|Dave provides an irreverent look at the music industry from past to present and why the industry’s current state of flux should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.|
About the Speaker
With 40+years at the sharp end of the music industry, Dave Robinson has seen it all. Having briefly managed Jimi Hendrix, Dave went onto co-found Stiff Records (Nick Lowe, The Damned, Motorhead, Elvis Costello, Madness, Lene Lovich, The Pogues and many more) and eventually head up Island Records where he oversaw the careers of U2, Robert Palmer, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, working with legendary producer Trevor Horn. He has also worked with US artists Johnny Cash, the Black Crowes, Slayer and the Jayhawks, and at Island was instrumental in the compilation and marketing of Bob Marley’s 36million selling LEGEND Album. Dave later went on to run the famous Blue Note Club and Acid Jazz Label in London, helping to launch the Acid House and the Drum & Bass movements.
Full text of Dave’s Keynote Address
Today I would like to talk about various aspects of the music business including the work of the songwriters and singer/songwriters.
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.
There is also a negative side.”
Hunter S Thompson said that and he’s not wrong.
EVERYTHING THAT LASTS STARTS OUT SLOW
If you get great feedback immediately, your work is probably not challenging or different enough to sustain. If people don’t look at you somewhat sceptically after being first exposed to your work, you’re probably not doing it right. You can either be a leader or a follower. Leading is much more difficult, which is why you see everybody following, whether it be making soundalike music or competing on the various TV talent shows.
In 1976 a guy sent in a tape to Stiff Records, a company that I ran which at that time employed a staff of only three people. That guy was called Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus and he worked for Helena Rubinstein, a cosmetic company as what was then called a computer programmer although it consisted only of posting in the cards that made their stock system work. He looked like a nerd with small rimless glasses He had married young and had one child. And earned a subsistence salary. His passion was music through song writing. He had spent the 1975 sending tapes to every record company in London and had either been ignored or rejected by all of them.
The tape that he sent in had about 6 songs on it, all really great in our estimation.
My then business partner Andrew Jakeman & myself convinced him to change his glasses to a pair like Buddy Holly, change his name to Elvis Costello, and and the rest for Declan is history, as they say in the music business. Not that it was a shoo in for him on the release of his first album “My Aim Is True” He was pointing in a new direction which is what is always required to connect with the new audience.
It wsn’t really until the Beatles arrived with their own songs that it occurred to the new UK groups of the 60s that they should write for themselves. Prior to that performers relied on the A & R guy also known as the UMMM & Aaaah guy because of his quick decisions, at the record company to come up with the next song. Mainly a cover of something from the US chart. A lot of these songs came from writers who didn’t perform but wrote along various formula lines. The Brill building in New York sounds like a great idea where usually 2 people teams collaborated on writing teen hit after teen hit. And Goffin and King, Greenfield and Sedaka, and Mann and Weil and many others focused songs on teenage experiences with lyrics that were believable, romantic and melodramatic, while the music was a simple melodic voice. The rise of independent producers in the US meant that these writers were the providers of most of the pop music in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 50s and early 60s.
The famous story of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards being locked in a room in their flat by their then manager Andrew Loog Oldham until they wrote their first song has been told a over & over. They mainly used Chess Records material as their influences and the fact that it was called SHANGA DO LANG and was never heard of again is neither here nor there. They did write some classics among a lot of dross but because they were performing and had a large following they could get away with a lot and did.
Picasso came up with the adage: Artists copy. Great Artists steal!
As the teen market faded in 1965, the Brill Building songwriters began looking for more meaningful ways of songwriting and began to feel their demos were often better than those produced by the studio artists the record labels provided. Historically, there was very deep divide between the songwriter and the recording artist, and it was the writers from the Brill Building who first bridged that divide, becoming the first singer-songwriters.
At this point it is usefull to note that the Major Record Companies who have been all powerfull throughout the last 60 years, resisted change not only in the music but also in the technology & marketing of its products. It didn’t want Vinyl when it came along. They preferred Bakalite. They didn’t want Long players at 33 and a third. They didn’t want Stereo as they figured it could run up costs! Let’s stay with mono. They hated the cassette tape, and also remarkably the CD. The Internet is another story that we will come to later.
They hated anything that progressed the attractiveness of music and constantly worried about adding to their manufacturing costs. As for advertising their signings, They had one slogan used to this day – OUT NOW – how creative is that?….. In most cases they didn’t advertise at all. The Beatles were on a list at EMI in the beginning call NO PLUGS which meant that they got no radio play at all in the beginning.
Most trends up to this point had come from America and the UK record companies were as usual even slower to change anything.
