Apr 2011

Rob Shrock interview: Q&A

Composer/producer, Rob Shrock, recently participated in a Music Industry Q&A with Producer, Ron Nevison (Led Zeppelin, Heart, Jefferson Starship) and Musician/Artist, Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson). Below is Rob's section of the interview:

Question: Why do you believe some record labels were so successful in the past but now are struggling to make profit?

Rob: For the past 25 years, CD sales have largely been propped up by people re-buying older music from vinyl and cassettes and not necessarily based on buying new music. Now, as CD sales are finally declining overall, the major labels are realizing they haven't built anything for the future. All the new music has been mostly fluff and not built for long-term catalog strength.

Unfortunately, even though there have always been a lot of upstanding individual people at record labels, their business model has ALWAYS been built on taking advantage of the artists: stacking the deck against artist recoupment; less than honest bookkeeping of sales and royalties; and paying less than was fair when they did pay.

It's far more complex than that; but it's a truly broken business model built on creating products where 9 out of 10 fail miserably. No other business could be built on such a record of failure: a toy company can't stay in business if only 1 out of 10 toys they put out actually sells. They'd go out of business! So change is gonna come. Actually, it's already here.

Q: How has the introduction of online sites, like iTunes and YouTube, impacted the way major record labels operate?

Rob: Unfortunately, the major labels have been very slow to actually change the way they operate as a result of these and other newer services. However, the end result is now an artist can independently see his/her project through from inception to creation to audience exposure (Web sites and YouTube, etc.) to sales (Web site, iTunes, etc.), all without the help of—or interference from—a major label, however you wish to see that. It’s made them less relevant.

Q: Other than the obvious reason that they are perceived as free, why have a generation of music fans gravitated toward the illegal, free digital downloading sites over the commercial sites?

Rob: Long story; but the major label heads simply wanted to hold on to the status quo for as long as possible... a very “Wall Street” kind of mentality. So, instead of adapting as an industry, they initially waged warfare on file-sharing. (They did the same thing back when cassette tapes made their debut; they maintained everyone would copy albums and they would go out of business. While a lot of tape-copying did happen, it actually resulted in more people listening to more music, which resulted in higher sales overall--the opposite of what they thought. Same thing happened to the film industry after VCRs… industry growth!)

Anyway, there was a window of time for the labels to get the interface and the pricing right for downloading, and, like many industries run by large corporations, they were too slow to act effectively when they needed to. Technology moves fast, so the independent thinkers and computer programmers came up with a solution in spite of the labels... and it wasn't the one the labels wanted. In fact, it was Apple—a computer company not really interested in music—that finally stepped in and put something decent in place after all the illegal sites were already up and running. But the damage had been done.

Lesson: if you don't get a seat at the table, you don't get to choose what you eat. The labels did not participate in the process as it was happening, so they didn't get to be a part of making the rules, establishing the protocols and—most importantly—setting the perception of the new technology in the minds of the public. Instead of being advocates for music they became the adversaries of music in the minds of the audience. And, rightfully so.

Q: Do you see the future of music gravitating more toward digital downloading of customer-owned files or digital streaming from "the cloud"?

Rob: Eventually, I see streaming as the future of the bulk of the income generated for the industry. If the music industry can ever get off their collective asses, they will admit that something like the cable TV model will eventually be adopted and adapted for the music business, and that accommodates the ever-changing variety of playback devices. However, since digital data can currently be stored and carried, there will still be files and file-sharing for the foreseeable future, too... the problem there is that just has never been monetized correctly… many of us feel it still isn’t priced right, it should have been less expensive. Physical product sales will continue to dwindle; but they will still be around for a long time; there are still older generations who believe their music should be something they can hold in their hands.

Q: How should record labels adapt to digital downloading and streaming to remain both viable and profitable?

Rob: They're going to have to move into more of a management role... the old model of developing artists and selling records is simply disappearing. The one thing they do still possess is the power to put someone in the spotlight. But even that power is dwindling for the labels, as TV has so much more of that power now... and sliding a reality TV star into music is pretty easy when there are a lot of eyes already on them. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re any good and/or the audience will support them.) Plus, you've got all the American Idol-like TV shows exposing pop singers. The problem there is it's a narrow genre and type of artist being exploited, so it's ultimately boring and not really productive for the music business, in general. But that's another discussion.

Q: Do you believe new emerging artists desire or seek "record deals" as much as the new artists ten years ago did? How has that changed and why?

Rob: No. Many artists are still brainwashed to "go out and get a record deal!" as the centerpiece of their ambition. But the best and smartest new artists are now doing it on their own, and ONLY if/when partnering with a label makes good business sense do they do that. That's also what older established artists are doing, too, as they either get dropped or leave their labels. There are plenty of examples out there now.

What labels are asking in return for a record deal gets worse every year for the artist. So, it better be a GREAT deal that has the star-making potential of making the artist a household name before it is a good idea, usually. And there just aren't many of those deals around anymore. So, the responsibility is now on the artist to do something great and build an audience first, and not rely on a label to do it for them.

