How The Music Biz Really Works...

Exploration

Published in SOS February 1999
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People + Opinion : Industry / Music Biz

After years of crafting your music to the peak of perfection, do you think you've now got what it takes to make it big? Big George Webley looks at some of the harsh commercial realities of today's record business, and explains why the path to fame and fortune doesn't end at getting a record deal.

As you know, I try my hardest to keep my musings for this esteemed journal in accordance with its time-honoured editorial tradition of cutting the bullshit and telling it as it is. Apparently this has led to a number of readers getting upset with the brutality of some of my observations, and -- which is more serious -- I've also had a couple of TV production companies show me the door as a result of one of my articles being forwarded to the Office of Fair Trading regarding Restraint Of Trade allegations (cool eh? -- there's a chance I might be called to give evidence to one of those truth-seeking commission things. That will definitely nail the coffin lid firmly shut on my career in TV music!). In addition, just about every industry society that I'm a member of has asked me to be a little less frank and open in disclosing information on the inner workings of the music business. But the way I see it, I'm paid over two bob a word by the finest music magazine on the planet to give a true and accurate snapshot of how the commercial side of music is run in this country, and that's what I'm going to do. If anyone wants to shoot me for telling the truth, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it -- except run like crazy and hide!

Chips With Everything

But enough of my professional woes; what about yours? This article all stems from having lunch with my Übergruppenführer, Herr Paul White, and a top recording engineer. Paul was quizzing me about how I always manage to get him to pay the restaurant bill and I replied (as I ordered the most expensive dish on the menu, with two extra portions of fries), "it's all about knowing the situation you're in and using it to your advantage -- just like getting noticed by the music business, really". Paul went

"...in this day and age there are no major record companies actively looking for new talent to develop."
on to ask what I felt an artist or band should do if they want to get further in their career than simply getting their unplayed demo returned from record companies with the standard "thanks, but no thanks" letter. Before I could reply, the recording engineer piped up with the observation that "all it takes is a great song to get you through the door". I'm afraid this statement made me laugh so much that deep-fried potato came shooting out of my nose. Now I know that's not a very pleasant mental image to conjure up, but it's a more attractive proposition than deluding yourself that all you really have to do to achieve recognition and commercial success is to get your best three songs on a tape, put it in a jiffy bag along with a one-page funky biography and an 8 x 10 glossy snap, and then send it by recorded delivery (that always looks classy, doesn't it?) to the A&R director of your choice, who will call you in a few days with the offer of a massive record deal. Because that ain't gonna happen. Ever! That's just not how the music business works these days.

Yet, unbelievably, the majority of unsigned 'wannabe' acts (even you), who may well have devoted their entire life, talent, dreams and money on trying to 'make it', will be using precisely this method as their one and only way of getting themselves a deal. The telling statistic is that out of the trillions of unsolicited demos that are sent to record companies every decade, that approach, on its own (note vitally important qualifying bit in italics), has probably never succeeded.

If, despite this, you are still determined to have a shot at making it in this business, either because you want to change the world with your art (idiot), just want the money (you'll be lucky), or are desperate for the adulation (well, if it stops you going into politics...), you'd better learn a bit more about how it works. "OK", you say, "then what is the modern way to make it in this business? And how do you get signed?".

Prepare For Disappointment

We'll come back to the exact relationship between being signed and 'making it' in a minute -- suffice it to say for now that they are not the same thing. And I'm afraid that the answers to the two above hopeful questions can also only disappoint. Firstly, to look at the issue of how to get a record deal in depth, using a cross-section of case studies would take up the entire mag, cover to cover -- and we'd still not be able to come to a useful conclusion. Why? Because there isn't one way to get signed; in the entire history of recording artists, I doubt if any two of them have ever got to the top by the same combination of factors. Secondly, you should realise that in this day and age, there are no major record companies (ie. ones who get their records in the pop charts) actively looking for new talent to develop. Sadly, that sweeping statement is 100 percent true. Yes, when they go to Downing Street to 'showbiz it up' with Tony Blair, they'll always give the impression they have a scouting policy looking for the next U2 or Radiohead, but the truth is, those bands weren't discovered by record companies, they were aberrations that simply fell into the companies' laps, as did the likes of Mark Knopfler and Dave Stewart.

