Survival of the Fittest in the New Music Industry
As they prepared to record their new album, Not Your Kind of People, Garbage received a crash course in the new realities of the music business. Having parted ways with Geffen, their former home, the band began investigating new ways to distribute its music. "We're used to the old system," says singer Shirley Manson, "so we thought, 'Let's see what's out there,' because we've been gone so long."
Unwilling to sign with another major label, Garbage decided to follow in the groundbreaking footsteps of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails and release the album themselves. In doing so, the band realized it had to pay for recording and videos out of its own pocket. "The freedom it affords you is so amazing," Manson says, "but it's nerve-wracking. We've put our own money into it. Bringing the record out on our own label poses some problems for us."
As Garbage and newer bands are learning, the music business is no longer what it was in the Nineties – or even five years ago. In the past, bands would receive respectable cash advances from labels to make albums and videos. After their records were released, they'd tour for months, or perhaps a year. With any luck, mass outlets like MTV would promote them and air their videos. Then bands would take a break before starting the cycle once again.
In a business hobbled by recession and declining CD revenue, few of those rules apply anymore – in ways that can be both encouraging and demoralizing. To compensate for the fall-off in record sales, musicians are touring for longer stretches and are being forced to cobble together a living by any means necessary, from licensing songs to any TV show or video game that will have them to asking fans to contribute to their recording costs.
"I used to hear the word 'overexposure' more than I do now," says Dan Reed, music director of NPR's World Café, who sees more bands than ever visiting his studio. "In this crowded media market, I don't think there's such a thing anymore. Bands are vying for any spot they can where they can reach a sizable number of people. We're all working harder. The music business is no different."
To satisfy fans who've grown up with the Internet, musicians are expected to churn out new material as quickly as possible. Tennis opted to release their second album, Young & Old, 13 months after their 2011 debut. "The demand for music and output is so high," says singer and keyboardist Alaina Moore. "If you stop altogether, which bands used to be able to do, people will assume the worst and move on and forget about you. Our management will message us on tour, saying, 'We could use another B-side.' And we say, 'Well, we're not even home, but OK.' It's crazy."
The rise of Twitter and Facebook has helped bands connect with their followers like never before, but it also means another distraction from the creative process. "Fans expect things to come directly from the artist," says Tennis manager Rob Stevenson. "You have to get yourself to the next gig and do a good gig and do your social media stuff. And there are still only 24 hours in a day."
Former Dresden Dolls singer-keyboardist Amanda Palmer was tweeting with fans while sitting at her piano and writing a song for her new solo album, Theater Is Evil. "I felt kind of silly, and my superego was saying, 'Really, Amanda?'" she says. "But hundreds of people were writing, 'I can't wait to hear the song.'"
The new rules of the shrunken music business begin in the studio, where recording budgets, especially for new and indie acts, have been slashed. "The big difference is that there are no longer big advances," says Richard Grabel, a music business attorney who represents bands like Passion Pit and Ra Ra Riot. Jeff Castelaz of Dangerbird, home of Silversun Pickups and Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye, says his bands rarely get to spend more than $10-15,000 making a record.
"Everybody is under major constraints to drive down the cost of making records," says Castelaz. "You have to watch every penny. You're not going to spend $50,000 to make a record that's going to sell 5,000 copies. That would be a bloodbath."
To get around diminished budgets – or labels altogether – some bands have begun turning to Kickstarter, the "crowd-funding" service that lets musicians pay for recording costs by way of contributions from fans. (The site also helps fund movies, video games and other creative endeavors.) On the site's music category, fans have contributed an average of $25, according to a source at the company, and bands have been able to raise in the area of $20,000. In return for their investment, fans receive autographed records, concert tickets and other memorabilia.