AMERICAN DISGRACE: The Systematic Removal of all Heart from the Music Business


This article was originally published in online magazine Pointless Banter on May 21, 2006.

We all knew it was just a matter of time before I did a rant on the state of music today. As a former (and possibly future) working musician, I got a firsthand taste of how a lot of these things work, whether it happened directly to me or not. It’s disheartening and sad. I’m not trying to write this from a standpoint of being a bitter musician who hasn’t “made it.” I’m merely trying to point out that the current state of affairs is frightening and disgusting, and that something needs to be done before we, as a people, have choked the last breath out of rock and roll forever. Playing music is not, anymore, about any of the reasons that true artists play it. We play in order to say something important, to reach people, and most importantly, because we love it. I’ll quote a line from the movie “Airheads”, where a band spends the entire movie trying to get a record label to listen to their music, and finally gets so frustrated that they hijack a radio station. For the rest of the world, it was a comedy. For a musician…well, we could understand how they felt. The line is “I’m just screwed up and average enough that I might write a song that could live forever.” That, right there, is what it’s about. I feel empty and hollow if I haven’t picked up my guitar in a few days, and it makes me just as happy to pick it up and play for my dogs as it does to play to a sold-out crowd. Of course, the dogs don’t buy me drinks afterward.

My point is, music used to be about art, love, and connection and now, it’s largely about the almighty dollar, and how soulless executives who know far more about business than they do music can make more of them. I won’t go too deeply into A&R and “points” and label executives, because that’s another story in and of itself. The following are the glaring, obvious examples that something is wrong with the industry, and no one is doing anything about it. (This is my opinion only. I don’t want rabid American Idol fans banging down my door.)

1) AMERICAN IDOL

This show is a disgrace. Besides the obvious things wrong with it, where they encourage talentless people who have the correct “look”, make fun of human beings (some of them deserve it a little, but why would they put the bad ones on the air at all? Oh that’s right – to make money off of them. America loves to laugh at people, don’t they?), and the fact that hardly any of these people remotely qualify as “artists”, this show represents everything that is wrong with the music industry. They’re making sure that the aspiring superstars are good-looking before talented, for one. The young man who was rejected just recently was sent home, it was said, because he didn’t have perfect teeth. He was also thought of as being the most talented. Isn’t there something wrong with that? I would have no problem with this show if it were called “American Karaoke”, and the grand prize was not a record contract, but a six-month run in Las Vegas, doing your celebrity impersonations. Because that’s what you’re doing. It’s glorified karaoke, and not worthy of the adoration of the American people (or idolatry, if you will), and certainly not worthy of a record contract. Very few of the winning contestants even write their own music – it’s written FOR them, and they merely sing it. If America wants to find talent, they need to send scouts to any club in America where original live music happens on any night of the week, and witness the bands that are working three jobs, busting their asses on less than four hours sleep per night, writing their own lyrics and music, and performing it for no money and no thanks. That’s love, and that’s what should be glorified. However, what do we expect, in a country where some of the top performing artists are little more than dancing puppets?

2) POP-TARTS

I almost titled this column “Whatever Happened To Rock And Roll?” It’s difficult not to feel that it died with the last gasp of nineties grunge and the wave of progressive rock-metal at the beginning of this century. We happy few realize that rock and roll doesn’t have to die, we merely have to wake it up again. Americans need to stand up and declare in one voice “I will not be spoon-fed any more canned pop tripe!” The music industry has discovered what the government discovered years ago – that the majority of us are sheep, and will buy whatever we are told to buy. This is why people like Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Ashlee Simpson, boy bands of any sort, etc. are famous in any capacity. These acts rarely write for themselves, hardly ever sing for themselves live (lip-syncing live for many of these acts is extremely common. Apparently it’s rather difficult to sing and shake your ass at the same time), and have no discernible talent whatsoever. This is why one must respect an act like Madonna. Despite having an incredibly complicated dance routine to get through, she kept herself in excellent shape, wrote her own stuff, and never lip-synced. She pulled off a hell of an act because she had talent and cared about what she was doing, and worked her ass off to do it well, and with credibility and flair. Ashlee Simpson couldn’t be bothered to put on a real show for the couple hundred people in the Saturday Night Live audience. I’ve said it before and I shall repeat it: If your major talent is shaking your ass, then perhaps you should get a job shaking your ass, not singing. Most of these people can’t sing anyway. Did anyone catch Britney Spears’ live rendition of “I Love Rock And Roll” a few years ago? If Joan Jett had been dead, she’d have returned from the grave to bitch-slap Britney Spears. How about Jessica Simpson attempting to sing “R-O-C-K in the U.S.A.”? First of all, any drunken frat boy who can read the lyrics can sing this one, yet she couldn’t pull it off. This is beside the fact that neither of the songs done were written by either one of these women. They’re little more than glorified karaoke singers, and they are bad ones.

This is getting lengthy, so I will get to my third and final point, even though there are far more things that I wish I could have talked about. This subject would be capable of spawning a book. Here’s the part where I get sort of technical. Bear with me. Actual numbers are borrowed from Steve Albini’s “The Problem With The Music Business.” Steve Albini is an independent and corporate producer best known for producing Nirvana’s “In Utero.”

