Elsewhere

The New Authenticity In Pop

If the web was going to change the business of music, where would we see that change? Would it be deep in the bowels of established music labels, rapidly innovating to self-cannibalize their old business models? The established distribution channels, like radio? Uh, no.

As usual, the disruption starts at the edge, with independent artists, new music scenes, and music lovers who are looking for something not pushed like toothpaste or dog food, something authentic:

The Year in Pop - Viral Stardom and Martial Dance Music- Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliffe, and Jon Caramanica via NYTimes.com

JON PARELES Well, what is the mechanism? I think what’s going on is that audiences like to find music on their own. You’re having so much stuff thrown at you, like you have Rihanna just blasted at you from all directions, and you think: “Wait a minute, I want something that’s mine. I want something that I’m curious about, where my curiosity hasn’t been smothered by the barrage of marketing.”

RATLIFF That’s the new authenticity. You found it by yourself or with a few of your friends online.

BEN RATLIFF We were talking about Tumblrs last year — sort of little online boutiques that don’t sell you things but shape your taste. Now this year something’s been proven: Pop performers can become truly famous by building their careers themselves online, maybe more efficiently and faster than a major company can help them to do.

JON CARAMANICA Especially if a major company is secretly helping them to do it: 2012 was probably the year when you started to see people who were birthed of the Internet, in about as true a sense as you can, become equally successful in a hard-dollars sense as people who have been birthed from of a major label.

RATLIFF Give us an example.

CARAMANICA A couple of things jump out at me this year. One, you look at the first-week sales numbers of someone like Kendrick Lamar, who had an independent album that was digital only and is now on [the major-label] Interscope, but basically has no major radio hits, even if he is well-liked by mainstream hip-hop. He comes out and sells about 240,000 in his first week. A couple weeks later Rihanna comes out — not her first album and at the height of her pop fame — and sells a few thousand less than Kendrick did.

RATLIFF It’s incredible.

CARAMANICA If I worked at Def Jam [Rihanna’s label], and I’m looking at those numbers, and I had just flown a bunch of journalists around the world to make sure that my pop star had a tremendous amount of presence, and she can’t even sell as many records as a guy who basically can’t crack the Top 20 in the Billboard R&B/hip-hop song chart, I’m really stressed. I think another good example is Lana Del Rey. This starts in 2011 with Lana Del Rey as an Internet thing, and then there’s an Internet backlash, and then there’s an Internet backlash to the backlash. And yet when she comes out [with “Born to Die,” her major-label debut], she not only does respectable numbers, she is someone whom people, for better or worse, took as seriously as any number of pop stars who were born inside the major-label system this year.

JON PARELES Well, what is the mechanism? I think what’s going on is that audiences like to find music on their own. You’re having so much stuff thrown at you, like you have Rihanna just blasted at you from all directions, and you think: “Wait a minute, I want something that’s mine. I want something that I’m curious about, where my curiosity hasn’t been smothered by the barrage of marketing.”

RATLIFF That’s the new authenticity. You found it by yourself or with a few of your friends online.

CARAMANICA Right, but when it turns out that a few of your friends are actually as many people as enjoy Rihanna, that says a lot of things about trends that maybe were there all along, but there wasn’t a frictionless way to serve that kind of interest. And now with the speed with which Internet things are turning into real-life things, it’s not going to make a lot of sense for a label to spend $1 million in development upfront on a pop star who may or may not succeed when you can find someone with a tremendous following online, put a little bit of cash in at that end, and then get the cream off the top.

These writers are so close to the show that they can sound just like the executives that run the labels, who could be tone deaf but have calculators where their souls are supposed to be. Deciding to shift their model to what’s working, partly because it will save them money, but mostly because it speeds everything up: there will be hundreds of artists building followings out there, all in parallel, much more happening in a shorter time than all the entertainment capital in the world could do in the old, ‘fly journalists around the world with Rihanna’ push-based marketing. Instead, stand back and watch (or seed fund from the shadows) social media marketing, and monitor what’s working. 

It’s a shift to trying to create and control a market, to becoming brokers and investors *in* a larger, more social world with ten thousand smaller, denser, social markets. 

I won’t go so far as to say that the folks behind these labels have moved to the edge themselves, but they have certainly turned their radar in that direction, and we can anticipate a continued hollowing out of the old, cold label-driven music business in 2013 and beyond.

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