Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Know How #2: Who Develops Our Artists?

In the second seminar hosted by Generator as part of ‘The Know How’ series the attention shifted away from the first event’s emphasis on platforms and getting noticed to a focus on answering the question ‘who develops our artists?’.  The underlying context for this session was to consider some of the difficulties facing the UK music industry in the current economic climate.  There is no doubt that the UK is rich in new musical talent, however, record labels no longer have the resources to develop talent as they did historically forcing the us to question who the primary representatives of artists these days.

The panel for this event represented a number of different intersecting interests.  The session was chaired by Jim Mawdsley, the CEO of Generator and the person responsible for organising the annual Evolution music festival in Gateshead and Newcastle.  The remaining guest panellists included the lead singer of the North-East band Maximo Park, Paul Smith as well as Cerne Canning of Supervision Management (the manager of Franz Ferdinand and The Vaccines) and Jim Chancellor who is the Managing Director of Fiction Records. Together they considered some of the changing roles played by artists, managers, labels, lawyers and publishers.

Artistic Development

The session opened with a discussion of what artist development means in the current climate.  Canning made the point that the industry is ‘changing very rapidly’ – the advent of digital downloading has transformed the industry and brought back an emphasis on the single.  Whereas the 1980s and 1990s were marked by an emphasis on albums as a means of artistic development and management, the current period is one wherein the demographic is driven by singles and this is making it hard to develop artists over the long term. There’s a sense of stasis amongst the labels. The threat of a format shift to streaming with an emphasis on revenue driven by subscription services has led to a situation in which nobody wants to invest in long term contracts for fear of a lack of sustainability.

This current climate is one permeated by uncertainty in the context of artistic development.  There is no end to the supply of talent and bands will always need varying degrees of development or guidance, but how that transpires depends partly on labels and partly on the artists themselves.  As labels are investing less in promotion there has to be a more going on around the band, often in the social space in order to generate interest.  Smith noted that Maximo Park were relatively fortunate with the support they received from their label, Warp, when they signed and started touring.  As a band they had no money but Warp were happy for the band to follow their artistic vision and paid for the initial ‘leg-ups’ llke the tour van and initial recording sessions, but this was mainly due to the success of their first self-released 7” single.  Other labels had wanted to get involved, and “some of the bigger record companies had wanted to manipulate” them into being something they didn’t want to be – Warp were happy for them to carry on being who they were.  According to Smith, artist development should come from the artists who should have the songs that form the basis of a great album otherwise it becomes a struggle when they find themselves in the spotlight.  The message here is that it’s crucial to have management and record companies who know what to do with the music and that it’s not wise to engage with the media process until artists are ready

Maximo Park clearly embraced a DiY approach to artistic development which can give artists a certain amount of freedom.  Chancellor concurred stating that the “wise labels” will let artists develop the way they need to.  In some regards A&R is a often thought of “as a bit of a dirty word” and that if an artist is savvy enough then there is often no need to tamper too much.  However, pop bands tend to require more A&R support than the indie bands.  Canning claims that the best artists are not subject to excessive A&R interference, citing the recent success of artists like Florence + the Machine, Adele and James Blake.  He also cited the example of Radiohead whose first album was subject to A&R guidance which enabled them to break through – the famous guitar riff in “Creep” came about due to Johnny Greenwood’s annoyance with the label’s guidance regarding their development.

Managers

Labels like artist to have an established manger these days as this minimises the risks they face when investing in artists.  Canning made the point that the experimentation of artists like Tom Whaite or John Cale in the 1980s, many of which who went on to sell very few records, would never happen today as labels are too afraid of letting artists loose in amazing studios with top producers.  Smith noted that a good manager is invaluable early on – you need to be able to trust them to tell you that the song you’ve written is good enough for everyone else:
“You end up investing a lot of trust in these people [managers] you’ve only just met… They’ve helped us do the right thing … I just write songs that I think are good and want somebody else to tell me whether they are the right ones to release as singles…
To me they all sound like singles except in an alternate reality where I’m the DJ selecting them on the radio.  A lot of my favourite records never made it to the top 10 so I’m not really the best judge of that”
When asked about the importance the role managers play in building visibility for artists Chancellor suggested that they can be “massive” or they can do  “nothing”.  Canning suggested that some managers drive the artist while sometimes it’s the artist that drives the situation, as in the case of Crystal Castles – they didn’t have a manger until well after they'd created a significant presence.  There appears to be a dearth of excellent managers currently as it’s so difficult to survive or make a living in the industry, to the point that many lawyers are starting to multitask and do the role traditionally associated with managers. Chancellor noted that one of the key skills a good manager needs is to be “in tune” with the band. He cited the example of the manager of the band, Brother, who is doing an excellent job at the tender age of 21.  He has “sniffed out” some good connections and worked his way around the business quickly.

Promotion

The discussion considered the various forms of effective promotion.  Playing live is a significant part of promoting emergent talent – trying to get onto the line-ups for some of the smaller festivals is possible but its much more difficult to break into the larger ones due to the established networks and relationships which determine these.  Mawdsley suggested that artists only need to invest in PR when they are ready to release a single.  However, many artists might find it more cost effective to do their own promotional work, as Smith did with Maximo Park’s first album (he wrote the press release).  Chancellor said that a lot of music bloggers are now filling the void left behind by the lack of label investment and they are doing the A&R work for artists.  The requirement for recording demo tapes has been replaced by uploading tracks to SoundCloud and distributing them that way.  Canning noted that labels are expecting bands to do their own marketing now and this has produced a culture of ubiquity in which a lot of the mystique of the artist has been ruined as a consequence of oversharing information.  Many bands don’t want to blog all day long, especially if it distracts them from being creative, but it can help establish a presence

Overall, the panel painted a rather pessimistic picture of the situation facing artists who want to break through into the wider public consciousness.  There were glimpses of hope in terms of what artists can do to take control of the situation but the overall take-home point is that emergent artists need to work hard and be prepared to work for nothing for a long time – it’s not feasible to expect to make it big overnight

You can find a rather poor quality audio recording of the seminar here:
The Know How: Who develops our artists by robjewitt

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