Greg Sandoval over at CNET has a piece up about Radiohead and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and their experiments with “pay what you want” record releases. Greg is the guy who wrote the recent story in which Trent said he wasn’t that impressed by the response to his album (Reznor also mentioned the idea of an Internet tax to compensate artists for downloading, which I said was a dumb idea).
Sandoval’s headline says that artists shouldn’t miss the lessons that Radiohead and Reznor offer. And what are those lessons? Apparently, they are that musicians aren’t business people, and that “the music business is probably better left in the hands of businessmen.” The CNET writer goes on to point out that most musical acts fail — EMI says that only 5 per cent of its artists become profitable, apparently — and therefore artists still need the record labels to handle the business.
With all due respect to Greg, I think “the music business is better left in the hands of businessmen” is probably the worst advice I’ve heard in a long time. Do artists like Reznor or Radiohead need people with some financial acumen, or staffers who can handle the details of marketing, packaging, etc.? Of course they do. But it’s a long way from that to saying they should just remain shackled to the traditional record labels.
As for the line about only 5 per cent of EMI’s acts being profitable, that’s hardly surprising. For one thing, many of the label’s acts are unadulterated crap, which even millions spent on marketing and hype cannot spin into gold; and for another thing, the overhead of a traditional label like EMI is astronomical — for all the mid-level managers and their salaries and bonuses (never contingent on actual sales, of course). That’s presumably why the new owner is slashing and burning.
So pay attention to the lessons of Reznor and Radiohead, yes — it will be work to sell your own material, to market it and to profit from it. It’s not a licence to print money. But at least you can be in control of your own destiny to some extent.