Archive for category Publishing
I am LOVING this show. For all the wrong reasons.
I’m not a fan of the Idol franchise because it’s put in place a concrete, standardized checklist by which the general public believes singers should be judged. The idea, alone, that a vocalist should display versatility within a range of genres disqualifies the Billie Holidays and Neil Youngs of the world.
Before Idol, artists signed to labels existed in a reality parallel—but separate from—the rest of the world. Someone who ‘knew something about music’ had given the stamp of approval, pulled all the levers, and forevermore the glossy finish of album jackets and posters would seal that artist away, just out of fans’ reach. Talent was curated primarily by savvy executives like Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun, who certainly had a basic checklist for their signings (‘Can Sing,’ ‘Has A Look,’ ‘Has Presence Live.’) But, with a similar latitude that radio DJs had decades ago, one tastemaker’s gut instinct could play a large part in an artist’s destiny.
Today, with profits plunging and monster record labels merging to survive, indie labels have risen again to service niche markets while the majors pump out increasingly formulaic product. Those executives simply cannot afford to experiment, so clunky corporate procedure is de rigueur. I’m loving Bravo’s new reality series Platinum Hit because, perhaps for the first time, the curtain has been pulled back…the average music fan can get a relatively true-to-life view of the working parts inside the LA machine.
Appropriately, fallen singer-songwriter Jewel hosts. Her mis-step in 2003 with dance-pop single Intuition alienated her audience after her earthy image had been solidified with five ubiquitous alt-country radio singles. (We certainly saw under the hood of the industry for a moment there.)
The show is a competition in which 12 songwriters get thrown in rooms in various combinations to come up with hit songs…usually with a specific topic or genre, and sometimes for a specific artist. They work against the clock to deliver material to a panel of executives who then analyze the structure, melody, lyrics and chord changes to measure market potential.
This is exactly what goes on in Los Angeles.
I’m into this show because the corporate standardization of songwriting is in plain view. Heavyweight-songwriter-turned-reality-TV-judge Kara DioGuardi lobs constructive advice at the contestants, guiding them on how to get a green light from executives. Label-executive-turned-reality-TV-judge Keith Naftaly’s feedback often hinges on how well the song hits a market demographic. When in Episode 9 he told contestant Scotty Granger that he believes the lyrical content of his dance song is a little deep for high school kids, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.
This is the type of ‘dumb-it-down’ thinking that permeates the industry. Scotty’s song was barely ‘deep’—in its narrative, we find out there’s just one day left on earth and everyone’s decided to dance all night. A bit dark, maybe, but hardly deep, and quite appropriate for the angst high school kids feel. Maybe this is why Britney Spears’ conceptually identical single ‘Until The World Ends,’ tore up the charts recently.
Regardless, kids, like anyone else, sense when they’re being talked down to, and this usually results in them finding a counter-culture that reflects their feelings more honestly. I remember a DJ friend pointing out to me that in the early 80s MTV was the only source for music videos, so all demographics were exposed to everything from Kate Bush to Run DMC. No one suffered from it. To the contrary, I believe it was a time of rich musical cross-pollination.
The last few episodes of Platinum Hit have gone slightly off the rails in the sense that contestants have clearly been eliminated not based on the quality of their songwriting but rather in order to maintain dramatic tension between characters: this still has to be entertaining TV. Nowhere was it more blatantly obvious than in shots of Granger’s own disbelief at having his song—which he had just described as unsuccessful—come in first at the end of an episode.
Artificially-imposed narrative aside, Platinum Hit is an interesting first glimpse into the world of beatmakers and topliners. The role of melodies, titles, song concepts, and chord changes is contextualized within the construction of a successful artist’s facade, giving some much-needed perspective on all that’s behind the front end of hit music.
The final episode of Season 1 airs this Friday August 5th.
Radio was initially a live medium of announcers, actors and orchestras. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that it became widely acceptable to play records on the air. A royalty system then had to be developed to pass on some of the income from the advertisers to the songwriters and musicians for their content.
Regulations were soon put in place (by the FCC in the United States and the CRTC in Canada) to cap the number of stations a parent company could own; to prevent the conflict-of-interest that would be brought on if record companies were to own radio stations and try to control what was played; and to ensure that radio DJs had a degree of freedom in selecting music they felt their audiences would enjoy or benefit from.
In the 50s a handful of radio DJs were paramount in breaking rock’n'roll. Late in the decade America began a federal investigation which effectively stamped out payola (the practice of record labels bribing DJs to promote specific singles), helping to cement the DJ’s role as trusted tastemaker, and eventually, provocateur. In the 60s radio DJs were key figures in a rising counterculture and the 70s brought FM radio, where jockeys had the freedom to present entire sides of albums in high quality stereo if they so chose.
