Main Street and Back Alleys
By Jerry Flattum - 09/21/2006 - 09:05 AM EDT
For all those anti-major label pundits out there, you have to ask yourself, if you were running a music company, would you want to sign artists that don't sell? If you're a millionaire philanthropist, then sure, go ahead and sign your next door neighbor’s garage band.
Independents exist because they can't get signed by majors. They also exist because philosophically, they want nothing to do with Main Street. But small business or large, it's a question of economics. We all have to pay the rent and it's a question of whether you want to live in a shack, suburbia, or a mansion on a hill.
It's a sheer fact that distribution is no longer the major criteria it once was in the analog world. There's no need for a fleet of trucks carrying stock piles of CDs to brick and mortar retail outlets.
The CD business is like the oil business. Cars still run on oil. But once we figure out how to tap the sun's energy supply, the world will turn upside down. No more gas stations, no more oil spills, no more Jiffy Lubes and no more deals with terrorists (assuming there is a link between oil and terrorism).
A single digital file can yield an endless supply of copies. There are still maintenance costs, like owning a server, setting up a website, marketing costs and owning an mp3 player. Servers break down. Chips fry. So it's illusion to think the cyberworld is totally ethereal. But it sure beats 30,000 sq.ft. warehouses and franchised retail outlets in malls.
Plus, Internet Radio is kicking the shit out of terrestrial radio.
It's also illusion to believe that those with the most number one hits are the best. We live in a world where everything is about reaching number one.
I love Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and a digitally remastered collection of Beatles and Elvis. But my music collection would be an empty one without Sukhwinder Singh, Bague, 4th World and the Putumayo Collections.
Entertainment has always been about reaching the top. Everybody's out to beat everybody else's record. The most awards, the biggest sales, world tours and 80,000 seat stadiums. Big spectacles, big stars, big dreams, big crowds.
But what about that really talented singer/guitarist playing in a tucked away cafe you just happened to wander into one day on a side street in Smalltown? Your first impulse is to say, "Wow, you're really good. What the hell are you doing here? You could be a star!"
Bach, Beethoven, Chopin--the "Greatest Composers" of all time. Really? Are they really the greatest?
We sure seem to like our Gods and Goddesses. Girls faint and boys grow their hair long (Beatles) or turn their baseball caps around (rap). Are we searching for identities or such good music?
What do a million dollar video, expensive bling and a spot on Oprah have to do with a good song?
McDonald's sells the most hamburgers. But what if you're a vegetarian?
Le Cinq, in Paris, is considered one of the best restaurants in the world, amongst many. But there's tremendous pleasure in having mom, a friend or boyfriend/girlfriend fix a grilled cheese on whole wheat on a Saturday afternoon.
The underground, those who supplied, generated or promoted obscurity, is now being squeezed out by the majors. In the digital realm, inventory and distribution no longer call for physical space or transportation. It's effortless to maintain a digital file on a server. This means it's possible to earn a profit on an artist or title that only sells a few copies a year.
Traditionally, only large inventories of popular items were maintained because they generated the most sales to the largest number of people. From warehouses to retail outlets, physical space limited stocked items.
A rare vinyl record might still prove to be valuable to collectors and museums, but in digital form, it's as accessible as the latest number one hit.
But, there is still something magical about a hit artist or song. A hit has a way of uniting culture. It happened with the DaVinci Code in books, Titanic in movies and Beyonce in music. It reaches a point where it's almost embarrassing to admit you haven't gotten hip to the latest of the latest.
Everybody loves a superstar. Regardless of how sick of them you might be, music culture would be like a flatland without the mountainous peaks of legends like the Beatles, Elvis, Madonna and Michael.
The view is analogous to the world of tourism. In Paris, it's the Eiffel Tower. All of India is summed up by the Taj Mahal. LA, it's Hollywood. Every city and country is marked by an icon that identifies it from all other locations in the world.
But to live in these places an entirely different picture unfolds. Take Vegas, for instance. Slip off of Las Vegas Blvd. and travel 10 miles in any direction, and Vegas becomes an entirely different city from the one so easily recognized by the Strip. Hard to believe there are 1000s of Vegas dwellers who never go to the Strip, rarely see a show, and never gamble.
And so it goes with music. There is Mainstream--or Main Street. Then, shooting off in dozens of different directions, are the side roads and back alleys...not to mention a slew of dead ends.
There are even places in music that can't be reached by roads. It's like a hand-built cabin tucked away in a deep dark forest.
But do people think you're weird when you come up with an artist or title they've never heard? Is there still that indelible pressure to conform?
Traditional media is not very well traveled. The camera focuses on major labels, major artists and major events. Sure, once in awhile a new up and coming artist manages to focus attention, but only because there is the chance the artist is destined to hit Main Street.
