David Byrne, Future of Music Policy Summit,
Pollack Hall, McGill Schulich School of Music
If it were radio, there'd have been a lot of dead air.
My visual field jittered at the geometric shapes of the sound treatment in Pollack Hall, where David Byrne took an awkward professorial stance at the podium and prepared his Powerpoint presentation.
The talk was entitled, "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?"
And a shoddy case he made. Presenting graphs that illustrated the rise and fall of the three dominant distribution platforms of the past (LP's, cassettes, and CD's), he projected on a hunch into the summer months of 2011, when he expects digital downloads to overtake CD sales, dollar for dollar. Begs the question of what, exactly, he expects me to hang on my wall when one of my bands goes gold.
The stats were intuitive, but iffy, especially when surmising that artists are to make 14% on downloads (we're starting to give them a whopping 10% on their CD's, which is the most we've ever done). He neglects to mention that artists will also have to absorb all their MySpace costs** into this 14%. Powerpoint slide #4 came up: "Don't worry," was all it read.
'We don't need labels,' danced the tongue, 'just good marketing people to help us market ourselves.' Trouble is, experienced marketing people, if they're any good, are working for majors. And don't let people like that putty-assed Steve Albini turd tell you different.
A decent Quebec chap raised the question of why Quebec bands still tour to sell records. It seems that in these parts, you are still enjoying the good ol' days of the early nineties (though Byrne, the Pho-list hippies, Albini and other indier-than-thou goofballs would refer to this period as 'the bad old days'), in which your tours lose money and are an investment in building your fan base, town by town. You're building a name for yourselves. It takes time, kids. Leave the marketing to us, we know it takes $40 000 to build a brand, and we know what we're doing. We're a team, we trust you, and we know you'll pay us back. The problem these days is, anyone who's anyone is making a killing on the live show - ask your singer/songwriter types from Toronto who rake in $500 per night after costs - and when bands cut the hardworking record companies that built them from the deal, we go broke. So my advice to aspiring A&R gurus: move to Quebec, where they'll still buy into the good old deal and will love you for it. Quebec still wants to see the world from the custom bubble window in the back of an Ecoline van.
I patted David on the back hard enough to give him something to complain about later, and skipped off to meet the journalists waiting to interview me on my earlier appearance at Cashflow: Revenue in the Digital Age. It was a right lively chat about making wonderful money on the backs of artists. What interested me most was the conjecture about what makes a song 'stick' to kids today. 'Prick up your ears, David,' I told myself, 'this is the holy grail of your retirement fund.'
One of my mates has a nephew, a boy in his teens who had never heard Led Zeppelin.Imagine that. After receiving an evening lecture about the holiest music in all of rockdom, the boy went to his computer, bittorrented two hundred and fifty Zeppelin tunes, and proceeded to sift them through his Winamp. Two hours later, by some mysterious tasting device in his brain, he'd whittled his brand-spanking-complete-new Zeppelin mp3 catalogue down to fifteen songs. Incredibly, all fifteen had been hits. How did he do it?
'I checked out the first verse, into the chorus, back to the verse, and by then, I dunno, I just knew,' said the lad.
Back in the day, when a band gave me a demo, the going rule was that it took three songs. You knew by the first few seconds whether it was any good, but it still took three songs and repeat listens to figure out whether I was going to check them out live or not.
And how many records did we buy and have to hear eight or nine times before we 'got it'? So this kid is going to cheat himself of the rest of Zeppelin's catalogue because he's already decided it sucks. A sudden chill came over me - what if kids today had evolved some other indicator that is going render my perineal powers redundant? What if David Byrne was right?
**There are no MySpace costs. -Ed.