2008 Muse's Muse Awards A&R Report:
A Bridge Over Troubled Water
by Gian Fiero
Senior Music Reviewer, The Muse’s Muse
Heading into the new millennium everyone in the music industry was wishing for a “level” playing field; a field upon which independent music artists with less financial backing could compete with major artists and their major budgets. With the advent of the Internet, consequent evolution of digital music, a faulty music business model, and fleeting commercial opportunities, we can now say, voila! The playing field is officially leveled.
Now what? And what does it really mean?
I’m not an astronomer (obviously) but I do know that as you look up into the galaxy two things determine your ability to see stars: 1, how brightly the star shines and 2, your vantage point. Well, the music industry is the galaxy in which stars are created and found by their adoring fans. Some shine brightly on their own (independently), others shine more brightly because they have the resources (of a label) to polish them up and direct attention towards them.
There was an invisible wall between “signed” and “un-signed” music artists. The un-signed viewed their status as rejection as they secretly sought validation by the record labels that shunned them, and then talk of the playing field getting leveled became the impetus for a change in attitude about getting signed. Unsigned suddenly became synonymous with being unchained and unencumbered by record label control, bureaucracy, and creative constraints. The stigma of being unsigned was transformed into a badge of honor and a more favorable business position to be in.
As the floodgates opened, musical luminaries such as Prince, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Jay-Z, and Tori Amos joined the ranks of the independents and it created a rippling gridlock effect in terms of opportunity, viability, and sustainability that has had some adverse impact on the truly independent artists (i.e. those never affiliated with a major or have been the recipient of financial backing).
Artists formerly signed to major labels and who have hit songs always have a calling card to perform in venues. Which venues will they be performing in as independents? You guessed it: venues that used to rely upon the talent pool of truly independent artists to survive. These venues, once viewed as stepping stones to bigger and better performance opportunities, have became dual elevators that transport artists going both up and down in the life cycles of their careers.
Joe Blow artist down the street will be spurned in favor of the artist who has a song, name, or face that club patrons recognize and will pay (probably extra) to see. While the formerly signed artist can take satisfaction in knowing there’s just enough interest (if not demand) for their services to piece together a tour in these venues, Joe Blow will not readily get the chance to develop his artistry, or fan base because both access and opportunities will be limited. It’s not a gloom and doom fate, but a stark reality. Joe Blow will have to get better as a performer and entrepreneur. As I stated in a recent article, he will have to Get Real About Going Independent.
Here at the Muse’s Muse I’ve also seen the trickle down effects of this leveled playing field as a reviewer. What once was an afterthought or distant alternative (getting online reviews) is now a chief consideration and viable alternative to print publications. Publicists, Labels, and Managers like the “linkability” factor which online communities such as the Muse’s Muse can offer. This increases competition in yet another area which little competition existed for the true independents.
Going back to Joe Blow; Joe Blow sends me his CD which he had pressed at Discmakers. At first glance it looks comparable in quality to the packages sent to me by formerly signed and currently signed major label acts, but there is one major difference: Joe Blow doesn’t have the confluence of financial and talent resources that prove to be the difference between true independents, formerly signed and currently signed major label acts. The two areas in which Joe Blow’s CD are lacking the most - comparatively speaking - are also the most expensive: production and engineering. But shouldn’t you invest in the quality of any product you are attempting to sell?
Joe Blow may be a better songwriter than (insert name of Grammy nominee here), but without production expertise, his song ideas are not conveyed in the most effective manner and he fails to utilize and illuminate his talents properly, and that results in the overall quality of his songs getting compromised. With no outside feedback he records 10 or 12 more songs that have the same weaknesses, deficiencies, and production flaws and he sends it to me. While he may be as talented as (insert name of Grammy nominee here) I don’t review it. Why? Because in comparison, Joe Blow’s songs are lacking and do not measure up.
That’s a scenario that happened oh, let’s say, 200 times this past year when receiving CDs: many of the independents just were not commercially viable…but the CD packaging was…
Because of this common occurrence, it’s a truly remarkable feat when an artist creates a CD that’s elevated in quality by higher standards in songwriting, vocal delivery, musicianship, production, and engineering. Every year that a Muse’s Muse Award is granted, you can best believe that it is earned. My winners from the previous 6 years are still active and rising; diligently fighting to make their rightful place alongside music industry luminaries.