  "Can I Speak To The Boss?" Getting To The People Who Matter  
  What d'you mean, "how do you get through to the head of a record company?" Getting to speak to somebody who is notoriously difficult to get hold of on the phone is actually the easiest thing in the world to do. Here are just some of the methods that I've heard about -- but if you are going to use one of these, you've only got one shot at it. If you don't get what you want out of the person on the other end of the phone, they'll never give you their ear again. This is a dangerous game. Get it wrong, or get caught out, and you'll be as good as finished with that company, forever! And if you are crazy enough to try any of 'em, always dial 141 before you call, as allowing the receptionist to see a phone number from your obscure neck of the woods when you are making out that the call is coming from an office in Mayfair is a real giveaway...
  • Ask for 'accounts' or 'the post room'. You'll get put through straight away. When they answer you say "hi Jim (or whoever the person is you're trying to get hold of), have you seen the Financial Times stock report today blah blah blah..." They'll say something like, "I think you've got the wrong extension". Then ask them if they can transfer you, or give you the correct extension.
  • Pretend to be the personal secretary to the head of another record company/TV producer, or maybe get someone else who can sound like a highly paid secretary to get through initially.
  • Try calling at 5.30pm and say you're calling from Nashville at 8.30 in the morning -- try using a speaker phone if you have one as it can enhance the illusion of a transatlantic call, but don't put on an American accent, unless you're brilliant at it. There are plenty of Brits in America you know!
  • Say you are a doctor from a hospital with "some important results" for him! Sick, but highly effective -- do not under any circumstances actually use this one!
  • Make out that you are from Camelot's lottery search department. the premium bond people or a solicitor with power of attorney over a large estate -- naturally, those people would insist on speaking to him in person -- and you never know, of course, this call actually could make both you and the person you're trying to get hold of millionaires!
 

That's not to say these artists aren't great. Of course, they're all totally brilliant with a heritage to be proud of, and if you want to be a part of the bigger picture, you'd be a fool to think otherwise. But it wasn't solid record company support that put them in the enviable position they are in today. Of the artists I've mentioned, at least three of them owe their entire fortune to being at the right place at the right time: during the birth of Compact Discs and the MTV generation. And good luck to them; but that was then and this is now, and those particular loopholes have been well and truly plugged with record company overkill, greed and a reliance on cost-free back catalogue.

Of course, it's still possible that you might see a fresh shortcut or loophole to exploit, in which case you could be on your way to taking the world by storm overnight (see the 'Shared Experiences' box). All you've got to do then is have loads and loads of incredibly good luck, and be prepared to say goodbye to any sort of normal life you may have. Though this sounds unlikely, it does still happen. The Spice Girls are a perfect example in a long line of artists who jumped over all the bullshit and cracked it big time! But they, or to be precise, their organisation were super-smart -- and even they could have quite easily fallen flat on their faces.

  Shared Experiences  
  If you've had a record company sign you up after you'd sent them a demo, or you've done something outrageous to catch the eye of someone wielding a cheque book, let me know. Either send it to me here at SOS, or email me (big.george@soundonsound.com).

If there are enough good stories, I'll do another piece which will thoroughly depress us all about the state of the industry and at the same time get us all laughing our socks off with the hilarity of our fellow artists' jolly japes. On the other hand, if one of you sends in a sure-fire winning way of impressing a company into lavishing money on a class act, then sod you lot, I'll use it myself. See you on Top Of The Pops!

 

Retail Is Everything

So you think that all that sounds hard? It's just the start. You mustn't pour all your energy and resources into getting a deal; as I mentioned before, 'making it' in the music business doesn't end there, so you'll need to have plenty in reserve. In fact, the deal is just the first step (see the 'Fantasy Meets Reality' box for the merest smattering of things that can go wrong). You have to see a lot further than just the recording process, the CD manufacturing stage, and even beyond the making of the video. You see, a Hollywood film may cost 100 million dollars to make, but they don't just put it out when it's finished and hope people will go to the cinema. They spend as much (sometimes more!), on promoting it. And the same should be true for you and your music. Because at the end of the day, the most important part of being in the music business today is persuading members of the general public to go into a 'chart return' (ie. High Street) record shop or department store to buy your music, and to buy it at the right time. In other words: 'Retail is Everything!'. Let me explain.

Even if you make a brilliant album, which the record-buying public in their hundreds of thousands will be desperate to add to their collections, if you don't get it into the shops, you won't sell any (obvious, really, eh?). And these days, if you don't sell albums, the label won't hang about; you'll get dropped, and be back to where you started, with no deal.

