It’s been nearly two decades since an unsigned artist has hit #1 on the Billboard charts. Back in 1994 Lisa Loeb, an unknown, unsigned singer-songwriter from Dallas completely lucked out and landed her song “Stay (I Missed You)” in the Ethan Hawke project Reality Bites. 20 years later, however, the game has changed. Music videos, and MTV for that matter, no longer have the promotional sway they once took for granted, the music industry itself has been forced to understand a medium that is still light-years ahead of any marketing strategy they have yet to discover, and YouTube has effectively replaced “Music Television” and radio as the primary source for new music for the masses.
Enter Macklemore, a white rapper from central Seattle, who with the help of his contributor and DJ Ryan Lewis, has turned the recording industry on its head once again by using a catchy tune, a eye-popping video, the niche of bargain hunting and (of course) Youtube to reach #1 on the Billboard top 100 list.
This, of course, is not an isolated phenomenon: who can forget Gotye’s hit “Somebody that I Used to Know” that, due to the viral video from the Toronto indie act Walk Off the Earth, gave the Aussie crooner a boost in the charts, which (after he signed) reached #1 and stayed there almost all summer. Even more recently with the K-Pop explosion of PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, a relentlessly catchy tune that set records for Youtube views and catapulted this relatively unknown Korean homer to international super-stardom.
This explosion of relative unknowns upon the ear-drums of the masses is like a kick in the pants for the “Big Four” (Sony, Universal, EMI, and Warner) and they are finally realizing what artists from all over the globe have known for almost a decade – the traditional means of music distribution in order to monetize work is being subverted by the Internet, and there is no turning back.
This is not to say that independent artists have not suffered from the changes of the past decade. Far from it: independent artists are now literally forced to place their work, free of charge, online with the faint hope that the mass collective known as the Internet deems it worthy to become viral – thus your fortunes are set (at least for about 15 minutes).
However, the fundamental difference between the independent artist and the Big Four is that the artist literally has nothing to lose. Without free publishing or distribution via the Internet the artist was forced to make copies of their own work and hope that it is good enough to “make it out on the streets” or hope against hope that a record company comes a-knocking. This was a dead-end game for the artist, who suffered in shitty bars and nightclub circuits for decades before the internet gave everybody the same opportunity to see and to be seen. It was during this time of street-hustling music and nightclub circuits that the Big Four (or other large record labels/media conglomerates) consolidated their monopoly. They had the deals with the record stores, they owned the distribution and publishing houses, they owned the recording studios, it was they who decided what was marketable and what was not – and that’s the way it was.
That’s not to say that the Big Four still doesn’t know how to make money – if anything can be said about them, it’s that they know how to make money. They have, and to their credit, focused more on digital sales of singles and albums (http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/05/technology/digital_music_sales/index.htm) , begun marketing merchandise and have become a more active participant in how live shows are marketed and presented, and they have even taken a page out of the book of the independent label and begun to press vinyl again (http://www.nme.com/news/miscellaneous/61453) – for the hardcore audiophile in me, this is exciting to see!
However, the power of deciding who makes it and who doesn’t no longer rests in the hands of the Big Four and although they still seem to think that “artists need the labels to make it big”, artists such as Macklemore have proven, and will prove time and time again, that they indeed do not.
by Craig Clemens