As a musician and songwriter, one thing I’ve been doing lately is to take steps to make my music more visible and accessible. One way I’ve done this is to create a MySpace Music page
and use it for networking.
The other day I got a very complimentary message from a producer/songwriter in Nashville regarding my songs, telling me that he felt the recordings were rough (which I knew) but that the songs themselves had potential to reach a wide audience if they were re-cut.
So I called the guy. (What would you have done if you were me??)
What transpired was a long and eye-opening conversation. He was very nice, took his time on the phone with me, tried to answer all my questions, but more importantly tried to give me a realistic view of the music industry and what it takes to “make it.”
It was enough to make the faint-of-heart…well, faint. Here is a summary of the most significant parts of the conversation.
The days of sending in demos and getting “discovered”, he told me, are pretty much over. These days, there are so many people bombarding the record labels that for them to even look at you, you have to already have made a buzz, have some sort of following, and be able to prove you can sell records. (This is one reason, I believe, why indie music is exploding right now; it’s almost like you pretty much have to already have made a successful record in order to get signed.) In his words, with the music industry, it’s “all about money”–all about selling records–and they won’t take a chance on you with their money unless they are fairly certain they will make money on you, no matter how talented you might be. And speaking of money…it costs a lot–a lot–to make a competitive recording and get it noticed. A lot.
As potentially disheartening as this information might be, it does make some sense up front. The labels have apparently made it very difficult to get “signed,” and it’s primarily for their protection. But…as I mulled this stuff over, I looked at the fruit of what the major labels are producing….and overall, it leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of good talent out there, and lots of records are being sold…but the truth is, we haven’t seen a new superstar talent of the caliber of Cher, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Madonna in decades now. (And Britney Spears doesn’t count.) You know what I’m talking about–the “it” factor, the talent and creativity behind the production, that makes an artist stand out above the rest. I think one of the reason American Idol and shows like it have been so popular is that there is a creative void, and people are getting hungry and even desperate to find the next big thing. But it honestly isn’t showing up, not the way it once did. The music is all running together, with more and more artists in the field, but fewer and fewer that stand out. Lots of technology and sonic wonderment–very little creativity. That’s what we have to show for the music industry’s current policies. That is the fruit.
So, why am I ranting about this here? Because in mulling it over, I found a startling similarity between the music industry and something else I talk about often on this blog.
It would seem that the American music industry is very much like institutional Christianity.
It is an institution, with policies, protocols, structures, formulas, exclusivity, and well-established mindsets of how things ought to be done–and a slough of unwritten rules to be learned and kept–just like the institutional church. If you play by the rules, you might find acceptance within the culture itself; but will you really be effective in what you are supposed to be doing? That’s the spitting image of the church today. Lots of exclusive clubs, very little effectiveness in reaching people with Christ’s love. And in a different way, we can see the music industry growing more and more ineffective in its own field, for very similar reasons.
I find this particularly interesting because when you realize what you’re up against, you have to make some decisions. When we see institutional Christianity for what it is, we have a choice to make: we can choose to stay within it and try to work for meaningful change from within; or we can choose to look for a better way outside its structures. My journey has taken me outside the walls of the institutional church. I can now see the music industry for what it is, too; I wonder if my journey into the music field will take a similar path to my journey of faith.
I don’t know the answer to that one yet. What I do know is that it would be wise for some folks in the music industry to start thinking outside the box. I believe the other reason why the indie music scene is exploding is because creativity is going to find a way, and because the public, little by little, is discovering that freshness in many of the upcoming artists who are making a way for themselves without the help of major labels. Just as there is a quiet shift going on in the church right now, there appears to be a similar shift taking place in the field of music. The shift in the church, I believe, is part of God’s plan; the shift in music may or may not be. But the reality is, when institutions of any kind make forward movement impossible, at some point, movement will find its way around it.
It’s just very interesting to me how similar the two are.
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