I worked at a used bookstore in high school and college, and I learned something interesting about booksellers: most people who sell used books don’t read. My boss and his colleagues told me that over the years, sellers see so many books come and go that it becomes almost impossible to choose one to read, and eventually, you just kinda give up.
I remembered that detail this week as I was reading an interview at Wired.com with the founder of Tommy Boy Records, Tom Silverman. Silverman has a lot of things to say that are contrary to the whole, “hey-ho, technology is saving the music industry” line we hear so much these days. The bad news? The music market is so glutted with bands and artists struggling to DIY that nobody is making any money. Fewer artists are breaking through today than ever before.
According to Silverman, our love affair with technology has created a supersaturated system whereby there is too much content for any quality to rise to the top. He quotes numbers claiming that 79,000 (80%) of the albums released last year sold under 100 copies – a number so insignificant in terms of industry stats that it might as well not exist. In other words, the industry itself is becoming like a used bookseller, so overwhelmed by choice that all those many choices may as well not exist.
Indie Artists Aren’t Surviving
During this period of transition between the old and new ways of doing business, a challenging reality is presenting itself: labels can’t afford to invest enough in artists, and many musicians are producing, promoting, and touring themselves. It’s the democratization of the system, right? But when we get down to the numbers game, almost no one is making enough money to survive. Certainly not enough to quit those day jobs. Again referencing numbers offered by Silverman, historically speaking, you need to sell more than 10,000 copies of an album to be an officially surviving, working band, and only 10 new artists did that over the last year.
Searching for solutions to this plummeting numbers game, Silverman points out two key trends:
1 – The industry is involved in an insane technology race, and this obsession is taking us away from focusing on discovering good music and identifying new genres.
2 – Technology isn’t necessarily doing artists any favors. Bands with 50,000 followers on Twitter aren’t turning those followers into fan-investors. On the other hand, artists who are touring relentlessly while giving away their music for free as a promotional tool are seeing results.
Rethinking An Adversarial Relationship
Ok, ok! I know you didn’t come to GigHive to read a bunch of depressing shit about how we’re all doomed. But I think that Silverman’s perspective is important because he’s being realistic. We’re in a transition period as an industry, the question is: what comes next?
Luckily, Silverman’s got some interesting ideas. He suggests that one of the major problems that destroyed the old industry is that the relationship between labels and artists has always been adversarial. The label is always fighting to squeeze as much as it can out of the artist while giving as little back as possible.
The labels of the future, Silverman says, should function more as investors entering into 50/50 partnerships with musicians:
“Every artist is a business, and has its own corporation under this model, and all of that artist’s creative equity goes into that — not just music, but everything they do. Whether it’s live, or merch, or whatever, their brand goes in there. And the investors who are investing and trying to promote on the other side — they own half. So it’s more like a business. An equity partnership.”
Building the New Music Industry
We’ve talked about bands being funded by brands before, but this model takes the band-as-business to the next level. The unique element here – and one that divides it from the stranglehold 360 deal – is that each artist and label/partner is invested in the success of the project, and everybody profits, or fails to profit, equally by the results.
What do you think, readers? Could this be a viable, rewarding system for the future of the music industry? Could it strike a balance between the handful-of-superstars system of old, and the current everybody-plays-but-nobody-gets-paid clusterfuck?
Next week, Silverman and his partners are putting on the newly-revived New Music Seminar in New York. For $200, you can attend three days of events, including parties, interviews, roundtables, and q&as with industry experts, all of whom are posing the same questions asked above. Make some great connections and put your two cents in, or if you’re not in NYC, let us know what you’re thinking right here!