3) THE MUSIC BUSINESS IS NOT SET UP SO THAT THE BANDS CAN SURVIVE

It’s true. Everyone thinks that “rock stars” are rich in addition to being famous, and that’s rarely the case for working bands. I remember reading an article on this several years ago, and it pointed out that if you take a band such as even Green Day, who are arguably one of the biggest bands in the business, they didn’t (according to the article) see ONE DIME from the sales of Dookie, the album that made them famous, for almost two years. The reason for this is that everyone gets a cut of the revenue before the band does. Your label, producer, management, and several other people take their cuts before you do. Often a label will advance you money to cut a record, and the deal is that you’ve got to tour until you pay it back. They take every dollar you make until the advance is paid back, and their standard percentage after that. The biggest source of income for a touring band? T-shirt sales. Surprised? All told, a band maybe sees $1.80 of the seventeen dollars you paid for their CD. They see most of what you paid for the T-shirt, after paying for the cost of the shirts, printing, and a guy who sells them. The reason CDs are so expensive is that there are so many people to pay out of the sales of them. Bands also rarely see any noteworthy chunk of what you pay for a concert ticket, either.

Here’s a breakdown of what a newly signed four-person band makes, once they’ve “hit it big.” Let’s say that the major label they’ve just signed to has decided to advance them a quarter of a million dollars to get their record going and a tour started. Sounds like a lot of money! And with the help of a video, the album sold like hotcakes! They sold a quarter of a million copies of the album! The figures, however, will show “just how fucked they are”, in Albini’s words. (Figures borrowed from Albini article. Income is bold and underlined, expenses are not.)

Advance: $250,000
Manager’s Cut: $37,500
Legal Fees: $10,000
Recording Budget: $150,000
Producer’s Advance: $50,000
Studio Fee: $52,500
Drum, Amp, Mic, and Phase “Doctors”: $3,000
Recording Tape: $8,000
Equipment Rental: $5,000
Cartage and Transportation: $5,000
Lodgings While In Studio: $10,000
Catering: $3,000
Mastering: $10,000
Tape copies, ref. CDs, Shipping, misc.: $2,000
Video Budget: $30,000
Cameras: $8,000
Crew: $5,000
Processing and Transfers: $3,000
Off-line: $2,000
On-line editing: $3,000
Catering: $1,000
Stage and Construction: $3,000
Copies, Couriers, Transportation: $2,000
Director’s Fee: $3,000
Album Artwork: $5,000
Promotional Photo Shoot And Duplication: $2,000
Band Fund: $15,000
New Professional Drum Kit: $5,000
New Professional Guitars (2): $3,000
New Professional Guitar Amp Rigs (2): $4,000
New Potato-Shaped Bass Guitar: $1,000
New Fancy Rack of Lights Bass Amp: $1,000
Rehearsal Space Rental: $500
Big Blowout Party For Their Friends: $500
Tour Expense (5 weeks): $50,875
Bus: $25,000
Crew (3): $7,500
Food / Per Diems: $7,875
Fuel: $3000
Consumable Supplies: $3,500
Wardrobe: $1,000
Promotion: $3,000
Tour Gross Income: $50,000
Agent’s Cut: $7,500
Manager’s Cut: $7,500
Merchandising Advance: $20,000
Manager’s Cut: $3,000
Lawyer’s Fee: $1,000
Publishing Advance: $20,000
Manager’s Cut: $3,000
Lawyer’s Fee: $1,000
Record Sales: $250,000 @ $12 ea.: $3,000,000
Gross Retail Revenue Royalty: 13% of 90% of retail: $351,000
Less Advance: $250,000
Producer’s Points: 3% less $50,000 advance: $40,000
Promotional Budget: $50,000
Recoupable buyout from previous label: $50,000
Net Royalty: $-14,000

As you can see, the band, after cutting a record and a video, promoting it, and touring for five weeks, is $14,000 in the hole. Let’s see how their record company did:

Record wholesale price: $6.50 x 250,000 = $1,625,000 gross income
Artist Royalties: $350,000
Deficit from Royalties: $14,000
Manufacturing, packaging, and distribution: @ $2.20 per record: $550,000
Gross Profit: $710,000

Well, that’s certainly curious, isn’t it? The band ends up $14K in the hole, and the record company ends up $710K ahead after five weeks? Maybe it all balances out in the end. Let’s see:

The balance sheet: How much each player got paid at the end of the game:

Record Company: $710,000
Producer: $90,000
Manager: $51,000
Studio: $52,500
Previous Label: $50,000
Agent: $7,500
Lawyer: $12,000
Band Member Net Income Each: $4,031.25

I’ll sum up by including the conclusion of Albini’s article:

The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would if they had been working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month. The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never “recouped,” the band will have no leverage, and will oblige. The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won’t have earned any royalties from their T-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys. Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.

Is it any wonder that rock and roll is dying? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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