Mentioned by Andrew Loog Oldham in his book STONED, where Decca Records managers are described “They did not appear to listen to or even like pop music. They could have been selling baked beans for all they cared. Their interest was in the tins”.
You must remember that Decca was one of the top two UK record companies at the time along with EMI.
Realistically, nothing has changed today in the few Major record companies that are left and don’t forget that The Major publishing companies are owned by Major record companies or still operate like them. However that is one of the few places that the songwriter has gained some clout with the move away from the 50/50 formula that was in place forever up to the 80s. Also it’s worth noting that they charged 15% for collecting the monies before the 50/50 split. Robbery?
There have been plenty of interesting caracters along the way.
Charles Copplemann came from a wealty family in Chicago. His father ran a large law firm with offices in LA & NY and in his mind Charles would do a law degree and go into the family business. But Charles had other ideas and was crazed about music. This was the days of the big bands and Sinatra and Charles wanted to be on the road as an old version of a roadie setting out sheet music for the musicians etc. Old man Copplemann was pretty bright and made Charles a deal. He would pay Charles’s exs for 6 months and at the end of that time Chares would write him a report on the music business showing him why a career in music could be better than becoming a lawyer and joining the old firm.
Charles’s report summed up by telling of guys getting on and off airoplanes in crumpled suits, drinking a lot, smoking a lot of cigarettes , generally nervous and speeding around. They were the record Company guys.
Then there were this other group. Cromby coats with velvet collars, lightly tanned, large cigars, large cars, walked slowly, all their conversation seemed to be about the problems with the plumming in their French villas. They were the Publishers.
So surprise surprise Charles and his Dad decided that he should become a publisher.
A good decision.
Elvis Presley was a remarkable performer and singer in his time but all of the songs which bear his name were never written by him but writers were pressured to turn over half their copyrights to him or his manager wouldn’t allow the songs to be recorded by Elvis.
Post-Brill Building music was heavily influenced by traditional folk music, which used lyrics as a narrative to describe any situation or experience. During the late 60s and early 70s, the narrative lyric was applied to the simple melodic line of the Brill Building songs. In the tradition of folk, these songs were easily learned and passed orally from protest marches to street corners.
The music introduced between 1965 and 1975 was both domestic and international. James Brown introduced Soul Music with “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud,” an anthem dedicated to African-American pride. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys brought the lilt of West Coast “surf sound” to the mainstream. And the American Blues began influencing another society, this time overseas: British musicians like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards who, as part of the “British Invasion,” created a blues-based sound heavily dependent on the electric guitar
However, it was the combination of two contrasting styles that defined this era and Bob Dylan and the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon had already been established as distinctive songwriters and powerful performers. In a period of corruption, war and racial division,………….. What’s new? they used their words and music to define turbulent political and cultural issues. The fusion of Dylan’s traditional folk narrative and the McCartney-Lennon melodic rock sound created folk rock, which remains synonymous with the term singer-songwriter.
Nowadays, songwriters can become their own music publishers. Furthermore, songwriters no longer need labels to support their music. Technology has advanced to the point where anyone can record anywhere.
When a artist like Ian Dury, 34 years old, significantly crippled by polio from the age of 10, A very poor voice ………..could rise to the top then anything is possible for anyone with ambition and his song “What a Waste” led Suggs of the group Madness to write on of MADNESS’S best songs Baggy Trousers by lifting the rhythm and some lyrics.
I could be the driver in an articulated lorry
I could be a poet, I wouldn’t need to worry
I could be the teacher in a classroom full of scholars
I could be the sergeant in a squadron full of wallahs
Naughty boys in nasty schools
Headmasters breaking all the rules
Having fun and playing fools
Smashing up the woodwork tools
What a waste! What a waste!
Rock & Roll don’t mind
But, did it really turn out bad
All I learnt at school
Was how to bend not break the rules
The old-style apprenticeship approach to learning how to write songs is being supplemented by some universities and colleges and rock schools. A knowledge of modern music technology and business skills is seen as necessary to make a songwriting career, and music colleges offer songwriting diplomas and degrees with music business modules. Personally I thing all this is OK if you want to work in a Bank but to learn how to write great songs there is still no better place than the sweat of life and on the road.
Since songwriting and publishing royalties can be a substantial source of income, particularly if a song becomes a hit record, Professional songwriters can still be employed by publishing companies either be to write directly for or alongside a performing artist, or they present songs to A&R, publishers, agents and managers for consideration. Song pitching can be done on a songwriter’s behalf by their publisher or independently. Still the best way can be to record the songs yourself and you don’t have to learn to dance the funny dances
Or make the soft Porn videos if you don’t want to.
