Ask 411 Music 09.26.12: Can Green Day Pull Off A Triple Album & Are Bands Getting Rich On The Road?
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I really want to give your questions the in-depth answers they deserve – so don’t worry, we’ll be getting to your questions about The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Abstract Indie in the coming weeks, but we start by reacting to Green Day’s new album, and discussing the murky finances of the music industry.
Keep dropping questions in the comment section or on my twitter (@daveportivo), and if you’re not sure how our new format works check out the Welcome Back Issue, it explains the column’s new direction of travel.
When this question was originally asked I was genuinely excited. I thought in a week’s time I’d be reacting to a complex concept album full of ambition and experimentation (in the vain of American Idiot or 21st Century Breakdown), but how wrong I was.
This is not a slight against Green Day. ¡Uno! is the work of an incredibly professional trio. It’s not easy for a group of 40-year-old men to sounds more like angst ridden energetic teenagers than practically any adolescent pop-punk outfit around today. I don’t want to spend too long paraphrasing myself, this is an album I’ve already had to review twice, so I’ll leave you with the thoughts of my Strictlyrandl review:
“Predictable in the extreme, the album flies by at a frightful pace making ¡Uno! one of the easiest and most engaging releases of the year. This is the Green Day’s equivalent of comfort food – they could make this record in their sleep. “Nuclear Family” and “Rustie James” are snappy and to the point without leaving any kind of lasting impression or threatening to engage brain cells. For all the carefree endeavor and three-chord brinkmanship on display, Green Day can’t fully embrace their youth. ¡Uno! is the product of shrewd stadium sized operators. Tender ballad “Sweet 16″, as well as lead singles “Stay The Night” and “Oh Love”, are sweeping anthems that play to the very back row, while the infectious walking funk of “Kill The DJ” proves to be a sly red-hearing. Experimentation isn’t the order of the day; this is swift, simple and highly enjoyable pop music. ¡Uno!: as pleasurable as it is inconsequential.”
Pulling off a trio of LPs won’t be an issue. Green Day can produce high quality teenage pop music effortlessly. Had this been grander concept or a more strenuous project I would have had my doubts – but I don’t for a second question Green Day’s ability to produce two more highly enjoyable but inconsequential pop records.
First of all is that true, second if that is true – why is that the case?
This is an interesting argument that is based more on intense rationalization than any kind of empirical evidence. Two statements are true:
1) Despite Ticketmaster confirming that around 40% of all tickets go unsold (see Bill Simmons Podcast featuring CEO Nathan Hubbard), ticket sales are strong and have enjoyed a consistent upswing during the last 12 years.
I’m lucky enough to live in London (UK) where we have a booming events market, and on any night of the week bands are selling out huge arenas, tiny bars, and seemingly everything inbetween. The much maligned growth bubble that existed under Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton/George Bush in the US saw a growth in middle class “disposable income” spending, a huge inflation in ticket prices, and most importantly, a huge surge in demand for concert tickets. Established markets boomed, at the same time as the globalized world opened up a whole range of new markets.
Huge world touring artists like Bob Dylan and Iron Maiden rarely went to Indian, China, Vietnam or even South America 10 years ago – now these countries hold super concerts on a regular basis as both established artists and emerging talents attempt to stake a foothold in these potentially lucrative areas (in short attitudes have soften, infrastructure has improved, and the whole process is safer).
Speaking anecdotally to give you a less abstract idea, I have many friends in Hong Kong and China. In the past they were lucky if a western artist would roll into town once a month (seeing Deep Purple was a rare treat for example), now everyday bands as small and arty as Titus Andronicus or as big and nostalgic as Roxette take up residency for month long tours, just like they would in London or across the US.
2) Records sales are way down. Record lows are constantly being set for weekly sales of new music in particular. Catalogue sales are at an all time high as access and storage space have expanded beyond belief (thank you online storage), but the dangerous effect is that the new Green Day album is in competition not only with the new No Doubt album, but with all the previous releases by both bands, and the entire back catalogue of The Beatles and, well, everyone else.
Now that choice isn’t defined by the storage space of your local record shore, fans don’t choose between this week’s hot new records alone. Old records don’t go out of sight and out of mind, every new album is in competition with every old record, and fans have free choice.
Combine this with the niche-afying effect of the Internet and you have a recipe for disaster. The mainstream is simply the biggest niche, and it’s getting smaller as interests diversify. Unless you’re Adele or Taylor Swift this means reduced sales. Vinyl Sales are at record highs (since the mediums initial demise) and difficult artists are finding sustainable audiences but, as Erol Alkan (house musician, and record label boss) admitted to The Guardian’s Music Weekly Podcast, if your selling 300 copies of anything you’re doing fantastic. Grim stuff eh?
