System Overload: How Not To Get Ahead In Music

mariasci | December 1, 2008 3:00 am

“Doing traditional PR for independent artists is really difficult, and handling PR on a national level is the most challenging and one of the most discouraging tasks I have ever undertaken,” writes Ariel Hyatt of Ariel Publicity, and based on a long post at Music Think Tank where she lays out the obstacles to getting an album covered, you can see where she’s coming from. 40,000 CDs are released every year, which means that in an average week, there are almost 800 albums vying for the 3-10 review slots in any publication. Hyatt rightly points out that music critics keep demanding physical copies when many of them just turn around and sell them to record stores, and when digital copies would do just as well, this seems ridiculous. But from the critics’ perspective, they’re being asked to sort through 800 CDs a week to find the ones worthy of coverage, and that’s more or less physically impossible for one person to do.

Marc Hogan responds:

I used to say I averaged 2.5 packages a day, but it’s been 3, 4, or 5 a day for the past couple of weeks. And that’s on top of the music I’ve already been assigned that nobody sent me. And on top of all the music I’m going to listen to in online-only form, whether individual tracks/videos (for blogging) or albums (often for awareness even if I’m not going to review them). And on top of the music that’s been sent to me or that I’ve bought online that I’m actually expecting and looking forward to hearing. I still try my best to check out music sent to me, especially when it comes directly from a musician, but these are steep odds with a painfully high initial investment.

As the music industry’s demise becomes less of a source of worry and more of an inevitability to be embraced, we can step back and consider the way the system of pop music left itself open to this sort of thing. In every sector of the entertainment industry, “tastemakers” (as Hyatt refers to them) get hundreds of submissions every week. But, as far as I know, the tastemakers in question aren’t critics. They’re the people at publishing houses and movie studios who get paid to do just that—or don’t. The gatekeepers in those industries are stronger, and so instead of a music critic feeling like she needs to pay attention to the output of a shut-in from Duluth while at the same time rendering verdicts on major releases and genre standouts as well as her own personal favorites, studios and publishing houses employ (or, uh, given college credit to) an assistant who occasionally goes through the slush pile; the ones that don’t even get a hearing aren’t sources of guilt, but simply the natural byproducts of the business.

It seems crazy for a critic to have a “reader,” sure. But if they’re the ones who are expected to narrow the field to just the standouts, then it might be a good idea, provided you can train a 20-year-old to recognize your taste. Hyatt’s post represents a kind of confirmation of the anti-DIY argument that breaking down the barriers brings only chaos. Sure, a home-recorded band can conceivably break through to a national audience. But it hasn’t really happened very much, and as long as critics have to wade through 799 hours of haystack to get to the needle, it won’t. Theoretically, if every critic in America randomly selects one random release from their pile and listens to it, then everything will get heard. But based on what Hyatt is saying, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Pop music, as a system, was a weird beast. It used to have the same sort of unapproachable, big-budget image as the movies. But gradually, the barriers to entry fell, though some still remained. The result was that many people could make somewhat technically proficient art, but unlike writing, which anyone can do, it also required a certain amount of capital investment that seems like it should be recognized somehow. But because it’s supposed to be art, not entrepreneurship, the notion of failure is verboten. A band that doesn’t break through after years of trying didn’t have a bad product—they got a bad rap. Music’s spirit of rebellion etc. meant that failure was success, in a way, and you always have to recognize differences—even if the difference is in quality.

The ugly man behind the curtain in music publicity… [Music Think Tank]