Songwriters who sign an exclusive songwriting agreement with a publisher are called staff writers. But this is rarer these days.Being a staff writer effectively means that during the term of the songwriter’s contract with the publisher, all their songs are automatically published by that company, and can not be published elsewhere.
In the Nashville country music scene, there is a strong staff writer culture where contracted writers work normal “9-to-5” hours at the publishing office and are paid a regular salary. This salary is in effect the writer’s ‘draw’, an advance for future earnings paid on a monthly basis so they are able to live on it. The publisher owns the copyright of songs written during the term of the agreement for a designated period, after which the songwriter can reclaim the copyright. In an interview with Billboard songwriter David Berg extolled the benefits of the set-up: “I was able to concentrate on writing the whole time and have always had enough money to live on”. This system is rarely used in the UK & Ireland and writers have to take most if not all the risk while trying to connect with a hit of some kind.
Nick Lowe is a well known song writer these days. He started off as Bass player in a band I managed called Brinsley Schwarz in 1969. In between he was the house producer at Stiff, but by 1991 things were not going too well for Basher Lowe. He had been divorced from his wife Carlene Carter had started to have vodka for breakfast and had started to be called No show Lowe so his music career was rapidly going downhill a lot quicker than he had coming up, when another great story from what I call the Rock & Roll Romance occurred. The director of a movie called The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston, an English guy called Mick Jackson rebelled against one of the giants of the US recording business Clive Davis by insisting that he use a little known song written by Nick called What’s So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding in 1974 on the sound track for the movie. Clive thought that he was God’s gift to all things about picking songs and didn’t like this song at all, but Mick stood his ground ant Clive had to suck it. but he wouldn’t have Nick sing the song and got an artist under contract to him called Curtis Stigers to record it.
As luck would have it The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album became the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
Worldwide, the sales are over 42 million copies.
Nick Lowe received well in excess of $2,000,000 in songwriting royalties.
Realising that he had essentially won the lotto, He cleaned up his act and is now a well respected singer/songwriter live performer with lots of his songs being covered by other recording artists and used in movies.
You’ve got to practice and play and keep persevering. There is no easy method in this lottery of a career.
I wish I had the answer. But I’ll guarantee you, you don’t succeed by bombarding everybody with press and then hoping you catch a few, that’s a positively ancient model, today you grow from the ground up, and it makes absolutely no difference what the professional critical class has to say about you, because they’re not the target audience and your fans are not reading them. Who is going to read a great review and decide to check something out? A non-fan, who probably won’t stick. A real fan doesn’t care about the review and lives and dies for you, is stuck to you, and will implore others to get on board.
Seymoir Stein of Sire Records had a great expression to cover this.
“The Art is making it”
The major music business, is built upon radio, it depends upon it.
The radio alternatives represent market fragmentation. Radio used to dominate.
Most people under age twenty have never experienced good radio.
So, when older music fans start going on about their old time favorites, wanting them to come back, it’s the equivalent of wishing that music videos would come back to MTV. Music videos are now an on demand item. Utube is King. No one is going to sit and wait for their favorite. And this is the same challenge facing all radio outlets, from terrestrial to satellite They’re all based on an old model. Which is you’ll sit through what you don’t like to hear what you do, paying for the experience, whether with cash or by listening to ads. But it’s the ads that will kill terrestrial radio. The public hates commercials, despite all the b.s. propagated by advertisers.
It is usefull here to note that Indie and left of center musical acts cannot get on terrestrial radio.
Terrestrial radio can still sell records and builds careers. Just not as well as before. The reason we see so few really big sellers aside from ADELLE isn’t because of piracy so much as the fragmentation of the audience. In the old days of the walled garden, of radio and MTV dominance, if something got airplay it went nuclear, now radio just plays to its niche.
There’s very little innovation in the music played on alternative and active rock stations. Hip-hop killed rock and roll, but rather than innovating, rock and roll stayed the same. And now electronic music is killing hip-hop. Sure, kids want something different from their parents, but even more they want to own the scene, they don’t want to be dictated to, they want something that’s testing the limits!
In the US Pop/Top Forty has more innovative music than alternative and active rock. Because the largest rewards are in pop/Top Forty, the best people gravitate there. I know you hate this, but it’s true.
Young people, prepubescent people, still listen to Top Forty to be a member of the club, it’s a rite of passage, discovering pop before you become an adolescent and want to express your identity by finding your own music,
Old Farts control what’s left of the big time music business. They’re inured to the past, the dominance of radio and TV, and they only want to be involved with that which pays, heavily… So they’re not about to put a decade into building your indie band, never gonna happen.
