JAIMIE VERNON – Music Devaluation Blues
I’ve been slowly extracting myself from the Dante’s Inferno that is the music industry to concentrate on promoting good, new music [see the reviews following this rant] cause, let’s face it, talking about the mistakes the labels made over the last decade is like discussing that guy at Decca Records that passed on The Beatles. It’s just irrelevant now. However, it’s hard to get away from the magnetic suck of this bullshit business when milk-toast country dawdler Vince Gill throws this cowpie onto the road to enlightenment:
“The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a single cost in 1960. On my phone I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises – the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.”
Vince Mr. Gill naively thinks that at some point he was making art and that his platinum records were a reflection of quality and value. Ignoring the fact that a single in 1960 actually cost about $0.69 (and a full album roughly $2.50), Gill and those ill-informed industry mooks like him have failed to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, music has been OVER-valued for decades. Let’s take a look at the hard numbers, shall we? Even in this depressed economic time, a major artist like Vince Gill will record an album that cost in the neighbourhood of $100k to $200k. Add at least that much in manufacturing, distribution, marketing and promotion (every dime of which is charged BACK to Gill) and you’re looking at a half-million dollar product. iTunes, who strong armed major labels into democratizing a single song back to the late ‘60s price of $0.99 and a full album to $9.99, will generate a modest sum of $3,000,000+ if it sells a paltry 300,000 album copies and 25,000 single downloads.
$261,000 of that is shaved off to pay the songwriter(s) a mechanical royalty (at a rate of 10 songs x $0.087 per song x 300,000 albums); iTunes takes $0.20 off each single download, and $2.00 off each album…that’s at least $150,000. So, $411,000 is a hard cost against the $3,000,000 generated JUST from iTunes but still leaves $2.6 million in revenue generated from the album. We haven’t accounted for the other 40 or 50 legit download sites on the Net OR the hard copy revenue generated at retail which again, using very modest sales figures in this depressed economy, could still potentially generate another $500k – which was the ORIGINAL cost of production, manufacturing and promotion & marketing. That means the album has still – worse case scenario – peaked at $2.5 million.
That’s one album. One artist. Now substitute $17.99 or $18.99 for what used to be old-school retail (which took a larger piece of the pie than iTunes’ $0.20 per download) and you start to realize that the album, had it been sold during the vinyl or bloated CD era was actually generating an obscene amount more revenue and cost LESS to produce. Somehow the inflated price of that $0.69 single in 1960 became $2.99 by 1989 when the single was not only discontinued but shot and buried in the backyard. Other than production and marketing costs now, there is no PHYSICAL single…and yet the labels recently justified raising the price of their new productions to $1.29 per song on iTunes.
But WHERE is that profit actually going? It’s not going back to recoupe expenses (that’s written off at tax time and left on the ledgers of the artists as unrecouped expenses). It’s going to overhead – namely: salaries and real estate and stock dividends. Guess what? The public doesn’t care what it costs YOU to run your business. The public only cares about value for THEIR money.
When Napster blew a hole in the good ship Rape The Music Fan, the market had to adjust and allowed a non-music partner like Napster to enter the market and give music a new valuation. But, the labels continue to deny and deflect holding onto that fictitious trope that illegal downloads are killing the industry. Really? YOU killed the single as a promotional tool. YOU decided to eliminate the non-piratable vinyl format forcing an entire planet to have buy their music collections again in a new format. YOU worked with retailers in the late ‘90s (pre-Napster) to de-emphasize catalogue and to push new releases on the back of bait & switch product deals for established artists on the premise that you were actually promoting new artists; Buy 100,000 American Idol winner CDs at full wholesale cost and we’ll give you 20,000 Shania Twains for FREE…oh, and then send the American Idol discs back for a full refund. No questions asked.
But that’s not the whole story, is it? For the first 40 years that the major label empire dominated pop culture recorded music was the ONLY game in town. The alternative was to either sit on your couch and watch the television or sit in a theatre and watch a movie. There was no other pastime other than sports events competing for your entertainment dollar (and the music business even ate a chunk of that by pitting live concerts against them). The only hard copy of entertainment you could own was recorded music – there was no VHS/Beta/DVDs or video games. It is why an entire generation has given so much artistic weight and dollar value to what music SHOULD cost because it dominated every aspect of our world – and a big piece of the global economy. Now, it no longer does that. Music has become the THIRD most important entertainment franchise in the world. And if you don’t believe that just look at the $1 Billion box office gross of a movie like ‘The Avengers’ or the frequent pre-sales of 1 million units on anticipated video game franchises. Music had already been devalued long before Napster gave away the recipe. It just took the music industry a decade to notice that the Titanic was sinking and there weren’t enough life boats. And instead of admitting that their arrogance led to the construction of a crappy ship, they’ve been blaming the iceberg ever since.
Major labels and indie artists now compete on the same playing field. In fact, the indies have eaten into the major label profit margins – a fictitious number created by the labels based on paying back capital investors on quarterly revenue projections that no longer reflect the reality of the music market. They’re selling widgets – whether that’s a Vince Gill song he poured his soul into…or a fart app.
