American Culture

TunesDay: the silo effect and love of the music…

DocoMy son Trevor and I were driving to dinner one night a few weeks ago and he was complaining bitterly about how his band, Doco (pictured at right), is still struggling to get decent shows outside their local area (NC/SC/VA/WV):

“We’re not metal, we’re not emo, we’re not punk, we’re not hip hop, we’re not roots rock, we’re not power pop, we’re not jam band, we’re not any single genre. We’ve been trying to make something new, and that’s costing us money. Since club owners can’t ‘silo’ us into a genre so they can package us with lower level acts, they only give us the odd bookings when they have open nights. We play lots of the ‘rep making’ clubs on Tuesday nights. It fucking sucks. Why do we have to fit a silo to get work? I love playing music. Is it asking too much to want to make my living at it?”

Welcome to the music business 2008.

The latest thing in the 21st century music business is club owners turning to a tactic as old as rock and roll: package shows. Thanks to the deconstruction of the music industry (Does anyone past the age of 14 actually give a shit about anything played on what we used to know as “top 40” radio? Or MTV? Or any damned mass media outlet? Can anyone other than “legacy acts” from the 60’s and 70’s play venues bigger than clubs?), club owners are finding ways to bring in emerging bands and put them up for precious little pay – sometimes for no pay at all.

There’s method to this madness. What club owners do is package a group of bands who all play one of the “siloed” genres (see above) in one big show. Haven’t you noticed posters for shows with what seems a ridiculously large bill of bands? What club owners are doing is putting up a large number of acts and watching to see if anyone catches the audience’s fancy. The bands get exposure, and a few break through, perhaps. That in itself is not a bad thing – and in its own way justifies (sort of, I guess) low or no pay. Bands that click with audiences move to the top of the pecking order and get better shows – and, presumably, get paid.

But what if you don’t fit the silo model? You end up feeling like Trevor, evidently….

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Club owners have always been assholes to their talent. They have never wanted to pay what they say – they have never wanted to provide services and amenities they’ve promised.

In the old days there were plenty of agents and managers who’d give a listen to any and all bands, help them get work if they showed a little talent, worked hard and got their act tight, and teach them about business elements of being musicians – things like contracts and getting percentages of gate and bar earnings – about getting paid to work as touring musicians. They helped kids with guitars and dreams become professional musicians. They earned their cut – and some of them got rich because they were good at spotting talent and developing it.

Now too many agents work only as predators who charge young bands up front fees – and either don’t get them any work or get them gigs that pay nothing. And too many club owners work with these agents – or sponsor them.

So in addition to having to give much of their music away for free, many musicians, those you go to see as you “support live/local music,” struggle to get paid for actually playing live and local.

Think about that for a minute.

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There used to be a system that discovered and developed musical talent and got it down on record. For a while the recording part of the music business had seemingly too few and too powerful gatekeepers – the major record companies. Think about what happened to Brian Epstein when he tried to get The Beatles a record contract. He ended up signing The Fabs with a guy who made novelty records. Luckily for us that guy was George Martin. Since then, as you may have noticed, the record companies have become much more enamored of minor talents whose careers they can manipulate. And to keep the real artists away (after all, they’re still around despite the fact they’re often ignored by these “mainstream” music business interests), they demand concessions such as “360 deals” which put legitimate artists into the same sorts of indentured servitude in which the American Idol puppets singers find themselves toiling. The execs now think they’re the talent. It’s sad, kinda – if it weren’t so damned disgusting.

And it’s why everyone from Radiohead to Madonna has just said no to record companies lately.

We know that every band can make and sell its records nowadays. We also know, many of us through the experience of buying some crappy stuff, that many bands probably shouldn’t. But there are many others who should and do, and we’re all richer for it. They work and spend their blood, sweat, tears, and money to write and record music. They usually offer their music to us at prices far less than those old major companies. We actually get more and better music at lower prices than we used to. How American dream is that?

