Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Reason Records Don't Sell Like They Used To - The Real Reason

For those within the industry who know me, I usually don’t air my views of the business publically; however, based on a recent article in the 10/25/14 issue of Billboard Magazine, I am compelled to comment.

The article is Managers of U2, Pharrell, Madonna & More Unite to Revolutionize the Music Industry and it discloses how a group of very talented artist managers intend to break the cycle that has led to the current downward spiral of the record business and put the industry back on the right track, reflecting the industry’s past success (before the digital age).

I want to make it very clear that this piece is not about criticizing these successful managers and their new company, Maverick.  Guy Oseary, through his enormous talent and hard work, has made some remarkable achievements in his years in the business and there’s a reason why he’s one of the industry’s power players.  I have also had the opportunity to talk with Guy, mostly during my time at EMI Music, in the ‘90s, and I find him to be quite an affable and smart man (I’m not validating, just confirming). 

I laud Oseary for attempting to turn the tide of a business that has been riddled with low royalty rates for streaming, which is partly responsible for what has led to the overall undervaluing of musical compositions and recordings, resulting in less music purchases.  I’m happy that he is one of the few who is willing to address this problem and attempt to fix it, but in this article, which I encourage you to read, there is, in my opinion, one glaring omission, and thus the point of this writing.

What brought me to the conclusion to comment on the Billboard article is the following:  With all the knowledge and success of the members of this key collective (Caron Veazey, Adam Leber, Ron Laffitte, Gee Roberson, Larry Rudolph, Scott Rodger, Clarence Spalding, Cortez Bryant and the aforementioned Oseary) there was one area of the business that was never discussed (though a few came close) and that is ensuring that their artists consistently produce an album’s worth of strong material.

Yes, I am a publisher and I’m focused on the song and I freely admit that my forté is not tour marketing, promotion, branding, etc.  Wouldn’t it, however, make sense to make sure that the product is solid and contains multiple radio singles so that the artist wouldn’t have to focus so much on other revenue streams in order to make up for lost music sales?

In the article, Oseary mentions that there are other ways to reach an audience.  What he doesn’t mention is that, initially, an album release can almost be static; you really only get one chance in the release cycle to sell an abundance of units and if the songs don’t compel the consumer to buy, there’s less of a chance he/she will buy even if it’s served on a different platter.

The topic of making better records is the elephant in the room, and from my experiences, no one wants to talk about it.

Why is that?

I might not have the answer, but my supposition is that somewhere between the artist, record company A&R and management, the issue of whether or not an album has hit singles is either not being discussed, A&R and management are afraid they might offend the artist, or the people who are supposed to guide and help the artist succeed don’t know what a hit song is.

You could make the argument that Maverick’s artists don’t need this kind of attention and that they have a vision set out for themselves and there is no need to mettle in the creative process.  If that’s the case, I would respectfully rebuttal by saying that there is a reason Adele’s last album, “21,” went Diamond.  There’s a reason why Taylor Swift albums sell north of a million copies in its first week, then remain on the charts for several weeks thereafter.

Did Adele’s “21” become a colossal success because Americans are suddenly enamored with British women who possess a soulful voice?  Is Taylor Swift an industry of its own because we suddenly are attracted to talented singers from Pennsylvania?

No.  Much of the reason Adele and Swift, and others like them, sold millions is because they took the time to make sure that their fans had an album they could listen to from beginning to end and enjoy for years to come.

One more example – the Eagles.  As great as they were as songwriters in their prime, Don Henley and Glenn Frey still were not satisfied with the material they had collaborated on for future albums and brought in outside writers to make damn sure their records were as good as they could be.

Again, just my opinion from years of being in the business.

As mentioned, some of the Maverick managers come close to addressing the issue of weak music sales:

Caron Veazey comes as close to the topic as anyone interviewed saying that, among other things, it comes down to great music; but she doesn’t say how to make sure that the music is compelling.

Adam Leber points out that the Maverick business model has been done before, but the difference between Maverick and other firms is that its managers aren’t afraid of sharing information amongst each other (which is a good thing); but will any of that information have to do with making sure future albums are chock full of hits?

Gee Roberson acknowledges that a big challenge is the decline of album sales, which gave me some hope that he had a solution, but instead of a solution to turn around this downward trend by making sure the music is commercially viable and can achieve success at commercial radio, he mentioned branding artists with another product.  Is it possible to make up for the lack of music sales with an artist’s wine sales?  Yes, but what about improving an artist’s music sales with better songs?  Wouldn’t that help make the artist a catalog artist, whose recordings could end up being purchased by generations to come?  And what happens if the wine stops selling? 

In relation to Roberson’s thoughts on album sales, I would like to do a quick refresher on the way it used to be in many instances:

Prior to the digital era, the consumer on many occasions walked into a music store expecting to buy the single from an artist that he/she heard on the radio only to be told that it doesn’t exist in that format and that the only way to purchase the song is to purchase the entire album.  For some, that’s like wanting to order only the french fries, but told that in order to get the fries, you have to order the entire meal and then once you have paid for the meal, you come to find out that the rest of the meal -  that you really didn’t want in the first place - isn’t very good.

Since consumers buy music much differently today, the business has had the challenge of trying to figure out how to get the consumer to buy music in the quantities that they did, pre-digital.

Getting back to the article, it’s quite possible that through the editorial process, it left out the quotes about how Maverick is going to dig in and make sure that their artists have multiple hit songs on its albums.  Assuming there weren’t any, I volunteer the following suggestions:

1     - Hire an experienced A&R-type, whether it’s a label person or publisher who really knows what a hit song is – and not some marquee guy who drinks and golfs with the right people, but has little to show for it.   And hire as many as you need to cover each genre properly.
2     - If the key members of the collective want to dig deeper to make sure the hiring process for an A&R-type is a success (or do it themselves), they might want to speak with some of the former A&R people from the ‘60s and ‘70s who brought us a multitude of catalog artists that sell to this day and gain some knowledge of how they dealt with a talented artist who didn’t have enough material to fill an album.
3     - Make Guy Oseary the A&R guy (at least for rock and pop).  After all, he does know what a hit song is.  (Oseary recognized Alanis Morissette’s talent and signed her to a label deal when every other major label turned her down.)

In conclusion, I want to throw my support Maverick’s way, with or without my suggestions.  If the Maverick way works, other management firms will follow this business model and it will, in turn, help all of us one way or another in this industry; but if it doesn’t, I highly recommend that the principals of the company ask themselves whether they did everything in their power to make sure their artists put out commercially viable hit music in order to compel their fans to pay retail.