Belly of the Beast

They’re losing their labels. (Comparatively) young and old, alike. Mariah Carey doesn’t sell as many as they’d hoped. Gone. Bought out for more millions than she’s likely to be able to spend on minidresses, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and spas to keep her in shape to wear them. Rod Stewart is dismissed. The answer to the question he’d ask about whether he’s sexy is now answered in the negative. It has been for some time. But hope springs almost-eternal in the dark hearts of label execs (“Maybe there’s another ‘Maggie May’ in him. . . .). And there are other performers. Plenty of them.

Some would say, “Good riddance.” Others will be happy enough with their existing recordings. And there will be new acts.

But this situation points to something that should be of at least moderate concern to many people, people who might imagine that the punking of Carey and Stewart and Bowie and. . . is nothing to fret about.

One of the arguments that’s made when there is the consolidation of two businesses is that there will be greater scale and efficiency. The scale is straightforward: 1 + 1= 2. The efficiency is more disingenuous. What this says is that if there are 5 people in one company and 5 people in the other, the post-merger result won’t be 10, but probably 6. The other 4 will be considered redundant.

But there is an odd characteristic of the Consolidated Beast. It is hungrier than the two smaller entities. Hungrier for revenues. Perhaps this is because one of the two bought the other. And this is often more like a shotgun wedding than a love-driven elopement. The union costs far more than what’s available in the bank. So profit margins matter. Big time.

The question that’s asked of artists today is “What have you done for me lately?” And the answer had better be good. Damn good. Ridiculously good. And “lately” means “right now.”

This is not a sob for Mariah and Rod and the rest. Rather, it is about others, countless others. The consolidated music industry means one thing: Hunger for hits. Insatiable hunger. The stomach is always growling.

Sure, there are independent labels. Plenty of them. And to be a musician is not necessarily to be a millionaire. It is more likely not to be one.

But the sad part about the current state of affairs is the difficulty to reach other ears with music. Fresh ears. It is difficult for people to find new bands (or bands new to them). These independent labels have limited reach (the Internet notwithstanding).

The issue is distribution. And the big-box retailers are stocked by the few, not the many. And the independent outlets dwindle (rent, utilities, help, inventory, etc. are all ever-pricey), and even those that exist tend to be able to do no more than to handle more, but not lots. And this tends to be regional music, not something that is going to get play from coast-to-coast. It is a Balkanization of the industry. And the big acts will be those that have been manufactured by the corporations, manufactured with all of the passion they apply to chunking out Wonder Bread.

4 thoughts on “Belly of the Beast”

  1. And people like me will continue to buy back catalog stuff, mostly used, and buy cds at shows and from Web-vendors after hearing stuff bootlegged from friends. Or we’ll just steal it all as mp3s…

  2. It has always been about hits. I don’t have a problem with that. Why would a record company want to keep someone around who doesn’t produce hits?

  3. Robert, one reason a record company would want to keep someone around is the “prestige” factor that used to matter to a lot of major labels. Reprise Records, for example, used to release great but non-commerical records that they knew they’d lose money on in order to boost their label’s esteem among artists and agents and critics. “Cultivating” artists used to be something that was done by the majors all the time. It’s a different world now.

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