The digital age has changed music promotion for ever. Oh, the music never stops, sure, but the face of the music business has changed completely. We're blasted with stories and stats that tell us daily how illegal downloading has battered the music biz, but technology has also been a boon to forward-thinking artists.
Your mum might not like them, you may not have heard of them, but hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (AKA the barely easier OFWGKTA or – ah, nice and simple – Odd Future) are just about the most important band in the world right now. Billboard magazine has proclaimed them the future of the music biz, P. Diddy and Jay-Z went to war – and both lost – in a battle to sign them, and when they rap about slitting the throat of Bruno Mars the youth of the western world listens. Often too loudly, on phones, whilst travelling on public transport.
Yet, despite all of the above, hardly anyone buys Odd Future records. The band’s front man Tyler The Creator has nearly a million followers on Twitter, his Yonkers video has over 40 million hits on YouTube, but OFWGKTA’s first release from their deal with Sony failed to chart in the UK or the US, while Tyler’s massively hyped solo album Goblin sold only a solid 45,000 copies in the States in its first week.
That’s because the music industry has moved on. Moved to a place where one million Spotify plays of Poker Face – one of the most popular songs on the site – earned Lady Gaga a princely $167. A place where people don’t buy music. Hell, every Odd Future release is easily found for free online, and not just illegally; they’ve given away more than 20 albums worth of tracks for free.
The weird bit is this: they’re happy with the situation and, with their own TV show and gigs selling out in hours, they’re thriving in it. Maybe it’s time to stop consoling Gaga, Sting and Cliff Richard about the death of their industry and start looking at what other bands are doing to reboot rock and hip-hop for the digital age. Read on.
Making an album
The old way: If you weren’t already on a label, you needed to get finance to make a demo, send it around, get noticed, get signed. Once you had your deal, your label would loan you further truck loads of money – the studio rental cost alone for Rihanna’s album Loud, for example, came in at $25,000 a day. Once the record was out, the label would recoup their giant loan through sales profits.
The new way: No label, no loans, no unrepayable debt. Fans fund the cost of producing an album by becoming online investors in the project.
Examples: Cast, Swans.
There have been successful micro-lending sites like Prosper and Kiva for years now. You’ve probably seen them – they use multiple small payments for online investors to contribute to a larger goal, from building a business to owning a race horse. The same process is now being used by musicians. In effect, you buy the album in advance and become part of its creation. The more leftfield likes of German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten have been doing this for years.
Now, Pledgemusic is leading the way in this field, says its CEO Benji Rogers. “We built this system where artists can reach out to their fans via email, Facebook, Twitter and so on,” he tells us. “From day one you get access to a site which features video blogs, rough mixes and demos of the making of that album. “Then, depending on how much you pledge to the album’s creation, which begins with an £8 digital download, you get the finished record, but also autographs, hand-written lyrics sheets… It goes up to personalised listening parties of the album, where the band comes and plays at your house.”
Britpop survivors Cast were once one of the UK’s biggest bands. On Polydor they had the highest-selling debut album in the label’s proud history. In late 2011 they released Troubled Times, their first album for a decade, not on a major but via Pledgemusic. “I’m not into social media and all that sh*t,” John Power reassures us. “When this band disbanded there was no Facebook, no music even on the internet. We’re no spring chickens, but that doesn’t mean we’re not roosters. Times have changed and we’re into looking forward with it, not back, feeling nostalgic.
The Pledge thing was not about being down with the kids, it was about us making the album we wanted to do, how we’ve always wanted to do it.” Record labels were lined up, Power says, but, “With a label it’s about making money. They would want us to do the nostalgic thing, which wasn’t us. The stupid thing about it all, is that I can tell you now it would have cost us more to make the album on a label, it would have cost our fans more to buy it, and it wouldn’t have been as good an album. Ridiculous really and that’s why I think things like Pledge are the future of not just this band, but this industry.”
This approach makes artists approach music differently. Michael Gira of angry post-punk icons Swans recently sold a cheap-to-make live CD to fund the recording of the next “proper” Swans album via the web. It came in a plethora of different editions, depending on how much you paid; at the top end you could have signed artwork, executive producer status on the next album, gig tickets and even your name mentioned in song. What more could the man do to make his fans feel more involved, short of letting them play drums?