Thursday, June 14, 2018

Americana and the Six Hundred Dollar Album



I am thinking about a meeting I attended earlier in the week.   It was called by a "a boutique real estate company providing acquisition, development, and asset management programs for its partners".

Just about the time the Indians have created a healthy economy for themselves, the King's Companies arrive, claim the land and tell the Indians they will get beads and blankets if they will put on paint and dance their war dances for the new tourists.   Assets.  

When an European music audit firm shows up in Alabama and begins the presentation with pictures of slaves and refuses to answer questions about money in any but the vaguest terms, hold on and wait for the Vaseline. When one apologizes for a German accent in the town Von Braun built, don't expect much cultural expertise.   When they tell you about getting "the right people in the room", it's that old land grab thing that made Europe rich at the expense of the Africans.

In short:  heads up.  The Imperialists have come to party.

No asked the obvious question:  why does a real estate company employ an "Artist Development" guy?  If one were to look back over several statements made and events in Huntsville in the last two years, it becomes evident that this company's idea of what constitutes assets extends beyond buildings and land.  It includes people, specifically, musical acts.   These folks have been quietly picking their own tastes in winners and have reached into city government to cement perceptions.  It feels.... slimy, but money gets to do that.

Money spent in this town on musicians is a great thing. No doubt. But is that what this is about? Really?

If the money is being invested in the real estate, there isn't a real plan to spend it in an entertainment budget. This isn't about growing a music industry. It is about building and leasing rooms and selling and reselling the buildings. It doesn't matter how many people are attracted and move here if the artists can't pay for health insurance.

It's a watermelon economy for the artists.   That is a phrase from the tech industry for capturing content for low to no cost by getting the users to supply the content.   This blog is an example and in fact, so is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on.   Low to no pay for work performed.   This is the world the artist faces today, one in which all but a very few hand-picked artists make a living wage because access to capital and gigs is tightly restricted.    As the old song goes, "In the land that's known as freedom, how can such a thing be fair?".   It isn't but that is not exactly the issue here.  What happens to art in such markets?

Products sell for what people will pay for them in the form they will buy.  Products cost what people are willing to accept for making them.   Paul Simon discovered that and as a result takes very good care of his studio contributors.  Share royalties?   Ummmm.....  but a deal is made.

The six hundred dollar album:  really.  Why, who knew?

We all know about Nirvana.   That rube bait has been tossed around the business for twenty plus years.   The reason a T-Bone Burnett album costs $250k to 400K is it is of the very highest quality. He only works with the best.  The top folk are paid well and they earned it.   Top productions use the best gear and the best rooms.   Nirvana made junk with that six hundred dollars.   One can sell junk.  Then again, how well did that work out for Kurt Cobain?   What did Paul Simon's Graceland cost?  What did O Brother Where Art Thou cost?   What do union sessions cost?

What?   We have no union here?  Well, maybe that's a clue but a different discussion.

Sure, those of us who have learned the craft and have the chops can make something airworthy for much less (say 10k), but it isn't competitive.  50 to 60 is more in the ball park for entry level acts The $600 album is bullshit and that argument coming from a development guy should be a clue. Cheap clothes made of polyester are still cheap clothes. If this audit starts with those assumptions, you are being had.

The studio is only a lab if you own one.   I do.  I also made indie albums in the 80s and 90s and have been writing and recording all that time since.    I started in the days before digital and learned the old fashioned skills of working with a band recording, songwriting and performing.   We had airplay on those early 1/4 inch 8-track and then 1/2 inch 16 track cuts.  Then we all went digital and it cost less and became easier to do.   It became possible to do good work in a closet.   It became possible for a one man production shop to make good recordings.   Not great.  Good.

So, yes, I know how it is done and how to do it very cheaply.

It is fun.   Songs get done instead of waiting around for a few years while the band argues or has to play cover to pay bills.   In other words, when it comes to the music Business (little m Big B) I prefer the Music business (Big M little b).   A life as a systems analyst was a good life.   Keeping the music and recording going while not having to be indebted to the industry was a real good deal:  no one says when, what, how or why except me.   Then when friends I like to work with come work with me, it is pleasant.   Egos are contained.   No meter ticking.   No managers.

