Take the Music Back – An Interview with Campbell Umbers

Gene Simmons recently declared that ‘rock is dead’, before being publicly rebuffed by the likes of Dave Grohl and Slash. It’s a sentiment that never ceases to rear its ugly head every few years, by some jaded rock start trying to maintain relevance in the new millennium. Record sales are plummeting across all genres, but that doesn’t stop young hopefuls from bringing the noise in tiny sweat boxes the world over, hoping one day to make it big like all their favourite rock bands. The Record Crate in Glebe is one of the noble venues hosting these humid hoedowns, and tonight two-piece That Red Head are set to blow the roof off with their own brand of dirty blues rock. The lights dim and the band emerge before a capacity audience, starting their set with a stripped down take on Johnny Cash favourite, ‘Ring of Fire’. Immediately, the entire crowd is singing along to the timeless tune, and I’m fighting the urge not to stand up from my seat. People still pay for and enjoy quality music, it just doesn’t receive the support it needs to thrive in the 21st century.

I’m sitting with one half of That Red Head, guitar-slinger Campbell Umbers, in his newly built home studio. Light barely penetrates this musical bunker, whose walls are lined with guitars, a drum kit, and a variety of other instrument oddities. He lights up a cigarette and nods in agreement. ‘I passionately believe that people will enjoy and pay for good art if they’re exposed to it’, he asserts before taking a long drag, ‘so for me the fundamental is creating a good product to begin with, which needs money’. Artists the world over are desperately trying to circumvent the strong arm of the record label machine, and are now procuring funding directly from their fans through services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Progressive death metal band Ne Obliviscaris successfully funded a world tour through crowdfunding, raising over 80 thousand dollars in just a few weeks. However, as Cam was quick to point out, ‘the crowdfunding thing isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a pre-existing fan base’.

He continues, ‘The Kickstarter model’s interesting, and it would be good if it could work in that how it works for like tech start-ups where you provide a working prototype and in this case maybe some demos, and then people get on board and fund it’. One can’t help but agree. Music, the infinitely diverse creation of patterned sound, does not have the same assured return for consumers as technology with a specific function in mind. Eskimo Joe may be able to rely on their status as a seasoned rock act to crowd fund an album, but local musicians like Cam simply don’t have the clout to draw in substantial contributions. In fact, Cam believes that crowd funding sites such as Kickstarter may actually be hindering the value of music. ‘I think crowdfunding actually perpetuates this is that the – if music’s not being devalued, the value has been sort of nebulised’, he posits amidst the smoke wafting between us. For Cam, the record industry needs to find a solution that doesn’t decrease the value of music, and allows both established and up and coming artists to flourish.

‘The Kickstarter thing again is a bit like the Band Camp model, which works in a lot of ways, but pay what you like, it’s not a clear value’, Cam asserts. The value of music is something that has been thrown into question with the digitization of the economy and the advent of P2P Filesharing. Where once major record labels set the value for music with their pricing schemes, anyone can put a value on it based on what they’re willing to pay. ‘I really believe that you know – you go out and you buy a record, you pay 15 bucks for it – whatever. And, y’know, that’s your value of music,’ Cam suggests, echoing the sentiment. If we can’t maintain that value, musicians won’t have the resources they need to create and record new and interesting music. Cam is in the same overcrowded boat as every other musician trying their luck in one of the most fickle industries on the planet. Where most artists merely lament the state of the industry whilst continuing to be its slave, Cam is determined to make a difference.

His studio is the home base for what he hopes to be a profitable business in the future. Working long into the morning hours, like some kind of mad scientist on the cusp of the ultimate break through, he produces and records a number of local bands as well as his own material. I was invited over to watch him mix a few of his own recordings in the middle of the night, which he hopes to release on his self-made label, Smiling Fish. He’s excited because he’s just found a Chinese woodwind instrument on the side of the road, complete with its own casing. As I arrive, he gets it out of its fluorescent orange home and begins playing it, wriggling his eyebrows as he moves between notes. After putting it away, he eagerly shows me his plans for an upcoming album he intends to release through Band Camp. The music drones through the speaker system and disturbs the listener with the aural intensity of an existential crisis, in some ways reflecting the record industry’s inability to find its place in the modern music landscape.

