Sony announced that the “On Air – On Sale” system where songs were available to buy as soon as they were released for airplay isn’t working. If like me you’re old enough to remember having to wait weeks for a single to be released instead of just logging on to a file-sharing server and downloading it for free may see this as even more proof that record labels are indeed an endangered species. Anyone born before the 1990’s will remember how institutional record labels were. It was simple; to make a record you needed a record label, ideally a major one.
There were few exceptions to this rule, as most artists needed record or publishing company funding just to cut a demo. With advancing technology this all changed. Once digital multi-track recorders became available bands could cut a decent enough demo themselves for little more than £1000 and as the tech became more widespread those costs tumbled. Now anyone with a cheap laptop and Cubase can record full-blown albums for next to nothing.
Of course quality varies greatly and while you can spend tens of thousands on recording equipment it is perfectly possible to record an airplay ready album on a budget of less than a grand, provided you have enough time, knowledge and talent to do so. Unfortunately in my experience I suffer lack of training when it comes to mixing the record and whilst I can hear what I want it to sound like, actually achieving my goal always falls short of my expectations. Still even I can record a demo-quality song and have it on the world wide web in no time.
Sites like MySpace, Reverb Nation and Sound Cloud offer a free service to any aspiring artist, currently MySpace and Reverb Nation do offer premium services for those wishing to use them but if you can create your own buzz then you don’t really need them. The growth of these sites in less than a decade is exponential but while on the surface this is a good sign for independent musicians it’s not without its problems.
Music based social network sites are in my opinion becoming the new record labels. They make a mint on advertising in the knowledge they will get more than enough hits to keep the advertisers happy thanks to the musicians who are publicising their website for free. There’s nothing wrong with this method because both parties are getting something for nothing; the artists are getting a free place to air their music and the social networks are getting free promotion. The problem with this however comes with the fact that anyone can upload a song and promotes the hell out of it in order to get higher ratings. This not only means these sites are awash with spam but it also means there’s an emphasis on quantity not quality.
I recently decided to log back onto my MySpace account after a long absence with the view of checking out the MySpace charts and hopefully find some brilliant new music. I was disappointed with what I found. Among the ‘Major Label’ artists chart was a bunch of songs that had blatantly only got into the top 10 by means of complete and utter spamming or possibly even hacking. More than half of it was complete BS. The ‘Indie Label’ chart faired even worse with a bunch of mere ‘samples’ (yes the sort dance artists mix with other samples to create a full song) out ranking some very cool bands. The worst hit was the ‘Unsigned’ chart all of which was complete and utter crap. But this shouldn’t be the case, I know plenty of unsigned bands that are actually very, very good indeed and have active MySpace accounts. This to me is more proof than I needed to never bother with MySpace again (although I have kept my account open in the vague hope it will one day return to how it was in the good old days!)
After my recent MySpace ordeal I could quite easily be cynical and ask how many of today’s artists will still be around making a splash in twenty years time? Judging by the way culture is moving there could well be some truth in Andy Wharhol’s famous quote “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. Culture is more fluid than ever with 24/7 rolling news, reality TV shows and of course online culture but record labels have been so slow to react that they have been left in the dust. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, after all it makes it much easier for genuinely good artists to release material, in reality quality acts still need major financial backing in order to get a decent airplay slot. They say the cream always rises to the top but I would argue that unless online music sites find a better way of policing quality control this might never happen.
Nearly a decade ago I was in a band called “Surefire” that was emerging during the dawn of internet music. Our manager at the time was a former Radio Caroline DJ called Rob Eden and he predicted the death of record labels and urged us to pioneer a DIY ethic and create our own label. I sometimes wish we had been brave enough to take his advice instead of mercilessly knocking on record companies doors begging for an audience. I am sure we’d have been more successful than we were had we used the (ridiculous amount of) time and money courting record labels more constructively and forged a decent business plan and formed our own label. I could speculate that I’d be in a completely different position now if we had but it’s easy to say that in hindsight.
Having said that I am now happy to make music in my own time. I have no delusions of becoming a major Rockstar (though at the back of my mind I can always dream), I no longer have the drive and sheer passion to give it my all because that is what it takes. You have to give your life to the cause and I did that for more than ten years of my life. But while I am content sitting back and taking things slow I take my hat off to the guys that are out there slogging it out every week in underground music venues. I just hope that enough of them can direct their will to make it in a direction that keeps them away from chasing record labels, away from seeking out reality TV shows and ensures that rise or fall they keep their integrity intact. Through sheer grit and determination such artists can change the tide and ensure that the cream does rise. We are either on the cusp of something very exciting or complete catastrophe. Only time will tell.
Fringe Rock * DIY Musician