The young acts of today have to depend on themselves and upon the young entrepreneurs of today to build their careers. Look at trends. Ten years ago the major labels said no record ever broke on the Internet. Look at PSY’s “Gangnam Style”! Radio is dying and YouTube and other alternatives are growing.
If you want to gain the most eyeballs, you must be controversial. If I can listen to your songs and have no opinion, not hate or love your music, if you give me nothing to talk about other than the same damn thing, then I’m not gonna talk about it, I’m not gonna bring new people in, you’re going to be living in an echo chamber.
I believe if your music can be described in terms of all ready established artists or groups then its useless. You can and must be original if you are to short circuit the system.
A lot of the time YOU’RE SELLING YOURSELF.
Focus on your identity. Not only your work, but your personality. In a world where everybody’s tweeting, facebooking and Sound Clouding, having no edge or angle of your own is bad news.
We, as a culture, want to feel included. That’s what the radio of yore was all about. To grow you’ve got to make us feel included. In other words, it’s all about culture. Very little radio today has any culture. After that, it’s a wasteland of sold-out stations with the same flaws of television… Trying for broad-based appeal, they appeal to no one, and cede their market to excellence. Once upon a time, information was scarce, like music. You had to hunt for it, no one was pointing a fire hose at your face, which is what logging on to the Internet is like. It’s a tsunami of information. Time is limited. Where do you place your attention?
And I only have time for incredible. And so do you.
That’s the problem we’re confronting. Not only is everybody trying to push a square peg into a round hole, the hole is the size of a needle’s eye, it just won’t fit. But that doesn’t stop the purveyors. Every day I get lots of e-mails asking me to listen to the productions of people I’ve never heard of. If I checked out all their music, I’d be unable to do anything else. I’m not saying it’s not good but how can we relate to it all.
Today’s story is yesterday’s news. Literally. Movies play for a weekend. Records enter the chart at number one and then fall precipitously. There is little or no airplay outside of the top 40 so the public doesn’t get to hear the soundtrack. Meanwhile, the chart isn’t reflective of what’s really going on anyway.
Talking more of Artists
What makes a great artist?
Great artists deliver great experiences. There are a lot of artists that deliver concerts, but those who deliver great experiences are rare. The ones that do are going to grow because word-of-mouth spreads. I have been lucky to work with some great artists. I am always on the look out for what the next thing is. I couldn’t tell you what it is. That’s the exciting part of this business.
Music on the Internet. I know — time for me to get over it. After all, this is the reality of the 21st-century music business. Selling recordings to consumers as inexpensive artworks to be appreciated for their own sake is a much-diminished enterprise now that free copies multiply across the Web.
While people still love music enough to track it down, collect it, argue over it and judge their Facebook friends by it, many see no reason to pay for it. The emerging practical solution is to let music sell something else: a concert, a T-shirt, Web-site pop-up ads or a brand.
Musicians have to eat and want to be heard, and if that means accompanying someone else’s sales pitch or videogame, well, it’s a living. Why wait for album royalties to trickle in, if they ever do, when licensing fees arrive upfront as a lump sum? It’s one part of the system of copyright regulations that hasn’t been ravaged by digital distribution, and there’s little resistance from any quarters; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss croon for J. C. Penney in the states.
The question is: What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use?
Music always had accessory roles: a soundtrack, a jingle, a branding statement, a mating call…. But for performers with a public profile, as opposed to composers for hire, the point was to draw attention to the music itself. Once they were noticed, stars could provide their own story arcs of career and music. If enough people cared about the song, payoffs would come from record sales (to performer and songwriter) and radio play (to the songwriter).
When Moby licensed every song on his 1999 album, “Play,” for ads and soundtracks, the move was both startling and cheesy, but it did lead to CD sales; an album that set staticky samples of blues and gospel to dance-floor beats managed to become a million seller.
Here are some words from the songwriters.
“If you want to be good at anything, you have to work hard at it. It doesn’t just fall from the sky.”
“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed.”
“If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.”
“My songwriting is everything. It has to be. It’s not just anything — it’s everything. You have to have the perspective of who you are talking to and have a perspective of who is talking to you and you’ve got to stitch it together. Then you have to have historical perspective. That means a lot if you’re trying to take something on and make it pertinent for the future.”
“It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love that when I come up with a good song, it’s a brand new thing in the world.”
“Songwriting is a very mysterious process. It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really control.”
“The title is often more important than the song because more people will read the title than hear the song, and the title will draw them in or repel them.”
“Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”
“Attention to detail makes the difference between a good song and a great song. And I meticulously try to put the right sound in the right place.
