Monday, March 17, 2014

A New Model for Music: Big Bands, Big Brands

David Carr/New York Times

I like Doritos as much as the next guy. More, probably. And I admire Lady Gaga for her handcrafted rise to the top of pop culture. In Austin last week, the salty, cheesy wonder of Doritos was brought to you by the sweet, uplifting allure of Lady Gaga. Or was it the other way around?

That blend of sweet and savory, corporate and personal, commerce and art at this year’s South by Southwest festival, also known as SXSW, was a reminder that music can no longer pay its own way. In a streamed world where music itself has very little value, selling out is far from looked down upon, it’s the goal.

Don’t blame Lady Gaga, SXSW or even Doritos. The consumer wants all the music that he or she desires — on demand, at a cost of zero or close to it — and we now live in that perfect world.Continue reading the main story

It doesn’t feel perfect, though. At this year’s festival, historically a place of artistic idiosyncrasy, music labels were an afterthought and big brands owned the joint. Venues were decked out with a riot of corporate logos, and the conference’s legacy as a place where baby bands played their little hearts out to be discovered seemed quaint in a week in which Jay Z and Kanye West kicked it for Samsung, Coldplay headlined for Apple’s iTunes and Tyler, the Creator played a showcase for Pandora.

This new order evolved because when music moved into the cloud, not much of the revenue came with it. CD sales are a fraction of what they once were, and the micropayments from streaming services have yet to amount to anything meaningful. It’s a grim state of affairs, but corporate America, in search of an elusive demographic, has been more than willing to fill the breach.

Given that Bob Dylan, of all people, recently made a big-money commercialfor Chrysler, none of this is surprising, but it still has implications. No one will miss the stranglehold the large music labels had on the industry, but having shoe and snack food companies decide what is worthy could strangle the new, unruly impulses that allow the music business to prosper.

You hear a lot of the Ramones on commercials these days, but if the suits were in charge when the band was first playing, you never would have heard of them at all. (Anybody who wonders about the impact of big companies as cultural gatekeepers need only go see a studio blockbuster.)

For South by Southwest, Lady Gaga filmed something of an infomercial for Doritos, urging people to use the hashtag #boldstage and submit a video of themselves doing something “bold” to compete for access to her performance. (In fact, any journalist covering the event was required to do the same thing, which explains why I — and my colleague Jon Pareles — were not there. If we had done so, we would have consented to “give sponsor a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, nonexclusive license” to use our social media efforts to sell corn chips.)

We missed quite a spectacle, from what I can see in video clips and news reports. Lady Gaga was smeared in barbecue sauce and mock-roasted like a pig and then, with the ink on the check from Doritos barely dry — and with millions destined for her charity — she bit the tortilla chip that fed her. “I won’t play by your” — insert street-cred adjective — “rules,” she said.

She then wagged a crooked finger at her fans who were shooting pictures on their phone and had tweeted their way in at her instruction: “When you leave this earth, no one is going to care what you tweeted. Don’t let the machine and don’t let technology take you from this earth.”
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And in a move that might seem redundant given the irony that she had already coated herself with, Lady Gaga invited the performance artist Millie Brown on stage to drink a bottle of neon green liquid and vomit all over her. Her actions — to happily shill for Doritos, then deliver a lecture on the importance of independent thought — perfectly encapsulate the conflicted state of the industry.

(You could say it was a new low, but last year, I saw Public Enemy, musical heroes of my youth, perform “Fight the Power” inside a mock Doritos vending machine.)

At her keynote address on Friday, Lady Gaga thanked Doritos and said plainly, “Without sponsorships, without all these people supporting us, we won’t have any more festivals because record labels don’t have any” money.

Carrie Brownstein, the star of “Portlandia” who played in the rock band Sleater-Kinney for years, was in town with her co-star Fred Armisen to speak on a panel. Like many, she marveled at the number of brands that wallpapered the festival.

“I almost felt like I was in festival-land and the bands were there as part of the theme park,” she said. “Still, it’s good there is a physical place where people gather to watch music because so much of it seems to come from nowhere at a cost of nothing.”

With record sales a thing of the past, she said, “everyone in music is trying to figure it out and there is no algorithm for that. It’s very treacherous.”

Peter Gannon, a former rocker in a band called Calla, is now a senior vice president at the advertising agency McCann Erickson and was searching for new talent at SXSW. He smiles at the turn of events, but says he is playing the game that is on the table. He wants collaborations to go beyond putting a brand logo on a performance, pointing to a recent campaign on behalf of the national parks by Nature Valley that included Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt.

“The willingness of artists to partner with brands happened because revenues dried up from physical discs,” he said. “The labels are not going to get a lot of sympathy because they were not very good to artists. At least when a brand is involved, there is an understanding that we are borrowing the cachet that the artist has built and we try to make high-quality projects that give value to both the client and the artist. ”

There is another way, albeit much tinier. While Lady Gaga was doing her thing for Doritos, I was down the street at a showcase for Merge Records. Founded in Durham, N.C., 25 years ago by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, Merge persists by carefully picking the bands that it works with, keeping costs low and producing almost artisanal merchandise — CDs, vinyl records, T-shirts and posters — that fans want to buy. Every once in a while, a small success becomes a giant one, as it did with Arcade Fire, the label’s biggest seller by far.

Mr. McCaughan, whose band Superchunk still records and tours, says he is still in the business of selling music, not chips.

“You can’t guilt people into buying records or get them to stop just grabbing MP3s, you have to give them something they want to support,” he said over breakfast on Thursday. “We have to sell records to make money and to do that, we have to work within people’s short attention span for music. Doritos is trying to get you to look at one thing, and we are trying to get you to look at another thing.”

It is, he points out, a great time to be a music fan. Obscure reissues, B-sides, live performances are all there in friction-free and sometimes plain-old-free formats. But for bands, it is attention amid the clutter that has become expensive, especially at SXSW, where 2,000 acts are looking for love in all the same places.

But for all the mania, South by Southwest can still amaze. One night, I went to see a very accomplished band on the back patio of a bar near Red River Street. As I made my way through the dark, sweaty room in front, I noticed an insistent sound and turned to see Team Spirit, a beery collection of punkish rockers having the musical time of their lives. I made a mental note and when I got back to my hotel, I downloaded some of its music. Given that bands survive partly from the sales of actual physical artifacts, I may even buy a T-shirt.

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