David Byrne Thinks The Music Industry Might Just Be OK (Provided Everyone Stays Cool)

jharv | December 19, 2007 12:30 pm

If you’re of advanced age, you may remember Steve Albini’s infamous Maxmimumrocknroll screed from the mid-’90s, where he outlined just how how thoroughly a label could fuck over what we’d now call an “emerging act,” way before the crazy ol’ Internet knocked over everything we knew about being a small band. (Or something. Right?) So sure, we live in very different times now, thanks to the ongoing industry flameout, one where indie bands are infamously more career-minded than ever before, major labels are just as evil (and confused and desperate), and indie labels can occasionally score a Top 10, 300k-selling hit record. (Hey, it’s not that different, after all.) That’s why David Byrne has penned a guide for young bands on how not to drown in the currently muddy industry waters, augmented by audio interviews with Radiohead’s management, Brian Eno, Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan, and others. Naturally, because he’s David Byrne and not Steve Albini, Byrne’s “six survival strategies for emerging bands” paint a far less grim portrait of the possibilities for getting and staying paid in 2008 and beyond, and even if you’re not in a band, he lays out all the mumbo-jumbo about “equity deals” and whatnot in language accessible to the layperson. Or music blogger!

1. At one end of the scale is the 360, or equity, deal, where every aspect of the artist’s career is handled by producers, promoters, marketing people, and managers. The idea is that you can achieve wide saturation and sales, boosted by a hardworking machine that stands to benefit from everything you do. The artist becomes a brand, owned and operated by the label, and in theory this gives the company a long-term perspective and interest in nurturing that artist’s career… The artist often gets a lot of money up front. But I doubt that creative decisions will be left in the artist’s hands. As a general rule, as the cash comes in, creative control goes out. The equity partner simply has too much at stake.

2. Next is what I’ll call the standard distribution deal…The record company bankrolls the recording and handles the manufacturing, distribution, press, and promotion. The artist gets a royalty percentage after all those other costs are repaid. The label, in this scenario, owns the copyright to the recording. Forever. There’s another catch with this kind of arrangement: The typical pop star often lives in debt to their record company and a host of other entities, and if they hit a dry spell they can go broke.

Obviously, the cost of these services, along with the record company’s overhead, accounts for a big part of CD prices…Theoretically, as many of these costs go away, they should no longer be charged to the consumer — or the artist.

Sure, many of the services traditionally provided by record labels under the standard deal are now being farmed out…But he who pays the piper calls the tune. If the record company pays the subcontractors, then the record company ultimately decides who or what has priority. If they “don’t hear a single,” they can tell you your record isn’t coming out.

3. The license deal is similar to the standard deal, except in this case the artist retains the copyrights and ownership of the master recording. The right to exploit that property is granted to a label for a limited period of time — usually seven years. After that, the rights to license to TV shows, commercials, and the like revert to the artist…It allows for a little more creative freedom, since you get less interference from the guys in the big suits. The flip side is that because the label doesn’t own the master, it may invest less in making the release a success.

4. Then there’s the profit-sharing deal. I did something like this with my album Lead Us Not Into Temptation in 2003. I got a minimal advance from the label, Thrill Jockey, since the recording costs were covered by a movie soundtrack budget, and we shared the profits from day one. I retained ownership of the master. Thrill Jockey does some marketing and press. I may or may not have sold as many records as I would have with a larger company, but in the end I took home a greater share of each unit sold.

5. In the manufacturing and distribution deal, the artist does everything except, well, manufacture and distribute the product. Often the companies that do these kinds of deals also offer other services, like marketing. But given the numbers, they don’t stand to make as much, so their incentive here is limited. Big record labels traditionally don’t make M&D deals… In this scenario, the artist gets absolute creative control, but it’s a bigger gamble.