One such winner, former Muse’s Muse Award recipient Sara Bareilles, is now a 2008 Grammy nominee for her tune Love Song which was heavily featured in a VH1 commercial. This track blazed local radio stations this past summer the way that I knew her songwriting could and would. Yes, Sara is signed to a major (Epic), but her talent was proficiently captured and presented on the first project (Love Confessions) that she sent to me in 2005. She casually referred to it as her “demo.”
Ironically, Sara, who was once a true independent artist, is the female singer/songwriter who raised the bar for everyone. She is the reason why so many others in her genre have not gotten reviewed. Now when I get CDs from female singer/songwriters, this is who they are measured against. Admittedly, at one point this year, I did feel that I had raised the bar too high; by June my total number of reviews was at an all-time low.
Right when I considered loosening the standards, I got caught up in a haze, Sara Haze that is. How fitting - another Sara! Her CD (The Ladder), like the Sara Bareilles CD, arrived in January. The similarities did not stop there. Both are singer/songwriter/musicians who perform regularly. Both have performed frequently in the belly of the beast (LA), and both have the ability to deliver emotionally whether in a full or sparse production. Also, like Sara Bareilles, Sara Haze worked with exceptionally talented musicians to cultivate and present her talents. One notable difference: Sara is 18.
As the year progressed, Sara was the clear front runner for the top Muse’s Muse Award for Best Overall CD Project in any category, and then…there was a Departure, both literally and figuratively, from Jesse McCartney. His latest CD (Departure) was submitted to me and it created a major conflict in terms of the applicability of the criteria that I have used for the Muse’s Muse Awards over the last 5 years.
My dilemma was this: How could I have Sara Haze and Jesse McCartney compete against each other for top honors, when one is a true independent, and the other is with a major (Hollywood Records)? How fair would it be to pit them against each other knowing that they have disproportionate resources? Furthermore, could Sara’s organic and mature sound really be considered commercial in comparison to Jesse McCartney’s slick and highly produced homage to Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, Usher, and Michael Jackson?
The answers are yes I did; it’s definitely fair; and yes it’s most certainly commercial in a different way.
In the end, the finalists for Best Overall CD Project in any category represents a metaphoric bridge that is symbolic of independence or an independent spirit that artists must now use to cross over to success; effectively changing the definition of cross over success. They will have to go above or outside of the traditional conventions of the music industry to prosper. When artists look over the balcony of this bridge to see the troubled and unpredictable waters of the music industry sweeping their peers downstream, or worse, dragging them under, they are quickly reminded that these waters continue to flow with the same turmoil that has plagued the industry for years now. The real competition is not between the artists, or for Muse’s Muse Awards or even Grammy Awards. The real competition is making quality songs that inspire the public to make the music of any artist a part of their everyday lives…music that can be used as a form of escape or discovery, expression or therapy. When that occurs, the real award – or reward – of fan loyalty takes place and a sustainable career emerges.
CHOOSING THE MUSES MUSE’S MUSE AWARDS
I do not use a complicated process like the American Music Awards, or some political voting strategy like The Grammy’s to determine who would receive a Muse’s Muse Award. I use my “commercial” criteria and a scoring system that I've had since day one. Other evaluation factors include originality, identity, vocal/songwriting talent, musicianship, competency/proficiency in production, and sonic quality (mixing/mastering).
I also use good old fashioned side-by-side comparisons of the songs in the same categories and to the top-ranked songs and high-charting artists that everyone listens to, or has heard of. My 20 years of recording experience and my industry ears are called upon in the final analysis especially when things get close.
PROFILE OF ARTISTS REVIEWED
So who are these artists that I've chosen to review? They tend to be:
-Talented with some development or refinement (naturally gifted, or well-versed through practice, school, training, etc.)
-Experienced (they've spent time actually doing what they've practiced)
-Quality Songs (written by or with someone who thoroughly understands The 6 Rules Of Commercial Music Success.)
