It’s South by Southwest 2012, and I have time to kill between panels. So, I duck into this especially tiny 6th Street bar, whose name escaped me even then, for a beer. There’s a guy and his guitar onstage, and he’s got to be no older than 21-22. Even between me, the bouncer, the next band up, and the bartender, I served as an audience of one. With a kind of rustic charm, he performed John Mellencamp covers and Bruce Springsteen standbys between originals about prom night and leaving Charleston. Maybe I was more pacified than entertained, but for a brief period he held my attention, and I felt obliged to shake his hand.
We got to talking, and when it came out what I do for a living, he got antsy and excited. Tossing out Twitter handles and SoundCloud links, I’ll never forget when he grabbed my arm, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I’d sell my grandma or buy you a horse just to have someone listen.” I left a few minutes later, and though I never did look him up, I still think about him from time to time.
I think about his state of mind, occupying that hazy space between determination and desperation, and I can’t help but see a sense of that throughout the music industry. No one’s offering anyone people or farm animals, but there’s this unshakable notion that the business is also struggling just to be heard. So, as the cliche goes, desperate times call for desperate measures, and more and more labels and PR reps and bands are getting clever with their album rollouts.
Artwork by Cap Blackard
The rollout is every step of an album’s life span, from the moment it’s completed until the very last show behind a record. It used to be a kind of even-keeled cycle: announce a record, release a few singles, drop the album, promote with videos and tours, and repeat ad infinitum. Only now, with returns diminishing more each year and an ever-unstable consumer base, that tried-and-true model is no longer enough.
Like my friend the Nameless Singing Cowboy, the industry is dealing with an increasingly distracted and occasionally apathetic audience. Oftentimes, it takes the big, left field gesture to really shake people up. On the more generic end, it’s teasing Instagram photos, signing folks up for a mailing list, or requiring a tweet in order to download an mp3. But more and more, though, it’s scavenger hunts in the middle of downtown Manhattan, gold semi trucks towing around LA, stem and remix contests, and good, old-fashioned spaghetti dinners.
With so much working against it, the industry is being forced to evolve, requiring increasing levels of inventiveness and cunning just to survive. Some of the results are ingenious, and some of them are hokey disasters. But there’s no denying the whole business is in a massive state of flux.
Now, the question becomes about figuring it all out. Why are bands and labels and PR reps going to such lengths? Are they having any actual results? Do they fear the future, clinging to desperate ploys, or are they rebuilding a broken model? Can a shift in commerce have an impact on the sanctity of art? And what does this mean for you, the consumer, who vote with your wallets and pocketbooks?
To understand just what’s happening to the makeup of the music industry’s promotional landscape, it’s important to recognize how the entire industry’s protocol has changed. Judy Miller Silverman runs Motormouth Media, home to acts like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The Men, and Flying Lotus. With years of experience under her belt, she notes that the time frame for an album’s announcement cycle has been drastically reduced, necessitating more and more creativity to have the same amount of impact in an increasingly saturated market.
“In my experience, all labels roll out in a similar way,” she says. “The standard used to be three to four months pre-release when print magazines ruled the planet. In this era, those timelines are tightening up. I have worked albums from one to four months lead time. The label usually provides the independent publicist a timeline or assets for a rollout (song, video, tour dates), and together we often discuss dates/ideas. I recently met with a band i was pitching to do press on and told them we should announce their album in the classified section and do some funny things with Craigslist, and they liked that I was thinking in a unique way. It’s hard to be uber creative without a band willing to be so or the time and luxury of putting something together.”
Still, the whole idea of the “gimmick” in the industry isn’t anything new. Eric J. Lawrence serves as the music librarian at Los Angeles’s KCRW. With a keen eye for archiving and the history of the business, he recognizes that bands and labels and press people have been utilizing gimmicks for decades.