Is that the way to do it when investors are betting big?   No.  As a famous producer told me, "the people who invest are not necessarily nice people.  If you promise them a nickle, you can't return two cents."    Those are bets you cannot afford to lose and the song business is a gambler's business.   People can wax profound about the music garden where we all collaborate and get along learning from each other.   Welcome to Itchycoo Park.   It's all too beautiful.

But you are a cherry fool if you believe that is the business of music.

Put another way: if Chris Stapleton got 1 million for one song on one Adele album as is claimed, you can bet it wasn't a $600 recording. No one at the top of the business for very long would make some of the statements I heard in that meeting. What they are telling people privately is a different matter but are they telling everyone the same thing?

The slightly paranoid but reasonable question is what happens to the artists who are recruited into such schemes?   The fate of the Judas Goat is the same as the rest of the herd.   A few will do well.  A very few.   This was a tactic also used in high tech but by the hedge fund managers who wanted to squeeze more profits and rejigger a company for sale.   They sent in an advance team to evaluate the management staff and employees.   Then the top executives and managers were squeezed out and replaced with so-called turn-around experts who would announce a grand but very vague plan to reorder the company's future.   They would recruit the ambitious among the next tiers, sponsor well-advertised progress events using them.   Very little would change immediately but then the layoffs and sales of assets start.  Eventually, the company would be sold and the advance teams plus the high level executives would receive very large golden parachutes while a few faithful who had obediently shut their mouths would be allowed to gracefully retire.

It's ugly but it's business as they say.

The critical issue is access to capital.   Acts make videos these days.   They give away records.   Decent tours are expensive to do.  Most don't.   Someone in the meeting stood up and said "If you got into music for the money, you got in for the wrong reasons."   Along the way I think we've all said that at some time.  It was our excuse for holding a band together that wasn't getting paid.

IT'S BULLSHIT.   You are worth being paid or you are not in the wrong business; you don't have a business at all.   Plain and simple:  you ARE in this for the money.   Otherwise, ask RCP for free real estate and see how well that works.

If the artists cannot access the capital, they are the slaves of the people who pay the developers and development folk. The artists find out why so many famous acts die broke. The cash flow was huge but too many hands are in that till before it gets to the artists.   You may get a mule but the plantation owner is hanging on to the forty acres,

I'm not talking about artistic freedom. I'm talking about living NOT in the low rent district. That is fine when you are twenty but not so fine with a wife and kids.   That is why the development folk are looking for kids.   It is the same as what worked in the tech industry at one time:  young, fresh, dumb and able to be driven like a mule team, and like a mule, cheap and fast to replace.   The music industry does not rely on unique, authentic voices as claimed:  it relies on identifiable trends, mannequins and rapid replacement.   Fungible easily replaced assets.  There is a reason for the Nashville Hat Act with the supporting Chord Police.

This is gentrification of a music scene.  It smells nice and clean but is it livable at those wages?   The economics of social collapse are not a mystery.

Remember, as they gentrify, the price of a house only goes up followed by everything else. That  is killing Nashville and will kill anything where it grows. That IS the real estate model.   Try to rent a house in San Francisco.   You like the living here because it is easy and very affordable, not because the best bands in the world come here.   There was a time when they did, then the economics of the rooms didn't work anymore.   Huntsville was even then, an in-betweener but as the competitive costs of mounting the shows pushed up the ticket prices and larger and larger shows had to be created with massive fly requirements, it became a backwater again. 

Music education?   Let's ignore the several private music schools, the middle and high school band programs, the music departments of three universities and the wealth of private instructors (in a white collar town, blue collar musicians often teach by day).    Let's assume you can't afford these as many can't in the less affluent  parts of town.   Today almost every song ever published is on the web in recorded format, MIDI format, chords, lyrics,  and hundreds of thousands of YouTube instructional videos.   For Free.   There has never been a time when it was easier to get a music education at least to the point of being able to play the Blues.  The question is then how do you pay your bills?  Worse, what happens when the supply of acts overwhelms the opportunities to play live for money?  See Gresham's Law:  bad money drives out good money.   Then the lists of  "approved acts" mediated by talent providers (they used to be called agents) appear and mysteriously the quality of the music drops as too many I Play Too's fill up the space.