Rock used to be a side road. Punk was literally the underground, a world beneath the city. Rap was a back alley where taxi drivers told tourists never to go--it was too dangerous.
Now, Rap is so Main Street, it's a part of Disney culture. Even Mickey Mouse can break dance and wears bling. Rap has been washed thoroughly. All the negative characteristics have been removed, like association with gangs, drugs, and inner city poverty. White suburban dads and moms make their kids laugh at the dinner table when they try to make up a rap on the spot.
Of course, Main Street is all about money. Main Street is not a Norman Rockwell depiction of quaint shops and friendly faces. It's more like Madison or Park Avenue. Main Street is Sunset Blvd. cutting through Beverly Hills.
Is there something wrong with this? No, not really. We love Beverly Hills. We love our superstars. We love our icons. But this is not all we love.
The Internet has become the great equalizer in terms of balancing the rich and famous with the poor and unknown, major destinations and out-of-the-way places, major artists and independent artists.
Mammoth sales are not an indication of quality or satisfaction. Music collections might contain the latest Jackson or U2 CD, but that doesn't mean it's what gets listened to the most, or even liked the most.
From a music business standpoint, it's called niche marketing. The problem is that Main Street doesn't know how to survive on small sales. The Internet does. But, Main Street is not stupid. Main Street is buying up the Internet.
Sales in the 5 to 10,000 or 50 to 100,000 are like journey's down the side streets and back alleys of major cities. And it's there you really get the feel of a city--away from all the glitz and glamour, high prices, scams and homogeneity.
Not everybody eats McDonald's hamburgers and drinks Coca-Cola. Not everybody watches Monday Night football and has seen all the episodes of Friends.
Yet, despite the diversity of offerings on the Internet, there are still those who are determined to carve out a cyber Main Street. It's happening with iTunes, Napster, MySpace, Google, Amazon and a slew of other major cyber highways and thoroughfares.
After all, how do you find that cabin tucked away in the woods? Well, it's an act of discovery. You might be just wandering around by yourself, or a friend sends you an email that says, "Check this out." And that discovery just may yield one of the most beautiful songs you've ever heard.
Ironically, even niche marketing is becoming a popular shop on Main Street. Websites like Getsigned.com offer a plethora of books like The Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook: 201+ Ways to Promote Your Music (e-book) by Bob Baker, or The Niche Market Report for Independent Record Labels by Walt Goodridge.
Just this month (Sept 2006), Billboard sponsored the 3rd annual "The Next Big Idea" Conference in NY, a conference devoted to the future of non-traditional marketing.
Interestingly, is there any alternative to Billboard as the bible of the music industry? Do we need one?
How important is Popular? Not so much anymore. In terms of making lots of money, yes, it's very important. But people are finding happiness in places and things that most other people don't know about.
I don't want to see a home video of a friend's trip to Paris showing him or her waving from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I want to see my friend on a cobblestone street with no name, sitting at a cafe drinking French coffee with a local. I want to know the local's name, what they do to survive, family history, and the fact they like to carve animals out of wood or knit sweaters from a 19th century loom.
Pandora.com takes you there. Here's a team of music enthusiasts fervent in their exploration to discover out-of-the-way places. Plug in the name or title of an obscure artist or song and get dozens of even lesser known artists and titles. Suddenly it becomes a world full of discovery.
And the music is so wonderful, the embarrassment suffered from listening to something obscure becomes embarrassment for listening to anything off Main Street.
But then, I've never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It's one of the world's greatest landmarks. So, I think I'll take a few hours, look out at Paris from the top of the Tower, cruise on the Champs Elysees for a while, burn some bucks at Le Cinq, and then go for a long walk with some locals I met on a nameless cobblestone street somewhere in the outer area of the Montparnasse district.
Next, I'll hop a flight to the Amazon, rent a boat made out of a log, and journey deep into what's left of the jungle. There I am gently floating down a river with no name. Wait...what's that I hear? What are those strange drums I hear in the distance? Could they be...could they be cannibals? Or is it Peter Gabriel tapping into the World Beat market?
Here's a random list of artists that may or may not have notoriety. Some are on the rise; others fall under the radar of the majors. A few have hits, others never will. There’s no order and it’s a broad mix of genres. It's just a sampling, but it's enough to indicate the world is not dominated by superstars. Plug any name into Pandora.com and get a 100 more unknowns. Napster is good about introducing new artists. So is MySpace and Download.com. Hell, do a Google search on “new artists, music.”
Meat Beat Manifesto
Rage Against the Machine
Webstar and Young
Three Days Grace
Goo Goo Dolls
Lisa Marie Presley
Bukky Leo and Black Egypt
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