I was invited down to the Sound Control event last night at S.O.B’s by a friend (Ariel Hyatt – press tycoon) and saw lots of interesting people from my past. There were several folks I had met while an A&R guy, mostly music managers and record company people. I’m kind of shocked that more of them don’t show up at events like this but I digress…
The panel was called Artists Disruptors and featured Chrisette Michele, Toby Lightman, Rik Cordero and was Moderated by Daniel Weisman from Elitaste. I was most familiar with Toby Lightman as she was signed to Lava just as I was leaving there for Elektra records but it turned out I had seen many of the videos that Cordero had made and as near as I can tell (I can’t hold a camera to save my life) he’s quite talented. The panel started with just Lightman and Cordero being asked questions about what tools they used online and what it was like being a modern artist.
I was better able to hear Toby Lightman – and from her I heard the familiar tale of how being on a major was limiting. She described (accurately from my experiences) the frustration of being tied to promoting only the latest single and not being able to do creative projects out of the scope of the genre that she felt confined to by Atlantic. Since being dropped Lightman has had success with music licensing and even turned around an independent album in three weeks when a last minute offer to be on the home shopping network occurred. She made a point of saying that while tethered to a major she would have never been able to make such a tight deadline.
I understood her feelings completely I had watched the eyes of artists signed to the labels I worked for go from shining with childlike glee to the dull eyes of an animal in a cage that have learned only that it is has no control over it’s destiny. Okay…enough melodrama. Christ, sometimes I make myself sick… The point being there is a lesson in all of this and it isn’t as black and white as major labels suck, be independent (as described we have flogged that dead horse long enough.)
The lesson in my mind is simply “don’t wait.” I watched dozens of artists get signed and undergo the remarkable transformation I began to call the shiny shirt phenomenon. It used to go like this:
1) Band starts making noise locally and / or regionally. Doing great work, directly in touch with the fans, they have self released an album that people are buying, more importantly ticket sales and merch are almost getting these guys to make a living provided they live like college students. They even start getting some support from a local radio station and / or some decent press. The band or artist finally gets the attention of a “real” manager, agent or label…life is good!
2) Band signs with label and appropriately celebrates for several weeks. Best case scenario they pay off their credit cards with the advance and hopefully have enough to put some aside for the proverbial rainy day or better yet they establish a fund for future band projects. Worst case scenario they arrive at their next meeting with their label partners in a new sports car. Artist and label formulate a plan – perhaps re-recording their record, re-writing their bio, helping them find new strategic partners. Publicity department looks over the artist or band and if they are just kind of average looking folks they get new rock n’ roll by numbers haircuts and their flannel button down shirt is replaced by a shiny button down shirt that is a bit too form fitting to make anyone but a CK underwear model feel comfortable.
3) Artist stops doing all of the things that made them a local and / or regional success and stares blankly at label partners with hopeful eyes. Label purchases an opening slot for the band on a huge tour where they are the first of four to go on and they play to significantly less people then they would have on their own regionally. Tour support is spent with reckless abandon lessening the artist’s chance to ever recoup. The single goes to radio and misses.
4) Band is back to where they started having destroyed the momentum they had built with a local album release. They have diminished their local or regional roots by trying to break new markets and neglecting their existing fanbase. Their shows aren’t as well populated as they were before this process and they begin to feel as if there is the stink of major label failure on them or they are “washed up” or “has beens” or “no hit wonders”. Odds were about 50/50 the band breaks up or artist gives up completely and gets a 9-5.
5) Artist tucks old band press photo and new band press photo into a drawer they will rarely open and cover it up with a shiny shirt that never really fit their person or personality.
I am SURE…well…I HOPE it has gotten better than this and labels have adapted but this truly was a common phenomenon as recently as five years ago. If there is an upside to the 360 deal it is that labels are now acquiring bands like major corporations buy smaller corporations and they now have a vested interested in all of the artist’s revenue streams… I somehow doubt they would still make these mistakes again…
The take away from all of this and the lesson, if there is one, is that you never stop remembering that you serve your community of fans and you should never take your eyes of of your goals. The goal for most of us is to make a living doing something we love. Don’t let the sex appeal of the big deal (of any kind) deter you from building your living one fan at a time.
Would love to hear your stories. Email or call.
P.S. – there was more to SoundCntrl than this…they seem to be an interesting music and technology community building organization.