-Good supporting cast (experienced producers, musicians, managers, etc.)
-Financially backed (to pay for their musical supporting cast and professional support)
-Strong Identity (their voice, sound, or style is distinctive)
SUBMISSION STATISTICS: WOMEN STILL RULE IN 2008
-Number of CDs submission received in 2008: 227
-Number of submissions in received in 2007: 303
-Number of submissions reviewed this year: 28
-Number of submissions reviewed in 2007: 40
-Number of female artists submissions received: 145
-Number of male artists CDs received: 82
-Number of CDs from independent artists: 170
-Number of CDs from "signed" major artists: 57
-Number of CDs from "signed" major artists that were reviewed: 6
-Number of artists submitting follow-up CDs: 4
-Number of artists submitting follow-up CDs that got reviewed: 1
-Number of CDs submitted through record labels: 95
-Number of CDs submitted through publicists: 55
-Number of CDs submitted through publishing companies: 10
-Number of artists reviewed through online submissions: 1
Some interesting facts follow regarding The Muse’s Muse Awards as well as the 2008 Muse’s Muse Award Winners…
*For three consecutive years the the Muse's Muse Award Winners for the Best CD Project were submitted in January...
*There was not one Rap CD Project that was reviewed, only singles...
*The number of CD Single Reviews that I did this year increased by 50%...
*The biggest drop-off in terms of quality was in the Country genre...
*Noticably absent this year were the R&B Male Vocalists...
WHY DIDN’T I GET MY CD REVIEWED?
People often ask me questions related to reviews such as why their CD didn’t get reviewed; how to get better reviews; and what submissions I listen to on a regular basis during my personal time after I’ve reviewed submissions. But mainly, people want to know why I don’t review their CDs. Below are the answers to those questions…
Clearly, I don’t review every submission sent to me; however, I do listen to everything that I receive. After all, how would I know what to review and what not review if that wasn’t the case? When I don’t review an artist or a selection from their project, it simply means that in my professional opinion, that the artist either a) needs to put forth more effort in improving the quality of their project or b) is not commercial. Unfortunately, people still send me their projects without knowing who I am, or what commercial music is. A common, but costly oversight.
Which artists did I listen to the most? Ryan Leslie, Jesse McCartney, Sara Haze, Ryan Neilson, Tracy Cruz, Durojaiye, Gooding, Taylor Thompson, Rozzi Crane, Eoin Harrington, Samantha Molin, Tre Houston, Saint, and Curtis Peoples.
DEATH OF THE ONLINE REVIEWS
Last year I made a valiant attempt to convert to digital music submissions. The switch entailed venturing into the html hell that is MySpace. While I tried to access music from links that were broken, or sites that took forever to load in, my frustration mounted. I then came to a sudden realization: why should I go through all of this (spending an average of 2 listening hours per CD not including the time, creativity, and energy it takes to write the actual review) if someone is not willing to make the effort to mail a CD in order obtain the valuable marketing and publicity benefits that my reviews provide? This marked the death of the online reviews experiment. The bottom line now is that if artists don’t (or can’t) justify the effort to mail a CD, I can’t justify putting forth the effort to write one.
Every year I get approached by some website about doing reviews. I never entertain the idea. It’s rare in life when you are part of something special, but it’s a greater rarity when you meet people (even if it’s only been online) who embody the highest level of professionalism and are dedicated to providing resources for others to nurture and promote their special talents. Jodi Krangle, proprietress of the Muse’s Muse, is such a person. The Muse’s Muse is the number one songwriting resource and community on the Internet because of Jodi’s vision, dedication, and efforts. I'd like to thank her for allowing me to use this wonderful platform to grow, reach out, and make a difference.
Also in wrapping up this year’s Muse’s Muse Awards I’d like to send a special thanks to those who support me both directly and indirectly in my endeavors to provide a unique and quality publicity service to the music community. Teresa Conboy P.R., Chip Schultzman of Miles High Productions, and Strive Management who sent the top Muse’s Muse Award winners.
And now it's my pleasure to present
the 2008 Muse’s Muse Award Winners…
Click here for the list of Best CD Project Winners