posted on September 11, 2007 11:32
Last Sunday, The Culture section of the Times published a perceptive and timely article by Mick Heaney that catalogued the many high profile failures of late suffered by previously successful Irish musicians and asked whether Paddy Casey’s new album can revive the fortunes of the industry. Personally, I don’t think so but not because Paddy Casey is not a talented musician, rather I think that the idea of a long term career in music, if such a thing ever truly existed, is now a thing of the past and that record companies, rather than being a reason for this decline, are instead a victim of it.
Firstly, the idea of a job for life is patent nonsense in the 21st Century. Today, the average job contract is for 6 months, the average worker spends 1 to 2 years at a single firm and the average person changes their career approximately 3 times in their working life. The idea that musicians could or should enjoy longer careers within their chosen industry then their fans is patent nonsense and is not even borne out in musical history. Nirvana’s recording career as an operating entity lasted a mere 3 years, The Beatles recorded together for 6 before going their separate ways. Paradoxically, as the pace of modern life has quickened the release schedules and output of high profile artists has slowed. In the four year periods that both Paddy Casey and Damien Rice each took to write, record and release their respective second albums, The Beatles released the following albums; ‘Please, please me”, ‘With The Beatles’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Beatles for Sale’, ‘Help!’, ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’. By the time we get to the equally fertile and creative muse of Prince in 1987, record company executives are telling him that he can’t release both ‘Sign of the Times’ and ‘The Black Album’ in the same year because the company’s publicity department and the market itself can’t handle two high profile releases by the same artist in the same year.
Secondly, the music industry clings to the basic and obsolete contractual model of the multiple album deal. This is not the case in other branches of media such as book publishing, movies or television where single production contracts are now the norm. Publishers normally sign a writer for a single book with an option on a second if the first is a success. Most times it is not and so the option lapses. In television, all but the most successful programmes are commissioned one series at a time, the green light for each subsequent series being based on the success of the previous one. In Hollywood, only the most stellar producers are contracted for a slate of pictures, and even they sometimes turn down these contracts as being too restrictive or unwieldy.
Thirdly, and I feel that this attitude is often wrongly ascribed to the A&R departments of record companies, there has been a significant shift by the listening public away from artists who have their own unique sound, to artists who are slavishly imitating the sound of a very successful act from a previous generation whether that be Queen, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, The Jam, or Bruce Springsteen. You don’t have to look any further than the divergent commercial paths of The High Llamas and The Thrills, both of whom have been very influenced by The Beach Boys, to see the development of this trend. Whereas, the Llamas never had any real commercial success with albums such as ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Cold and Bouncy’, The Thrills’ pastiche of the very same Californian surf pop group led to massive commercial success less than a decade later. You might say that The Thrills had a more commercial take on the sound of The Beach Boys, the very essence of classic commercial pop, than The Llamas did but I think it’s more accurate to say that there was a shift towards pastiche music by the public themselves. The problem with this stratagem from the point of view of long term career planning is that the very familiarity of sound which makes a pastiche act so interesting to the audience at the start also makes them very boring to that same audience within a surprisingly short space of time.
Fourthly, the rise of low-cost home recording equipment, by which an artist can literally produce an album in their bedroom as both Damien Rice and David Gray famously did, has essentially removed the need for record companies to put up large amounts of money to allow artists to book into expensive studios to work on their music. That being the case, is it not more prudent to wait for an act to show up with a completed master recording, in much the same way as a book publisher waits for an author to come to them with a completed manuscript, than to bankrupt yourself as Factory Records did, or Creation Records nearly did, by betting company cash on the vagaries of the artists you release ?
Overall, it seems to that the real core problem facing record companies is not the internet, downloads or a fracturing media market, it is that their long term planning is out of step with their short term business environment. Rather than signing acts to multiple record deals where the label’s recoupment of their investment is forecast over a number of releases, they should sign acts to single album deals, preferably where a completed master recording already exists and where profit and loss is forecast within the life cycle of the release of that same recording. If the album is a success and makes money in the short term, then the label exercises an option for another record, if not, see you around Baby. As Mick Heaney pointed out, the first and second album by The Thrills sold 1.5m copies worldwide but their third release dropped out of the charts after selling just 2,000 copies in Ireland. Any money that was to be made from this act has already been paid over, if that has gone on yet more expensive marketing and artist development rather than into the label’s coffers then it's not the artist’s fault.More ...