Despite Cam’s grievances with Kickstarter, he is certainly more optimistic about Band Camp, which sees independent artists and labels coexisting on a relatively cheap distribution platform. ‘Band Camp published that 40% of consumers pay above the minimum price setting’, he notes, ‘but, I think that there’s [a] significant presence of major artists on there already that would kind of dilute those figures.’ Cam has opted to pay for his own Band Camp account for Smiling Fish Records, as the first stepping stone towards realizing his dream set up. Although the data may be diluted by the many larger independent labels operating through Band Camp, Cam posits that, ‘I like the Band Camp model as a model of online distribution. Their commission is very low. You maintain all of the intellectual property rights around the recording and the musical work.’ In providing a cheap platform for recording artists, Band Camp has empowered independent musicians in the fight for publicity in an industry which grows more diluted by the day.

Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of recording music in the first place, nor does it account for any kind of creative stewardship. This is where Cam’s studio, and his desired business model, comes to the fore. ‘For me it’s all about creating a really good product. Historically that’s been a collaborative process between artist, producer and label as well,’ he asserts, using Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as an example: ‘Alan Parsons produced it, had a major influence on it. But I think the biggest thing to look at is EMI provided for Pink Floyd the space at Abbey Road for months and months and months to do that record. And I think that’s something that can be replicated.’ Certainly, Pink Floyd is an ambitious example, but Cam believes it’s the duty of small-time label owners to have a hand in nurturing the artistic direction of their musicians, and give them the tools they need to make the best album possible. As an artist, Cam has to believe people are willing to pay for good art, and the passion with which he explains his grand business plan is definitely convincing.

‘My personal solution – what I intend to do – is to build a business that is label-distribution-management: as much as we can handle, but be able to provide that service of creative direction and production in-house.’ This is all part of Cam’s plan to maintain a higher level of quality in music output, and develop a reliable brand around the business of music recording and distribution. He insists that this can be done relatively cheaply on a small scale, and is an investment in a better product. Cam simply doesn’t have time for the major label’s focus on quantity over quality, producing what he calls ‘inane Christmas bullshit’. He continues, ‘I think a lot of the reason for the decline of the music industry is not only piracy but also in that people aren’t selling a good product that you can emotionally engage with and that you can get really excited about.’ As any avid music listener will tell you, they are more than willing to pay for the music they love, it just needs to be made available to them. Major labels may put all their eggs in the bubble-gum pop basket, but in doing so have neglected to treat the consumer with the respect they deserve. This is what separates Cam’s grand vision from that of the recording industry hierarchy.

Cam is, however, quick to give praise to Jack White and his Third Man Records venture. ‘If you look at Jack White’s venture with Third Man Records that is a very, very successful company built on the premise of creating a quality product that people can get excited about,’ he proclaims. He’s not wrong; one glance at the sale of vinyl in recent years shows that his latest record, Lazaretto, has sold more copies of any vinyl release since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. In the process, the record also broke previous records set by Radiohead’s King of Limbs and his own Blunderbuss in 2011. A format thought on the brink of extinction until very recently has had new life breathed into it, all thanks to Jack White’s dedication to producing a quality product, and Cam hopes to emulate this success through his own venture. It is not an alternative form of funding that is going to save the music industry, as Cam puts it: ‘the way I think of alternative ways of fucking making money out of music is just bringing it back to the fundamentals of creating a good product that people can engage with.’

As part of building a brand around his business, and a reputation for quality music releases, Cam intends to invest in a set up not all too dissimilar to The Record Crate. ‘My plan, as I mentioned earlier, is to have an in-house recording set up, but situated somewhere with prominent frontage, and a bar and venue onto the street, so you have a first point of contact with your consumers where they can engage with your brand in a very easy fashion.’ Cam is practically jumping out of his seat as he explains this plan to me in great detail, and it’s hard not to believe him. He leans back into his seat, takes one final drag of his cigarette, and stubs it out on a nearby ashtray. I realize at this point that it’s time to let the mad scientist get back to business, because he has a lot of work ahead of him.

