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Friday, December 16, 2011

2011 My Year In Music

   2011 My Year in Music actually started in December 2010. It was after Christmas, I was staying with my wife at the Tambo Del Inka Rest & Spa in Valley Sagrado.  You know, trying to get away from it all?  It was there I discovered that the Dirty Beaches Badlands LP had "leaked."

  "Leaked" in the sense that our digital distributor had released the album accidentally, reading the release date is March 30th, 2010 not March 30th, 2011.  As it turns out, my view is that the "leak" actually helped the record obtain a larger audience, and personally converted me from a "leak-fearing" to "leak-embracing" mentality.  That was my first lesson of the year in the music business:

   If you have a product that starts with zero audience, leaking can not hurt you, because the worst thing that can happen is for everything to stay exactly the same, i.e. a product/artist combination with no audience.

  2011 began to go "right" on January 14, 2011- not long after I returned from my very interesting, refreshing Peruvian sojourn.  That was the day that Pitchfork named Dirty Beaches "Sweet 17" "Best New Track."  As it turned out my buddy Josh Feingold over at SONG PUBLISHING was right to counsel me to not get too excited since, "The designation that really matters is Best New Music (Album) not Best New Track (Song.)"  That's actually a reversal of the conventional music industry wisdom, and deserves some recognition as an independent fact, considering the vital role that the Best New Music designation plays for about 10,000 Artists and 1,000 Record Labels.

      After Dirty Beaches, Sweet 17 was named Best New Track, the attention was overwhelming, especially from labels that didn't know that Zoo Music existed.  Solicitations included those directed to the label itself regarding who was "putting out" the Badlands LP.  Clearly something any "bedroom indie" Label needs to consider immediately on the occasion of any kind of market success is the need to react to the needs of the Artist. If you don't react in some positive way to the increased attention that results from success, you will lose your artist nine times out of ten.  Or, as another, wiser person i was talking to put it, "99 times out of a hundred."

   The saving grace for Zoo Music is that the attention for the Badlands LP came within the frame of time designation as the pre-release period- jan- march 2011- and PR had already been arranged, production commenced etc.  From the perspective of "sharks" who wanted to put out Badlands, that was an important distinction and caused many would-be suitors to drop away immediately.

  The next big mile stone was the Pitchfork Album Review of Badlands. At the time, I was aware of the fact that the mere presence of an Album in Pitchfork's Album Review section was significant, but considering that Sweet 17 had been designated "Best New Track" I that Best New Music was, if not a fore-gone conclusion then a high possibility.

        As time dragged on between January 14th and April 4th,  I was less and less sure of the likelihood of getting Best New Music.  The "nail in the coffin" was The Weeknd: House of Ballons receiving Best New Music on March 29th, 20110- the week of Badlands release.  Both reviews were written by the same writer, Joe Colly.  Both Artists are Canadians? Joe Colly gave the Weeknd 8.5 and Badlands 8.2.  I still think about:   On my recent Hawaiian vacation to Princeville, my wife and I were driving back from Waimea Canyon on Kauai to the St. Regis Princeville, listening to this college radio/public radio station, and they played the Weeknd and I was like, "Ohhh."  This was in November.

   After the initial sales period in April, early May, it became clear that Zoo Music's existing capacity couldn't satisfy demand for Dirty Beaches record.  That's a problem that def. fits into the category of what I outlined earlier:
       Clearly something any "bedroom indie" Label needs to consider immediately on the occasion of any kind of market success is the need to react to the needs of the Artist. If you don't react in some positive way to the increased attention that results from success, you will lose your artist nine times out of ten.
    The simple fact is that a small, independent record label doesn't exist without its star Artist.  Record Labels are their Hit Records, and that is always going to be linked to a specific Artist who will receive offers to move "up the food chain" of the music business.  This is the point where having Artists involved in releasing the music is  useful and a reason why an Artist owned label, other factors being equal, will have an advantage in retaining a specific Artist.  Nothing about an Artist owned label cancels out the need to react to the needs of the Artist who is putting out a record, but among roughly equal competitors for a specific Artist its an advantage.

   The Fall of 2011 basically involved holding my breath to see where the follow-up to Badlands would land.  One of the cardinal principles of this level of indie record label-dom is the well framed one album deal, "Put out one album with us, if you want another one... we'd love to."  That is the clear difference between what a Zoo Music represents vs. a larger indie or even indies of the same size.

