. Then, offer a variety of premium packages for sale and make them limited editions / scarce goods. Base the price and amount available on what you think you can sell. Make the packages special – make them by hand, sign them, make them unique, make them something YOU would want to have as a fan. Make a premium download available that includes high-resolution versions (for sale at a reasonable price) and include the download as something immediately available with any physical purchase. Sell T-shirts. Sell buttons, posters… whatever.
There’s plenty more to that rant, but the point is that any reluctance to dive in because you’re that precious and short-sighted about the product you’ve created and the climate you created it in is bound to leave you empty-handed, playing to empty bars in some shitty little town nobody’s ever heard of. If you’re lucky.
The Big Rock Star’s arc of success is much shorter, because there’s no end to the scrutiny available on the internet, not to mention the multitude of options. If YouTube were around when yesterday’s heroes were floundering, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be what they are now. There’s no way to hide when your most telling moments are everywhere, on video, for everyone to see. Taylor Swift has had a meteoric rise, selling a bajillion records and winning all sorts of high-profile awards, but even America’s Sweetheart isn’t above the blind axe of evolution. Her Grammy performance was a devastating blow to the purest of images. Years ago, the rumors that she couldn’t actually sing would be largely dismissed as hype-countering sour grapes; nobody that huge could possibly be anything less than exactly what they’ve sold us, could they? But now, with infinite analysis options and qualified opinions piled high online, the heat is on. Miss Swift is going to have to deliver a powerful live performance with a lot of promotion to recover from her humiliatingly off-pitch Grammy performance.
Pearl Jam doesn’t have a label, and by scaling back their goals they succeeded beyond the model. They worked out their own distribution deal for their last album and they continue to sell out shows within minutes. Why? Because the music is good, for starters, but it’s so much more than that. They don’t bullshit their audience, and they go to bat for their fans in ways no other band ever has. But of equal importance is the fact that they adjusted to the shifting business paradigm. They initially took a lot of heat for making a deal with a big box retailer, but when the magnifying glasses came out it became clear that Pearl Jam was looking out for the little guy. In their semi-exclusive retail agreement with Target, the indie record stores were protected and permitted to sell Backspacer. After being tied to Sony for 18 years, they’ve adapted and are now making their own rules. Setting an example. Taking the initiative.
The middleman is an infection, the infestation that only sees in red and black. Harden believes we should mourn their demise. On his MySpace music page, under “label,” it says simply, “coming soon”. He’s apparently waiting for the suits to find him, to see the immense star-power value in his songs (none of which have cracked 1k plays), and snap up the prize that he is. What this misguided musician really seems to be mourning is the loss of his chances at getting his What Have U Done With America abomination on the air, of a label buying in and building some false mystique and hollow hype around his bad songs, the way it used to be done. It’s become next to impossible for Nathan and his peers in the foot bath of the talent pool to fool enough people to make it worthwhile anymore, to trick enough people into buying shit they don’t want.
You hear the remnants of it today when you turn on the radio and they’re still playing Smells Like Teen Spirit. They’re still playing that one song from 1996 that sold a lot of records, because that’s the model for how things used to work, and they’re going to ride that pony till it crumbles beneath them. It’s what they know. It’s all they know.
But Rock ‘n Roll is alive and well, despite the major labels drowning in their own deceit and excess while their hopeful cuckolds-in-waiting wring their hands and write ill-informed articles about why we should keep things the way they’ve always been. If you’re not celebrating the fall of the wretched empire, you’re a part of the problem. If you’re not hearing the genius, it’s because you’re not listening. Rather than crying over the loss of Sam Goody and Tower records, of downturning profits at top-heavy major labels, why not pay a little closer attention to the avenues that are suddenly thriving in this leveled playing field? MySpace and YouTube are the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to outlets for the explosion of great music exposure out there.
Embrace this beautiful, terrifying chaos. Listen closely. Dig deeper. It’s amazing what you’ll find when you let go of your flags and labels, when you cover your eyes to the gimmicks and promotional theatrics and uncover your ears. As with anything, the wastelands and unpleasantries far outweigh the beauty, but if you can find one great tree, there may be many in the surrounding forest to your liking. And if you do find one, respect it. Tell your friends. Go to their shows. Buy their T-shirt. Wear it.
It’s more than possible for bands to book their own shows, promote themselves, make their own music and sell it directly – it’s becoming the norm. The mainstream is becoming the freak show. As music addicts, fanatics and lovers, we’ve been given the most incredible gift imaginable. We’re the first generation to have the entirety of recorded musical history at our fingertips for reference, enlightenment, inspiration and education. We should be cherishing this rare opportunity to rewrite the script, to redesign the business model from the inside out.
But assholes like Nathan Harden are completely missing the point. If you think Rock ‘n Roll is dead, then put down your guitar, abandon your shitty failed MySpace page and dive into the nine-to-five, crybaby.