record label submissions

It kinda sucks being a musician today.  Actually, let’s not start waxing nostalgic for a past we never experienced – it always kinda sucked to be a musician.  Whether it was Thelonious Monk scrambling to find an audience for his ahead-of-its-time, discordant jazz or Mozart struggling to make ends meet by writing operas for the inbred aristocracy (and, despite all the masterpieces, still dying a pauper’s death), it has never been easy pursuing this beautiful and incredibly difficult art.

What particularly sucks about being a musician in the present tense, however, is the paradoxical nature of the modern music industry, one that is struggling to find reliable income streams in the Digital Age.  On the one hand, small, oddball bands with no hope of ever signing with the once all-powerful major labels now have a legitimate shot of getting their music heard by an appreciative audience through the almighty reach of social media.  On the other hand, there are about a billion or so small, oddball bands vying for that same legitimate shot of getting heard by an audience that can also be distracted by an enormous amount of easily accessible, free/cheap entertainment options like Netflix and YouTube and internet porn.

And worst of all, at least from a business standpoint, no one’s making any money.  Except maybe Jay-Z.

But that doesn’t stop some rather slick entrepreneurs from trying to squeeze a few last pennies out of a dying business model.  There are all sorts of snake oil salesmen out there promising smartly packaged delusions of grandeur to the very people desperate enough to believe in these fantasies: the struggling musicians themselves.  Just Google music marketing and hundreds of websites advertising fame and fortune are guaranteed to pop up.  Reverbnation, Sonicbids, BandHelper, Music Clout, CD Baby, Promo Push, Music Xray…the list goes on and on, all companies offering helpful tips, heightened web presence and a heap of new fans – for a price.

This is the New Gimmick, the “music opportunity” websites, though the opportunities offered are nebulous “maybes” rather than concrete benefits.  Most of the sites operate like this: you, the artist, pay a “music opportunity” website a certain stated fee in order to be “considered” for the chance of landing a showcase slot at South By Southwest or getting featured on some college radio station or scoring an interview with a music magazine (reputable or otherwise).  The variety of incentives is nearly infinite, but the common denominator is the same in every business model: there is no actual guarantee you’ll see any of these offered opportunities materialize; you’re just paying for the mere chance of obtaining one.  So “music opportunity” isn’t really the most accurate moniker that can be attached–it’s more like “music lottery.”

All these sites do, to their credit, offer some helpful services like viable online distribution and licensing options, but most of it seems overpriced at best and exorbitant at worst.  Symphonic Distribution, for example, offers an “extensive” marketing plan that includes “video marketing strategies,” “blog recommendations that fit your genre,” and other such vague incentives starting at just (just!) $150.  It sounds helpful until you realize that you can find out information such as “blogs that fit your genre” for free through simple internet searches (check out Hype Machine; find one suitable blog then follow their links; see where bands that sound like you have been featured, etc.).  You can also learn how to write your own professional sounding press releases for free or cheap (just ask your unemployed English major friend) and research promotional strategies without the privilege of paying a hundred-plus dollars for the same info.

One particularly sleazy “opportunity” swindle comes from the site Record Label Submissions, a company that advertises an extremely simple and deceptively alluring model: send us your music and we’ll forward it to our record label connections (for a fee, of course).  Said record label connections will then review the tracks, provide you with advice, feedback and the chance to be heard by Important People.  Sounds easy enough, right?  At least you are promised constructive criticism from a legitimate music industry insider, right?  I decided to try this service, more out of curiosity than optimism.  I submitted three songs, waited patiently for a few weeks and then came my professional, major label reviewed response.  I swear this is not a joke, this was my actual emailed reply:

“Thanks for the submissions, I’ve enjoyed them and I like your sound. The records do sound a little too outdated but I love the live instruments. We definitely feel you should make some records with more pop elements. I would love to hear more from you, I definitely see potential. Keep submitting records to us!”

Signed, and again I’m not joking, “Young Mogul.”  Five short sentences, no specifics and not even signed with a real name.  Come on guys, if you’re gonna screw me over at least have the decency not to insult my intelligence in the process.  Please put in some more effort than getting an intern to write a few abstract critiques about music they may or may not have actually listened to.  Remember the key sentence in that response: keep submitting records to us.  Continue to be our sucker.  This is obviously a scam of the laziest kind.

If you find all of this moderately slimy and maybe even downright disgusting that’s because it is. Musicians have been cheated out of money since money could be made off them, from crooked tour managers to stingy venues to greedy record labels, but the rise of social media dominance has spawned a new breed of rip-off. And the potential market continues to grow as bands and artists rely less and less on labels for support and more on their own personal time devoted to social media management and outreach.

Exacerbating it all is the fact that music is already one of the most expensive artistic pursuits. Gear, rehearsal spaces, recording equipment, studio rates, travel expenses – that adds up quickly, especially if you’re paying for it all out of pocket. Throw on top of all that the cost of self-promotion, from the low-end of Facebook ad campaigns to the high of hiring a professional PR agent, and the artists who are not very high up on the socio-economic ladder to begin with are afflicted with an even greater disadvantage, slowly but steadily making the artform pursuable only by the upper echelons of society.  Those already with more disposable income can afford to buy their way into the press, allow a substantially larger budget for promotional services and eventually win a few of the “music lotteries” simply by paying submission fees over and over again, while the suckers at the bottom have to subsist on sheer luck and hard work.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that every band that became famous over the last ten years is composed of a bunch of spoiled rich brats (though Vampire Weekend are certainly all Ivy Leaguers…), but the system as it stands now creates an unfair balance of power that disproportionately favors the well-moneyed.

