Friday, June 20, 2008

Some Lefsetz Wisdom

"...prior to MTV, there were different genres of music. All with notable successes. But MTV anointed specific stars and everybody else was either a has-been or an also-ran. You were either a winner or a loser. Now MTV plays no music, radio listenership is declining and a hit record doesn't generate a career, doesn't even allow you to fill the building in most cases." - Bob Lefsetz

I wonder how many songwriters are even aware of the truth of this statement? The "hit song industry" is dying. Some of us were early victims, but apparently many writers still believe the naive advice of such organizations as the NSAI, who continue to promulgate the notion that songwriters are being groomed for staff deals all over Nashville when in fact there are no staff deals to be had unless you've just been a finalist on American Idol, or you already have a satchel of valuable copyrights (proven chart hits) to hand over with the deal.

If you are spending all your energy writing the Nashville hit, you aren't preparing for the future, it's as simple as that. What you
should be writing are great songs that can be spread virally by, and to, music fans of all ages. Eventually radio will no longer "serve up" the formulaic hits, the packaged and vetted songs that have had the the heart and soul, the "cream", skimmed off the top before they're marketed. People no longer look to radio and the record industry for guidance about what's good, what's worth hearing. The jig is up.

" The AM radio hit was the cherry on top, not the starting point. Sure, FM radio helped, but the endless touring at a low price cemented the deal. That touring was today's file-trading, today's spreading of the word, outside the system. Does the system build or kill acts? Is a hit record the best thing that can happen to you, or the worst?"

Faith and Tim can't fill the arenas anymore. Tickets are ridiculously overpriced for these top heavy tours. It's no longer practical to conceive of an industry based on entourage-touring. A tour is barely doable in a van with a trailer unless you're U2 or the Stones.

What shows are people paying to see? They pay to see low priced quality shows featuring artistic singer-songwriters such as John Prine or Josh Ritter. They pay to see jam bands at festivals. They go to clubs to hear the latest alternative acts in the mold of Death Cab, Radiohead, or Cross Canadian Ragweed. What do you, the songwriter, pay to see? If Carrie Underwood and Gillian Welch are playing in town on the same night, and you can see Gillian for $30, but you have to pay $75 to see Carrie, is there
any question about which show you'll attend?

Is there even going to be an industry for songwriters in ten years? Yes, but it might be the type of industry that reflects the Bernie Taupin career rather than the Brill Building or Music Row staffwriting career. Indy labels sign nothing but self contained artists-- singer-songwriters and bands that write their own material. Why? Well, for one thing, the Indy audience isn't naive. They
know who writes the songs, and they value great tunes. Secondly, it's just easier to work with, and promote, artists who don't have to find songs or careers through outside channels. So, surviving the climate change might mean honing your skills as a collaborator-- and not just as a co-writer of radio ditties, but as a substantive artist who can collaborate with other substantive artists.

In the future you may be at a disadvantage if you don't understand the difference between song art and radio fodder. Turn on AM radio and listen to the pandering lyrics, the inane topics, the Gerry Springer-Dr. Phil mentality run amok. Who needs to pay for this when it's already sent out through the airwaves on radio and TV everywhere for free, all the time? Pay for it? Hell no! I need to
escape from it! Now find a quality podcast, or listen to Woodsongs, or Mountain Stage, or Doug Lang's excellent Canadian broadcast called Better Days. This is where the real music is circulating.

I'll let Bob have the final word.

"...what it's come down to again... Are you any good? Can you play your instruments? Can you write innovative material? Can you touch people's souls? Can you change their lives? Can you infect them to the point where they'll come to your show for years?
That's the future of this business. Not dominant superstars, but tons of journeymen, super-serving their fan base."


Jannie Funster said...

You continue to inspire!


Anonymous said...

amen, brother Craig. This encourages me all the more to follow through on my thoughts of ditching cable tv, spending my money on a faster internet connection, and honing my creative skills during all the time I'll save not watching the clones on tv. My concern is that of the live music scene, which I think is vital. Will live music become mostly local artist-driven due to the high cost of gas, or can those journeymen singer-songwriters and bands, super-serving a fan-base, make up that cost through savvy internet marketing, and continue to make new fans not only through the internet and good radio but also live shows? Will this system truly be able to support those artists who prove themselves worthy?