Upstairs at The Record Crate, That Red Head bring their set to a close with a colossal mashup of Link Ray and the Ray Men’s ‘Rumble’ and The Doors’ ‘Roudhouse Blues’. The whole room is shaking with each punishing chord, and the tightly packed crowd are losing their minds, head-banging in place, pounding the tables, and stomping their feet. The sweatbox is reaching a fever pitch when the final chords are strummed and the band takes their leave. ‘Encore!’ is being shouted relentlessly over the top of a constant barrage of applause and table bashing, to no avail. As people push and shove their way towards the staircase down to the bar, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Cam will make his mark on music, and proves that people are salivating for a product they can engage with. They just need someone to lead the way, and Cam appears more than happy to take up the challenge.

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed


Go Live or Go Home: a Critical Analysis of the Music Industries

The music ‘industries’ (Williamson and Cloonan, 2007) have undergone a large number of changes throughout its history, having to cope with the ever changing landscape of music and technology. As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, the industries have found it harder than ever to maintain profit and relevance. The focus of the music industries has changed exceptionally within the last twenty years, with the advent of web 2.0 (and subsequently, ‘music 2.0’) reshaping the production and distribution of music forever. With this in mind, it has been suggested that the focus of the music industries has shifted towards live music as the primary source of income for both artists and labels. Using the available academia and public records, we shall attempt to uncover the reality of the music industries landscape in the 21st century.

Martin Cloonan states that ‘the UK’s live music scene is of greater economic value than its record industry’ (2011). This can be backed up by The Economist’s Will Page and Chris Carey, who in 2009 estimated that the UK live music industry was valued at 1537 million pounds, next to the record industry’s 1356 million (2010). This trend continues through 2010 and 2011, with 2011 statistics estimating the value of the live music industry at 1624 million pounds next to the recording sector’s 1112 million (Brookes, 2011). From these statistics, it would suggest that the live music sector has not only weathered the technological storm better than the recording sector, but has benefitted significantly from this shift in the music industries. Live music in the UK is stronger than ever, economically speaking, with the recording industry struggling to halt a steep decline.

Not only has the live music industry superseded the recording industry in value, but ‘by 2011 the most important music company in the world was no longer a record label, but Live Nation’ (Morrow, 2013). Live Nation is an events company, and owns the world’s largest ticketing agency, Ticketmaster. The United States Congress discussed the merger in 2009, with Senator Herb Kohl stating, ‘This merger will not only expand Ticketmaster’s control of the ticketing market, but it is also creating an entity that will control an entire chain of the concert business’ (2009). This mirrors the state of the music industries in the UK, as outlined by Page and Carey, as well as Brookes (2009, 2011). The industry world-wide is moving towards the business of live music, with Live Nation exerting the sort of monopolistic power that we associate with the recording industry.

If we consider the statement put forward by Sen. Kohl, we can identify a serious issue within the booming live music sector – a lack of balance throughout the many different tiers of concert promotion. Although live music is now the most valuable asset within the music industries, Page and Carey note that ‘earnings in live music are heavily skewed towards the top’ (in Morrow, 2013). Australia can be seen as a perfect example of this skew, as Coupe posits that:

‘In financial terms, touring Australia does not make much sense; the costs incurred travelling between major metropolitan areas are too high and the fierce competition between the top promoters means that they constantly under-cut one another to secure contracts’ (in Morrow, 2013).

As such, only top tier acts can expect to make a profit touring Australia, and only large events companies like Live Nation can afford to put on these massively expensive tours. So, whilst the live music sector has weathered the technological storm far better than the recording sector, in markets such as Australia, the profit is largely skewed towards top end companies.

this point we might ask how live music continues to be a draw for people where recorded music is not. The technological advancement of the last 20 years, particularly the invention of web 2.0 (and subsequently, P2P file-sharing), has made access to free music easier than ever before, creating a hole which the record industry has been very slow to fill. Young and Collins use an example published in The Economist to illustrate the move away from physical copies of recorded music:

‘In 2006 EMI, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. ‘That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,’ says a person who was there’ (2010).