As much as major record labels screwed artists out of royalties during their golden age, they did invest a great deal of time and money on the careers of upcoming, sometimes incredibly risky, artists. Frank Zappa’s avant-garde label Straight Records, after all, was aided by the mighty Warner Bros. Records, helping to sponsor such weirdo acts as Captain Beefheart and Alice Cooper. Bruce Springsteen was allowed to fail spectacularly twice by Columbia before hitting it big with Born to Run. David Bowie and Elton John struggled for years to really break out as commercially viable artists, but were able to survive the tough times thanks to the support of a record label.

It’s still possible to rise from nothing and make it big – a phenomenon that was always a one in a million shot – but I believe it will become rarer and rarer as the music industry becomes more and more desperate for steady profit.  The profitability of streaming services like Spotify has so far proven to be negligible, record labels continue to see their revenues shrink year after year, and consumers ardently refuse to buy music in meaningful numbers (though thankfully some local record stores have carved out enough of a niche in the market to survive). Vinyl sales may be increasing but records cost so much to produce and distribute to a limited number of stores that it’s hard to know if labels (especially indies) are making a profit off this phenomenon. And it’s unclear whether the vinyl boom is either a legitimate reversal of format preferences or a transitory trend that is destined to peak and then fade. Dreams of going platinum are most likely going to stay dreams as even some of the most popular recording artists can’t achieve that feat. Just being able to make enough money to quit your day job is a dream to many independent artists out there.

I’m aware of the other trends too – that music festivals are a booming business, that the top 1% of artists can still afford gold-plated yachts, that bands can still break big with a well-placed song in a Nike ad or Hunger Games soundtrack appearance – but the process is becoming even more grueling for the economically disadvantaged who aren’t supported by major label backing.  Breaking through the clutter as an independent artist requires ever more time, effort, and persistence in the information overloaded digital age, and that’s a lot to ask for when you’re balancing a full-time job or various part-time jobs or weighed down by student debt or struggling just to afford rent.

And Kickstarter isn’t going to save everyone.

Giving into these vampiric “music opportunity” services, however, is not the answer to struggling musician problems.  I don’t know if there are any definite solutions to this growing inequality, but we can start by strengthening our own local music communities, whether you live in the city or the suburbs or the sticks. DIY is thrown around a lot in local music scenes, but rarely have I seen it practiced in its purest form – as a collective of bands looking out for each other in order to survive as a unit, not as mere individuals.  There are a few grassroots organizations that come to mind – Balanced Breakfast in the Bay Area, for instance – that provide an alternate route of promoting shows and music without succumbing to predatory ad services, of uniting like-minded artists to develop their craft and marketing strategies independent of so-called “expert” advice that comes at a steep price.  Solidarity is the only antidote proven to cure inequality and the chaos perpetuated by the free market. We don’t have to give into the predators out to make a few quick bucks off the backs of desperate, hard-working musicians.

Billy Bragg wrote, “Capitalism is killing music,” on his 1988 release Workers Playtime (a year that included such insipid Billboard-topping hits as Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and INXS’ “Need You Tonight”) and I think he was onto something.  For while mainstream audiences were dancing to the latest George Michael single, a far more important movement was taking place just beneath the surface, one more accurately reflecting the state of the youth angry at Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain, from hardcore punk to thrash metal to the birth of rave culture.  Groups with no mainstream potential like Minor Threat and Exodus survived because they supported their local music scene: booking their own bills, sharing rehearsal spaces, playing unorthodox venues, building a reliable network of both bands and fans.  Acid House promoters in the U.K. organized massive outdoor festivals without major label backing or a top ten hit through inspired grassroots promotion and authentically reaching out to a restless, angst-laden generation.

If these guys and gals could have done it thirty years ago without the massive communicative benefits of the internet, surely modern-day musicians can do the same.  We can work as collectives within our local scenes to preserve and promote interesting, inventive music without having to play the same old rigged game the system keeps trying to push on us.  The monarchical status of major labels may have diminished with the advent of the digital age, but it has been replaced by a sort of corporate anarchy where everything is free and shareable and a number of tech tycoons are profiting off our freely distributed work.

If we do embody the true spirit of DIY, if we eliminate the selfish excesses of the system we have to work within, maybe we can create a brighter future for musicians.  Maybe limitless wealth and fame are too much to ask for – our dreams poisoned by too many episodes of MTV’s Cribs and Mötley Crüe books – but if we achieve the freedom to produce the music we want, make enough money to support our artistic vision and be independently self-sustaining, without relying on predatory services to provide us with “opportunities,” isn’t that enough?  After all, without solidarity all you have is a bunch of egotists fighting over the same shrinking attention spans.