February 15, 2004

Achieving rock stardom the economical way

Posted in People · 6 comments ·

Did you ever want to be in a band? Of course you did. Every self-respecting teenager wants to front a tight four-piece, blasting out three minute wonders.

Oh the glory of it all – the gigs, the tours, the pretty groupies, all that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, no one told me that the “great” bassists of the time, from Sid Vicious and Mick Jones to Bruce Foxton, had devoted time to learning an instrument that made Inter Cert science seem fascinating. Yet after the Rats, everyone in Dun Laoghaire thought Top of the Pops was only months away.

My suburban hopes dissipated after only two garage jams, breaking up ultimately over a packet of Major and the pressure of honours maths.The closest we came to Dublin’s rock and roll scene was a bloke called Dave Farrell who lived down the road and played lead guitar for Free Booze,who were regulars in the Baggot Inn. For a short while in the early 1980s, Dave was God.

Over the past 20 years, the dream has remained more or less the same. Maybe for a while dance music elbowed out the axe-man in favour of the DJ,but the buzz of making your own music, making your mark or doing your own thing is almost primeval in teenagers.This urge leads to the usual rows going on all over Ireland this morning after a difficult Saturday night between “square” parents and their hormonal offspring whom the parents “simply don’t understand”.This scene usually culminates in the “I didn’t choose to be born” routine,which is followed by hours spent locked in the sanctuary of the bedroom – listening, empathising, taking solace and being taken seriously.

However, for many successful dreamers, making music not only offers a great escape but also a first brush with the corporate world.This can be soul destroying because when the Suit meets the Artist, sparks fly and the Suit normally wins.The traditional music industry, controlled by the large record labels, is one of the most fascinating and, some might say, disingenuous of all.While it masquerades as hip, the music business is probably one of the most conservative, tightly controlled and tightly regulated businesses. Just witness the actions of MTVover the Janet Jackson boob controversy this week. Instead of standing by Ms Jackson’s surgically enhanced gland, MTV hung her out to dry, sanctimoniously and hypocritically kowtowing to the moral majority while at the same time pumping soft-porn into America’s pre-teen bedrooms via Britney and the like.

The reason is very simple: the music business is a commodity industry dictated by sales and nothing else.The possibility that America’s moral majority might boycott JustinTimberlake, Janet’s dancing partner at the Super Bowl incident, forcedTimberlake to make an arselicking apology at the Grammy awards this week. His performance was more 1950s petrified seminarian than 21st century rock’n'roll hopeful. (“Wardrobe malfunction” – now there’s a good one.)

But that’s how the mainstream music industry works. It is a business and product is shifted by radio play lists and marketed accordingly across the globe.

In many ways it is the antithesis of the creative forces coming up naturally from the street. As a result, the Super Bowl half-time slot is the holy of marketing holies for the music industry and this explains why there was more coverage of Janet’s boob-flash than anything else in the US last week.

In many ways, the industry is a commodity business that might as well be selling detergent.Sony probably relies on similar techniques of mass marketing, focus groups and TVadvertising as the likes of Unilever. Arguably, the independent, creative urges that drive teenagers to make their statements are millions of miles away from the corporate headquarters of the music industry with their marketing executives, accountants and shareholders. But the industry is changing and the success of Irish singer Damien Rice suggests that there is another business model for young musicians to follow.

Before getting onto the Damien Rice phenomenon, it is worth considering the dramatic changes that are taking place in the way people buy and listen to music. In 2003, 25 per cent of retail record stores in the US closed down. The retail market for CDs is taking a kicking from the internet. In Ireland, total CD sales fell in 2003 to �108.5 million from �135.9 million the year before.

Universal Music in Ireland saw its turnover fall from �28 million in 2001 to �23 million in 2002. Also, “burning” music from the net and internet piracy continues to grow exponentially.

Technology is also changing the way music is recorded, liberating individuals and bands from the grip of the big record labels. In the past, recording an album involved hiring a huge, expensive 28- track studio, replete with tech-operators, sound engineers and producers.These days, huge advances in technology mean that musicians can rent or buy the equipment much cheaper and can record albums on their own, often in their own bedrooms.Thus the cost of making, selling and marketing a CD has collapsed and some bands and musicians have recognised this. Damien Rice is one such character.

Rice fronted a Celbridge-based band called Juniper that started making noise around town in the mid-1990s. In 2000, Juniper secured a five-album deal with Polygram.They were on their way. A couple of singles followed along with the hype and lots of favourable press coverage.The signing party took place in La Stampa, and the producer of the Manic Street Preachers, Mike Hedges, stepped up to produce Juniper’s first CD.

