By Sofia Bell
They practice five nights a week, from 5 to 10 p.m. When they go out, they bring chalk to write their name on every city block, just to get the word out. When the Muni stops outside of their San Francisco home, they dance—they want people to get down. If you ever ask them what they want to do, they will respond, “I want to play music.” And if you ask what they sound like, they’ll tell you to check out http://www.myspace.com/battlehooch.
As recently as 10 years ago, the music industry was considered the biggest payoff in entertainment outside of film. But currently, all five of the major labels are in trouble, either losing money or barely breaking even. The labels will have to completely reinvent the way they do business if they want to stay afloat in today’s market.
But so will musicians.
In January, a number of UC Santa Cruz graduates moved to San Francisco to dedicate their post-academic life to their band, BattleHooch. The goal? To make it as professional musicians.
Ryan Huber, BattleHooch drummer who graduated from UCSC with a minor in electronic music, spoke to City on a Hill Press (CHP) about musicians and their willingness to raise standards despite the industry and having to navigate today’s promotional outlets.
“If you want to be really long lived, you don’t just want to make money in the temporary, you have to do something that stands out, that’s kinda revolutionary,” Huber said. “In some regard, it’s all about the artistic validity and its independence from the corporate scheme that supports it,” he continued. “If something is really great and destined towards greatness it will be found by someone and it’ll be spread.”
AJ McKinley, the lead guitarist of BattleHooch, agreed that the competition in the industry is fierce.
“The necessity for a large music industry to supply, discover, and produce music is diminishing, which hopefully will result in musicians being allowed greater artistic freedoms and easier, cheaper, more effective, more obtainable avenues for supplying their music,” said McKinley, who graduated from UCSC as a music major.
In 1877, Thomas Edison made the first recording of the human voice on a tin foil cylinder phonograph. Many altered versions of Edison’s invention followed, eventually producing recording technology that allowed for the production of fast, easy, and relatively cheap recordings.
When this became possible, musicians everywhere began recording their music at an incredible rate. The huge influx of recordings required some system to control production and filter distribution. Thus, record companies emerged. But as the potential for wealth in the industry increased, independent companies eventually gave way to huge conglomerates.
By 1947, six big companies, Columbia, Victor, Decca, Capitol, MGM, and Mercury already owned and controlled the majority of music being released. Today there are five major record companies, but industry experts say that their power is beginning to sharply decline.
But the music industry is still largely responsible for the majority of America’s taste in music. If you hear a song on the radio that you like, you run out and buy the CD. Sometimes it’s great; other times, it’s a waste of money.
“[The music] companies are not willing to take risks. They have to feel confident that they’ll have a good return. They have a calculated system,” Huber said. “[An album] could be a huge hit or a huge blunder and nobody wants a blunder on their back.”
McKinley pointed out that new bands are often expected to sell a million copies off their debut album. The problem with this expectation is that bands are often not given enough time to develop.
“That’s why they always pick these safe, middle of the road bands to invest in,” McKinley said. “But record companies are now losing lots of money and are totally dying out, so maybe it is total bullshit that [what the record companies release is] what people want.”
Being a musician in this day and age is an exciting and challenging proposition just as it has always been, but there is one major change: the Internet. The Internet allows musicians to operate independently of record companies in a way that has never offered so much hope of success.
Hector Lee Heaviside, of Loves In Heat Records, told CHP, “I believe the advancement and availability in technology in the last decade, especially the last five years, has given the independent artist and/or unsigned artist an amazing opportunity to use [this technology] as a vehicle to get ones material out to the masses for virtually free.”
The Internet has helped launch the careers of such bands as the Arctic Monkies and Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah. It has been a valuable promotion tool, a way of getting the name, the image, and the sound of musicians into the public. It can also be a huge resource for listeners who want to learn about their favorite band and find new music.
Grant Goodrich, bassist for BattleHooch, noted that not being on the Internet means losing potential fans.
“There are active searchers for music and then there are people who just want to chill off something,” Goodrich said. “They can remember the chorus, sing some lines, feel good, feel more powerful.”
With the way that major record companies are known to control musicians, many people argue that a decline is the best thing that could happen to artists and listeners.
