By Jory Brando Carver
This year, 50% of the Grammy winners were considered to be independent artists, the highest percentage ever. In between a pretty boring show and the latest Bieber CNN urgent alert (did Blake Griffin really smack him?), there was some other news: Lyor Cohen, former head at Warner Music and Def Jam founding father, started a content company (don’t call it a label, apparently).
2 weeks ago at Midem, Cohen finally let loose on his Google-backed 300 venture (at least more so than he had previously) during his keynote. Drawing inspiration from the 300 Spartan warriors and centralized in discovering and developing artists, Cohen’s content company was positioned as a progressive route to the 2014 industry culture; One that would take advantage of the internet rather than folding at it’s power. In addition to other State of the Union-esque commentary, Cohen said that 300 would be a hybrid of minds: Industry big shots and MIT students, people with radio experience at labels and social media mavens.
Cohen also surprised people when he alluded to a partnership between 300 and the world’s biggest meeting of the minds, Twitter. While neither side has provided too many details, this tidbit had to cause some ears to perk up. In the age of mass information and constant content, how does the king of all social media content (Twitter) help the situation? Apparently through analytics and A&R ‘tools’ (which we’ll put a huge question mark over until Cohen and Twitter stop speaking in code).
How indie is a major-indie?
The issue with independent labels is usually not the foresight or strategy, but more so the muscle to bring it to fruition. You go into most any worthwhile indie and immediately notice the relevant perspectives and operations, however they often lack the brute force and leverage that their big brother counterparts have. Many traditional indie labels have struggled in key aspects of distribution and radio, making it harder to reach crucial target audiences.
Enter the idea of what is best noted as a major-indie, which is essentially Cohen’s 300. These versions of Independent labels are often made up of people with industry experience who had simply got tired of the bullshit, and were willing to work with the lack of leverage, lower budgets in favor of less bureaucracy and more creative control.
We’re in a period where it’s cooler to be independent than a major label ‘product’ to many artists. Predictably, this major-indie concept has extended to artists (*cough Macklemore) and culminated in a reevaluated appreciation of labels, leading to partnerships and joint ventures. On the plus side, the creative control is still there, and they don’t have to risk lengthy pushbacks or compete with established artists who get priority. However with this independence comes just as, if not more, rolls of the dice. Between the added burden of doing everything on a (sometimes very) limited budget to it all potentially being for not if artists can’t get music to syndicated radio and other traditional outlets, all while still competing with those major label artists.
Needless to say, independents successes, with major players behind artists or not, are still not easy to come by, which then begs the question:
Can these major label vets run a company and maintain it’s independent culture?
On a scale of Drake’s ex girlfriend’s chance at real fame to somewhere, where does this leave us?
So here we have an industry big shot in Cohen, whose made a lot of money off the ‘old way’ talking about making more money, albeit in different ways: Disguised greed? New-wave concepts? Maybe a little bit of both? 300 is innovative, but can it compete with majors, or perhaps the better question, does it want to? While data analytic tools are readily available for social networks, are they prepared to do the job of A&R ear’s and eyes on Twitter?
You also have to assume that much like Facebook and it’s ‘pay to play/compete’ type of ad system, Twitter (and Cohen?) will not be far behind, which surely will make it difficult for independent artists without major budgets to compete. As social media turns to these alternative ways to make money, things will probably shift yet again. If history is any indication, there will be a mix of early adopters who find alternative ways and those who have the financial luxury to maintain.
The fact is, if harnessed efficiently, what other promotion (front end, at least) does an artist, or any entity for that matter, need outside of social media? As many stories that break first on social media, Twitter is the new press release. That said, we’re still pretty much at square one because there aren’t any sure-fire, go-to methods for social media success; it just kind of happens, which is the problem with banking on analytic tools and intricate formulas.
There’s not a right answer. However, there are some things that just make sense. There’s no way that companies known for computers and TVs (Apple and Samsung) should be leading music’s revolution. At this point, there is not a tool that allows the spread of information, connection, and the overall creative opportunities that social networks afford artists: Why not use it in a scholarly way? (Physical) Albums aren’t selling anymore and never will again: lets put all efforts into accentuating value in new ways like streaming. It’s not rocket science, and really just requires a lack of stubborn pride, relevancy awareness and some sense of cohesion.
Alas (wouldn’t be right to end this on a high note, right?), all things easier said than done, as big business isn’t designed to be agile. It’s not going to be an overnight, next month, or even next year change. But there may be in bright light: The people who can actually initiate change and those who have the foresight to inspire it might finally be ready to get things done.
Jory Brando Carver is a curator at Fruition Management, a creative branding, artist management, and content company in Los Angeles, CA. | @JoryBrando | i[email protected]