The Recording Industry–A Brief Lesson

This morning, the Butcher and I were watching the remaking of Rob Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. This is this show on VH1 that takes old has-been stars and gives them new songs, new looks, and new clothes and then, then, well, frankly, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen. I still don’t hear these folks on the radio.

Vanilla Ice, though, was a riot because he was completely uncooperative. He agreed to do the show, but he didn’t want the new clothes, the help with his stage presence or any of it. All he wanted was another forum in which to bitch about how the music industry had let him down.

It occurs to me that no one has ever explained to this guy how the music industry works. On the off-chance he’s reading this, I’m offering up this knowledge.

1. Radio stations play music they think will attract the audience their advertisers want to reach. Unless it is their gimmick, they don’t play the most innovative, strange, artistic, smart, kick-ass music. They play music that is designed to keep you from changing the station. This tends to mean that a lot of really great music is not “radio-friendly.” This is also why you think you’re hearing the same songs over and over. You are. If radio stations believe you like a song, they want you to think you have an increased chance of hearing that song on their station so that you’ll stay there.

As an artist, you can use the needs of the radio stations to your advantage and design songs that are specifically designed to be radio-friendly. Radio play should, hopefully boost your album sales and concert attendance: your song acts as a three-minute commercial for you. But radio is not designed to give you an outlet for your commercial; it is designed to use your commercial to keep people listening to the paying advertisers.

2. No one owes you a career doing what you love. If you love to make music and you are lucky enough to have someone pay you to do it, you are in a very small minority of music makers. If you can’t maintain your career, if you can’t get anyone to pay you to make music any more, it just means that you’ve rejoined the ranks of the rest of us.

3. Record companies are loan sharks with marketing arms. They don’t give you studio time or a back-up band or access to good producers in an effort to help you make the best album you can. They lend you the money to buy the studio time and the band and access to producers and all of that in an effort to help you produce an album that’s going to insure they get their money back.

Why would you put yourself in debt to a corporation that doesn’t have your best interests at heart? Because record companies have two things you don’t: an enormous marketing arm with established contacts and established wide channels of distribution. How are you going to buy an ad in Rolling Stone? How are you going to get your CD into Wal-mart?

4. Once you’ve decided to sign a record contract, you owe it to the record company to make yourself market-friendly. You need to have an image–even if your image is that you don’t have an image. You don’t owe them out of any sense of misplaced loyalty. You owe them because you owe them a shit-load of money and, if they say that working with a choreographer in order to work the stage better is necessary, you’d better do it.

If you don’t want to do what the record company says, sometimes you can get away with it–because you’ve already made them a lot of money, because you are able to convince them that what they’re asking is preposterous, etc.–but you have to be prepared that if you don’t do as they ask, they will see you as too risky a gamble, that your unwillingness to play nice signals a likelihood that they’re not going to get their money back out of you, and they may tell you to hit the road.

5. Keep your merchandising revenue. The money from your albums will be tied up in paying your record company and, when you do get some, it won’t be as much as you think it should.

This all sounds like some apology for the recording industry, which it isn’t. I laugh with glee about downloading and roll my eyes at their whining about downloading ruining their sales (What children were to blame for decreased sales before the slump was “fixed” by switching formats from records to CDs, causing everyone to have to re-buy music they already owned? Or are we not supposed to remember that? Not supposed to wonder how long the slump has really been going on, hidden under inflated sales based new purchases of old albums?).

But it seems ludicrous to me that someone like Vanilla Ice, who’s been around the block a couple times, doesn’t already have this stuff figured out.

The Shill’s Visit

So, I’ve just seen the Shill off to the airport, loaded down with a big breakfast and the cutest little cowgirl-fabric covered makeup bag you’ve ever seen.

It was great to see her.

Here’s something that strikes me, though–seeing this person that I’ve known since college–which runs contrary to every lesson of our commercial culture: people get more interesting as they get older, more beautiful, more self-confident, more everything…

I don’t know. It’s one of those things. You spend so much of your young life believing that 30 is the start of the end of things. Then you get to 30 and you realize that it’s just the beginning. Now, you start to come into your own. Now, you know the things you need and how to get them.

I’m lucky to have very good friends. I wonder what the Shill will be like at 40 or 50 or 60 and I hope I have the good fortune of being around to see.

So, youngsters, the point of this digression is that it’s actually really cool to get older. People get more interesting. Yes, being young and thin and pretty is the “best” thing you can be, but the consolation prize is a lot better.

Anyway, we did a lot of stuff, much of it was great fun, but probably boring to read about if you don’t know any of the players. So, I’ll spare you for now.

But here is one extraordinary thing:

The Shill ran the Music City half-marathon.

It started like this: her husband, the cantankerous Legal Eagle gave her this trip to Nashville as a birthday present. Coincidently, it was the same weekend as the marathon. When she discovered this, it was too late to register on line, so she tried to call and register, but they wouldn’t let her register over the phone.

So, she asked me to go and register for her. I was like, “Shill, they’re going to take one look at me and know I could never run 11 miles.”

“Dear, it’s 13.”

“Well, then especially fuck that. Eleven I might have been able to do, but thirteen is out of the question.”

Then, my co-workers called me a “fucking girl scout.”

We got it all straightened out and on Saturday morning she ran the half marathon in two hours and five minutes. It’s amazing. I couldn’t have run 13 miles in two days.