Nic Harcourt on music

Nic Harcourt on the failing recording industry. PLUS: GOOD Video Feature

Earlier this year I made my first visit to MIDEM, an international music industry conference that takes please each year in Cannes, France. At the conference, just like at every other recent industry shindig, from South by Southwest in Austin, to CMJ in New York City, the overwhelming majority of panel discussions, and conversations in bars and clubs, focused on one thing: how will things shake out in the music business as new technologies remove control of music delivery from record labels and radio stations? Notice that I didn't mention MTV. The station pretty much removed itself from the music game several years ago, largely dropping videos in favor of game shows and dubious reality programming. MTV says that it made the programming switch because no one wants to watch music videos anymore. Fair enough. Generation (fill in Madison Avenue's current half-decade demographic description here) isn't watching videos. They're not listening to commercial radio because it (A) doesn't play the music they want to hear and (B) pretty much sucks anyway. They're not buying CDs because they can download the music they want (sometimes paying, mostly not) or rip it from a friend. So where is the music business heading? Can it actually survive the current chaos and uncertainty in any recognizable form? The simple answer is that the jury is on a long sabbatical, and nobody knows. What we do know is that the internet and digital revolution have thrown almost every aspect of the music business into the air and the chips are yet to fall.In the '90s, the record and radio industries systematically squeezed any last vestige of creativity out of their respective businesses in a constant kowtow to the bottom line. The record industry focused on divas (Christina Aguilera), boy bands ('N Sync), and alternative rock one-hit wonders (The Verve Pipe). As a result of federal deregulation, corporations gobbled up large numbers of radio stations, and the once eclectic landscape of radio became a wasteland of homogenized jingles, shortened playlists, and beer and mattress commercials. By the end of the decade, tuning across the radio dial for anything remotely original became a futile exercise. Drive across the United States and you'll find the same cookie-cutter radio formats in every market. Noncommercial radio (i.e. public and college) has become the last bastion of original music programming on the dial, as the audience has turned away from commercial radio in droves. Listeners have found other alternatives as well. Internet and satellite radio now attract significant audiences because they offer a choice. And that's really what the current state of play is all about: consumers having the freedom and technological resources to make their own choices.The industry is still grappling with the fact that music lovers will no longer be spoon-fed whatever flavor record labels are pushing that month. Do the labels have a future? Yes they do, but it will involve a very different way of doing business. Early adopters have moved forward in their embrace of digital streaming and new media, and are using technology to make their own playlists. The record industry must adapt or die. Radio advertisers are beginning to shift their budgets to target new media consumers. As for satellite radio, I've always believed that there are only enough potential subscribers to support one company. Both Sirius and XM spend more money than they make. I failed math badly, but I still know that only the U.S. government can get away with a financial plan like that. There are more choices around the corner. Digital radio, a new technology that allows existing radio frequencies to be split into up to six streams, is becoming more and more accessible, and it's only a matter of time until the web becomes truly wireless and you'll be able to listen to web radio in your car.Bad news for the music industry is, paradoxically, good news for artists. The web has allowed them the freedom to develop and find a fan base in a way they could never have before (see "Breaking it down," right). In recent years, I've known several musicians who refused traditional major label contracts (Damien Rice, Bright Eyes, Jem) in order to retain control of their musical visions, instead cutting deals that gave them access to marketing and promotional support. I'm sick of hearing boomers bemoan the lack of exciting new artists while they drop a couple hundred bucks to see (enter old-fart band name here) in concert. The truth is that there are many vital young musicians writing and recording important songs today, but you have to look for them. Corporate America isn't going to discover them for you. The world has changed; there are no pop stars anymore. But there is a wealth of amazing music that you can discover. For a music fan, there's never been a more exciting time.

The Arctic Monkeys Probably the best example of internet buzz creating sales for an unknown band. Their debut release, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (on Domino records) had the highest first day sales of any British release ever.Bright Eyes The band stayed with indy record label Saddle Creek, which lead singer Conor Oberst helped found, even after significant commercial success.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah A New York-based band whose singer, Alec Ounsworth, has a warble not unlike that of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Through word of mouth, MP3 trading, college-radio airplay, and positive reviews on hipster blogs, message boards, and websites such as, the band has sold over 100,000 copies of its eponymous self-released album-most of them packed into padded envelopes and mailed by the band members themselves.Damien Rice Irish-born singer, former member of Juniper. Onthe eve of recording their first album for Polygram he quit the band, citing disappointment inthe commercial direction they were heading. He has since emerged as a mainstream artist in his own right.Jem Her 2002 demo track ("Finally Woken") became one of the most requested songs at KCRW long before she had a record deal.Sirius 4.7 million subscribers; growth strategy focused on recruiting high-profile names like Howard Stern.South by Southwest Founded in 1987, one of the biggest music festivals in the U.S.

Sandi Thom This 25-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter spent six years driving her band around the U.K. doing gigs that attracted fewer than 200 people. Her breakthrough came when she invested $100 on a webcam and webcast a concert from her living room in London for 21 consecutive nights. The first night drew an audience of 70; by the second week she was performing for 70,000. She launched her own hit, "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)," before somebody smart at RCA/Sony/BMG signed her-the single became a smash in the U.K. and Europe.Sebastian Clark His self-released album Songs From A Van was in fact recorded on a portable studio installed in the VW van in which he lives and tours. Reminiscent of the confessional folk singers of the '60s and '70s, Clark has taken the do-it-yourself ethic and turned into a self-sustaining career.

XM 6.9 million subscribers; Bob Dylan has a popular show.-N.H.
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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