Since the 80s, however, a series of policy and practice changes as a result of the mergers in big business have, in my view, pretty much castrated the radio DJ. Huge chains of stations are owned by single companies. Clear Channel monopolizes the U.S. with 1240 stations nationwide; Astral Media (the company behind Virgin Radio), CTV, Rogers and Corus Entertainment are the big ones in Canada.
DJs are handed playlists that they cannot stray from. (Actually the music is on hard disk now, and the next song on the list comes up in computer-selected order, eliminating the possibility for the DJ to stray.) Those playlists are determined by program directors who tend to add songs that are a) performed by established artists on major labels (because unfamiliarity would greaten the risk of listeners turning the dial and missing advertisements); b) no longer than 3:30 (because the shorter the songs, the more of them you can play between commercials); and c) rated highly by focus groups (who tend to react positively to songs that fit an immediately recognizable mold, ruling out many of the songs that would grow on people and promote change or growth in music).
Radio stations identify themselves by a particular ‘format’ – that is, they categorize themselves by the style of music they play. These formats are constantly in flux: if a chain of stations decides to alter what they’re playing and rename the format to appeal to a slightly different demographic, the rest of the stations in that format tend to follow suit. ’Adult Contemporary’ used to mean Perry Como, and now it means Katy Perry––because it’s a format that plays music by the artists adults are listening to. (It’s also apparently on the verge of being renamed ‘Mainstream Soft’ to try to shake the Perry Como image.) A quick rundown of the formats:
- CHR – Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40/Mainstream – for the tweens and teens, currently includes pop, dance and rap
- AC – Adult Contemporary/Mainstream Soft – for adults, including pop, rock, soul, dance that is quieter or a little slower
- Hot AC – for adults, but a little rockier or dancier
- Triple A – Adult Album Alternative – for 30-somethings looking for subdued album-oriented artists like A Fine Frenzy, Missy Higgins etc. – there are currently only 2 stations in Canada in this format, both on U.S. border towns
- Modern Rock – Punk pop, a la Sum 41 or Hedley
- CAR – Contemporary Album Rock – Rock, a la Nickelback
- Urban – the latest euphemism for ‘black music’ – Rap and R&B – there are no longer any urban stations in Canada as Toronto’s Flow 93.5 has changed to CHR
As well there are Jazz, Classical, Country and, in the U.S., plenty of Christian format stations listed by Nielsen:
Since songwriter(s) get paid anywhere from $1.65 to $25.86 per radio play (SOCAN’s payout rates depending on the station) you’re ideally hoping to get your single charting on as many formats as possible, as Jason Mraz recently did with ‘I’m Yours‘. It broke a record by hitting number 1 on the CHR, AC, Hot AC and Triple A charts.
The major labels feed their new singles to radio stations instantly through a digital delivery service (such as DMDS in Canada). Established artists’ singles get de facto rotation, newer artists get test spins. With such a closed system, now, how does a new independent artist get a song on the radio?
Generally, by paying an independent radio promoter to get it past the gates. Radio promoters have usually been in the industry, in various capacities, for a while…long enough to develop relationships with program directors at the key stations. In a sense, radio promoters have supplanted DJs as the tastemakers because they are relied upon to do quality control on the material they pass through. In another sense, however, they have their hands tied just as much as anybody else in the chain: nothing over 3:30, big chorus hook, no long intro without a vocal…all of the same rules apply. There is not much chance that a radio promoter is going to be able to sneak through something utterly genre-busting by an unknown artist.
Expect a radio promoter to charge $3000-$5000 to take on your single, send it digitally to the stations in the format that supports your genre of music, and then follow up with the stations’ program directors by phone and e-mail for a 3-month period.
In English-speaking Canada, some of the most successful radio promoters include Toronto’s Dulce Barbosa (who graciously educated me about radio formats recently), Dale Peters (also in Toronto) and Oscar Furtado (in Vancouver).
Further words about Canada: federal CanCon (Canadian Content) laws exist here to ensure that our own homegrown music is promoted at radio. So, 35-40% of the material Canadian radio stations play must fulfill two of the following ‘MAPL’ designations:
- M – Music – The music was written entirely by Canadians
- A – Artist – The recording was performed entirely by Canadians
- P – Production – The recording was made entirely in Canada
- L – Lyrics – The lyrics were written entirely by Canadians
I used to feel that CanCon laws skewed my perception of what was really going on in the world––that radio play should simply be awarded to the best songs by the most polished artists––and I resented the fact that some of the artists Canadian radio had led me to believe were bonafide ‘stars’ hadn’t even scratched the public’s consciousness anywhere else in the world. But I appreciate the unique contributions Canadian musicians have made on the world stage…contributions that were possible in part because they were at first protected here by CanCon laws next to the more powerfully promoted American and British artists. We are roughly 10% the population of the United States, so labels down there have 10 times the selection when looking for an artist to promote. This also means Canadian labels have roughly 10% of the budget their American counterparts get to throw behind their artists’ promotional plans. CanCon laws are a necessity.
