Democracy Threatens Corporate Labels

By Rob Patterson

There’s no better gauge on the state of the music business than the annual South by Southwest Music & Media Conference and Festival held every year for a good two decades now in Austin, Texas. (Full disclosure: I worked for SXSW, as it’s known in short, from 1989 to ’91 as their ad sales rep and then until ’95 helping them plan their panel discussions).

It’s an almost overwhelming event where, this year, nearly 2000 musical artists played the official showcases—I’d estimate that also half as many acts, maybe more, performed at unofficial shows—and thousands of music business types and media attend. It’s widely thought of as “spring break for the music industry” with parties galore, but there’s a serious side too apart from all the music and merriment, even if it gets a bit lost in the shuffle.

The state of the music business and its current issues are addressed in the four days of panels, seminars and interviews with noted artists and music business types. This year some of the more prominent topics were the return of vinyl albums as a music medium (something that makes this Luddite-leaning old school music fan happy), how major record labels are resorting to what’s called “360 deals” where they take pieces of the money acts make from concerts, merchandising, music publishing and other activities in addition to their records in exchange for promoting the artist (yet another desperate move to shore up their crumbling business that just continues the longstanding rip-off relationship labels have with artists), and the movement to institute a performance royalty for artists and musicians who sing and play on recordings aired on the radio (as is done in the rest of the civilized world).

But the real pulse of the business and the music is best divined out on the street, at least as I read it. The growing irrelevance of major record labels was evident in their near-total absence as sponsors of showcase evenings at the music venues, as opposed to the past, when they threw piles of money at SXSW to promote their acts. Now it’s basically feisty independent record labels that sponsor shows and parties, as the majors have largely given up trying to utilize the grassroots to break new artists and sometimes reposition veterans.

As the record business increasingly becomes a post-major label environment, one would be foolish to declare the death of record companies, even if the Los Angeles Times recently noted that half of today’s teenagers didn’t even buy a CD in the last year. The internet and other technological advances are sweeping away the old paradigms of music promotion and delivery, and what the future might look like is still to be determined.

One might hope, as it seems on the surface, that the business of music is becoming less corporate and top down in how music is marketed, but that’s just wishful thinking even if it is partly true. Big money is still needed to put acts over to the general public, at least in a nation as large as America, but it’s now high-tech companies and lifestyle product makers (like Levis and American Spirit cigarettes) that are putting money into music, which at least indicates that popular music still has some cultural and commercial cachet. And as the business of selling recordings still is in flux and undergoing a downturn, the live music business last year actually saw growth, which speaks to the fact that music isn’t about to die alongside the major record labels.

The future of music is becoming more democratized, with a network of independent record labels and artists putting the music out and bloggers and digital delivery services filling the void of promoting new music outside the mainstream that the big corporate record business players have largely (and stupidly) forsaken. This changing landscape does seem to be taking its toll on more than the major record labels, as this year’s SXSW coincided with the announced closing of two music magazines: Harp and No Depression, both of which tried to support quality music outside the mainstream (and both of which I wrote for at various times).

As to the end result of it all and the effects it will have on the art of popular music, it’s hard to say just yet. Popular music won’t die, but it no longer seems—even if during SXSW it would still appear so—to be a central cultural force, but rather just one of many entertainment options. I’d love to declare that the music industry is dead, long live the music industry. But in truth it’s all just changing with the times, for both good and bad. And as Bob Dylan noted in “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it’s time for us old guard to step aside and let the youth of today make their brave new world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008

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