Every so often, one hears a friend or neighbour speaking about this or that band. And unless the band is AC/DC or The Beatles or the like, people constantly ask why the band is not “bigger”. Or in other words, not playing to stadiums and making records that go quadruple-platinum all the time and such.
Before I say anything else, I would like to direct readers to the journal of one Digby Pearson, the CEO and primary decision maker of Earache Records. Dig, as he is informally known, shows a wealth of experience as the head of an independent music label that has been distributing all kinds of underground music since the mid-1980s (1985, to be exact).
Dig has been asked no end of times what the dealbreakers are when he is signing a band, and what he urges them to do in order to promote themselves. Often, these subjects are very closely related. And this is where we get one of the answers as to why band X or Y is not “bigger” than they presently are.
The reason AC/DC have sold more records than nearly every other artist in existence is not because they suddenly got a single on the radio and everyone became aware of their existence. That generalised fantasy about a radio play suddenly getting a myriad of paying customers is a complete bullshit story that only idiots with no understanding of how music, and business in general works, believe. No, what AC/DC did was to pack up a van full of gear and drive from one side of Australia to the other and back. They would stop and play at every truck stop, dive, and nowhere pub/bar that would have them. And they played well. Really well. Anyone who has heard songs like Jailbreak or Big Balls knows that AC/DC and Bon Scott were successful not because an agent took a chance on them, but because so many people were aware of what they do that agents no longer considered it optional to try to sign them. They literally played songs like that everywhere they could get to, and hundreds of times a year.
It probably is not a coincidence that their songs are designed for the beer-swilling crowd that lives, breathes, and dines in the pub. But I digress. The point here is that AC/DC‘s enormous record sales are driven as much by their live shows and playings of same as the sizes of their shows are now driven by their record sales.
This brings us to another factor that governs how big or small musical acts can get. Since about 1978, media ownership has been in an increasing frenzy of both consolidation and deregulation. Whilst the number of companies that control what listeners have access to is not quite a monopoly yet, it is not very far from that. And with less companies in a market trying to actually compete for the listener’s dollar, less variety is available.
It is also no secret that with the massive frenzy of deregulation in the past thirty years, people are making less money for the same amount of work. This might seem blissful for the owner-ruler class, but it is hell upon artists. And not helping matters is that all barriers to entry other than will and basic equipment have been removed. As Jeff Fahey says so well during Machete, entering the music business (or indeed any creative business) these days entails competing with every fool out there with a dimebag and a dream.
In a saturated market, even the best and brightest fail at an alarming rate. Which is just fine with the powers that be. Contrary to what the corporate media would have us believe, they do not want another Beatles. Hell, they do not even want another Bros. It is not because they do not wish to sell the illusion that if you try really hard and prove how talented you are, you can make it too. They like that illusion, especially when truly hard-working acts like the aforementioned AC/DC, as well as Guns N Roses, Queen, Metallica, et al offer some confirmation of it.
Also in a saturated market, if the product you happen to offer really is unique and something new, your chances of “making it” to the extent that the performers (musicians, I mean) that I have mentioned so far did are precisely nil. A monopolised market has no time for the like of My DyING BRIDE, Electric Wizard, or Butthole Surfers. They like to maintain an illusion that this is not the case, however. They like to bring things to market that make it seem as if someone in the marketing department understands why there is a growing but still underground demand for such artists. What the fooled often do not get is that for every Evanescence or Rammstein there is literally an army of Theatre Of Tragedy(s) or Pungent Stench(s) that the corporate media has built them up in order to stop curiosity from leading potential listeners to.
(This is a dirty trick the RIAA have been pulling for decades, which I like to refer to as denial and substitution. If an independent concern such as Earache acquires an act that makes a mockery of the RIAA’s claim to bring the best and fairest to market, buy it. If it refuses to be bought, smudge it out with pale imitation sound-alikes.)
The so-called MP3 revolution was supposed to put a stop to that. In the fantasies of the MP3 fan, artists were supposed to be able to reach listeners directly. Well, we saw how that worked out.
The truth is that until proper regulation of the market is restored and monopolists like the RIAA and Apple are divested of their control over the market, a lot of bands that have both the material and the drive to play it everywhere that drives all of the biggest names in music are unlikely to get anywhere.
The supreme irony of this is that during the opening stages of the great deregulation drive of the last thirty years, we were told this was all in the name of promoting further competition.
Which is basically the biggest point in all of this. Market conditions. The market conditions of 2013 and the market conditions of 1983 are two very different things. And the market conditions of 1983 were still different from those in 1963. Because the people controlling those markets were different.
Michael Moore once said of the heads of the studio system that basically controlled cinemas and everything seen therein that they were bastards, but they at least cared about the quality of their product. No such thing can be said of today’s media monopolists.