Recorded music, as we can observe, is no longer as desirable as it once was. At least, not in a physical format. The rise of the digital market in music is something that the recording industry has been slow to capitalise on, whilst P2P is almost impossible to police, leaving both artists and labels with lost potential profit.

‘The music industry ascribes heavy losses in sales to file sharing, that is, users illegally download music files through Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks,’ states Jeong Gicheol and Lee Jongsu, illustrating the recording industry’s inability to restructure itself within the modern music landscape (2010). However, their study of Korean consumers also shows that even with a lowered price point, ‘the estimated WTP [willingness to pay] for downloading one music file is remarkably lower than the actual price of a file’ (Gicheol and Jongsu, 2010). The threat of legal action in this case is not significant enough to offset the cheaper price point of downloading music illegally via P2P sharing networks. As such, the recording sector has struggled to weather the technological storm that has occurred with the emergence of Web 2.0. Live music does not have such an impediment to potential profit as it does not deal in a tangible product that can be shared illegally via the internet.

Whilst technological advancements have hindered the profitability of recorded music, it hasn’t done the same in the live music sector. The technological storm of the 21st century has, however, significantly reshaped the concert-going experience. Punters will still go and see their favourite bands live, but the way in which they consume this live experience has changed with technology. With the invention of smart-phones and the advancement of digital recording equipment, many fans choose to view their favourite bands through the lens of a piece of high-end technology. Lingel and Naaman echo this suggestion, stating:

‘If the enduring image of concert-going in the 1960s was enthusiastic attendees waving their lighters in approval of an acoustic guitar set, in the 2000s, the prevalent view of live music could very well be a sea of music lovers with their mobile phones raised to capture video for rapid uploading to a variety of social media sites.’ (2012)

Lingel and Naaman’s study of a group of concert attendees found that even though they are now recording the concert and uploading it to social media sites, this has not become a replacement for seeing live music. ‘For several interviewees, it was important to point out that watching videos of concerts was not a substitute for physical attendance’, the study finds, quoting one interviewee as saying, ‘there’d be no point of [editing a video] for a show I wasn’t at … it’d just make me sad I wasn’t there’ (Lingel and Naaman, 2012). This study indicates that where technology has provided consumers of recorded music with a much cheaper alternative, it hasn’t replaced the concert-going experience. This explains the continued growth of the live music sector as well as the continued decline of the recording sector. Technology has changed the mode through which we experience live music, but it doesn’t impede on the profitability of live music – ‘a unique experience’ (Morrow, 2013).

In response to technological advancement, record labels have had to significantly reshape the structure of their contracts with recording artists. No longer feeling they can turn a significant profit from record sales, labels have turned to what is commonly referred to as the ‘360 deal’. The 360 deal means ‘the record label participates in and receives income from a range of musical activities beyond the sales of recordings’ (Marshall, 2012). This entails taking a share of the profits in merchandising, sponsorship, live music, and broadcast, which is bargained for in exchange for larger royalty shares and advances. It has become the new standard for recording contracts, in a bid for record labels to maintain profitability on a long term basis through a myriad of revenue streams rather than solely through record sales.

The origins of the 360 deal can be found through EMI, who signed Robbie Williams in 2002; although not technically a 360 deal, ‘it was an innovative deal that garnered much media attention and offers a significant precursor to deals later in the decade’ (Marshall, 2012). Functioning as two separate deals, it was the second which illustrated a shift in record contracts towards a wider pool of revenue streams. Marshall states that, ‘Williams agreed to share some of the income generated by his activities outside of recordings,’ which set the groundwork for what would become the 360 deal (2012). Although EMI would be absorbed into the Warner Music Group in 2012, Wordsworth suggests that this deal was successful, as it ‘went into profit for EMI pretty quickly’ (in Marshall, 2012).