Just when things couldn’t have been going any better, Damien Rice announced he was leaving. He seemed to be saying that the only way he could thrive was by being in total control of his music, his songs and his talents.

Rice re-emerged in 2002 doing things his own way. He released,without a record deal, a magnificent CD called O. It has just gone platinum in Britain selling more than 300,000 copies. He has sold tens of thousands of CDs here in Ireland and over 200,000 in the US. How did he do this? Is this an example to every young band?

The first thing to say about Rice is that he is a one-off, a unique talent, and he does things his way. He rarely does interviews, he gigs constantly and a quick gander at his website (www.damienrice.com) reveals that his current British tour is a sell-out. Although his gigs and the strength of the music are the catalyst for CD sales, he uses the web to its full advantage. Obviously, he is making much more money than the “normal” successful band or musician with a record label because the proceeds of the music sales go to him and not to the expense account of company accountants.

Whether the Damien Rice success can be replicated is impossible to tell because the talent is not for cloning. However,the changes going on in the industry suggest that some of the developments heralded a few years ago by the internet gurus may be slowly coming to fruition.

There is now an alternative to the major record companies, and to the corporate dominance that has poor lads like JustinTimberlake bleating pitiable apologies about how “Janet made me pull the flap” which unleashed her left boob upon an unsuspecting public.

That alternative is there for those selfconfident enough to do it themselves.

  1. Kieran Glennon

    David, I’m shocked. Not at the overall thrust of the
    article, which is pretty much on the money. Readers might
    care to check out “Black Vinyl, White Powder” by Simon
    Napier-Bell, in which the former manager of Wham, T-Rex et
    all poses the notion that, faced with the threat of its
    earnings being dissipated through free file-sharing via
    Napster, Kazaa and so on, the music industry will turn its
    focus to maximising its revenue from the copyright in
    songs – in other words, pay-per-download – rather than the
    revenue from sales of physical “units” (CDs to you and
    me). In that respect, he argues that the industry will be
    returning to its Tin Pan Alley roots, when the sales value
    of sheet music exceeded that of actual records.
    Interesting theory, if it comes to pass.

    But to suggest that Mick Jones played bass? Puhlease! I
    suppose Paul Simenon was just there to make the tea?

  2. David Mc Williams

    Kieran, Mea Culpa that was an unforgiveable howler.
    Apologies to yourself and Mr Simonon and thanks for the
    book idea. David

  3. Glenn Brady (Band - Reclaim)

    David, great article! Great to see somebody is finally
    adressing this topic from a practically useful angle for
    aspiring names.
    Being in the final stages of production of an Album, I can
    recognise myself in what you are saying, and I agree that
    what you prescibe is the future for music free of corporate
    control. In your penultamate paragraph you pose the
    question, how did (Damien Rice) release an album selling
    300,000 copies in Britain, 200,000 in U.S., and is this an
    example to every young band? You finish in your last
    paragraph that the alternative to corporate dominance is
    there. However I feel you probably have a lot more
    knowledge and ideas of how this was actually achieved in
    Damien’s case and how it could be replicated.
    Let’s say for argument’s sake, in my own case, the talent
    is there. I am reading up diligently on the business side
    of things, have a website near ready, have band to play
    live material and nearly have album ready to go.I want
    control like you prescribe, but have you got more advice
    for a business approach to marketing the product, with a
    view to achieving sales comparable to that of Damien. Your
    advice would be much appreciated.
    By the way I read in an article about you that you were
    once a crass fan. That was some surprise to my former punk
    older brother when I told him the other day.
    Lastly, from your article it strikes me that you have a
    burning desire within you somewhere to participate in the
    promotion of real art, other than economic theory. Have you
    thought of giving a shot of a bit of management? I reckon
    you’d be good!
    Slán agus goi raibh míle,

  4. David Mc Williams

    Thanks for the comments Glenn. Best of luck with the band
    and by the way,Crass fans come in all shapes and sizes!

    Regards, David

  5. Hugh Kavanagh

    Great article David

    Recently on Agenda you had Louis Walsh and Oliver Kilkenny
    on to talk about the music industry and it was embarrassing
    to see how out of touch they are. Across the music industry
    there seems to be a “head in sand” attitude to where music
    is going. It is fantastic to see musicians being empowered
    by the internet, home recording and independant music
    festivals. Leading the way in this is the Mor festival that
    was held in Tullamore last year. Check out morfestival.com
    for more.

    Thanks for being the most entertaining and informative
    voice in the Irish media

    Hugh Kavanagh

  6. Paxil….

    Rubbing alcohol paxil. How long will it take paxil to leave the body. Paxil….

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