When I write an arrangement, I always picture a blind person listening to the song. And I choose chords and sounds and percussion instruments which would help clarify the feel of the song to a blind person.”
Bruce Springstein is in the top 10 of song writing lists. Seriously just read the words to any of his stuff from the 70’s and 80’s. Deep songs about normal everyday problems. Other than Bob Dylan I don’t know who would be a better contender for best singer songwriter in the history of modern music.
PERSEVERANCE IS KEY
Never quit. And isn’t it interesting that the people who say they won’t quit do, and those who continue keeping on just do so silently. Perseverance is a skill, too often untaught in today’s instant gratification world. Greatness often comes from frustration.
In 1984 I put together and marketed an Album for Island Records called Legend the best of Bob Marley.
While researching the album I spent a long time hearing various versions of Bob’s songs and discovered that he had recorded the same 16 or 20 songs at least 8 times in different musical styles popular in Jamaica over the years that he had spent trying to make it in music.
For example he recorded the songs in Rhythm & blues, Ska, Bluebeat, Reggae and it wasn’t until he worked with a white American rock engineer called Alex Sadkin that he made the breakthrough into the international market.
Talkining about his inspiration to write songs Bob said
“But it just happen, is Jah inspiration come thru man. Because, I personally, it look like, could ah write a whole heap a tune, it look like. But I pick special tune fi write. ‘Cause a man can think of plenty things. Yuh know wah ah mean.”
Legend has sold over 44 million copies globally.
It is the biggest and most popular Reggae album of all time.
Legend holds the distinction of being the second longest-charting album in the history of Billboard magazine.
In the UK it is the 25th biggest selling album to date.
The moral of this story is that a good song will stretch into many styles so perseverance is the key for the singer/songwriter. Unfortunately Bob Marley’s biggest moments in recorded music came when he had passed on to the Island in the sky. But his songs will influence us forever.
Recording on the professional-grade systems became affordable for individuals in the late 1990s. This created opportunities for people to independently record and sell their music. Such artists are known as “indies” because they release their records on independent, often self-owned record labels, or no label at all. Additionally the Internet has provided a means for indies to get their music heard by a wider audience.
As the influence of major labels erodes, licensers are seizing their chance to be talent scouts. They can be good at it,For a band, getting such a break, and being played repeatedly for television viewers, is a windfall, and perhaps an alternate route to radio play or the beginning of a new audience. But how soon will it be before musicians, perhaps unconsciously, start conceiving songs as potential television spots, or energy jolts during video games, or ringtones? Which came first, Madonna’s “Hung Up” or the cell phone ad?
Not wanting to appear too crass, musicians insist that exposure from licensing does build the kind of interest that used to pay off in sales and/or loyalty. Hearing a song on the radio or in a commercial has a psychological component; someone else has already endorsed it. Musicians who don’t expect immediate mass-market radio play — maybe they’re too old, maybe they’re too eccentric — have gotten their music on the air by selling it to advertisers. That can still occasionally rev up careers,
The old, legitimate accusation against Record labels was that they sold entire albums with only one good song or two. Now there’s an incentive for a song to have only 30 seconds of good stuff. It’s already happening: Chris Brown’s hit “Forever” is wrapped around a jingle for chewing gum.
Apparently there’s no going back, structurally, to paying musicians to record music for its own sake. Labels that used to make profits primarily from selling albums have been struggling since the Internet caused them to lose their chokehold on distribution and exposure. Now, in return for investing in recording and promotion, and for supplying their career-building expertise (such as it was), they want a piece of musicians’ whole careers.
Old-fashioned audio recording contracts are increasingly being replaced by so-called 360 deals that also tithe live shows, merchandising, licensing and every other conceivable revenue stream — conceding, in a way, that the labels’ old central role of selling discs for mere listening is obsolescent.
So unless you have a mother fucker of a manager avoid signing your life and talent to any of the majors unless you want the plague or want to submit yourself to slavery!
Maybe such dire thoughts are extreme, since some people are still buying music. The iTunes Music Store has sold more than five billion songs since 2003. But it’s harder and harder to find a song without a tie-in.
Perhaps it’s too 20th century to hope that music could stay exempt from multitasking, or that the constant insinuation of marketing into every moment of consciousness would stop when a song begins. But for the moment I’d suggest individual resistance.
Put on a song with no commercial attachments.
Turn it up. Close your eyes. ……………And listen.
Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try writing your thoughts in songs. It just might be your future.
Remember Television is NOT real life. In real life most people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
“Believe in yourself, never give up and go about your life and business with passion drive and enthusiasm.”
There is an Irish Proverb that You can’t go without the Horse ………….or the song