I believe this is better for the music business, in general. One of the fundamental problems we have is too many people who consider themselves artists are in it for the wrong reasons (only about money and fame) and are crowding the airwaves... and most of them truly aren’t great. If it gets harder because you have to do more on your own to actually build a well-rounded profitable business out of it, then the weak and less-committed will eventually fall away and it’ll be a little easier to find the cream. That's the hope, anyway. But the Web allows anyone to put their crap out there, and we have to sift through that. We do still need some kind of filtering process; that’s just not going to be the major label machine anymore.

That’s the part of this that interests me… what the mechanism will be for filtering out the fluff. Right now, the public is doing that via YouTube, Twitter and blogs. I like that.

Q: As record labels are forced to transform how they interact with artists due to the changing business we are currently witnessing, what advice would you give to a person wanting to make it really big?

Rob: If you could bottle that formula, everyone could do it!

Have a great, loyal, trustworthy team around you that fights on the side of artists and that don’t also have the labels as their primary clientele (especially your attorney). Build your foundation on great songs, great recordings and go find your audience first. Labels want to piggy-back on artists that are already proving to be successful. They don't take the development risk anymore. Then, have a team that can recognize and follow-through when the big opportunity comes that can move you into a national or international audience.

Most of all, be patient and persistent!!!

Q: With the increase of online availability around the world, how have some recording artist’s careers benefitted from potentially having an international audience? Is there a downside?

Rob: Upside? The obvious is it allows artists to do music in genres that may not be local to where they live and reach anyone with an Internet connection, which is growing yearly worldwide. Whether you're interested in German Death Metal or New York avante-garde jazz you can do that from wherever you live and potentially reach that audience from a distance. More fans = more fans.

Downside? There is still a lot to be said for a local scene and vibe... sometimes you just have to be there to be successful. It depends on the genre and style. Some artists may feel falsely secure in pursuing directions and scenes that aren't necessarily going to be successful for them because they rely too much on the perceived "reach" of the Web and aren't actively participating by playing shows, meeting people, etc. and being a real part of something. And if you build a following online in, say, Japan but can't afford to actually go there and tour, you're losing out on revenue… the Web allowed you to build something you can’t really follow-through on. So, a lot depends on the specifics of each artist. It’s a mistake to believe the Web is going to solve all of your problems.

Q: Do you believe that artists releasing their music independently online (without a label) will lead to more personal and unique artistic statements? If so, will this independence add to or hinder their potential popularity?

Rob: Obviously, it can lead to more unique statements. Not having a label, A&R guy, Marketing Dept., etc. chiming in on what an artist must do is freeing to the artist in many ways. A lot of times, major labels drag things out and force directions on artists that suit THEIR agendas, not necessarily what's best for the artist. Many successful, experienced artists know themselves and their audience best; and they are better off without the interference of the "suits" when it comes to the creation of the actual music, especially in light of the way labels have historically dealt with this matter and mishandled things. 

On the other hand, the majority of artists sincerely need guidance from those with more experience and knowledge than they have themselves. Just because an artist can put something out unfiltered doesn't mean they should! Face it, a lot of music out there is just not very good at all. Many times a producer or a label can make a song, performance or arrangement much better than it would have been if the artist did it on his own—that's their job, and many are gifted at what they do. And a great manager can create deals the artist could never dream of or even have time to pursue. Most artists need input and guidance to actually be great. So, it depends on the artist.

Regarding popularity… that's going to depend first on the artist finding their best path for making their best music. That will affect its popularity more than anything else… how great the music is. And people still respond to great music. The good thing today is: there is an audience for everything. The CHALLENGE to the artist and their team is finding that audience.

Q: If you could only choose one option, would you rather create a hit song that would reap zero profit but would become extremely popular worldwide OR would you want to have a semi-popular or localized hit song and receive a fair profit? Why?

Rob: There is real merit to both.

Obviously, you have to make money as an artist over the long haul or you simply can't stay in the business. Even if you are operating completely independently, you still have to pay for recordings, producers, engineers, touring band, equipment, etc. So, a string of moderately successful recordings (and TOURING!) should actually be the long-term goal. No career stays at a peak; but the true artists with staying power simmer at a steadier level most of the time and they just hang on and enjoy the ride if/when things get big and boil over temporarily... until it all settles back to its normal simmer. But that boil-over is always a temporary state and not the norm for practically all long-term artists.

On the other hand, a mega-successful hit or form of mass exposure can propel an artist to national attention and give them the opportunity to add to a fan-base they would not have gotten otherwise. So, it might make sense if it's a situation that results in an artist blowing up huge, though you should never negotiate your end from that perspective.

But they're only going to be able to make it stick if they've truly got the goods and can deliver once they have the attention of an audience. Otherwise, they'll just be a novelty, one-hit wonder and won't have a career. See Rebecca Black. The mega-hit pop audience is the most fickle of all. In fact, I wouldn't even call them fans, because those that follow the current "big thing" quickly move on to the next big thing and don’t support last week’s thing. That's not a way to build a career for an artist, especially a career that's profitable. Being famous for a few weeks and being a successful artist are two different pursuits.

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