Getting a record into the shops is also harder than you might think; the shops probably won't take any of your records at first. After all, why should they? They sell loads of Celine Dion, Simply Red and Boyzone records so, to the retailer, having your record in stock simply means less space for guaranteed sales. You (or rather your record company) will have to pull stunts like giving the initial batch of your records to all the major retailers (we all know who they are) free of charge, and allow them to send the stock back after a week if they haven't sold them. Now that might sound a bit economically unfair to any up-and-coming artist trying to release a record in the current climate -- but you shouldn't really worry too much about it, as they probably still won't take any of your records, so ferocious is the competition for shelf space. After all, everyone is trying the same sale-or-return trick.

"In the entire history of recording artists, I doubt if any two of them have ever got to the top by the same combination of factors."

So what's to be done? Well, getting a hot new act (like you) into the shops and selling units means at the very least, massive promotion on radio and TV. The first thing to get straight is that there's no chance, and I repeat, No Chance of getting national play on independent local FM radio. Over 90 percent of these stations are actually owned by just four very conservative (or to put it another way, bland) advertising sales vehicles who have absolutely no interest in music at all, which explains why their entire output is a safe diet of wall-to-wall Tina Turner, Wet Wet Wet and Phil Collins. This leaves Radio 1FM and Virgin as the only places to gain any worthwhile airplay, but don't think that getting one play on the John Peel show will give your career a rocket launch, even if you feel high as a kite when your track is played by our middle-aged, balding friend. I happen to think that Peel is the finest broadcaster this island has ever spawned, and long may he continue. But great though he is, he plays so many new unsigned or self-released records that it doesn't mean a thing. As for getting on Virgin Radio -- well, it's been said (though certainly not by me) that if you try visiting the drinking holes frequented by the staff and butter them up, you might get a result -- but perhaps that's why their listening figures are not what they once were...

  Fantasy Meets Reality  
  Just say that you do get a massive record deal with a major company. In an ideal world, the first thing they do is to put you into a top studio for two months with the best producer in the world (your choice, naturally). Then, with no interference whatsoever from a potentially endless stream of record company department heads who all want different things from you, you painlessly make the album you have always dreamed of, only loads better. The cover design would be a perfect example of the record company's art department taking the brilliant original concept (yours, of course) and turning it into everything you'd envisaged, and more. Likewise, the videos for singles (your storyboard, natch) are stunningly produced by your favourite blockbusting movie directors, and everyone at the company loves them so much that they pay for them all. Of course, things never actually happen like this -- the record business just doesn't work like that any more, if it ever did. The reality is that any or all of these things (or all of these things, God help you, plus loads other things I haven't got space to mention here) can and often do go horribly wrong. And when that happens, like ex-Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne, you will no longer be able to watch Spinal Tap (he claims it's too painful, as he has experienced in real life every humiliation the record industry inflicts on the band in the film). Still think getting the deal is the end of your worries?  
Then there's TV. But there are really only about three shows that a new artist can hope to get exposure on, and about ten thousand acts going for the same slot. Of course, the best place to be seen is probably the National Lottery show on a treble rollover draw, but just try getting that gig!

As well as radio and TV you'll need press coverage -- a good juicy story never goes down badly, but be warned, it never goes away either. Oh, and of course, all of these elements need to coincide with the record being shipped to the shops. If all of these factors don't work to a precise plan, your career is over. You see, Radio 1FM won't keep playing your track if it's either not available to buy or not selling, and TV coverage is so difficult to get at the beginning that you'll be lucky to get even a single slot -- and then how long will the press be willing to write about a bunch of wacky nobodies?

Step One

So, now that I've thoroughly depressed you it's time to start setting your sights on what you want to achieve. And remember, in the words of the long-dead oriental philosopher Lao-tzu, "A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step". And it is a long journey which you're embarking on. Some people get a flying start, others seem to be walking barefoot over broken glass the whole way, and most either give up or never get beyond talking about taking the trip.

I hope you get my ultimate point; if you want to make music destined to become Karaoke standards, doorbell chimes, and lift muzak (and by the end of this year, please) you have to be prepared to do a lot more than just make a bit of music, put it in the post box and wait. Most of us dream that our music is 100 percent Worldwide Smash Hit Record Product and feel that the stuff in the charts is utter rubbish. But so what? Who cares about us and what we think of the state of popular music? I'll tell you -- no-one. If you want to get on in this business you have to do as much work, if not more, as you did in making your art. Getting your foot into the door isn't a matter of just knocking and waiting for someone to open it wide. It's knowing what door to knock on, how hard to knock and being aware of precisely what's behind the door.

 

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