So you want to be a songwriter and do originals?  Live performance is paying all the bills these days for any sizable professionally equipped band.   The music industry as a publishing industry has in all but the top tiers, died.   But let's assume you want to be an original recording artist.

If you aren't paying for recording, someone is.  If as a recording artist, you sign away the rights to the masters of the recording for ANY deal, in today's markets (think sound exchange) you just sold the cow for magic beans. Most of the online revenues come from the master recordings, not the songs and not to the songwriters unless they own the masters.

Y'all have done a lot of work to build your scenes. Don't let the folks with big boats and muskets take control of it for beads and promises that seem to get hazier the longer you have to stay out on the road paying the bills. Not my circus but do the math. Huntsville was a city full of good bands with many rooms that paid a living wage.  MADD killed that.    Yes, we worked for the crime bosses who owned the nightclubs.  But they paid a living wage, often in cash.

It was fair although for songwriters, there was nothing and those folk moved to Nashville or beyond.   Most failed because, most do.    In the 70s when I was still a youngster, two things opened my eyes.  The first was living in the building with Robert Byrne (we still called him Bob) who had a Muscle Shoals recording deal with Wishbone.   Robert was very very good and as a songwriter scored hits for other artists.   Yet he was in the trap of being a James Taylor clone and his own performer career fizzled.   Still, as a writer he scored.   I was at Wishbone collecting on my first place prize in the first Panoply songwriting contest when the owner explained to me his legal problems with Robert who had finally decided country music wasn't the pits and had moved on.    Legal gets nasty.   Watch what you sign.  Desperation is bad juju for any person not in the position to sign the checks.

The second was sitting one on one with Glen Frey one late evening in his hotel room after an Eagles concert.   Frey was a wiseguy in public.  In private, he turned into a big brother and sat with me explaining the business.   That was 1975 and the main point he made was no matter how I worked it, I had to leave the small town and go to a major music market such as New York or Los Angeles.   He respected Muscle Shoals enormously but it was not on his list.   Nashville?   He never mentioned it.  No I don't know why.   Perhaps making it out of Huntsville is possible now, but that remains to be seen.   A few have but they followed Frey's advice.  Your mileage may vary and I hope it does.  Along the years I've met and talked to Very Famous People and a few I can call friend, but the story is always the same:  this is a very very tough business.  Unless you can commit 120% to what is at best a long odds bet, you lose.   Really.

Songwriting was and remains very competitive.   But if you think you are different, go pass the audition at The Bluebird.   I did that when Amy still owned the room.  Great fun and a long drive to play three songs.   You will learn lessons about the range of talents around you.   Even then, maybe thirty people were in the line.   Since Callie Khouri used the room as a set for Nashville (the TV show), that line now stretches across several parking lots, say about 200 people and the majority, very young, very eager, and very naive are not very good.   Make sure you are before you try.   I passed Amy's audition in one (Hint: she gave instructions.  They still do,   Follow them precisely or no matter how good you are, you lose.).

How did I pass in one?  I prepared.  Yet as the staff told me later, I got some of the highest scores she and her staff had given.   I played the Sunday nights multiple times.  Fun   You will not get "discovered" there.   That is a myth.   Label deals are struck by music lawyers.   Take your check book or have the kind of online support that they are looking for and which, if you have that, you don't need Nashville.

The Deal with Originals:   Your Originals Have to be As Good As Their Covers.  Or Better.  

Forget what your Grandfather told you about being his little songbird.   Unless you are a honkin' good songwriter, you lose.   Even then, unless you are a good arranger and a player with excellent chops, you still lose because you can't produce credible recordings.   Most here are not.   They are kids with guitars who do not bother to become good song craftsman first.  Once upon a time, that was good enough.   But that was when Elvis was King and gas cost a quarter a gallon.   Unless you really are the next Bob Dylan, you lose.