This is the music industry; external logic doesn’t always equal reality. Earlier in the year, I put this argument directly to Rival Sons (an emerging American rock band headlining a sold out tour in the UK) and here’s what they had to say (it’s starts with the state of industry and moves on):
You mentioned how rock’n’roll has become fragmented and how everyone is being put into boxes, and I noticed that Slash today came out and said that “rock has lost its magic”.
He blamed digital downloads. Elsewhere analysts are seemingly lining up to tell us that rock is in a slump, but as an artist who has put out an album digitally and who is walking his own path with a death metal label, do you recognize this image of the industry?
I think the music scene is as vibrant as it has ever been. I think it’s more accessible than it’s ever been. We can just go and get anything we want. You might want to find a really rare Kinks track or the Burning Sunflower Band, well now you can just dial it up, and boom, there it is, and wow, there’s a video too, a live video, and a studio video. Oh and I can just buy the track for 99cents.
For young bands like us, it’s all right there; every song we’ve ever played in every country is on YouTube right now. That’s very vibrant, that’s very alive and exciting. At the same time, the old guard are pissed, and fuck them man. They’ve been guarding it for too long, they’ve been holding their place, and blocking young artists for too long.
People couldn’t even get seen if it wasn’t for what we had today. Now you can just be nothing, and become humungous off the Internet. I think the old industry has been eating away at itself for 20 years, and I can understand why he [Slash] would be pissed off. It must suck to be an artist whose music is getting ripped off.
We make a lot less money. We’ve been told, that if this was 20 years ago “you’d own mansions and boats”, we’d be rich just off we’ve done right now, but we’re struggling and poor and just out here doing it because we believe in it.
It’s interesting you mention the money, because we are always told that bands might be losing money through sales, but they’re making it back with live dates. Is that really true?
No absolutely not. Not for us, maybe for someone else who has really really really had their heels dug in. We’ve sold out every show we’ve ever played in the UK, most of our dates in Europe sell out, and we do well in the US too, but we’re still covering our ass on this tour. It costs a lot to come out here, and we don’t get a lot of financial support because we’re on a small label. They can only work so hard. No, for us it’s not covering the loss, but we’re getting to the point where we do fine.
That’s interesting to hear, I just thought I’d throw the counter argument out there, because you hear these things said, but we don’t get to hear the artist’s reply.
I’ll tell you, no one would argue the point that it used to be blasphemous to license music and that our heroes would never do it. You’d never hear “Strange Brew” by Cream or “The Ocean” by Zeppelin on a commercial.
Nowadays, that’s how you get heard. You’re on a video game, you’re on a car commercial, or you’re part of a campaign. We were part of the Indy Race Series; that’s cool, that’s a great thing. Being on a great video game, we like that, being part of a campaign for a racing series, we love that, we’re in this movie, cool. So there’s more money to be made that way.
This approach isn’t dead, A$AP ROCKY allegedly signed to a $3,000,000 dollar record deal with only a few mixtapes and youtube hits to his name in the US, while EMI signed the horrific failure Viva Brother for £250,000 in the UK (a move that turned the public against the band, and the whole promotional campaign into a laughing stock).
Other artists tell a different story. Lily Allen, one the UK’s biggest pop successes of the 21st Century (and my boss at the ITNO record label), claimed to have only finished paying off her initial loan from her record company when her second album topped the charts (nearly four years after signing her first deal). If she had failed, she’d have been saddled with huge debts. The signs are that labels are being more cautious, and that different artists are signed to wildly different deals. You could be lucky and get a huge retainer to do arse all, or you could be saddled with a big loan, a small percentage, and be expected to pay any additional fees yourself.
There is money to be made and seats to be sold, but the truth is, live shows and record sales, it’s all relative – there’s one sure fire way to make money in the record industry and that’s to be a consistent success for as extended a period of time as possible.
It sounds simple, but whether success for you is playing the same small venues four times a year and selling the same 300 copies of your new vinyl every three months while keeping overheads down, or topping charts and headlining huge arenas – it is the only sure fire way to make money. Some people get the magic contract, but if your CD isn’t selling, crossing your fingers and saying we’ll make it up on the road isn’t always a reality.
The premise of this question isn’t wrong, it’s just based on a renewed interested in old music, established stars, and the success legacy bands are having selling tickets to shows. For a band with a great 70s or 80s catalogue this is a great era in which to earn some of the cash you either lost or didn’t make in your prime – but be warned: both the nostalgia and reunion circuits are waning – even the best horses can be flogged to death.
The live business is good, so artists will release CDs to have an excuse to get back out there, but really, it’s a tough world if your not a superstar, finding a formula that works for you (even if it’s just a licensing deal) is the way to go. Sustainability, consistency, and ideally growth – ROCK AND ROLL!
This topic is so broad, I could write for hours and only scratch the surface, I hope I’ve answers the jist of your question.
If you’ve enjoyed this week’s edition or you want to disagree, agree or continue these topics hit up the comment section, and don’t forget…
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