“In the ’70s, there were billboards on Sunset Boulevard that started popping up,” he says. “It seemed so foreign then, to have rock ads on music stations. Heck, The Beatles were the first to do the gatefold with the lyrics on the back. It was a way to have more of a message than the content. And then there was Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II. It was a double LP, like the music was pouring out of Axl’s ear. But it all just felt forced. It’s not an issue of style but of their judgment. When Sonic Youth signed to Geffen, they released this mysterious 12″ that was a new, untitled song from Sonic Youth. It lent a sense of mystery amongst the alt community.”
Similarly experienced and grizzled music critic Jim DeRogatis also has countless stories about various bands and their marketing ploys.
“When OK Computer came out, Radiohead sent out a Sony Walkman with the tape permanently glued in the player,” he explains. “And a lot of us threw it in the back of a drawer with 100 other records because it was absolutely pointless. You had the band who were big supporters of Green Peace, and then they have this whole Sony deal. How does it all square? How does all that mesh together?”
Still, he readily admits that it’s much easier to hype now than ever before. And the results are often much less thoughtful than Radiohead’s ploy.
“Just recently, you had Alicia Keys’ ‘Girl on Fire’ in that new HG ad,” he adds. “It just makes me want to puke.”
The problem, Lawrence explains, is that more and more gimmicks breed more and more competition, and that level of competition has to be maintained just to break through the teeming seas of bands. “In the digital media era, you’ve got to do what you can to keep your name on people’s tongues,” Lawrence says, “and keeping it as conscious of an experience as you can.”
That whole idea of awareness, then, seems to be a problem, at least for individuals like Silverman. She claims that, as an extension of all of these gimmicks, people are inundated with information even when there’s almost nothing to offer, leaving even the most experienced of insiders feeling burned out. It’s especially true of the indie world, where creative freedom is king.
“In the indie label world, the artist will always have the upper hand on creative decisions but might encounter resistance on the label side,” Silverman says. “It’s a groupthink sometimes of how best to make things work and make everyone happy. I think the smaller the artist the less elaborate you can be; you can fatigue the media trying to get them to entertain something new. I was fatigued during quite a few rollouts of bands that were not my own this year. Suffering through news on every machination and minute detail; I think we have to be cautious not to turn people off.”
Before one can adequately look at the gimmicks themselves and whether they work, it’s crucial to look at the reasons why more and more marketing plots and enhanced rollouts are occurring. If history dictates that they’ve always been a part of the industry’s life cycle, then why are longtime industry vets like Lawrence, DeRogatis, and Silverman feeling such exhaustion? What sort of crisis has occurred to garner a ramp-up in efforts to be different and unique and unlike anything presented ever before?
Right off the bat, money seems to be a major factor. By now, it’s no secret that labels are hemorrhaging money, and they have been for years. It feels like labels have been in a downturn for so long that it’s hard to remember when they were more financially viable and successful. Despite issues in amping up or even maintaining album sales, another industry vet doesn’t see the increase of gimmicks and more varied rollouts as being inspired by financial means.
“I disagree on the battling dwindling sales angle,” says Steve Martin, whose Nasty Little Man represents the likes of Radiohead, Damon Albarn, The Breeders, Nick Cave, and Arcade Fire. “The recorded music business is in a state of transition, to say the least, but the McCartney/Radiohead/Dave Grohl/Arcade Fire/Jack White/etc. business is doing just fine. Things are more stable than they appear when you’re talking about artists like the ones I represent.”
Instead, Martin points to the same history and backstory as DeRogatis and Lawrence, highlighting a time when cold, hard cash was the only tool necessary for success.
“I’ll tell you what the genesis of all this is, in my opinion,” Martin starts. “When I started in this business 20+ years ago, making a splash was all about how much money was shoveled into your campaign to get your song on radio and your CD into big chain stores. That doesn’t work anymore. Now you have to be more creative to stand out above the din. I think that’s an improvement, don’t you?”
