By Hans Ebert
No one said it would be easy. But no one also warned that it would be so damn tough to make it in music. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. But there’s always hope. It’s about finding it that’s what is inspiring and keeps one from falling off the edge or steps or trees.
Back in the day, it was as easy as learning to play the guitar or drums, forming a band and getting a recording deal at a time when music companies really were music companies and in the business of supporting their acts and marketing and selling music.
It was virgin territory and why someone with the vision of Richard Branson seized the moment, signed up Michael Oldfield to his fledgling Virgin Records and released their groundbreaking first album Tubular Bells.
But long before Branson, there were the pioneers and forefathers of the music business- Sam Philips, Phil Spector, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, Berry Gordy Jr, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, Jac Holzman, Lou Adler, David Geffen.
They created a business model for a business in its infancy, and which has evolved and now dissolved into the big jello pudding of wobbles that it is today with technology wagging the tail. The torch has been passed and musicians have been burned for the simple reason that their art now belongs to everyone and with there being nothing much in the way of financial rewards. It’s frightening how some random mention about one of their songs or a gig on social media makes everything okay. Sorry, but “likes” and “views”, and, often, not even the scam of “chart success” help pay the rent. The thinking of too many today is arse about face. Stop playing with the fairies. It’s only leading to the emptiness of la la land.
Back in the day, there were also the creative mavericks who were more about the marketing of acts- businessmen and entrepreneurs like Malcolm McClaren, who cultivated Sex Pistols and the UK’s Punk Movement, and before him, Andrew Loog Oldham and Brian Epstein.
One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Brian Epstein had never ventured into The Cavern and heard that scruffy little band playing there called the Beatles, and if Andrew Loog Oldham hadn’t seen how a pretty average Blues band could be marketed as the antithesis of the four clean cut mop tops with the question being, “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?”
Everything worked, some better than others, and with there being one big blast of creative energy that really didn’t have as long a run as many think. The Beatles, for example, only lasted around seven years- max- but it was their incredible creative output that gave them- and still gives them- that lasting power. That legacy.
And now, here we are today with many clutching at straws and television singing competitions on their last legs and being as relevant as any of those reality shows where men and women have no second thoughts about looking desperate, fake and being very very cheap. It explains much about today’s dating scene, online relationships and what are passed off as marriages. We, and we have only ourselves to blame, have allowed in the gypsies, tramps and thieves.
It’s softcore porn, yet we accept it all, and think that this scripted trash is real. It’s as real as Adam Lambert, Susan Boyle and Carrie Underwood being promoted as being complete unknowns until they were “discovered” on slick, numbers driven shows like American Idol and all the copycat versions where you sold your soul to the devil as the final resort to become, well what- famous? And after those fifteen minutes, then what? Let’s face it, unknowns only become someone when the series is on air. When it disappears, so do all the competitors fade to black.
Adam Lambert was probably the only exception to the rule because he could really sing. But there were years when he played supper clubs without even a recording deal before being recruited to American Idol and playing his given role. Even being voted runner up was probably choreographed. Anyone remember the winner? Where’s he today?
Think the judges hadn’t seen Susan Boyle during the rehearsals? Think the dowdy dress she wore wasn’t part of the act? Susan Boyle was trying to be discovered years before the Britain’s Got Talent stage show.
I was chatting to an old school entertainment lawyer the other day about everything we have seen, been part of, and how there are still those without the money to waste, but yet wasting whatever little they have on complete non-starters. The problem is we’re too nice to tell them the truth: that there’s very little out there- in any industry, but, especially, what kids itself as being “the music industry”.
What’s the answer if the years are ticking away and a musician’s career is stuck in limbo? Sure, there are the dreamers and the hucksters who will talk about the importance of gigging, but, there are less and less paying gigs because we’re living in very tough economic times. And as the years have proven, playing for free in exchange for “exposure” was a nice con built around the come-on that music matters. Plus, and he might be right in certain instances, but we’re living in dangerous Trumped up times where nowhere seems safe. Not even Sweden. And all this has a domino effect on life, and figuring out how and where and when music comes into play- and how to make this last.
If a music fan, of course, it’s the best of times where there’s so much music out there and all of it for free. One has to laugh when thinking back not that long ago when restaurants and bars in Hong Kong were harassed into paying for licenses to play recorded music. That law lasted less than a year. Today, restaurants and bars have their Spotify playlists with possibly the most successful gigs being 2-3 day EDM tribal gatherings where the DJ control the crowds- thousands of them.
So what about band and singer-songwriters and all those making music so it could be heard? There’s always that crazy little thing called luck, but when once even well known musicians become just some empty bricks in the wall and someone like Damon Albarn writes and produces pretentious gak for Gorillaz, it makes one think.
It makes one think that it’s time to forget everything that has come before and that the music company business model cracked almost two decades, but no one wanted to own up to this. Either that or music companies have seldom hired very smart people to make things progress once the pioneers of the business started the great music labels- labels that some of us bought no matter who the artist was because they stood for quality. We trusted them.
Us still very close to music, don’t trust music companies and music executives anymore. As has been written here before, one of the biggest music companies in the Asia Pacific region is a political mess and run into the ground by amateurs. Running the Asia region by someone based in Sydney who doesn’t get out much and depending on two other “gweilos” who are just as lost is laughable.
What’s deplorable is how two newbies to the company were given the power to lay off long-serving and experienced staff with absolutely no feeling of guilt. But then look at how the company got rid of one of its key executives and all the spinning before quietly cutting off all ties with him. Shameful.
But enough about this music company and the rest of them. Forget them and never sign with them. If an artist in Scandinavia don’t think that a “worldwide contract” with Sony Music in Denmark will lead anywhere except maybe to a gig in Arhaus, and, if lucky, a “presence” at Roskilde. What’s depressing is knowing just how many great acts there are in countries like Denmark and Norway etc that might have a great future and gigs in Asia. And how there can be a “musical cultural exchange programme”. How many music companies in Asia has tried to break their local acts in Scandinavia, especially bona fide Jazz artists?
There’s definitely a new way of resuscitating music again- but in a small, selective way and by working with various tourism boards and international consulates. But this is not the place to give out free ideas.
Pay the piper, work as a partner and invest financially and we just might be able to turn Humpty Dumpty into a golden goose- a selective golden goose instead of trying to be everything to everyone and becoming lost in the process.