Here we have seen how the record label EMI has tried to combat the declining sales of physical music. This particular deal might be considered a success, but it is worthy of note that its success was not due to an increase in record sales, but a restructuring towards other sectors of the music industries, most notably being live music. This is a testament to the resilience of the live sector that labels must now rely on live revenue to make profit. However, although these deals might be considered legal, record labels must combat the continued insistence from artists that claim 360 deals are still unfair. Bouton states that:

‘…even if 360 deals are deemed to be legal, as long as the perception is that they are unfair and unconscionable, the record labels will have to think of new strategies to keep high profile clients and stay afloat as the music industry faces tough economic times’ (2009).

As we can observe from this statement, 360 deals may not prove to be the silver bullet the record industry is hoping for, as it struggles to cope with the technological advancement of the 21st century. The live music sector once again proves to be the main source of revenue within the music industries.

Where we have dealt with the effects of the technological storm of the 21st century on record labels and events companies, it worth also considering the impact this has had on the artist. Whilst events companies such as Live Nation continue to dominate the world stage in music production, the practices of the industries still remain entrenched in the culture of the 50s and the 60s; distorting artists for as much profit as possible. Indeed, Cloonan notes in his essay on policy implications that ‘at many gigs bands will not even be paid (often they will be told that any gig is good for their profile and publicity’ (2011). This outlines the reality that lower and mid-tier acts are constantly cut short by events companies, and struggle to break even. Whilst Live Nation is dealing in highly profitable international acts, such as Madonna and Jay-Z, who have the sway to ensure payment, smaller promoters will often distort expenses in order to make a profit.

We can use the case study of Boy & Bear conducted by Julian Morrow, former artist-manager for the band, to highlight the risks involved with entering live music at the low and mid-level tiers in Australia. As Australia is a ‘relatively small territory (in terms of population) with arguably more promoters per-capita than anywhere else’, artists will often be cut short in the race to procure a band for a tour (Morrow, 2013). Boy & Bear illustrate the ways in which technology can be used to combat unsavoury business practice, with the involvement of companies such as Music Glue, who provide ‘online marketing and e-commerce solutions for artists, managers, promoters and venues’ (Morrow, 2013). They do this by ‘providing the tools that enable direct artist-fan engagement’, which enables bands to exchange music for email addresses, allowing them to cheaply promote future tours. Music Glue claims that this service is ‘demanded by an increasingly tech aware and empowered customer base’ (Morrow, 2013).

As we are dealing in an increasingly tech-savvy market, it would be pertinent also address the ways in which artists have used technology to their advantage in the recording sector, albeit at the exclusion of record labels. Morrow illustrates an example of this, stating: ‘British rock band Radiohead released their seventh album In Rainbows as a digital download for which consumers chose their own price’ (2009). Although no official figures have been released, the exercise might be consider a success, as Morrow notes, ‘it directed a large amount of traffic to their website from which consumers could purchase concert tickets…merchandise…and had the potential to increase the sale of their back-catalogue’ (2009). However, it must be noted that a large portion of the success found by Radiohead is due to their experience within the old system, having previously been bound by a major label contract with EMI. This successful use of technology in the recording sector cannot hope to be emulated by every upstart band in saturated market.

We must therefore conclude that the live music sector has easily weathered the technological storm of the 21st century much better than that of the recording sector. With Live Nation becoming the largest music organisation in the world, and record labels continuing to lose the fight against P2P file-sharing, it is clear that record labels are no longer the driving force in the music industry they once were. The implementation of the 360 deal by record labels has proved to be moderately successful, albeit only through tapping into revenue streams outside of record sales. There is also a continued distrust of labels as being unfair towards the artist. The live music sector is therefore still the most profitable aspect of the music industries, despite the disparity between smaller and larger acts. Artists have been able to combat this disparity through the emergence of companies such as Music Glue, which enable them to market directly to their fan-base through the internet. The recording sector is still unable to find a in a tech-savvy society, where the experience of a live show will continue to remain irreplaceable.


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