     One of the down-sides of that from the label position is that it influences you be very passive from a business perspective in the aftermath of a hit record: That's a flaw of the one record deal from the perspective of an Artist seeking to maximize Audience size.  If the Artist isn't concerned about total size of the Audience, it's not an issue.

      That's the only way the Artist and the Label can ever be equals, anyways.  BOTH the Artist AND the Label should be concerned about overly elaborate contractual arrangements. I would argue that written contracts are really only appropriate when there is existing value to the contract.  If the agreement is, "We'll try to do a good job creating an audience for an artist with no audience" you don't need to put that in writing, I'm sorry.  I say that as a lawyer, with all due respect to the respect that Artists and Labels show to the business agreement known as a "contract."

      You know what you need a contract for?  My wife worked on a project where they built a basketball/hockey arena.  It cost 150 million dollars.  That's something where you need good contracts.  Putting out a record with no recording budget and a pr agreement does not require written requirements- it requires honest efforts and good faith- and you don't need to write that down- or you shouldn't have to, anyway.  Any Label/Artist combination should be so fortunate that they've made soooo much money that you need a contract.

    I think though, my 2011 Year in Music was summed up in an interview that Alex Dirty Beaches gave to a French interviewer in response to the question, "What is indie about your music?" or something like that. He said, "It's not about a specific sound, it's about ethics and how you treat each other."  I think it was shortly after that I watched that interview that Alex agreed to put out the follow-up LP to Badlands on Zoo Music.  It happened... a month ago?

  In conclusion, My Year in Music 2011 was basically tracked to the release of Dirty Beaches Badlands, and I spent most of my time dealing with the consequences of that release. 2012 is going to be all about the follow up album.  An answer to the question of what Artists can "do" in the music business besides creating music  is to maintain Artist relationships.  That's a valuable skill set if it can be harnessed to market discipline.   The conflict that the music business causes to Artist relationships is something like trauma.

  If you think about the prototype break-out, economically viable Artist, its someone who has spent some time and energy maintaining authentic relationship with people that exist outside of a business environment.  As a result of their success, these Artists are basically required to form new relationships with people who are only interested in them because of their success.   The Artist wants to embrace the means to leave whatever pre-success environment they've existed in, but is cautious of potential negative consequences.

  Realistically, you can't ask someone who literally didn't care about an Artist before they were successful to care about what they did and who they hung out with prior to achieving success.  That goes without saying. That can be a hard lesson for "local" friends of successful Artists to learn, but it appears to be a universal principle of the relationship between Art and Commerce.
   This year I was grateful that I had partners who were Artists because I know my skill set doesn't really include the kind of  personal touch one needs when dealing with Artists on a daily basis.



Monday, December 12, 2011

Visit to Revolver/Midheaven Warehouse in San Francisco

      The Revolver/Midheaven Warehouse in San Francisco is pretty much the coolest place in the world, from my perspective.  Just imagine the coolest record store in the world, but it's not a record store- rather a place where records come from.   The ability of Revolver/Midheaven to not only persist but prosper on a modest scale is a testament to the good that capitalism can create.  Reviolver/Midheaven is also validation that Art and Commerce can co-exist in equipoise.

     If I could, I would bring my Artist friends here and say, "See? This is what's real: Not major labels, band managers who make big promises, publishing companies with advances that never recoup.  If you want to come and see how you make a career as an Artist in the Music Business without being a complete and total asshole, come here and sit on the shipping floor for a week...and see.  You need this place, as much as this place needs your Records."

  I would argue that the Revolver/Midheaven Warehouse in San Francisco is a sacred space in the cosmos of DIY.  I would add it to other verified sacred DIY institutions/ritual locations on the West Coast like:    

     Che Cafe in San Diego, CA.
     The Smell in Los Angeles, CA.
     The headquarters for Maximum Rock n' Roll in San Francisco, CA
     924 Gilman St. in Berkeley, CA.
  I won't post pictures or the address because I kind of feel like Revolver/Midheaven wants to operate in silence- and I respect that.  Revolver/Midheaven is the indie music business equivalent of the Irish Monasteries that waited out the Dark Ages in Europe.  So much knowledge has been lost, and I'm like an acolyte living in a nearby settlement... Revolver is the remote monastery, filled with illuminated manuscript, keeping the flickering light of knowledge alive in the surrounding darkness.

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