But in our brave new 21st century Internet connected file sharing world no one wants to pay for music anymore. Too many of us use P2P sites to get all the music we want without giving those musicians any of our money – which we can then use to – enrich the fucking oil companies, I guess. Somehow, the Internet has made us all believe that things that we used to value and pay for because we valued them and the people who made them- like good music and, oh, good writing – should be free all the time.

Think about that for a minute.

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Rock Star?Doco has a new record out now, The Fossil Record. Because, like many artists these days, the band has written, recorded and now sells its record itself. My other son in the band, Josh (at right) has been selling the record door to door. He’s had surprising success, including an incident when he and brother Trevor were invited into a man’s home who proceeded to take them into his den. There he had a vintage Fender Precision bass and a vintage Fender Mustang guitar plugged into vintage Fender amps (a Bassman and a Twin Reverb, respectively). After the boys had played him a couple of tunes to prove they’d actually played the music on their record, he bought two copies.

Not exactly the way most rock stars expect to move product.

Josh told me a story a week or so after my conversation with Trevor that illustrates the difficulties artists face selling their own work: “I was out in a nearby neighborhood – nice neighborhood, really. I was on foot, carrying cd’s in my “man purse” which was slung over my shoulder. It was sunny and I had on my white shades (pictured). I went up to one house and rang the bell. I could tell that someone was home because I could hear the TV playing a game show. But no one would come to the door. Based on what I’d seen in the neighborhood, I guessed it was another little old lady who was afraid to come to the door. I’d puzzled about that because I think I’m a pretty harmless guy. Just as I was about to leave the porch, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the storm door glass – shoulder length hair, white sun glasses, Atari Teenage Riot t-shirt, ratty jeans. If I’d been that lady, I wouldn’t have come to the door either.”

I think Kermit the Frog said it best: It’s not easy being green.

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So should you go see local bands and support live music? Absolutely.

Can you trust that the record companies will come to their senses and begin to discover and offer you artists who will have careers worth following? No.

Will the Internet make it possible for you to follow artists like Doco or Jeffrey Dean Foster or Antony and the Johnsons and Adam Marsland? Yes.

Will we ever see a future time like the 60’s and 70’s when music was the lingua franca of our culture? Probably not.

So what should we do?

I like to remember what Mick Ronson said: Play, Don’t Worry….

Categories: American Culture

9 replies »

  1. Thanks for subjecting yourself to the pain and frustration I know it took to write this. It’s infuriating what has been allowed to happen to music in our culture. As is so often the case, I can point to very specific political policy decisions – in this case and many others, GOP policy decisions – that have led directly to the erosion of music’s power to speak to and for the people. Why is this so political? Well, let’s think back to the ’60s and all the goddamned grief that artists like the Beatles and Dylan stirred up for those in power.

    American Idol? Clear Channel? Good little Germans, yes they are.

    Doco doesn’t always do the kinds of things I wish they’d do, but I’ve seen them live two or three times and they can damned well PLAY. If you like to be challenged a little and have your ears expanded, you need this record, folks.

  2. As a I get a little better at playing music with the other children, I’m beginning to see in my little local music scene precisely what you describe.

    A fellow who’s been a local fixture for three days whom I play with from time to time is still putting out CDs a few hundred at at time. I tried to get him some play on my own university’s radio station. Nada. Too wedded to a too-young playlist.

    Keep the silo on the farm where it belongs.

  3. It’s not just music where free downloading is killing sales. It’s also happening in porn. See “Obscene Losses” in Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine. Sites like YouPorn, which are free, are killing porn movie sales and forcing the stars to become escorts.

    One promising development in music is Amazon MP3s. Are the artists receiving a significant royalty rate? Doubtful, as always.

    But the low prices (like $7.99 for a CD) and incredible ease of downloading might draw consumers who are bothered both by the ethics of file-sharing and the technical headaches.

    Finally, presumably club owners won’t let bands like Doco perform under numerous, different “silos.” If they did, Doco could tailor its play list to the silo.

  4. Jim,
    As usual, a very thought provoking post. I hope musicians can come up with a business model that will allow them to make money at their craft. I like to support our local artists, and am willing to pay to see good music.