The burning question of the moment, however, is how much radio play even matters to an artist’s success these days. In an age when music is increasingly discovered virally on the internet in blogs and links to YouTube sensations posted on Facebook, less people spend time waiting around for a song to come on the radio. Even fewer seem to be sitting around watching music video channels. However one unique feature radio does provide is a linear, programmed stream of music and news that can be enjoyed in the background while at work or in the car, not to mention that bit of human presence the hosts bring. So for the time being, new songs will continue to be broken at radio and songwriters will continue to profit from broadcast. For the independent artist, it’s a question of whether investing in an independent radio promoter will pay off short-term, financially, or in the endgame of building a fanbase.
It is possible to do the legwork yourself, getting your single heard by individual station managers or programmers in hopes that they’ll put it into rotation and, best case scenario, cause a domino effect with other stations. But if you want to hit everybody at once and stay on top of the stations, it’s best to get serious and hire a radio promoter.
In 2000 Courtney Love made a speech at a music conference. She got out her calculator and demonstrated what happens when a band signs a dream deal with a major label and has a hit album: the label makes an average of $6.6 million and the band makes an average of $0. The way things are structured in those deals, all of the costs of recording and promoting an album are passed back to the artist, and unless the band has multiple hit albums in a row they don’t actually make money.
This is not to say that the band isn’t living a suitably Hollywood lifestyle–touring and enjoying the trimmings of success–or that they might not benefit in the long run from having their identity erected to ‘household name’ status above the deafening din of all of the other aspiring musicians in the world. The major labels have built networks of promotional resources around themselves precisely for that purpose.
However, almost ten years after Love’s math class, the sea change in the music industry has lumbered forward. File sharing has won: physical product and the ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores that stock it are no longer necessary. All the filler labels used to cram onto CD-length albums is systematically ignored now that legal and illegal digital downloads are the norm. The majors have eaten up the rosters of even more independent boutique labels, destroying the influence of some of the innovative thinkers of those startups in an attempt to eliminate street-level competition. Sony and BMG merged, bringing the major label count down to four…that is, four clumsy multinational giants plagued with red tape and corporate approval hierarchies in a business that is utterly out of touch with ‘what the kids want’ because gut-level instincts have given way to copycat marketing models.
Essentially, it’s become common knowledge among insiders that for the foreseeable future, the major labels are going to be good for one type of music: music mass-marketed to 11-year old American or British girls. The artists doing that kind of music are often primarily concerned with fame, so they’re not thinking much about the money, assuming it will follow. They will rarely make a cut of the most potentially lucrative income source–writing royalties–because the labels will bring in professional writers who will come up with commercially viable material…or at least material that the radio stations will throw their support behind when they see writers with a track record of radio hits in the credits.
The labels all have sister companies in the music publishing world (Sony has Sony ATV Publishing; Warner has Warner-Chappell Publishing; EMI has EMI Music Publishing) that represent hit-making writers, and the cut those companies make gets routed back into the machine. It is true that often, however, the artist’s manager will insist that their non-writing artist come up with a line or two in a verse so that they’ll be cut in to the royalties at least in a minor way…and with their name in those credits, they’ll be perceived by fans as a singer-songwriter. (And this eventually leads to non-writing artists being offered lucrative publishing contracts, if their records are selling well.)
If you’re doing music aimed at anyone other than tweens, it’s probably a safer bet to stay indie, own everything and work hard to cultivate a solid grassroots fanbase. At this point in time, the majors are hemorrhaging money, so they expect artists with loftier musical ambitions to have done their own ‘artist development’…ie come up with their own image and styling; work out the details of their stage show; write some hit songs and grow an audience. So, ironically, if you do find yourself in the middle of a bidding war between the majors you may realize there’s not much more they can do for you. You might as well keep 100% of your profits rather than turn over 50-90% of your profits to somebody who didn’t show their support by investing in your potential earlier on.
There is no one ‘evil person’ at the helm of all of this financial deception. Artists are often focused on making their music and consider themselves not particularly business-minded, so they ignore the work they need to do to educate themselves.