There you have it: creativity, the phrase on the lips of many bands, label heads, and publicists across the great musical divide. As Martin puts it, we’re in a golden age in the here and now, one where greed and petty pursuits are a thing of the past, replaced by an obligation to push envelopes and mine new wellsprings of ideas.
“Creativity is more necessary than ever,” he says. “That’s a trend I like. I prefer being on calls and in meetings where the manager says, ‘Who’s got some really creative ideas?’ than the ones in the ’90s, where PR was an afterthought, where the radio and sales guys held court and we would just occasionally be asked where the cover stories and big TV appearances were, what we were doing to back up their hit single.”
It’d be easy to dismiss Martin’s talk of a new-age renaissance if the idea wasn’t shared by the entities most people associate with the real creative process: the bands. Singer/guitarist Taylor Rice of Local Natives said he recognizes that while bands and labels aren’t as flushed with cash as they one were, it’s helped breed a better mentality.
“I think it’s awesome when bands are involved in curating how they share their music from the creative side,” he says. “No one is Led Zeppelin anymore. Fans can get close and personal on the Internet with bands, even if those bands refuse to take part in social media themselves, so why not be the one in control of how they see you? I do think there’s a whole jungle of knowledge having to do with the media and promotion that there’s no reason for a band to get bogged down by, though.”
Photo by Debi Del Grande
If anything, Rice recognizes that these rollout campaigns are not a way to help recoup money, but rather a stopgap as an entire industry attempts to rewire itself in terms of selling music as a viable commodity.
“It’s necessary for labels and a music industry built around buying LPs,” Rice says of gimmicks and enhanced rollouts, “but I don’t think it’s a long-term reality. It is a bit like throwing buckets of water out of a sinking cruise ship. As a person who loves LPs, wants to buy them, and wants to make LPs people will buy, it’s still a goal I have myself, but we basically gave up on the idea of making a living off of selling recorded music a long time ago.”
For Rice and his bandmates, being creative isn’t always about ploys and buzz words; it’s about recognizing that a band needs to take on a more proactive role in their career.
“It definitely shocks me when I find bands being tossed around by their labels, or that they’ve signed away live rights,” he says. “I want to shake them and tell them they don’t have to do it that way! We’ve been really happy working with both our labels, Frenchkiss in the US and Infectious in the rest of the world, both of which have always let us do whatever we want and been nothing but super supportive.
“We do concern ourselves with how we present ourselves to the world, whether it’s our artwork or music videos or the live show. The important thing is that it comes from us and not out of the mind of some ad agency. In most cases, the ‘PR campaign’ and the album itself have little to do with each other. The Internet creates a democracy for music where people vote with their feet, and you can think of the labels’ PR firms and media as the Super PACs trying to throw money around to control the conversation.”
The other side of that conversation, inevitably, is that this brave new world has nothing to do with expanding creative potential. Instead, it’s making it harder and harder for bands to really utilize any meaningful sense of creativity. Echoing her disapproval of an increasing tendency for over-sharing, Silverman said there’s a huge disconnect in the fundamental relationship between album sales and their respective campaigns and budgets.
“I think its becoming harder to be more creative in the marketplace where nothing is a secret anymore,” she says. “When your band has the profile of Katy Perry or Arcade Fire, I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to spend copious amounts of dollars on marketing gimmicks. Most of these ideas become fodder for the ever-shifting news cycle for about 24 hours and then “poof,” onto the next breaking quirky idea/story. If you look at Arcade Fire, (the first week) release of Reflektor did not sell more than their previous record in the first week.
“However, what fans do not know is that the marketing machine this time out was run by Universal Music, and I will assume the money spent on pre-album marketing likely tripled or more. The sales did not reflect the increase in marketing dollars spent. Merge Records did an excellent job on their own marketing and providing for this band, but there is a certain point where you need the strength of a much larger team and network to get your goals achieved. It’s not always just about money. Sometimes it’s about bandwidth.”