    As for file downloading…..I stopped doing it a couple of years ago after my conscience got to me. However, my kid sees nothing wrong with downloading 10 gig files, complete discographies, on torrent sites. I wonder if the college kids think a little larceny is OK……

    Jeff

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  6. Interesting stuff. To comment on Jeff’s post, I’d say that there are so many stories out there where big name bands say they make almost nothing off the releases of their CDs and make the lion’s share of their profits off of touring. It’s natural for kids to think “hey, if anything, I’m helping the artist by downloading this music. I’ll just go see them live if I like their music”. Kids don’t realize that for the unestablished bands, every sale counts, and the live circuit isn’t exactly where the money is.

    As for the silo effect, when has that not been true? To some degree, packaging has always been important. A listener wants to quickly get a sense for what a band is all about. The Red Hot Chili Peppers took a while to get established because they were hard to pigeonhole. Were it not for the reputation of their live shows, I don’t think they would have ever become famous. Now it’s easy to say “oh, that’s just the Chili Peppers”, but I remember being in high school 20 years ago thinking “so, white guys playing funk, wearing tube socks on their schlongs? I’m supposed to like this?”

    If I were Doco, I would steer clear of the cattle shows. You’re better off playing only occasionally and developing a mysterious reputation than getting lumped into those things. Everything from non-existent sound checks to weary patrons will prevent those gigs from doing anything for you. Then, winnow down two influences and put that in a song. If people can say “it’s a little punk, it’s a little jam band”, that’s simple enough for people to digest on a first listen. With every fan, you’ve got years to open their minds to what you’re all about.

  7. Good article, but there’s a few inaccuracies in there. Maybe all of this applies to Doco, but as someone who has worked in & with bands of varying degrees of success, some of your points are way off.

    Most beginning bands get a percentage of the door, divided among the bands on the bill. Usually the pay for the soundperson & the doorperson is taken off the top. If the bands aren’t bringing people in, they aren’t getting paid…which seems fair enough. Some more generous clubs will add a percentage of the bar sales to the door. If you have a crowd that drinks, you make more. If you are playing gigs for free, then you are selling yourself short and building a reputation of a band that can’t get a paying gig. Once you start packing the aforementioned shows, then clubs start calling you. At this point, you can ask for a guarantee…or at least a minimum vs the door. Once the club has some of their own money on the line, they’ll push the show & advertise it a bit more.

    Second – With the exception of a few indie labels (& mega-selling acts), most bands don’t make much if anything off of their recordings. This is where the ethics gets really iffy and my band friends are all split. Do good shows & an audience get you a record deal? Do good record sales get you good shows? If your record sales aren’t good enough, will the record label put up the money for a follow-up? Should bands record on-the-cheap to not build up a bigger debt to the label? Should you spend the money they are offering to give you to “go for the brass ring?” Most bands that have a few records out and are building a fan base by constant touring, make their money off of live shows & T-Shirt sales. Now that gas prices have skyrocketed, that’s taking a big cut of their profits. Some bands still follow the “Grateful Dead” model of download our music, but come to our shows. Other bands are worried, because a band’s back catalog used to be their 401k – Especially if you’re lucky enough to get a second life out of a record that is remastered & reissued. Ultimately, it depends on how forward thinking the band is – Most would take what they can now & worry about the rest later.

    So, yes – The music industry is screwed and needs to find a new business model. Whining about not fitting into a “silo” is not going to get you anywhere though. Unfortunately, being a great musician isn’t going to get you far on it’s own – You need to take control of all aspects of the business and DIY (do it yourself). If you don’t have the skill or the knowledge to handle the business-end, there is probably a fan or friend who is willing to pitch in (some for free or as an equal) just to be a part of it.

    Finally, (as you hinted at) agents and managers are no longer the place to go for advice. Befriend a band that has had some success and pick their brains; get their stories; learn from their mistakes. Find the touring schedule of a like-minded or similarly successful band and try to get into those clubs. Some of the best bands I’ve seen have never made it out of town, but the hardest working ones have always have the most success.