[This is the second in my series of posts about the artist-to-fan relationship]
Ah the one hit wonder. It’s a music industry staple isn’t it? Great one-off hits have lit up the charts for as long as the charts have existed, cultivating a love-hate relationship with the public. Everyone should have a personal favourite.
Mine is ‘I Am The Beat’ by The Look, which sadly, reveals mostly nothing much but my age. It charted in the UK at number 6 in 1980 and had nice shades of The Jam and XTC. And wonder of wonders, a quick Google entry, and it is right there on YouTube. An amazing 39,152 (and steadily rising!) views, reassures me that I am not alone. It’s had 4,426 plays on Last.fm (slowly rising) and was re-released as a download in May 2006. The miracle of the internet - it has opened up a world of discovery and fun for nostalgia fans at least.
Of course, no serious artist wants to be a one hit wonder, quite the opposite. Even if artists don’t seek fame, fortune, adoration & idolation, at the very least, they might quite like to have, well, a sustainable career. But with the traditional ‘Route 1’ to market – i.e. signing a label deal – undergoing something of a re-appraisal, do digital channels open up a genuine new route to a sustainable career for artists? Yes and no, too early to tell.
The web is doing complicated things to the careers of modern day musicians. Yes, it provides an alternative route to market, but boy does that take some work. Denzyl Feigelson of AWAL recommends artists have someone in the camp ‘online 24 hours’. Is that 24/7/365?
Currently on the blog aggregator site Hype Machine, you will find a (very popular and very useful) composite list of the Top 50 Songs, Albums and Artists, aptly named ‘Music BlogZeitgiest’. Those not predisposed to tracking this kind of thing semi-obsessively, will recognise less than half of the albums and bands that feature. But that’s because many of those albums are debuts (I guessed about half of the 50 ‘zeitgiested’ albums were) by young, up & coming bands, very much in the ascendant. That’s because blogs are at the cutting edge of music taste and opinion, generally in a good, genuine and passionate way, if sometimes a bit nerdy with it.
Part of that nerdiness is the competitive nature of blogs and of music discovery in the current, online-led, media landscape. Bloggers, as with DJs, like to feel it’s they who have disseminated to the masses, news of the next big thing. Pitchfork pretty much started it all off, at least in the indie space, and is still seen as that genre’s tastemaker supreme.
But this addiction is rubbing off on the mainstream media as well. These days, to accompany the usual slew of annual round-up best-of lists in the music magazines, broadsheets and radio shows, come the beginning of year predictions of the next big thing. These two perennials, the end-of-year best of lists and the ‘this years’ next big thing lists, combine to kick off the industry Hype Machine that lasts all year long.
But the key question for artists is this: do you really want to be among the crop of artists that are fed into The Machine? The exposure is great, but the potential for over-exposure and worse, backlash, seems a very real risk. Analysis of both albums made and sales from each album reveals ever- shortening life-cycles for modern day pop artists.
Looking back to one year ago – the collective ‘buzz’ being generated around any number of new bands that included The Horrors, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Palladium – was almost claustrophobic. I’m not singling out those bands for any reason, just examples. This year, in the UK business, it seems to be a crop of female singer songwriters – but a different crop of female singer songwriters to last year. And every now & again, the Hype Machine spins way out of control and literally creates a monster. We all remember The Darkness.
I haven’t so far, been a big subscriber to the Long Tail theory, but maybe it will emerge after all, by default. The long tail is currently being well stocked with an ever-increasing volume of short career span artists, who were ‘this year’s big thing’ at the time but never got past album two in the end.
But is there a solution? A path to longevity, other than obscurity? After all the life-cycle trend runs pretty deep. It isn’t just a result of the hype machine. Label deal terms are shorter, with five album deals rare these days, replaced largely by the ‘two album firm’. Other contributing factors are the sheer volume and choice of new music and the resulting impact on fan loyalty to any one artist. Improvements in production means that debut albums sound better than they ever did, setting high standards from the off and establishing a high sales watermark the artist can only dream of matching second time around. An interesting, though partly tongue-in-cheek post on the Guardian Music Blog’s School of Rock series, has some tips on longevity (see bibliography below).
If anything, a good manager or label will do the upmost to resist the hype machine for the artists they represent, in favour of longer term development and preferably eventual world domination. Hat’s off to Virgin for the more subtle approach taken last year with Laura Marling, for example, despite the temptation to go hyper. And see the previous post on this blog about the intricately managed ascendance of the very excellent Elbow. At the end of the day, the age-old principle holds true – artist development is what matters most.
Assuming an artist has made a special record/set of songs, I think two approaches are required:
•1. Careful, subtle navigation through the hype machine – avoid irritating over-exposure too early on, and prevent any unnecessary backlash.
•2. Ensuring a handful of alternative approaches are somewhere in the marketing plan, to avoid over-reliance on the conventional route.
I see no particular distinction in the above, between digital and physical, or mainstream marketing. It isn’t about the channels. It’s about following the various routes to the audience you want to reach. The audience, channels, brands and content created all need to be woven into an integrated, long term plan – not a throw it all at the wall promo frenzy lasting one month before album release and one month after.
In discussing this recently someone asked me an interesting question: If artist life-cycles are reducing so much and the industry machine working ever-faster, how can it be that so many veterans – more than ever it seems - still show a very fruitful presence on the current scene? It’s not such an oxymoron as you might think. In fact it makes perfect sense. Every trend has a counter-trend – an antidote. I’m convinced more than ever that modern commercial music is two markets: new music and the classic catalogue, with the latter creating ample space for comebacks, both on the recording and touring front.
But, in this polarised world, riddle me this: how many artists can you name that are doing well, creatively and commercially, on their 4th or 5th album? How many Coldplays, Pearl Jams, Radioheads or Wilcos do we now have? It’s strikingly few and that’s a shame, since we, the fans lose out following artists from album-to-album. Or perhaps it’s just the beginning of a change we need to accept.
It used to be that the relationship between frontline, new music and the catalogue, was symbiotic, whereby the best discoveries in new music would replenish catalogue, helping record labels to recoup their substantially risky investments in perpetuity (not quite, with copyright ownership limited to some 50 years of course).
But I’m convinced this relationship is broken and that this pipeline is no longer open. The last album through the gates from new to classic was OK Computer, discuss?
There are no easy answers other than a more careful, strategic approach to artist & content development, including the need to take long periods out of the game, to both renew the creative process and avoid over-exposure. My prediction for who will be big in 2009? I wondered care to say as I don’t think it does anyone any great favours.
Bibliography for this piece:
‘Hype Machine’, Bill Wasik, Oxford American
‘Hype Springs Eternal’, Alan McGee, on the Guardian Music Blog
‘The Thinking Man’s Take On: The Hype Machine, Chris Barth, Pretty Much Amazing
‘The Rihanna Challenge’, Kyle Bylin, Hypebot
‘What’s the Secret to Creative Longevity’, Will Byers, Guardian Music Blog
This post will appear on the Juggernaut Brew blog shortly.