The radio dial isn't what it used to be, or where
The music industry has never been more challenged - okay, threatened - in its entire existence than it is now. Still, creative marketing (take Pearl Jam's Ten game in this issue, for example) and a return to grassroots has given it new hope. From Radiohead's groundbreaking decision to let people download their album online and decide how much they want to pay, to John Mellencamp and his label focusing on exposing his work through commercials as opposed to radio, the business and the artist are, believe it or not, bouncing back.
Brian Grunert, Grammy-winner for packaging and a longtime associate of musician Ani DiFranco, says musicians, labels and management have to forget about many of the ways they used to make money. "The days of a label putting a CD at $15, emptying the wallets of the consumer, and then giving the artist a dollar of that, are long gone," he says, not completely lacking an air of satisfaction. "The labels went too far and the album buyer got them back with Napster. Now the middle ground has to be found." Not to say it wasn't a challenge for Grunert, as well, but he's found much of the marketing advantage comes from offering the buyer many ways to digest their favorite band's work.
"The same group that might have sold a million records will sell 200,000, but it doesn't bother them because if they bypass the record companies they're getting four times the amount of the cut anyway. The other strategy is having different levels of offerings. Maybe the basic offer is just the songs and that's it, the second level is cover art, the highest level may be autographs from a band member. There's also more of a willingness for bands to be involved, because now it feels more like their direct business instead of being left in the dark," says Grunert.
But the question is partly about how to get word out that a band's album even exists to begin with. The traditional radio format has changed - possibly even been rendered irrelevant, leaving a new wilderness to forage through. For a number of artists, it means embracing the very channels they opposed. John Mellencamp, long known for an unwillingness to sell his songs to corporate advertising, was heard all over the dial last year with his patriotic anthem Our Country. The only thing is that it was on the TV dial and set to a moving montage of Chevy pick-ups. Ami Heinrich, owner of Denver, Colo.-based Tsunami Publicity, who represents everyone from John Popper, frontman of Blues Traveler, to lesser known locals, says this is no longer considered selling out to many, but a necessity. "Bands are desperate to get their songs on video games or on network television," she says. "In the age of the music download, anything you can do to gain exposure is critical."
Max Leavitt, former lead singer of punk band Hurry-Up Offense, believes TV is much more crucial to the success of bands than in the past. "The huge break that kept our band going as long as it did was being the house band on Last Call with Carson Daly," he says. "But even that has its limits. The big joke Carson used to say to us on camera was, 'Has this show helped at all? Because you're all still living in a van.'?"
Leavitt has seen other bands explode through blogs, and feels there's no getting around that technology. "You want your fans to identify with you and feel they're a part of you and this is a lot quicker than recording an album or doing a tour to every city in the world," he assesses. "The only problem is musicians aren't always the most reliable, so asking them to update a blog every day may turn into a negative."
One who has more than delivered is rapper Lil' Wayne, resulting in sales of a million copies of his album, The Carter III, in the first week - unheard of these days. Attributed to weekly interaction with his audience and giving away dozens of songs for free, it proved it's not just about love, but loyalty. Still, Grunert believes musicians have to be careful not to reveal too much, especially when they're selling the dream of superstardom. "Look at U2 - part of the reason for their continued success is they have a little mystery about them," Grunert says. "We know about Bono's causes, but not every last detail of his life. I don't know if you'd feel in awe of his rock star status if he was updating you every day on what he's making for dinner."
Heinrich says it's not just attracting loyal Internet fans, which will help most bands, but having them evangelize, as well. "We make animated banners that promote tours or album releases and ask fans to put it on their sites," she says. "They become like an Internet street team. Give them incentives, like having a chance at concert tickets, and they'll respond."
An outlet which clearly doesn't disappear via the download is the concert. Nevertheless, the economy will still make it difficult to attract the same amount of fans or price points. Some even grapple with cutting off other revenue streams in exchange for warm bodies in seats. Says Grunert, "When I heard a band as large as Genesis was considering giving away their record as part of their ticket sale, it made me see where the money's going to." Heinrich asserts that concerts are getting much more emphasis and are being hit on all marketing fronts - meaning even the old-fashioned handbill can't be ignored. "Dispatch was able to sell out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row as an indie band," she says, "so it's obvious that major tours aren't for just the top bands anymore."
And video games are doing more than just getting the music out there - in fact, sometimes you can't tell where one begins and the other ends. The Aerosmith version of Guitar Hero actually resulted in half a million copies sold in the first week and 10 times the revenue their previous album had garnered over the same amount of time. With the Guitar Hero brand now a billion-dollar industry, there's no question bands will gladly wait in line for their turn or try to get in with Rock Band or another up-and-coming competitor. "Guitar Hero has completely changed the way music can be heard," Heinrich says. "It proves that you have to look for new ways to make money instead of just focusing on problems with album sales."
So, like it or not, as we watch Springsteen fly pelvis-first into a TV camera during the Super Bowl, or wonder if Mellencamp writes for us or for Chevy, it becomes apparent that the merging of music and other media will only grow in the coming years. But Leavitt is quick to remind: "I think we'd rather have musicians use these methods than never pick up a guitar to begin with."