The hitmaking machine

When it comes to rock music, there’s always been a very fine but very important line between being a fan and being a consumer. The great sin of the recording industry is that it failed to respect that line. The major labels came to convince themselves that, because the line is so fine, it could safely be ignored. The entire business turned into a dreary and self-defeating exercise in market segmentation and packaging. Bands turned into products, and the products went stale ever more quickly.

That’s why the internet, to rock fans, has seemed like such a godsend. It provides a way for good bands to reach big audiences directly, bypassing the gatekeepers and their straightjacketed radio playlists. As Joan Anderman writes, in an article about the Arctic Monkeys in the Boston Globe:

Today, thanks to the confluence of Internet file-sharing technology, online blogs, and social networking websites such as MySpace, the grassroots community has swelled, quite literally, to global proportions. Instead of talking up bands and handing out tapes to friends in your town, music enthusiasts send the word, and the MP3 files, to cyber-pals around the world …

This is good news in so many ways. After decades of being force-fed label-sanctioned product via corporate-approved radio, music consumers are more than ready to become programmers of their own playlists. And it’s nothing short of a revolution in terms of opportunities for independent artists … No packaging. No pitching. No payola. The notion of a band finding a fan without the machinations of middlemen inspires utopian visions of art uncorrupted, a power-to-the-people model of music making and consuming.

But as Anderman goes on to note, the internet-fueled hyper-hype surrounding the Arctic Monkeys and other recent bands should give us pause. Those visions of utopia may not be entirely reliable.

Where can Arctic Monkeys hope to go after this? What’s left to achieve after your musical baby steps have been pronounced the pinnacle of verse and chorus? The sophomore slump is a given; the prognosis is grim. This is the dark side of hype: Arctic Monkeys are doomed to fail because they’ve done so well, so fast.

We’re living in the age of disposability. The culture, the computer file, the tastes and trends move at hyper-speed in cyberspace. The beauty is that every band can have a MySpace page; every artist can potentially deliver her song to a fan. But that artist is competing with every other artist online, vying for the attentions of an audience – there are tens of millions of registered members on MySpace – fluent in the high-tech entertainment marketplace, where there’s always another band to discover, another song to be the first to tell your friends about.

The question that remains to be answered is whether fans will invest in long-term relationships with artists, or if – with a new song a keystroke away – they’re likely to be … as inclined, ironically, as the major labels to focus on whatever’s new.

Who knows? Maybe in the end the internet mob and the major labels will turn out to be natural allies rather than mortal enemies. “There’s only music,” sings Alex Turner at the end of the Arctic Monkeys album, “so that there’s new ringtones.”

7 thoughts on “The hitmaking machine

  1. Gianni

    I disagree, and not only because I like the AM, but also because I look at bands like the Phish and how they thrived on the Internet for some 20 years. True, never made it to front page, but filled auditoriums around the nation all the same, and put out 25+ records.

    Your question is perhaps whether a band can die from overexposure (however fueled) and there I think you have a point.

  2. JohnO

    Just because the Artic Monkeys aren’t the “it” band in the next “15 minutes” of “internet fame” doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their listeners. It doesn’t mean their ticket sales will drop. It just means they won’t get another 15 minutes. I can see this line of logic very symmetrical with Joel Spolsky’s “don’t hype until you’ve actually delivered a 1.0 – not a beta”. If you get the hype, and suck, you’ve lost the audience forever. If you suceed, you’ve gained an audience. Sure it might dwindle, but not that much. AM won’t die out.

  3. Adam S.

    When it comes to rock music, there’s always been a very fine but very important line between being a fan and being a consumer. The great sin of the recording industry is that it failed to respect that line.

    A slightly digressive point: one of my favorite business school professors has made an interesting career for himself developing statistical models for consumer behavior that go way beyond your standard linear regressions. The models have the virtue of being fairly simple to implement and often astoundingly predictive.

    One of this professor’s discoveries was that music-purchasing behavior can be just as easily modeled with the same statistical techniques as, say, laundry detergent-buying behavior.

    Now, don’t misunderstand. The ability to model buying behavior statistically is perfectly compatible with the notion that a music album is a creative, artistic endeavor. All this discovery suggests is that once an album is released into the marketplace, aggregate buying behavior will follow certain stable patterns, and those patterns are the same across widely disparate product categories. Individuals may be unique, but the mob is often quite predictable.

    Now for the punchline. This professor took his discovery to the record labels. “I have these models that will allow you to forecast sales much more accurately,” he told them. “You’ll be able to save a bunch of money on production and marketing, you’ll be able to tailor your distribution strategies more effectively, etc., etc.”

    And of course no one was interested. The executives asked the professor a lot of pointless questions about what kind of music he listens to. They then gave him platitudinous lectures about how every album is a sui generis creation, every artist a snowflake. Album sales can’t be modeled like laundry detergent, the said, waving off the clear evidence to the contrary.

    The moral here, I think, is simply that the record companies are doubly stupid. They churn out their product like it’s a commodity, resulting in overly-packaged dross. They then turn around and pretend that dross is creative gold, refusing to reap any of the ruthless efficiencies that you should properly be able to achieve when you’re pushing boxes of laundry soap.

  4. Wayne

    I hink you are righ on the money, or darn close to it. Bands like this will do okay and probably always have a small following. Unlike bands like Phish though they won’t be selling out 3 day rock shows.

  5. Ton

    The hype wasn’t created by the band. They didn’t explore the open and free world of the Internet to find listeners. The distribution of their demo on the Internet was a cunning plan by their label. The music is brilliant, and I have been sucked into the monkeys hype myself. Actually saw then on a small podium in Amsterdam about a month ago. The concert was great, superb musicians. But it saddened me as well to see these young chaps being exploited to the fullest. I have never seen body guards on stage during concerts, in fact I have never seen so many ‘adults’ walking around (grey haired roadies), obviously in their ‘best interest’. And that the singer appeared rather cocky for his age… I am hoping its just his character.

    In this case the Internet has clearly been used to create a stir prior to the launch of their debut album, just to sell as many cd’s as possible. That these young artists go along with it … well who can blame them.

  6. Daniel Ciruli

    Adam S.’s point is interesting, and a bit surprising. I toured for a year with a rock band as they went from releasing their first major-label album through platinum sales (and rock stardom).

    One thing that always struck me was how the record label dealt with the band (and the music) as a product and commodity. It was very much a business–nothing but a business–to them. After the songs were written, the band was given nearly no input into the direction things went. Their creativity went into making the product, then was shut down completely.

    I think I understand what Adam’s professor saw, though. In trying to help the record companies perform *their* job better, the professor threatened them. They were being told that a computer program could do what they do, only better and cheaper. And *that* made them defensive, and they threw him out on his ear. Completely plausible.

  7. phil jones

    What’s similar between a rock album and detergent is not the “content” or the motivation for buying, but the fact that they’re both sold as products in the market. It’s the context of markets, money, retail chains etc. which creates the same emergent statistical patterns. Sell *anything* in that way and it will look the same.

    I bet if you studied music *downloading* patterns they would no longer fit that statistical model. Nor would amateur groups meeting round each others’ houses to play instruments.

    As for the Arctic Monkeys, the internet is a rich substrate that supports virulent epidemics that burn themselves out quickly, and slow endemics that thrive for a long time. The Arctic Monkeys’ longevity will depend on how they play this, rather than just being a symptom of the age of the internet.

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