In the Words of Fela Kuti: Everything is Upside Down.
If you have the misfortune to count a single recording artist or label owner among your cyber-friends, you’ve seen the rants, and I doubt you really need them repeated in longform: The system is broken, the industry is being held to ransom by the technology giants, lizard-men shut down Fabric and ate all the streaming royalties…
While many aspects of the industry are certainly (perpetually) in flux, there’s really nothing new going on here. No sooner had Thomas Edison’s team found a way to reproduce sound on wax cylinders than they were also handing a little company called Columbia a local monopoly to distribute the new technology. The music industry as we know it has ALWAYS been forced to follow in the wake of tech companies, picking up the scraps they drop along the way. (One can only wonder about the royalty check handed to the U.S. Marine Band on August 2nd, 1890 when they enjoyed the accolade of releasing the world’s first ever number one record.) In many ways, today’s music industry is fairly well structured, with enough powerful voices on the artists’ side of the table to keep those naughty corporations from running off with all the cash.
So if that argument is a red herring, what’s the problem? What are we all complaining about?
Casual consumers have only ever owned a couple of records, tapes or CDs; copying most of their music from friends or simply listening to the radio. In that regard, only the format has changed, not customer behavior or income for artists. In fact one could confidently argue that Spotify royalties allow underground music a revenue stream, where previously there was none.
So Here It Is (and You’re Probably Not Going to Like This): DJs are the Problem.
Don’t get mad, DJ Sneak, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of part time jocks, with a local bar/club residency or an Internet radio show to their name.
I’m talking about people like me.
The realization hit me a few months back as I prepared to move house. As I loaded seemingly endless piles of 12″ records into boxes, I started to estimate roughly how much cash I’d invested into music when I was starting out.
My passion for vinyl kept me living at my mom’s place until my mid-20s, by which time it had become offset by paid DJ gigs. That’s how it went for all the young DJs I knew. We begged, borrowed and stole everything else, but we paid for our music.
I’m not trying to paint my former self as the hero of the piece here. Everyone I knew in my late teens and early 20s spent huge amounts of money on records, at a time in our lives when none of us could really afford it. As I packed up my stuff I estimated I’d handed over $300 to one label, $600 to another, and so on.
Simply put: this is how independent music has always sustained itself. Great tracks were pressed up and a load of kids with worn-out sneakers and scruffy clothes calculated that if they bought a copy they’d just about be able to afford food for the rest of the week. My passion for vinyl kept me living at my mom’s place until my mid-20s, by which time it had become offset by paid DJ gigs. That’s how it went for all the young DJs I knew. My decks were battered belt drives. My first Mac “fell off” a delivery van driven by a friend and fellow vinyl-junkie. We begged, borrowed and stole everything else, but we paid for our music.
How Did Things Get Turned So Upside Down?
As the digital age dawned and the popularity of dance music grew and grew, it became common knowledge that you can’t be “just” a DJ.
You gotta produce, bro.
Suddenly, for the next generation of scruffy kids dreaming of a life in music, it became a choice between buying Maschine and scouring Beatport for hidden gems. And while there’s no way of getting around the insanely inflated price tags attached to studio toys, there are countless websites who’ve got your back when it comes to downloading free music. While smaller record labels found themselves punch drunk, financially scarred and desperately restructuring following the advent of the download, Native Instruments and M-Audio somersaulted over the top rope and into the ring, brandishing sexy boxes covered in flashing lights which were guaranteed to make you a star.
Is it possible that Apple, Google and Spotify aren’t the bad guys we thought? Could we be looking accusingly at the wrong tech companies? Perhaps we’ve all been a little hypnotized by those who promote their overpriced wares with the same kind of glitzy advertising as the latest games console.
Fans consume vast amounts of music, possibly more than ever, whilst the majority of DJs – the very people whose primary moneymaking tool is recorded music – largely seem to have given up paying for it altogether in favor of endless trips to Guitar Center.
You’ve gotta stay current. You’ve gotta have the latest analogue throwback synth. You’ve gotta upgrade your CDJs to those Nexus ones which can order you an Uber home at the end of your set.
The greatest Hip Hop, House and Techno producers made arguably their best work on samplers and computers less powerful than the mobile phone in your pocket. If they felt the need to expand on an idea and needed a raft of expensive synths to work with, they usually rented some studio time. But all of them owned a LOT of records. And they listened to them a lot. Usually they’d spent years just listening, playing, deconstructing records in their minds, trying to figure out how/why they worked on the dancefloor before they even thought about making a tune of their own.
And those elaborate studio setups some of them ended up owning? Gigs and record sales paid for those. Like any sensible business model, the major investments were made after a market had been established.
I think our grandparents had a catch-phrase which effectively meant “Look, before you leap, listen before you speak.” Yeah. That.
So here we are, at a very odd point in history. Fans consume vast amounts of music, possibly more than ever thanks to Spotify & YouTube, whilst the majority of DJs, the very people whose primary moneymaking tool is recorded music, largely seem to have given up paying for it altogether in favor of endless trips to Guitar Center.
This is the Great Promo Problem.