6. Finally, at the far end of the scale, is the self-distribution model, where the music is self-produced, self-written, self-played, and self-marketed. CDs are sold at gigs and through a Web site. Promotion is a MySpace page. The band buys or leases a server to handle download sales. Within the limits of what they can afford, the artists have complete creative control. In practice, especially for emerging artists, that can mean freedom without resources — a pretty abstract sort of independence…

At this end of the spectrum, the artist stands to receive the largest percentage of income from sales per unit — sales of anything. A larger percentage of fewer sales, most likely, but not always.

Byrne advocates none of his six options in particular, though he seems to think the middle options offer the greatest (safest?) chance of success, but the key to making any of them work seems to be (as with any business venture) realistic expectations. You know, what musicians are supposed to have gained after a decade of VH1 Behind The Music specials detailing how some dumb pop star ended up in hock to a corporation (Byrne raises the cautionary specters of TLC and MC Hammer) have made even non-musicians aware of label machinations. And with the legacy of the Nirvana-fueled ’90s boom that prompted the Albini article being a general awareness that an agreement with any label should not be entered into lightly, only a fool would play the game outlined by his first two models at this point, right?

Meanwhile, even on the more manageable indie scale exemplified by Byrne’s fourth and fifth strategies, everyone’s predicting (maybe rightly) that mid-size labels are on their way out–“as the roles they used to play get chopped up and delivered by more thrifty services,” as Byrne says–and naturally some wag will come along to claim that surely Byrne’s final option will be the only one that will matter in a few years, especially now that Radiohead has shown us all that D.I.Y. can be done on a scale beyond “shopping seven-inches to mom and pop distributors” or “Internet cottage industry.” But even leaving aside the erosion of brick-and-mortar music retail or the less than rosy picture Byrne paints in regards to iTunes, I dunno. The prospect of hunting and pecking through endless MySpace pages to find new bands probably thrills me no more than the prospect of having to shoulder the burden of managing every aspect of their career thrills four people who just wanna write some songs.

Since October and the great In Rainbows freakout, pundits great and small have been arguing over the question Merge Records’ Mac McCaughan raises at one point during the final part of his audio interview: “Do you need record labels?” Wipe the Radiohead stars from your eyes, and yes, it’s obvious that, as with music publications and blogs, the average person still needs the filter a record label provides. It may be a vestigial need that will seem silly in a few decades, but it’s still there for the time being. McCaughan wisely argues that what the (indie) industry needs to continue propping itself up are good record labels–labels with hands-on owners with enough of an abiding interest in music that the consumer can still infer a sort of aesthetic guarantee–with a scalable staff and budget and their heads screwed on when it comes to sticking to the core of “bands that sell 5 to 50,000 copies” rather than chasing down Billboard. And who knows, with that mindset maybe these labels will thrive at least as long as there’s still enough money to be spread around between artist and staff, i.e. unless further (predictable or unpredictable) developments allow the industry to collapse to the point where Byrne’s final option of total D.I.Y. is the only way for anyone to earn a modest living (or at least recoup costs) from making music.

Of course, the modest ambitions of McCaughan and Merge–and those realistic expectations required to make the best use of any of Byrne’s six models–are not common in an industry built on a hundred years of get-famous-quick schemes. “No single model will work for everyone,” Byrne says. “There’s room for all of us.” That kind of flexibility doesn’t please major labels, and the idea that the world might not be ending–or that the artists may actually need the machinery of the labels to some degree, or that Radiohead doesn’t have the industry by the balls–certainly makes it harder for journalists to write apocalyptic thinkpieces on the end of music as we know it. But while I’m generally pessimistic about the future of the industry–and I’m not always teary-eyed at the prospect of it drying up and blowing away–Byrne’s level-headed optimism is one of the few assessments of its changing fortunes that’s left me moderately hopeful that the old model can coexist with the still-developing new. Then of course I went and read that “Music Journalism 2.0” story Maura linked to and got cranky and depressed all over again. Oh well!

David Byrne’s Survival Strategies For Emerging Artists [Wired]