If your aim as an artist is to purely chase a record deal as a means to succeeding in this business, I will tell you right now that you are doomed for failure. You can throw all the trumped up statistics around that you want, but fundamentally your chances of actually landing a record deal are extremely slim. Furthermore, your chances of actually making money directly from that deal are pretty much zero.
In the good old days when the CD was king and big advances were de rigueur, the percentage of bands that succeeded in the system was around 5%. That was before the CD crashed. Now if you do not fit the predisposed top 40 vision of the major label machine, there is no space left for you. There may still be a few independent labels who still have a working business model to accomodate less mainstream acts, but they survive by cutting down their roster, and investing in those who have already amassed an ever growing following. Quite simply if you can’t already pull the people, you are not ready for a label.
THE BIRTH OF PAY-TO-PLAY
When a previously burgeoning scene dies, it either disappears, or it finds a way to get subsidized, not due to popularity, but due to status. This is why the pay-to-play system swallows up the shell of a once happening music scene. LA is a prime example of this, with venues like The Whiskey using its once legendary name to con bands into paying up to $500 for the privilege of playing there.
These venues survive, not because they offer a legitimate service, but because there are enough bands that blindly believe they are the ones destined for success. As a result they will happily make the monetary sacrifices in order to be “discovered”.
The music industry has long since been an extension of this pay-to-play mentality. You think that once you get a record deal your talent shines through and all the magazines, radio stations and established bands looking for opening acts are itching to include you in their insular worlds? Get real. These opportunities are all paid for. It is just another pay-to-play milieu that a record deal gains you access to.
EVERYONE IS AT IT
Just look at Rolling Stone magazine these days. How many bad reviews do they write in an issue? You would think that journalists are chomping at the bit to express their distaste for the latest debacle by a pop princess, but no, all the reviews are glowing. Surely this means every bit of space is bought in one-way or another.
You want to be a part of that world? You go ahead, but don’t think you will actually have a musical personality left by the end of it. Certainly don’t believe that it will affect your bank balance positively.
The major record companies think they are still king, but they are the corporate equivalent of a band who think they have stature because they bought themselves a 8pm slot at the Whiskey. Once you play the Whiskey you realize why they have to charge bands to play there – because no one else shows up.
Similarly no one is buying Magazines any more, so what happens? I would say it is pretty fair to assume they instigate a pay-to-play policy. Just like Johnny No Name believes that to have an appearance at the Whiskey on their bio holds some weight, the majors seemingly believe that to have a review in Rolling Stone also still means something. But if no one is reading the magazine, the truth is, it doesn’t mean shit.
This is the major labels conundrum, they are locked into an old system, putting up the front of a reigning potentate, but behind the scenes they are a crumbling monarchy quickly losing favor with their subjects, reflecting a distinct lack of understanding for what the people want.
IS IT WORTH THE COST
They pay for features, pay for songs, pay for radio, pay for style, pay for TV, they’ll probably even pay Bob Lefsetz for a mention if he’ll let them. But if no one is buying the products, how can they sustain this? And when everyone is jostling for the record company to use their money to bribe someone on their behalf, the reality is why should they use their ever-diminishing cash pile on you. Unless you are prepared to do whatever they want you to do in order to achieve their goals. But of course you will be signed because of your unrivaled talent. Right? Yeah right.
Maybe the future of the major labels will become a step-up from the Pay-to-Play model adopted by music clubs. Rich Mommy and Daddy putting up the cash to have the major label machine pimp their child’s product. This already happens with smaller labels that offer a kind of middleman role - if you have the cash they provide everything from radio promotion to distribution. You are basically buying yourself a record deal.
THE FAME GAME
Those artists who have broken during these last dark few years, achieved their success because they did what it takes to succeed, and with the major labels that currently means metaphorically sucking dick whenever the situation deems it necessary.
It may be a route to fame, for a very select few, but is it really a route to musical satisfaction, for both the artists and the fans? And what is a business without satisfied clients and customers?
Robin Davey is a Musician, Film Director and Producer born in the UK and now residing in Los Angeles. He was inducted into the British Blues Hall Of Fame at the age of 23 with his band The Hoax. His band The Bastard Fairies achieved over 1 Million downloads when they were the first band to release an album for free via the internet in 2006. As a director he won the best Music Video award at the American Indian Motion Picture Awards. His feature documentary The Canary Effect - an exploration into the hidden Genocide of Native Americans, won The Stanley Kubrick Award For Bold and Innovative Film Making at Michael Moores Traverse city Film Festival in 2006. He is also head of Film and Music Development at GROWvision - A full service media, management and production company