“I had a conversation or three over the years with people who seem surprised that I buy music! I don’t believe I’m entitled to free music at all. It’s up to the artists/labels to decide on whether my contribution to the industry is worthwhile enough to receive their products. Whether I am or not doesn’t stop me from spending my time searching for music and buying it.” Richard Earnshaw
As a DJ, my investment into music reduced drastically with the advent of the download and has continued to dwindle ever since, although on a daily basis I now have more brand new music in my possession than ever before. This is the unfortunate bi-product of something we shall call The Great Promo Problem.
A colleague of mine recently told me a story about his first week working at an indie label in the mid-’90s. He was sent to local Post Office with a large box of gatefold double LPs and list of addresses, instructed to supply top tier DJs and journalists all over the globe with copies of a forthcoming release. He left at closing time having spent almost a thousand pounds on postage; still carrying with him records he’d not had time to mail.
Sending out free music for promotional purposes has always been an essential part of the marketing game, but in the pre-digital era there were perhaps one or two key publications and DJs in each country for any chosen genre. The trick was to send product to people who would act as ambassadors and essentially sell your product for you. There was also a clear cost implication for each copy sent out, so anyone who wasn’t helping the cause was quickly struck off the list.
I caught the tail end of the vinyl promo era. Probably my fondest memory from those days is filling in reaction sheets for a series of weird and wonderful new records over a morning coffee, then heading into town to find a fax machine in order to return my feedback. Receiving music for free was such a privilege and anything the label asked for in return was the absolute least I could do.
The system wasn’t perfect. If you were on the outside of this industry “boy’s club,” it seemed impossible to get in.
But then a funny thing happened. The power balance shifted. With the introduction of the download, followed by streaming, it suddenly seemed as if a new crop of bloggers, playlisters and digital radio DJs might be the new tastemakers, especially for the younger generation. Terrified by the thought of failing to capture a share of this new audience, record labels reacted without much thought.
Suddenly, the cost of sending a promo is virtually zero and every day Facebook shows us label owners a growing list of important-looking people we simply must to send music to. Promo lists grow and grow while we frantically attempt to identify potential new markets and figure out ways to reach them.
Except that these “new pastures” are completely covered in bullshit.
As individuals, I think we’ve all figured this out by now, yet en masse we’re either still believing the hype, or too scared to turn away in case the miracle finally happens. For years now, the data has been unequivocal: the “Long Tail” was a myth. But still we chase it.
DJs stop shopping and pick out what they can from the conveyor-belt buffet that revolves endlessly in front of them. Digital PR companies blanket-spam all and sundry in increasingly desperate, unfocused attempts to gather “feedback” which serves no clear purpose other than to stroke the egos of artists. And so we go on…
I know this madness only too well, because I too am completely and utterly caught up in it. Any DJ, blogger or journalist with any kind of web presence is now inundated with unsolicited promos from hundreds if not thousands of record labels. Soon, “promo day” becomes work, and not the pleasant kind. We have less and less time to search out new music we might like, because we are too busy dealing with what’s put in front of us.
In this case, everyone loses. Labels spend time and money sending free music to people they don’t know, who don’t want it, rather than concentrating on rewarding their existing audience or striving to improve their product. DJs stop shopping and pick out what they can from the conveyor-belt buffet that revolves endlessly in front of them. Digital PR companies blanket-spam all and sundry in increasingly desperate, unfocused attempts to gather “feedback” which serves no clear purpose other than to stroke the egos of artists. “Peak promo” sees established labels garnering less and less in the way of useful dialogue, even from top level DJs with which they’ve enjoyed long standing relationships. And so we go on…
“There is a degree of self entitlement out there, which can and has created an instability in the value of music and the effort of those making it,” Richard Earnshaw says. “And although we, the labels, can’t stop people emailing and hustling for free music, it’s up to us to decide on who gets it. I guess that’s where the benefit of NOT using an independent promo service lies. We can make those decisions.”
Making an Industry – and Community – Function Again.
I think we all know what the answers are. I’ve had the “Great Promo Problem” conversation with every label owner I know. We’ve all come to the same conclusion, but we’re all scared to act in case we are wrong. As DJs, we have to struggle with the guilt we feel when we delete an unsolicited promo, knowing that someone once took a chance on us. Yet we shouldn’t send strangers music out of fear, nor should we listen to it out of guilt.
The relationships we build in underground music should be based on mutual appreciation and respect, nothing else.
It won’t happen overnight, but very much like the social media-driven political climate we find ourselves in, we each have to do our own small part to help a fractured community begin to function again.
If you’re a DJ, make a conscious decision to shop for new music regularly. If you spin a track you received via promo at a paid gig, for god’s sake buy a copy when it’s released. In a time where everyone seems to be desperately longing to be a part of something special, why not be a badass patron of the arts?
Search for excellence. It is not easy to find. It will almost never be placed conveniently in front of you or appear in your inbox. Do your best to concentrate on the content and discard the packaging. Invest whatever you can afford into the finest music you can find and it will reward you. It will reward the artist. It will reward your fellow music fan.
Changing the world really might be this simple.
It’s Time: originally published in 5 Magazine Issue 147 featuring Kevin Yost, Jenifa Mayanja and Sound Warrior, Gavin Hardkiss, why music got cheap and gear got expensive (and it’s mostly your fault) and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music for only $2 per month!