Fortunately for indie artists the ability to create music and release it in a world once dominated by the major labels is cheaper and more accessible overall. The chances of success are slimmer, but the freedom to express oneself and control ones career has never been easier. Independent music is the new frontier – devoid of the petty pretense and manufactured mentality of the major label music factory. Come, let us celebrate some of the newest releases coming up from the farm teams:
JAY SEMKO – “Sending Love” (Busted Flat Records)
Like The Odds’ Craig Northey, Jay Semko has been toiling endlessly for two decades behind the scenes keeping the fabric of Canadian media glued together with his ethereal, positive Canadiana both as a Gemini Award nominated soundtrack music composer for movies and TV shows like ‘Due South’ but also doing voice-over work for documentaries, radio and television. Of course, pop fans know him as a member of 1980s pop act The Northern Pikes. Semko has been following his muse as a music songwriter in Nashville and producer of note. On ‘Sending Love’, the eighth solo release to bear his name, Semko lays out an uplifting showcase for his acoustic singer-songwriter motifs which sits him comfortably alongside artists like Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Ron Sexsmith, Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo) and other mixed-genre troubadours. The production and instrumentation is minimal giving the songs a feeling of deep woods dreaminess like on “Undeniably Love”, “The Moon Stars And You”, “For Certain”, “Harmony” and the title track (Parts 1 and 2). A listener could imagine sipping coffee alongside a faithful dog during an early morning sunrise from the back-porch of a Northern Ontario cottage (which is a neat trick from a Saskatchewanian). Beefier tracks include a Tom Wilson-like grit on “Come Get A Little Love”, “We Shine”, and “Sizzlin’” where Semko’s voice becomes less sweet and more guttural without necessarily breaking a sweat…or the microphone. He even hints a traditional sounding Northern Pikes tune with “Nothing Left But Love” featuring guest vocalist Greg Godovitz (Fludd, Goddo). Semko has managed a smooth, easy listening album that clips along at the speed of summer. Highly recommended for de-stressing!
ROBIN STANLEY – “Cosmology” (Chronic Empire)
Vancouver’s former Fun With Numbers member Robin Stanley – the “lost romantic” – returns with his third solo album ‘Cosmology’ which carries on with Stanley’s haunting ground topics of life and love. The multi-instrumentalist starts masterfully slow in singer-songwriter mode on “Hello Stranger” before opening up the valves and revealing a more power pop rooted music base on “Book of Love”, “Make Up Your Mind”, “Golden Gate”, “Strawberry Blonde” (with its Leonard Cohen affectations) and “Peace, Love and Empathy”. Parts Byrds, Beatles, Kinks and Nick Lowe, Stanley keeps the arrangements simple and the melodies catchy. The title track is full-blown 1972 “Ram”-era Paul McCartney. Conversely, he goes directly into a Lennon tribute with the “Working Class Hero” sequel “Working Class People” not to mention the Lennon-esque Bo Diddley fueled “Writing On The Wall”. The best track on the disc might possibly be “Life On Mars” that has a plaintiff feel with slide guitar and minor chord changes – a style tapped by bands like Echo & The Bunnymen, The Waterboys and Double back in the ‘80s. Stanley continues to explore all facets of pop and his observations on life, the universe and everything. ‘Cosmology’ should take him a step further in becoming well known in Canadian indie-pop circles.
LEVYSTEP – “These Times”
I don’t think rock bands, in whatever form, will ever go out of fashion in Canada even if they are on terrestrial radio’s endangered species list. LevyStep, from Nova Scotia, are the next in line vying for the crown of arena rock kings. Vocalist Michael Renaud barrels through the first two songs “Here I Am” and “Hope” like a freight train barely giving the songs room to breath (which are riff driven by guitarists Dave Murray and Owen Brundige) but by the third track the album, and Renaud, settle down into more dynamic Finger Eleven territory where Renaud actually flips into falsetto a la “Paralyzer” and steps back to allow a more groove driven track to showcase band mates Matt Harris (bass) and Mike Chisholm (drums). Throw in some Black Sabbath retro guitar and a Rage Against the Machine guitar solo and you’ve got a fully engaging power tune. Similarly, “Reality of Today” and “Miles of Separation” hearken back to the more thoughtful soft-part/hard-part/soft-part/solo/hard-part arrangements of the 1990s alt-rock acts – neither tune would be out of place on the few remaining rock radio stations in the country. However, the stand-out track might very well be the bluesy “Little Wing” styled ballad “Bring Me To Life”. This has slow-dance, cigarette lighter waving, concert show-stopper written all over it. Here’s hoping LevyStep has the machinery behind them to take this record farther. The band certainly has the goods. Would be nice to watch them climb the ladder. [PS – get a new stylist and band photo…hands in pockets and crossed arms thuggery is so 2002].
DISCOVERY OF THE WEEK: Mena Hardy http://www.youtube.com/ DvVGSS9odpY
Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA
Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com