With virtually nothing happening news-wise, I thought I might tag along with the whole “Throwback Thursday” craze and bring you a Lazy-i blog post from 10 years ago that focused on The River’s New Music Summit. Funny how little has changed since this was written, despite the onslaught of the internet (which was just starting to have an impact), though you’ll note not a single mention of streaming or Spotify as they didn’t exist yet. These days, 10,000 unit sales by any band — indie or otherwise — is notable, especially when you consider selling 20,000 copies of an album during first week of release will put you in the Billboard top-10.
Who wants to be a rock star? The River Music Summit rehash – Lazy-i — June 28, 2004
Let me preface this to say I was probably the wrong person to be on Saturday’s panel at The River Music Summit. Just a glance at the audience pretty much indicated that the vast majority of the 300+ people in the audience were metal fans, loyal listeners of 89.7 The River and support how they operate their station. I don’t listen to The River and don’t agree with their decision to play mainstream commercial metal on what’s supposed to be a college radio station. Regardless, the audience was made up mostly of musicians whose idea of success is moving a million units and being on MTV (or a Clear Channel radio station). Successful indie bands are lucky to sell 10,000 copies of their CDs. Really successful indie bands could sell 100,000. Almost none of them sell a million.
So anyway, here I was on this panel. To my left (according to the program) was Andrew Linde from Tinderstick promotions, a company that handles a lot of indie bands. To my right, three or so current or former radio executives, none from traditional college radio stations. At the far end of the table, Mike Fratt representing Homer’s Records and MarQ Manner representing Delmar Productions. Linde and I were clearly outnumbered, but then again, I doubt the majority of this audience cared two shits about the indie music scene.
The core message — how to promote your music to radio and press — was more of a seminar on how to get your music on commercial radio — i.e., how your band could be the next Korn. Sophia John, the program manager at 89.7 The River, did most of the talking. Appropriately, I said very little. At one point I had a chance to ask the crowd, “How many of you would be satisfied selling 10,000 copies of your CD?” A few dozen hands went up. Then, “How many of you would be happy selling 100,000 copies?” About half the audience raised their hands. Finally, “How many of you won’t be happy until you sell a million copies.” Here, more than half the hands went up.
Later I asked, “How many of you are in this business to make a million dollars?” One hand. Good. “All right then, how many of you are doing it for the money?” Some hands, not many. Then, “How many are in it for the music?” Most hands went up. I told them that if they could be satisfied selling 10,000 copies, they could make music the way they wanted to make music. But if they want to be on a major label, they’re going to have to compromise to the suits, and will lose control of their music — talk about stating the obvious, eh?
Still, I doubt this was what the organizers wanted communicated at the summit. The radio guy next to me made the point that the music business is all about greed — he was a real Gordon Gecko type. Sophia’s message was that The River was going to save the Omaha music scene and that it’s the only radio outlet for local music.
There was some verbal jousting between Sophia and the panelists (me included). Her and Linde argued over debt and major label record deals. Linde said that most musicians don’t realize that as soon as they sign with a major label, they’re immediately in debt. Why? Because the advance money and promotional costs are really loans to the bands, that the label is acting like a bank, loaning money that they expect to recoup through CD sales. Sophia took exception to this, asking Linde to name one band that had to pay back an advance to a label after they were dropped. Linde said he knew bands that were in that exact situation, but couldn’t name names. Sophia said she’d never ever heard of a failed band forced to repay a label. An apparent VH1 Behind the Music watcher in the crowd yelled, “What about the Goo Goo dolls?” Sophia yelled back, “What about the Goo Goo dolls? They’re making millions of dollars for themselves and their label.” Yeah, the guy said, but what if they hadn’t gotten signed by Warners after they were dropped by Metal Blade?
Sophia was right, of course. It seems doubtful that a major label would call out the dogs to get advance money from a failed band, probably for the simple fact that 1) It would cost more in lawyers fees and bad PR to pursue it and 2) Because the band simply doesn’t have the cash and probably never will. But wasn’t Linde’s point the fact that the bands are, in fact, in debt from the second they sign a deal? Sure, they may never have to pay back the money, but they know they’re still responsible for it, that they ethically should do what they can to pay it back. Instead, one of the panelists pointed out how it’s important for bands and musicians to set up a separate incorporated business so that the labels can’t sue them for their personal money.
Sophia didn’t like my admiration for Saddle Creek Records (It should be pointed out here that I asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had even heard of Saddle Creek Records. I counted maybe seven or eight hands). I mentioned Saddle Creek early in the panel as an example of a label that would be doing pretty well if a new artist sold 10,000 copies of a CD. That, despite the fact that Creek’s total sales since it was formed wouldn’t equal a tenth of what Eminem sold of his last CD, the label is still held in the highest esteem as a leading national indie label.
So, when someone asked about press kits, I said I threw one-sheets away — put your info on the internet along with your press photo and include the URL on the CD case. I then made the mistake of mentioning how Saddle Creek printed a brief bio on the back of their artists’ promo jewel cases. Sophia had had enough. “Saddle Creek! Is that the only label you can talk about? What about Suckapunch Records?” I replied that I didn’t think Suckapunch printed their bios on the back of their discs, then went on to talk more about Creek, which was met with Sophia’s shaking head… Oh well.
I’m guilty. I like Saddle Creek Records, their artists and what they’ve accomplished. I also think it makes sense to use them as an example as they’re the second most successful local record label (Mannheim Steamroller being the most successful overall, Creek being the most successful rock label). Historically, The River hasn’t been the biggest supporter of Saddle Creek. But according to their website, they now play Cursive and Azure Ray in rotation. Still, it’s embarrassing that you can’t hear Creek’s most successful band, Bright Eyes, on the radio in the band’s own hometown.
Sophia’s last argument (with me, anyway) came when a couple of the execs were talking about how artists get their music played on the radio. Their point appeared to be that the name of the game these days is “pay for play.” I kind of got lost here, when out of the blue, Sophia said she didn’t know how reviews get published and asked if bands or labels pay to have reviews placed in the paper. No, I said, newspapers don’t receive payments for running reviews. But Sophia disagreed, saying that it might not have happened in my experience, but she was certain that it happens all the time, which she said would explain a lot of the bad CD reviews that she’d read.
Sophia may be right. I can’t speak for Rolling Stone or Magnet or Alternative Press. I don’t know anyone who works at those pubs. They may very well be rolling in payola from CD reviews. But somehow, I doubt it.
At the end of the panel, I think the audience got what they wanted to hear. At one point, one of the radio guys said something like “I know these guys are telling you to be satisfied with selling 10,000 CDs, but I’m telling you the guys from Korn were sitting right where you are now, and they did it. You can too!”
At The Waiting Room, Skypiper headlines a show with KC band We Are Voices and Omaha’s Let Alone. $7, 9 p.m.
Over at The Barley Street, Riverside California band The Naked Time headlines a gig with Mitch Gettman and Congruency. $5, 9 p.m.