Before one can adequately look at the gimmicks themselves and whether they work, it’s crucial to look at the reasons why more and more marketing plots and enhanced rollouts are occurring. If history dictates that they’ve always been a part of the industry’s life cycle, then why are longtime industry vets like Lawrence, DeRogatis, and Silverman feeling such exhaustion? What sort of crisis has occurred to garner a ramp-up in efforts to be different and unique and unlike anything presented ever before?
Right off the bat, money seems to be a major factor. By now, it’s no secret that labels are hemorrhaging money, and they have been for years. It feels like labels have been in a downturn for so long that it’s hard to remember when they were more financially viable and successful. Despite issues in amping up or even maintaining album sales, another industry vet doesn’t see the increase of gimmicks and more varied rollouts as being inspired by financial means.
“I disagree on the battling dwindling sales angle,” says Steve Martin, whose Nasty Little Man represents the likes of Radiohead, Damon Albarn, The Breeders, Nick Cave, and Arcade Fire. “The recorded music business is in a state of transition, to say the least, but the McCartney/Radiohead/Dave Grohl/Arcade Fire/Jack White/etc. business is doing just fine. Things are more stable than they appear when you’re talking about artists like the ones I represent.”
Instead, Martin points to the same history and backstory as DeRogatis and Lawrence, highlighting a time when cold, hard cash was the only tool necessary for success.
“I’ll tell you what the genesis of all this is, in my opinion,” Martin starts. “When I started in this business 20+ years ago, making a splash was all about how much money was shoveled into your campaign to get your song on radio and your CD into big chain stores. That doesn’t work anymore. Now you have to be more creative to stand out above the din. I think that’s an improvement, don’t you?”
There you have it: creativity, the phrase on the lips of many bands, label heads, and publicists across the great musical divide. As Martin puts it, we’re in a golden age in the here and now, one where greed and petty pursuits are a thing of the past, replaced by an obligation to push envelopes and mine new wellsprings of ideas.
“Creativity is more necessary than ever,” he says. “That’s a trend I like. I prefer being on calls and in meetings where the manager says, ‘Who’s got some really creative ideas?’ than the ones in the ’90s, where PR was an afterthought, where the radio and sales guys held court and we would just occasionally be asked where the cover stories and big TV appearances were, what we were doing to back up their hit single.”
It’d be easy to dismiss Martin’s talk of a new-age renaissance if the idea wasn’t shared by the entities most people associate with the real creative process: the bands. Singer/guitarist Taylor Rice of Local Natives said he recognizes that while bands and labels aren’t as flushed with cash as they one were, it’s helped breed a better mentality.
“I think it’s awesome when bands are involved in curating how they share their music from the creative side,” he says. “No one is Led Zeppelin anymore. Fans can get close and personal on the Internet with bands, even if those bands refuse to take part in social media themselves, so why not be the one in control of how they see you? I do think there’s a whole jungle of knowledge having to do with the media and promotion that there’s no reason for a band to get bogged down by, though.”
Photo by Debi Del Grande
If anything, Rice recognizes that these rollout campaigns are not a way to help recoup money, but rather a stopgap as an entire industry attempts to rewire itself in terms of selling music as a viable commodity.
“It’s necessary for labels and a music industry built around buying LPs,” Rice says of gimmicks and enhanced rollouts, “but I don’t think it’s a long-term reality. It is a bit like throwing buckets of water out of a sinking cruise ship. As a person who loves LPs, wants to buy them, and wants to make LPs people will buy, it’s still a goal I have myself, but we basically gave up on the idea of making a living off of selling recorded music a long time ago.”
For Rice and his bandmates, being creative isn’t always about ploys and buzz words; it’s about recognizing that a band needs to take on a more proactive role in their career.
“It definitely shocks me when I find bands being tossed around by their labels, or that they’ve signed away live rights,” he says. “I want to shake them and tell them they don’t have to do it that way! We’ve been really happy working with both our labels, Frenchkiss in the US and Infectious in the rest of the world, both of which have always let us do whatever we want and been nothing but super supportive.
“We do concern ourselves with how we present ourselves to the world, whether it’s our artwork or music videos or the live show. The important thing is that it comes from us and not out of the mind of some ad agency. In most cases, the ‘PR campaign’ and the album itself have little to do with each other. The Internet creates a democracy for music where people vote with their feet, and you can think of the labels’ PR firms and media as the Super PACs trying to throw money around to control the conversation.”
The other side of that conversation, inevitably, is that this brave new world has nothing to do with expanding creative potential. Instead, it’s making it harder and harder for bands to really utilize any meaningful sense of creativity. Echoing her disapproval of an increasing tendency for over-sharing, Silverman said there’s a huge disconnect in the fundamental relationship between album sales and their respective campaigns and budgets.
“I think its becoming harder to be more creative in the marketplace where nothing is a secret anymore,” she says. “When your band has the profile of Katy Perry or Arcade Fire, I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to spend copious amounts of dollars on marketing gimmicks. Most of these ideas become fodder for the ever-shifting news cycle for about 24 hours and then “poof,” onto the next breaking quirky idea/story. If you look at Arcade Fire, (the first week) release of Reflektor did not sell more than their previous record in the first week.
“However, what fans do not know is that the marketing machine this time out was run by Universal Music, and I will assume the money spent on pre-album marketing likely tripled or more. The sales did not reflect the increase in marketing dollars spent. Merge Records did an excellent job on their own marketing and providing for this band, but there is a certain point where you need the strength of a much larger team and network to get your goals achieved. It’s not always just about money. Sometimes it’s about bandwidth.”