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Show and Sell: How the Changing Music Industry Demands Better Performances How the Changing Music Industry Demands Better Performances

The days of your favorite artists selling records and offering lackluster stage shows are over.

Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav


Turntable.fm is now street legal. After assembling a stable of partnerships with the Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI music groups, Turntable users now have instant and unfettered access to millions of songs, marking the latest step in the gradual eradication of record sales as we know them. In days past, music fans—at least those not pirating albums—transitioned from buying CDs to parceling out records and purchasing their favorite songs on iTunes. But now the customer's demand for choice is going even further, with people wanting to hear a huge variety of songs immediately, without having to search through the iTunes library to buy them. The future is streaming.

Both Coldplay and Adele recently refused to put their new albums on Spotify right away, believing that doing so would cannibalize their sales. Their fears were well-founded: According to a study last November, more than a third of very dedicated music fans say they're comfortable not owning a song as long as they can access that song digitally. Among less dedicated fans, that number is even higher. Meanwhile, more and more people are getting smartphones and other handheld devices, replacing the iPods in their pockets with gadgets with streaming capabilities in their pockets. Couple all that with more record labels inking more deals with more streaming services, and it won't be long before most Americans are getting all their music via streaming subscriptions. Coldplay, Adele, and the rest of the holdouts can fight it all they want, but Turntable, Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, and other companies yet invented are eventually going to slow already-trickling album sales to a full stop.

With the impending collapse of hard-copy music sales as both a revenue stream and an indication of popularity—YouTube views are the new record sales, so much so that there's a market for them—it's important for musicians to begin diversifying their efforts. Bands need to find some way to stand out and make money that isn't selling a lot of albums. And the answer is performance.

As Slate noted last year in a piece exploring the financial success of the Dave Matthews Band, "Analysts and executives have long lamented that the music industry is dying. That is not quite true—it is the record business that is clearly done for, and in its place, touring stands as the top moneymaker for many industry participants." To anyone familiar with the music industry, you'll know that music publishing, in which songs are sold to TV commercials and movies, is actually one of the top moneymakers for some bands. But that market eliminates anyone whose sound isn't the kind of thing that persuades a person to buy a Volkswagen. For the rest of the bands, as Slate said, hitting the road is key.

But not anyone with a guitar and a fan base can make money off touring. To be successful on the touring circuit, one must first be relentless. According to the independently published book DeadBase X, the Grateful Dead—a real touring band's touring band—played 2,318 shows between 1965 and 1995. Sometimes they'd play more than 200 times a year (by contrast, 2011's hugely successful "Watch the Throne" tour had 57 dates). In the years since Grateful Dead patriarch Jerry Garcia died, other jam-band outfits like Phish (and Dave Matthews) have carried his torch, relying on constant touring to sustain their income and presence.

The message isn't lost on bands. Steely Dan famously didn't tour for the first several years of the band's success, content to make perfect records and stay in the studio full-time. But the industry has changed immensely since then, and many musical acts now know that traveling the road of jam-bands, quite literally, is crucial to survival. There's just one problem: Touring revenue is no longer a sure bet, either. Yes, the live music industry saw its profits increase in 2011, but attendance was down, with the extra money coming from higher ticket prices. The subtext here is that fewer people have money to spend on live music, but the ones who do are willing to pay a premium price.

An embroiled record-sales industry, a growing need to tour, and a dwindling number of people eager to shell out big bucks for a show—what's a new band to do? Simple: Put on a show that people will refuse to miss, and do that everywhere.

When it comes to the most successful touring bands like U2 and Bon Jovi, the draw is obvious: decades of history and a litany of hit songs. No upstart band is going to compete with the live show profits of those heavyweights right out of the gate, but they need to start somewhere.

A personal anecdote: I once saw the hip-hop act Atmosphere play in Los Angeles. At the time, I wasn't a big fan of the group, which is usually composed of a DJ, Ant, and a rapper, Slug. On that tour, however, the duo was accompanied by a full band, complete with a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboard player, and a drummer. Save for a festival at which I saw the Roots, the Atmosphere performance was the only one I'd ever seen in which a live band played. I left a fan of Atmosphere, and I've gone back to see it a few times since.

A close friend of mine has a similar story about Les Savy Fav, the indie rock outfit fronted by a hirsute wild man named Tim Harrington. The first time my friend saw Les Savy Fav, Harrington came out wrapped in toilet paper like a mummy and proceeded to jump around like a monkey, leaving the stage to literally climb the walls of the venue before jumping into the crowd. He kept up his antics throughout the show until he was a sweaty mass of flesh, beard, and bits of shredded toilet paper. My friend now says he won't miss a Les Savy Fav show if one is in his area.

The point isn't that every rap act needs to have guitars or that every rock band should have a maniac leading them. The point is that a good stage show draws fans for life, more so than even a hit song or three. In an era when getting crowds at concerts is becoming a priority for all musicians, it would do them well to keep in mind that summoning magic in the recording studio only goes so far anymore. You need to be able to consistently summon that same magic on stage to have a lengthy career.

Several years ago, I saw one of my favorite rappers, Ghostface Killah, live at the Coachella music festival. The Wu-Tang Clan icon was about 45 minutes late to his set, and, when he finally got around to performing, he was almost unintelligible. It was one of the most boring and disappointing things I've ever paid money to see. I'm still a big fan of Ghostface, but nowadays I'd miss his show for an Atmosphere performance if I ever had to decide between the two. Music fans work hard for their money; it's perfectly acceptable to ask their entertainers to work hard, too.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Jason Persse

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