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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Status Update 2013 Experiences in the Popular Music Business



   It may seem strange to write a year end summary in late August, but it truly is the end of my year.  If you are on the lower rungs of the popular music business the entire last quarter of the year is essentially blacked out.  September is blacked out because of the level of competition from the upper rungs of the Popular Music Business ladder.  October and November are blacked out because the attention of the Audience is weak, and December is blacked out because the holidays make scheduling and distribution difficult.  On the other end of the year January and February are possible times but pretty weak.  That leaves the heart of the calendar for a lower level Music Business entity: March through August.   How many releases can a record label be expected to make in this six month period.  One?  Two? Certainly not more then three.

 This year it was two releases, one in May and one in August.  Both releases brought home the fact that the record business has only two categories of releases: Those which do not have an established Audience and those that do.  Releasing records of new bands without an established Audience is the most difficult thing in the world to do.  Success rates are very low, and the costs are very high.  On the other hand, releasing the record of a band with an established audience- NO MATTER THE SIZE OF THAT AUDIENCE- is essentially a given in terms of simply being an accounting exercise and an attempt to expand the size of that particular Audience for the next effort.

 Any record company business model which is built on the premise of the ability to discover new acts is doomed to failure for multiple reasons.  First, the over all success rate is low, the chance of generating profit is even lower. Second, a position on the lower rungs of the Music Business ladder is tantamount to being plankton in the ocean: You get eaten by everything, so the odds of losing an Artist once you break them is very high.  Third, and this is something I've been thinking about a lot: Time passes you by.

    Consider that there are two target demographics that comprise more then 90% of the Audience for new music:  18-24, 25-34.

    If you then say that a record label started in 2009, by 2013 you are already into the second half of that first demographic category.  In other words, you've lost 30% of your initial Audience.  The new people in that 18-24 demographic don't know shit about you unless you are a Top 40 Artist.  There is no reason for that new cohort to favor your product at the expense of a competing product.

   Locally, I've seen this happen with Burger Records- which is way, way, way more popular then anything I've been affiliated with in terms of a record label.  At the same time, I'm conscious that their popularity is akin to the popularity of a band, and doesn't reflect a strong retail presence outside of cool tape displays in some discerning retail environments.  Also, I know they signed a distribution agreement with Sony/Red Eye distribution, and if asked I would say that was a mistake.  But at the same time, when I actually talk to people at the lower end of the 18-34 age range, they all talk about Burger Records, so you can assume that national retail presence will follow. (1)  And I am impressed by their reach on social media: 25 thousand Facebook friends- 25x what Zoo Music has.

  I suppose it is that fact alone that might motivate a record label to continue to try to break new bands, on the theory that they will at least secure an Audience for that product at the lower end of the 18-34 range.   But something I've realized is that achieving even a tiny modicum of success breeds complacency almost instantly- more than anything else.  In fact, success and complacency practically require one another- they are co-dependent.

  So I know that even as I achieve some small amount of that success in the record business, the basis of that success is evaporating.  It's the equivalent of an Indiana Jones films where Harrison Ford is running with the floor collapsing behind him as he runs.  Maybe you make it to the other side, or maybe you plunge to your death. That is the cold hard fact of existence in the American Popular Music Business.  If you just sit there and do nothing you will plunge to your death. If only I knew what to do, besides breaking a new band, which is almost impossible.

Foot Note

(1) Burger Records is an actual store in Fullerton California that was created at the same time or even before the label.  Prior to their distribution agreement with Red Eye/Sony they did not have national production/distribution abilities.

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