Can Artists Be Labels? Reznor, Radiohead, and the Mass Market
While artists rail against exploitative labels, those labels do fulfill a role in the entertainment-biz ecosystem: basically, everything other than actually recording and performing the music. However, thigs are changing, and labels are hurting more than ever before. Chris Castle (see below) highlights the importance of a major label in getting an artist seen, he also, perhaps unwittingly, points out the major obstacle to labels' success these days: choice. Downloading is a red herring, really: it can only help with getting that name recognition that artists and labels crave; the real challenge is getting your music into the ears of a listener before that of the thousands and thousands of other artists out there. So are labels still relevant? The short answer seems to be "Yes"; the long answer seems to be "Yes, for now".
What's unsettling is that you can't help fall into a familiarity with what works and what has worked," said Reznor, who left Universal Music Group last year. "As much as one structure of a record deal is unfair and how little you get is bad, there was some comfort in knowing that things would work, that things like promotion and marketing would work."
It's not going out on a limb to say the current music industry business is broken and that's why the likes of Radiohead, Reznor, and Madonna as well as consumers are revolting against it, said Jerry Del Colliano, professor of music industry at the University of Southern California. Nonetheless, he said that companies like the labels are needed to help develop talent and help the public discover that talent.
"The labels aren't going anywhere," Colliano said. "They're just going to have different duties in the future."
What about Radiohead, you say? Many argue giving away the digital version of In Rainbows was a wild success for the British supergroup. The band hasn't revealed the album's Internet sales figures, but last week more than 122,000 physical copies were sold, making it the No.1 album in the U.S. Nearly everybody on the Web credited the online promotion for the booming CD sales.
But Radiohead is one of the world's best-known acts. The vast majority of musicians have more in common with Williams, a little-known rapper, poet, and filmmaker. Their name recognition, unlike the British superband, doesn't count for much outside a small, loyal following.
Update/note: The headline is a bit deceptive here: it's a Saul Williams album, produced by Reznor; however, Williams does not have the same level of notoriety as Reznor, which he addresses further down in the article.
It's one thing to drop an online-only album if you happen to be Radiohead. It's another issue entirely if you aren't as well-known. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has produced a record for Saul WIlliams, and released it online with no support from any record label. Fans had the option of paying five bucks for it or just snagging it for free. Reznor has released the stats from the initial release on his website, and the results are interesting.
Very early in a discussion with Trent Reznor, the front man for the band Nine Inch Nails, it's obvious how highly he prizes his collaboration with musician Saul Williams on the album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust.
Reznor produced and helped bankroll the album, which debuted November 1. All the more reason why he was stunned when fewer than one in five people who downloaded the music were willing to pony up $5, roughly the cost of a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.
Williams and Reznor were trying to follow the lead of Radiohead by distributing music online without the backing of a label. Like the British supergroup, Williams made the album available for free in one version but he also offered the option of buying a higher-quality digital download for $5. The promotions were groundbreaking and plenty of people predicted that a profitable outcome would convince many musicians to drop their labels and use the Internet to distribute their own artistic creations.
"Personally, I would like people to support artists," Reznor said. "After all, we as artists dedicate our lives to producing the best music we can. It's been a painful process for me personally (to see the changes in the music industry). But should I be angry at the audience that wants to hear music so much, an audience that is so passionate about hearing it they go online to get it two weeks before the music debuts? No, I want them to be that way."
Saul's music is in more peoples' iPods than ever before and people are interested in him. He'll be touring throughout the year and we will continue to get the word out however we can.
So - if you're an artist looking to utilize this method of distribution, make of these figures what you will and hopefully this info is enlightening.
UPDATE: Williams is far more optimistic, not measuring the performance of the album with the pre-existing yardstick. Also, Williams backs up his friend and fellow musician.
Williams, in contrast, says he's isn't bothered by the numbers. He suggested that Reznor tends to worry too much and jokingly referring to him as the 'king of emo.' Williams said he is taking a longer view. He says it's too early in the album's economic lifespan--or in the search for new music business models--to call the promotion a bust.
In an interview on Wednesday with News.com, Williams revealed he is grateful for the opportunity to promote his music using groundbreaking techniques and also to technology for setting him free from the "constraints of race."
What do you think about what Trent said...and are the numbers accurate?
Williams: They were for that day and the thing is the numbers change every day. But yeah, they're accurate.
The public jumped on Trent's use of the word "disheartening." What do you make of it?
Williams: I'm actually extremely optimistic. The only thing that I really have kept in mind is that, one, we're two months into a project. An album is not like a film, so that like, 'Oh, we did it, two months and it's done,' now it's going straight to DVD. The marketing campaign starts this month with the premiere of our video of Sunday Bloody Sunday on MySpace, MTV and all the major networks.
The marketing campaign that we started begins this month as well. We start touring in March starting with South By Southwest and then move across the country and then on to Europe. So the album has gotten a great deal of writes up and had a huge response from people immediately. But that was all from just releasing the album. That was with, like Trent said, with no marketing, no press, nothing spawned from us. It was all people like yourself saying, 'Can I talk to you about this?' But we hadn't paid a publicist as of yet.
I think it's early in the game. I'm not disappointed at all. I think Trent's disappointment probably stems from being in the music business for over 20 years and remembering a time that was very different, when sales reflected something different, when there was no such thing as downloads.
Do you think some of his disappointment might be because he really wants to see you do well?
Williams: Okay, don't get me wrong. I don't think Trent is as truly disappointed as he sounds in that blog. You got to think of him this way...listen to his music (he laughs). In my opinion, oh, he might not like this, but I think he's the king of emo.
Trent also said you guys couldn't find any traditional record deals that appealed to you.
Williams: Everybody seemed to be interested, but in my opinion nobody seemed to be a visionary. If you look around you, you don't see a lot of black alternative acts out there.
It's not because black alternative acts don't exist. It's because there's this belief in the marketplace that, 'Oh, who are they going to sell to? People in the hood won't like them and so-and-so won't like them' and there's big confusion about who we appeal to.
For an artist like myself, the sort of attention that I'm getting, and who is not sticking to my guns--all puns intended--I think it says a lot.
Ultimately, the future of music is the option for free tracks, and Reznor clearly realizes that. Good for him, and good for Wiliams for taking such a bold step without the cushion of megafame to mitigate any uncertainty. This is not a knock against Radiohead, but they would definitely have an easier time with an experiment like this due to their global notoriety.
A quick comment about downloading and file sharing. It's here. It's not going away. Period. However, whilst record labels are predatory in their relationships with artists, I don't think that social justice is the primary motivator for file-sharing. Let's face it: people just don't want to pay for music if they can get it quite easily for free.
How does this behavior square up to a record-label-free relationship, though? Would file-sharers be so adamant about their right to free music if musicians didn't profit at all from the songs themselves? I think that there will always be a pay-for-music option, but it's worth thinking about why we download, and why, say, five bucks seems like such a big number these days.
[Disclosure: I downloaded the free version, but haven't had a chance to actually listen to it yet]