Wake Me Up Before You Go Go

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Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
The beginning of the end of what we know

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

As we get ready to turn the corner on 2004, I-ve been reflecting on the last year. Overall, it-s been a year of spectacular change. In fact, it may end up being remembered as the beginning of the end of the business as we know it.

Ironically, the race to digital downloading has been the bright spot on this cloudy horizon. The clear market leader in the race is Apple, with iPOD's becoming one of the most desired Christmas gifts for 2004.

And with this kind of digital growth, the major label system we have known will fall into serious peril. The financial stability of the major labels was built on an economics of selling full length cd's, not songs.

The major label industry knows how to find talent, finance the recording of records, and market the music -- only when selling 10-plus songs at a time. They-ve never planned a model for track-by-track sales, and the reality is, no one else has come up with a plausible Plan B.

It-s not all bad news. A lot of individual artists, particularly those who have built a strong base of supportive fans, who own their own master recordings and can be self supporting touring the country, will be able to build their own boutique record label if they want. That can be highly lucrative in fact. But, make no mistake about it - they are able to do it because someone, most likely a major label, invested to help build that artist a foundation, before 2004.

For new artists, it-s an entirely different proposition. There are really only two ways most artists sell music in this country -- touring and radio airplay. This is where the real problems come in.

Touring is a very successful way to build awareness and sales, but it can take years to generate a self-supporting fan base and that requires a lot of money.

So artists look for radio airplay to bridge that financial growth gap. But commercial radio stations are not programmed like public radio stations. Commercial radio programmers listen to songs the way bankers look at investments. They are particularly uncomfortable supporting new artists.

In fact, commercial radio programmers rarely take chances by listening to the sound of a record. Instead they rely on competitive radio stations success with the song.

How well did the track do at that station in Seattle?

They look at the label commitment.

Was the label able to tour the band on the heels of the Seattle airplay?

Finally, they look at how connected and willing the artist is to show gratitude. Was the artist willing to support that station with interviews, concerts tickets for giveaway and advertising time buys?

Program directors want to feel a significant force behind an artist before adding a record, and in the past, they-ve looked to the major label-s involvement as that indicator of commitment. The reality is, most commercial radio stations won-t even program independent releases today.

Major labels are marketing machines, with staffs dedicated to breaking artists. If the digital revolution continues, the profit margins will be exponentially smaller, and the label system will surely die as we know it. It will probably cause a lot of changes in radio and touring, which is certainly very good and much needed.

Next week, key music industry executives from around the country will meet in Aspen Colorado for an annual business conference. This year, the theme is Save the Music Business. It-s not just a good headline - the organizers, who are well connected longtime industry vets feel that if something isn-t done soon, there just won-t be a business left.

It brings the phrase, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party to a whole new light. If you work in or around the music business - prepare yourself - it-s going to be a bumpy ride.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.