Do it your way!

Once upon a time, the difficult bit was the recording session. Not any more. Now the challenge is getting your music heard. Let Simmy Richman explain how it's done...
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The Independent Culture

Damn young people today. Time was when you could manufacture a trend. Tell 'em what they should be into. Bottle cool. But this lot can smell The Man a mile off. These days, it's all coolhunters, guerrilla PR and tipping points. How's a multinational corporation meant to prevent itself from looking like a dinosaur?

Damn young people today. Time was when you could manufacture a trend. Tell 'em what they should be into. Bottle cool. But this lot can smell The Man a mile off. These days, it's all coolhunters, guerrilla PR and tipping points. How's a multinational corporation meant to prevent itself from looking like a dinosaur?

Take Arcade Fire. A couple of weeks back only the chosen few - that is, "coolhunters" - had heard of this Canadian band. Now they're the name on every buzz-creator's lips. Sell-out shows, 60,000 albums sold (on Merge, a tiny, musician-owned label in North Carolina): if any band can be said to be teetering on the tipping point this month, it is Arcade Fire. And it happened organically, as they like to say, thanks to the expanding influence of a popular website.

Contemporary music fans like to discover things for themselves, you see, and they like the things they discover to feel authentic. And authentic is not the sight of a boardroom full of businessmen sweating over whether the new Coldplay album will appease stockholders. So they go to places like Pitchforkmedia.com and chat to each other and recommend each other things. The multinationals may (and do) try to disguise themselves in various influential chatrooms, but today's kids are too savvy for that; like John Peel used to say of anyone at a hippie festival with a Cat Stevens record under their arm being an undercover cop...

Anyway, Pitchfork voted Arcade Fire's debut album, Funeral, its record of the year 2004 and the band was happy to acknowledge the website's influence. "It came across as if [Pitchfork] liked the record," said AF's Win Butler. "And if you really like something, you expose people to things you think are good." Simple as that. Honest enthusiasm. The very model, in fact, of the modern marketing campaign.

And the "big four" majors don't like it. They don't like it one little bit. Because this stirring up of buzz among a perceived cultural elite threatens the majors' last area of control - the distribution and selling of music. When word of mouth is more important in generating sales than being able to get records on to the shop shelves, you're going to be relying on a lot of three-for-£20 "catalogue" sales and the odd mega-act to keep everything else afloat.

From 2001 to 2002 (the year Napster briefly entered the fray, allowing people to swap copyrighted music over the internet), some 62.5m fewer major-label CDs were sold around the world than the previous year. And there were notable casualties: Tommy Mottola quit Sony Music after overseeing a $100m loss in 2002. The truth is, even when things are going well for the big four, 95 per cent of their albums never generate a royalty cheque. No wonder the majors have never been less in the mood for taking risks, nurturing talent or breaking new musical ground.

The big four (Sony BMG, Universal, Warners and EMI) lost control over what music gets made a decade ago. The digital revolution meant everyone could have a home recording studio and artists no longer needed to avail themselves of hideously expensive studio time. Nowadays, anyone with the music applications Pro Tools or GarageBand on their computer can make music that sounds like the stuff you buy in Asda. Which isn't to say old-fashioned talent won't go a long way, only that in this digital desk-top democracy anyone who wants to get a record made, can.

Imagine for a moment then that I am a musical genius. Having recorded Shower Songs in my bathroom, I am ready to unleash my masterpiece on the world. To learn how I may go about doing this, I visit Ian Blackaby, a London-based music-biz consultant and lecturer.

"It's been about 10 years since anyone sent me a demo that didn't have 'sonic plausibility'," he says. "These days, everyone can make a record and a lot of people are, so you'd better make sure you've got something to say." Blackaby tells me how the major labels are more than ever geared around producing music that has instant familiarity; think Katie, Norah, Il Divo or, as one lecture Blackaby used to give, put it: "Why the Lighthouse Family?" This homogenisation, he explains, is because the majors release records that sell to people who buy a handful of CDs a year at supermarkets and petrol stations. "And you are not that kind of artist," he humours me. "So you should definitely put Shower Songs out on your own label or an indie and then send it to a website such as CD Baby, where artists like yourself can sell products globally within days of recording them."

Blackaby explains how I can survive by selling just a few thousand records and that the best way for me to do this is to build up my fanbase, meet people who like my music, play lots of shows, create a community on the internet, make my fans feel involved and give music away for free.

And it isn't just Blackaby who dares to suggest that the old days - when signing to a major meant the difference between making music or having to get a "proper" job - are over. Bob Lefsetz is an industry legend. After stints as a lawyer at most of the majors, he started issuing "The Lefsetz Letters", an email rant that is read by everyone who's anyone (and quite a few people who are nothing in particular) in the business called music.