Many execs at labels and publishing companies are failed artists, or people who dreamed of being artists but never believed in themselves enough to give it a real shot. They want to stay involved in the industry, for the love of music or the cool factor, but how many execs could possibly have the instincts of industry legends like Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, a man whose understanding and raw passion for music led him to build a diverse stable of equally legendary artists?
These days there are so many jobs on the line in these multinational record companies, risk-taking of any kind has consequences…hence the constant references to existing successes: ‘make a track like Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis.’ And the writers and producers all scamper off to study how the reference song is constructed, coming back with paler and paler imitations; further and further from what a hit song is supposed to be: an epiphany.
It’s a simple fact of the economy that growing a band on a global scale over a series of albums is now financially impossible. So, as Howard Jones would say, no one is to blame. I suppose you could waste your time blaming the forward march of technology, specifically mp3 compression and high-speed internet, the way the advent of sampling was once demonized. But industry guru Bob Lefsetz, for example, trumpets on a daily basis in his blog that the majors are on their last legs because they constantly miss the boat by fighting technology rather than finding ways to capitalize on it. He also repeats relentlessly: be a good, original musician; write good, original songs; do it because you love it and not because you’re looking to get rich. In other words, Build It And They Will Come.
I think most musicians commit to their vocation at an early age with the erroneous belief that a good song by someone with a great voice becomes a hit because everybody in the industry goes out of their way to make it so in the name of sharing exceptional new music. Most music fans who are industry outsiders exist their whole lives believing that this is so. They may have heard that the entertainment industry is full of sharks, or that it’s a hustle, but people rarely hear concrete explanations of shady practices.
A few things to think about when considering signing with a label, publishing company or manager:
- Most radio stations are corporate entities now, often with multinational parent companies, and they have strict ‘formats’ detailing specific parameters (style, length, song structure) for what they play. The major labels have departments that feed the stations with material, and the stations trust the labels to bring content their listeners will be excited about. If you go the indie route, expect to pay an independent radio promoter several thousand dollars per month, per song, to try to get your material played on a specific format. The success rate for the investment is lower than if you are with a label. Material rarely gets in the door without a promoter. Whether radio is important anymore, with YouTube promoting most music, is another discussion entirely.
- If you do not live in the country where the head office of the label or publishing company you’re interested in is located, you will be trying to attract the attention of executives who have limited power over their artists’ destinies. In other words, if you sign with EMI in any country other than the UK or you sign with Universal, Warner or Sony in any country other than the US, your music will never be released in other countries unless the head offices there can be persuaded to back you as well. Writers signed to the offices of major publishing companies in countries other than the US or UK have their material pitched for use in movies, television and ads after domestic writers’ material is pitched as the head office stands to make less of a cut on foreign writers’ material.
- It’s critical to get the right fit: if you sign to the biggest label or publishing company because of their clout, and the individuals working at that office are not particularly excited about your music, you may find your project constantly blocked or shelved. Then it’s a waiting game to be released from your contract so your career can move forward. It’s also not unheard of for labels to sign artists with no intention of putting out their music…rather, the goal was to eliminate competition in the genre of one of the company’s existing artists.
- The same goes for managers. If you sign to the most powerful manager in your city–paying them 20% of your income for a period of years–make sure that they’re interested enough in your career that you are a priority for them. If that manager has another artist that blows up worldwide, you may find your needs ignored. It’s often better to be self-managed than managed by the wrong person.
- Because of their unique position negotiating contracts between parties in the industry, music lawyers know most of the players…be they labels, managers, publishers, producers, artists or writers. Often lawyers will help people network with each other, but watch out for biases and vested interests.
- Owning all of your publishing on a hit song can be very lucrative, however owning 100% of a song that isn’t being pushed to the right artists or advertisers is owning one hundred percent of nothing. The right publisher can help you make a living by pitching your material and setting up writing opportunities with artists. However if a television series is looking to use one of your songs, for example, they must clear its use with all parties who own a share. The more parties involved and the bigger the publishers, the more red tape…making it too much of a hassle for some agencies to bother with.
The industry is huge. There are all sorts of organizations that funnel royalties down to artists, writers and producers. I couldn’t keep it all straight in my head, so I finally made a couple of flowcharts.
One flowchart illustrates the traditional flow of cash, and the other gives some shape to the new model that we see forming, wherein the major labels are replaced by investors (of any kind) and each artist releases their material digitally on their own indie label. Right-click or Control-click (Mac) to download a legible PDF.
I recommend reading these from the top left corner. That way, your eye will guide you through the information in a way that makes sense. Colour coding is by ‘branch’ of the industry (income from sales of recordings, income from performance of songs etc.).
This is a work in progress. If there are errors or omissions, by all means let me know. For example, booking agents will be added in the next iteration.