Big money deals are starving pop

So, $80m for REM. But that leaves little change for tomorrow's acts, says Andy Gill

Share
Related Topics
Judging by the colossal deal signed this week between Warner Brothers Records and the American rock group REM, reports in recent years of the "death of pop" have proven not only premature, but well wide of the target.

The arrangement, which nets the Athens, Georgia-based group a cool $80m for only five albums, is one of the biggest recording deals ever struck in the music industry, confirming the band's position as one of the most popular acts in the world today.

It is not, however, the largest deal ever struck with a recording artist. That, like most record-breaking feats in the record business, remains in Michael Jackson's domain, although the $890m multi-media deal he signed with Sony in 1991 involved not only Jackson's own work but also the rights to other artists' publishing catalogues that he had previously purchased, most notably the Northern Songs portfolio containing Lennon & McCartney's Beatles compositions.

As with English football transfers, the Nineties have been the silly season for music-industry deals. Observers were shocked in 1991 when Virgin Records signed Janet Jackson for $50m and The Rolling Stones for $30m - although the deals were explained as a means whereby Richard Branson could "fatten up" his Virgin record label with only a few money-spinning stars (Genesis, Phil Collins), before selling it off for around half a billion pounds.

In the film industry, appearances are all-important: accordingly, telephone- number deals are often struck simply to demonstrate to the Los Angeles film colony that the studio in question can attract the talent.

Much the same holds for the music business. When CBS, for instance, re-signed Bob Dylan, it wasn't necessarily expecting to recoup its entire investment from Dylan's own recordings. It was buying Dylan's position as an artist of great probity, which would be of incalculable help in attracting other artists.

So, too, with Warner and REM, lauded as much for their humanitarian ethos and environment-friendly attitude as for their music. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, deeply troubled by the conflict between his original punk ideals and the immense success that would eventually lead him to suicide, once regretted being unable to handle the fame as well as REM's frontman Michael Stipe, whom he referred to as virtually a saint. It's that saintliness, as much as anything, on which Warner has taken up its option: in negotiations with young indie or "college-rock" bands, it will doubtless prove invaluable.

But, as with English football once more, big-money deals tell only part of the story. Every $80m that a label is paying a Janet Jackson or REM is $80m less in the kitty to develop those young indie bands attracted by the big-name artists. When rock music first became a global mega-bucks business, record labels would routinely sign bands to six-album deals, relying on their artist & repertoire (A&R) departments to develop the band's career over the full course of the contract. Rare indeed was the debut album that made money, or was intended to do anything other than introduce the group's name to the public; indeed, there would be several years of subsidy - through tours, advertising, marketing and further recordings - before the company expected to see a return on its investment.

Now, new bands sign deals for singles, and if the first single doesn't chart under its own steam, they may never get to make an album. It's a myopic, short-term strategy that has resulted in the erosion of the major labels' A&R departments, whose traditional talent-spotting duties are now carried out by independent companies such as Creation and Go! Discs - which are then forced to sign licensing deals with the majors to finance the development of acts, such as Oasis, that break through to wider audiences.

It's a remarkably similar situation to that of the early days of rock 'n' roll, when local hits on small American labels would be picked up by major distributors for national release. Then again, the stakes weren't quite as high in those days. When Sam Phillips sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA, he received the princely sum of $35,000.

RISING RECORD DEALS

Band Company Est. Deal Year

REM Warner Bros $80m 1996

Janet Jackson EMI $70m 1996

George Michael Dreamworks/Virgin $50m 1995

Michael Jackson Sony $60m 1991

Madonna Warner Bros $60m 1991

Rolling Stones Atlantic $5m 1971

Beatles EMI Royalties 1962

of 1p/record

James Elder and Ben Summers

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own