Here are some typical Lefsetz pronouncements: "Don't sign with a major if you are a touring act. Major labels KILL touring acts. Have a website before the album is released. Put everything on it. Make it DOWNLOADABLE. You're not SELLING, you're trying to gain access into people's LIVES. Think of it like being a dope dealer. It's free until you're HOOKED. THEN you pay."

But why, you're thinking, will people pay for something they can get free? And the reason can be explained in three words: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

It's a story that's been told many times in music-biz circles, but let me recap in case you missed it. The following is the review of American group Wilco's fourth album from a 2002 edition of Rolling Stone: "This is how screwed up the music business is in the early 21st century: last summer, after completing their best studio album, Wilco delivered the record to their label, Reprise. The company threw the album back at Wilco and arranged for them to leave the label - immediately. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot now arrives in stores, intact, on Nonesuch. Like Reprise, Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner. Essentially, the mother firm paid for the album twice."

Not only that, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went on to sell a healthy 600,000 copies after the band had given away 200,000 free downloads on its website while hovering between contracts. The episode demonstrated that giving music away free is no impediment to the conventional shifting of units.

Of course, the Big Four immediately took against the idea of giving away anything for nothing and have since taken to suing their own artists for doing just that. It seems that having lost control over the means to make music, the majors are ready to fight to the death to maintain control over what music is sold and how.

Which is one of the reasons more and more artists are setting up their own kitchen-table empires - a phenomenon that has led to an explosion of independently released music that defies genre and sets the boundaries for today's music lover. Blackaby suggests that the reason most of these artists are American is that there is no perceived shame in that country in possessing an "entrepreneurial spirit".

Lefsetz further believes that the majors' claim that piracy is killing the industry is a smokescreen. "I believe they are mortally afraid of the impact of the quality indie artist on their members' fortunes," he says. "I believe they are lobbying for broad legislation regarding the distribution of music to quell the impact of quality indie artists on the marketplace. If someone spends $15 on an indie CD, that's $15 not being spent on an RIAA [Record Industry Association of America] member label."

And he's right. Because with over 30 per cent of records - from Moby to Kate Rusby to Fugazi - now being released on independent or artist-owned labels (the second-biggest player is Universal with around 23.5 per cent of market share), we are already well into an era where if the majors don't reposition, reposition, reposition, they will become as redundant as much of the music they insist on churning out.

Real damage has already been inflicted on recording studios. The Hit Factory in New York, Western Recorders in Hollywood, where Pet Sounds was made, and even Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Alabama, have all disappeared in the past year. And in place of the studio sounds of old, we have a more personal, quietly introspective and authentic sound of people pouring their hearts out to anyone who'll listen (perfect, it's been pointed out, for the iPod generation). And plenty will. "All around the world," beams Lefsetz, "great artists with their own vision are discovering the joys of entrepreneurship and the scales are falling from their eyes in terms of the importance of major label signing."

I put this to Adem, a quality British artist whose debut album, Homesongs, was recorded in the manner its title suggests. Signed to the independent Domino, and not averse to selling his own CDs after shows, Adem, better than most Brits, embodies this spirit of DIY entrepreneurialism.

"It's true that there's a more 'go for it' attitude in the US," he says. "But no one has to wait till they get a deal to make a record any more. Homesongs was recorded in Stoke Newington and while it did invite problems - neighbours making a racket, the meat factory next door getting deliveries etc - there is an intimacy from recording at home that you can hear on the album. There were times when I'd look up and see my partner asleep in the middle of the night and I'd have to sing quietly not to wake her. The whole situation forces strange things on you."

So would Adem ever sign with a major? "You have to remember," he says, "that a lot of what look like independent labels are financed by majors. But the real independents will always retain creative control. That's key because a corporation will always make a financial decision, and that will always be the opposite of an artistic decision. But Domino is a true indie and I admire that. My band Fridge [Badly Drawn Boy's former backing band] had a deal with a major and as soon as the person who liked our music left, we were on our own. At Domino I have the mobile number of everyone who works there and I can talk to them about the weather if I want to."

Even for Adem, though, talking about the weather is not going to pay the bills. "In the past I've had to spend about 70 per cent of my time on the paperwork side to make ends meet," he admits. "And I still spend about 40 per cent of my time printing T-shirts and generating interest. But Homesongs has sold 15,000 copies now and, with shows and merchandise, that's manageable."

In the old days, they used to say that you either made millions or you made nothing out of a career in music. What Adem and the many like him seem to crave is the one thing no one could ever achieve under the old system - to make an honest living out of making music. As I'm getting ready to leave Ian Blackaby to his work, he says a funny thing. "They used to say," he tells me, "that everyone had a novel in them. But most people now would rather make a record. We're heading to a future where everyone will make their own album and every album will sell one copy." He is, I think, only half joking.

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