Why is Huntsville not a Music Town as the founder of Tangled Strings lamented one day.  Huntsville is not a "music town" because music is blue collar work and Huntsville is a decidedly white collar town. Huntsville isn't a STEM city as the branding wonks like to claim.  STEM is what we learned in school. Huntsville is a major weapons development and materiel management center that still has a smidgeon of the space program and the odd bio-genetics company. We are rich because we are floating on a war bubble economy.   We are Republicans.   That is why Trump came here.  (I am a Democrat but oh well...)  Now we have huge craft beer rooms.   Strangely, they charge seven bucks for beer but don't like to pay the sound crews a living wage.   Pay the musicians?   Why, don't they do it for the love of it?

In other words, the smarter richer folks have day jobs. Will that change? Anything is possible but until you see ASCAP/SESAC/BMI opening offices here, or some major labels (dicey though they are) come to town, expect this town to be a C-list music town.

Speaking of the performance rights organizations, they want their piece and they will sue any room into the ground that doesn't pay up.   There is no way to stop that because they are doing what they are organized to do, it is legal, it is a source of income to songwriters and publishers and, well, from one perspective, they work for us.   The problem is the fees aren't cheap and that means the smaller rooms where singer-songwriters get their starts are often forced to stop having entertainment.   The claim that a successful business can easily pay those fees is made but it runs into the realities of Mom and Pop shops already paying high rents in a gentrified town, licensing and product transport among other things.   In other words, it can be the difference between staying open and closing the doors.   Caveat vendor,

A tourist town? If the idea is to make Huntspatch part of the Great Americana Circle, tell me what here is worth seeing from the perspective of music history, rock, pop or otherwise.   Unless astronauts and helicopter pilots are secret music stars, nothing.   Come here to see the Saturn V built by German Rocket Scientists.  Stay for the knockwurst and fried chicken.   Or go to Muscle Shoals where there is a museum or two and really, not a lot else.  Sure, people still record there.  Guess what?   People record EVERYWHERE.   Studios do not an industry make.   I remember when the music died there.   No one floats forever.

Did the auditors know this was the home of the Delmore Brothers and in that case, the tourists get to go to Elkmont? And what is there?  Nothing.   If they don't know that, how in the hell did they become "Americana" experts?   Truth is:  Americana is a con, a garbage bag category to fit any music in that doesn't fit anywhere else.  Or as we say, bitter enough to sell and easy enough to be played by white people.   Notice that bluegrass albums still mostly say bluegrass on the cover.   Real blues artists are blues artists.   Americana?   Great for the folkies who have not had the easiest relationship with the radio in decades.   Otherwise, a marketing label. 

That is not an argument against being a musician or a writer. It is to say don't expect the easy life of A Nashville Hat Act in Huntsville. Why, it is easy isn't it? ;)

A remark made in the meeting was a dis on "your little YouTube channel" and then another about how their experts understand how to get to the "international audience".   I agree that savvy about the distribution channels are sorely lacking.   On the other hand, in the last forty-eight hours, here are the countries where some or one are listening to my music on my YouTube channel and that without me spending a penny to promote or distribute:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Germany   
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • India
  • Philippines
  • Brazil
  • Switzerland
  • Czechia
  • Dominican Republic
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Nigeria
  • Nepal
  • South Africa
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Mexico

Is that significant?   In money terms, no.  In terms that the music is out there and being enjoyed, it ain't nothing.    That is two days.   I check these stats daily and am amazed how far the songs traveled and where.  Senegal?  Zambia?   Wow!    Free and transparent analytics software are nice.   Just saying... YouTube is your friend and any deal you make that locks you out of free server space on the Internet with the reach of YouTube, which IS the radio these days, is a crappy deal,

What can help: access to capital and people who understand today's distribution channels. Anyone who disses YouTube is a con artist. Anyone who tells you you can be Nirvana for six hundred bucks is a street crook.   Caveat emptor.

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