But some people, such Tyler McCauley—a music journalist and lead guitarist and vocalist for the rising Bay Area band Tempo No Tempo—are not so certain of their demise, nor do they have an optimistic view of the future of the music industry if record companies collapse.
“The ‘industry’ of music will stand—’the demise of the record label’ won’t happen, I think—mostly because there always needs to be some kind of filter for the massive amount of music being produced,” McCauley said.
He continued, “Now, not to say that the huge, bloated corporate machine will still exist; we’ve seen in the last few years that it’s the biggest companies that are truly getting hit by the advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing and blog-generated buzz.”
McCauley noted that a select group of people will always return to “MySpace or blogs or mixed CDs or shared iTunes” to find new music, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of music-buying people will search too hard for music that they like.
“There needs to be some sort of filter for how people discover bands. But that filter will shift,” McCauley said.
Meanwhile, McKinley of BattleHooch believes that MySpace is a great way to promote his band.
“Quick, effective way to communicate! Here’s my bandâ€¦here’s what we look like, here’s what we sound like…what do you think? It is a great development for artists and consumers,” he said.
David Sinclair, from the music magazine Word, agreed that Internet presence is now extremely important to establish a new band.
“No new act can now seriously expect to get started without it,” Sinclair said, although he pointed out that record companies (and bands) will have to find a way to make money in a field that is dominated by file-sharing and downloads.
McKinley acknowledged that adjustments will have to be made. “Steve Jobs has the right idea,” McKinley said. “Charge a little for everything. Make everything available. Copyright laws are being turned on their head.”
With so many bands catching on to the virtual wave, is the Internet just a jumbled ocean promising success that no one can swim, or—with the right determination and know-how—can the Internet be the answer to the independent musician’s dreams?
For McCauley of Tempo No Tempo, the answer goes both ways.
“The good news is, more people are in control of who “makes it” to the national level,” McCauley said. “The bad news is, especially for the emerging artist, it’s still just as difficult to achieve such a level of success.”
Meanwhile, Huber believes that it will become harder for non-mainstream musicians to make it big.
“I think really artistic music is going to be somewhat challenging,” Huber said. “It is going to require people who [will] actively look for it [and actively work] to accept it. [Artistic music is] not going to be the first thing that people see—it requires people to have an intelligence to appreciate it and search it out.”
From MySpace to YouTube, Internet radios and blogs, the Internet can be a virtual playing ground of outlets for today’s artists and listeners, if they can discover how to navigate.
Danny Echeverria, a UCSC music major and lead guitarist of local band Daddy Crimbo, admitted that he did not prefer to look for new sounds on the Internet, nor did he put his band online.
“I don’t necessarily actively seek it out because there is too much there,” Crimbo said. “It’s unrealistic for me to expect other people to be able to find my music [through the Internet] if I can’t find new music that way.”
UCSC theater major graduate Dusty Heaton told CHP, “The possibility is out there to blow your band up and make it seem larger than life through MySpace and YouTube and whatnot, but the true rock bands don’t have enough motivation to do that.”
Though the Internet is allowing musicians to get their music out in public with greater ease than ever before, achieving success is still as difficult as ever before.
McCauley explained that musicians now have to be extremely media-savvy.
“David Bowie once said, ‘I had to become a better businessman to become a better musician,’” McCauley said. “The same is true—but replace ‘businessman’ with ‘promoter.’”
He continued, “With so many avenues for promotion—radio, blogs, webzines, compilation tapes, shows, flyers, etc—every musician needs to know how to get in contact with people and make valuable connections that benefit both parties involved. This can mean finding a venue where a band can draw a large crowd, or finding the right writerâ€¦to say something brilliant about your music.”
Through Internet promotion, McCauley’s band Tempo No Tempo has not only been reviewed on some of the most prominent independent music blogs, including Pitchforkmedia, but has also been able to sell albums and consistently tour. Tempo No Tempo recently headlined a show at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill.
But is the Internet the answer to musicians’ prayers, or a tease that promises good fortune only for media wizards?
Patrick Dale Smith, the charismatic lead vocalist of BattleHooch believes that in the end, a good band and the right type of promotion is what it takes for a group to become successful.
“The right bands will be exposed as long as there’s people out there who want to listen to it,” Smith said. “Maybe that’s what we should be talking about—are there people who are willing to expect more of music? I’m hoping yes.”