Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Waiting For a Miracle

I stopped going to Nashville about a year ago. The market for songs in the music industry tanked with the rise of peer to peer to network music downloads. Almost all of my contacts in Nashville were being laid off or had been laid off. When I walked into an office, people would use me as a crying pillow instead of listening to songs. In ten short years, the number of employees working in the record business has dropped 90 percent.

There are still people in record companies, just a lot fewer of them. There are still old and new acts being promoted by record companies, just a lot fewer of them as well. The music industry has undergone a very profound diet.

In rock music, it's quite possible for a new act to ignore all of the dead bodies in the music business and make a go of it. You work the social networks. You give away your music for free. You play 100 gigs a year, maybe more. And from all of that, you hope that through word of mouth and buzz, you take off. This kind of grass roots effort takes a tremendous amount of work, but it can reap big dividends.

In contrast, country music isn't like that at all. It doesn't work from the ground up. There are no real gigs to play except maybe in the Texas circuit, and that circuit is limited to Texans playing rough and tumble music that holds little interest to mainstream country music fans. Social networking seems to yield little benefit.

Country music fans are different. I think it's because they are almost all Republican and conservative. They don't believe in discovering their own music in a dive club and passing the word. Rather they wait for the music industry to tell them what is good out there. It's a top down approach. Country music fans still believe in authority figures. They want and expect the music industry - though battered and decimated - to give them new acts to hear on radio or see on CMT videos; then they decide which of those new acts they like.

What this means for a new act is that they are entirely dependent on labels for discovery and promotion. Mostly they sit and wait. Then they sit and wait some more. They play out a little locally in Nashville, but no one shows up to their gigs because they are unknown. Their managers go to the record companies' offices and promote them, hoping to get a record deal. Because the industry has contracted to a pin point, it's almost impossible for a new act to get signed, but some do. Then they wait some more.

Finally, they go to the studio and cut a couple of "sides" (otherwise known as songs). Then they wait even more. A single is launched from one of those sides. It's given to radio. Usually that single doesn't do very well on the radio because the act isn't very distinctive and there are already many other successful similar sounding acts out there. Sometimes they are dropped by the record company after than one single. But if they are lucky, they wait again. Then they cut a couple of more sides. The process is repeated.

Basically, new acts are waiting for a miracle and most new acts fail. In fact every new act I've interacted with on any level that has been associated with a Nashville label has failed. Don't blame me. It's just par for the course.

But for some, the miracle happens. They launch a single. The single takes off on the radio. And suddenly this nobody act is a somebody act. Now they don't wait anymore. They travel the county and state fair circuit playing gigs for decent cash (country music fans will not pay money for new acts in a concert setting); they'll open for established acts for little dough but in an effort to try to get some recognition (this rarely works, actually; third bill acts in a country music concert are doing the equivalent of the graveyard shift).

Most country acts rising from the muck on the basis of a single don't last more than a year. But some are propelled for several years or more on the basis of a single or two. Over my time going to Nashville, there were a few acts that emerged with some degree of staying power. The country trio now duo (their lead songwriter and backup singer was a bit butch for the country music world) Sugarland, Carrie Underwood, maybe Big and Rich, and finally of course, Taylor Swift. But I don't really view Swift as a country act; she made her success by crossing over into kiddie pop.

Why did these acts have their miracle when others with the same amount of hype, publicity and payola flounder? The lead singer of Sugarland has a very distinctive voice and their lead songwriter (exiled from the band, but still writing in Nashville) has a very unusual retro-Mama and Papas style. Carrie Underwood had the weight of the American Idol machine behind her and the standard bearers of country music divadom - Faith Hill, Trish Yearwood, Martina McBride et al. - were getting long in the tooth. Big and Rich had huge personalities and brought in the party hearty crowd. Taylor Swift was perhaps the first country singer to exploit the teen and pre-teen crowd. They were all unique in their own way.

Over the same time period these acts rose to stardom, at least 70 acts failed or are currently in a kind of purgatory still playing to small crowds at fairgrounds, still playing #3 on a big act's concert tour, and still hoping for a new big single to launch them some day in the future. I met about a dozen of them. Some were quite distinctive and talented, but there is always a risk that an act that is unusual will simply be too unusual to attract a following. But most were indistinguishable from many, many other acts out there. They sang the same kind of songs you hear on country radio every day, but no particular song that would grab an audience. They had the same personality that many country acts have, the same kind of vocal style. I would watch them and know they weren't going anywhere.

Several years ago I heard an act play in Los Angeles. It was completely unhip. Their songs were all so sincere. They reminded me of Jewel. I listened and thought, well if Jewel was going to make it today, she'd have to go to Nashville. That's what I told that act to do. I gave them unsolicited advice. Go to Nashville. With your style of music that's where you belong. Surprisingly they took that advice. Actually, I'm sure it wasn't just me who said this to them. It was obvious.

They moved. Then they waited. And they waited. Eventually their manager got them a record deal. A single was cut. It didn't go anywhere. But for a good half year, they had a nice expense account and were pampered. Is that a miracle, too? I think so. Asking for anything more than that probably is being greedy. They can tell their grandchildren that once upon a time they were almost country music stars. They'll have a video or two to show their grandkids as well. And when their grandkids watch that video and say "grandma you were beautiful," how cool is that?

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