Late in Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis, author Fred Goodman details the plight of songwriter and producer Pete Waterman. Waterman was Brit crooner Rick Astley's collaborator on the now-infamous 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up." The tune is the punch line to the long-running gag of Rickrolling. (To the unrolled, "Rickrolling" is when someone sends you a link you believe to be relevant only to discover that it leads to Astley's music video on YouTube.) Waterman later claimed in an editorial that the video has been seen 150 million times on the video-sharing site, which eventually cut him a royalty check for £11, or $17.48 at present writing.How is it Waterman's work yielded such a pittance? Credit the Byzantine calculus of royalty schedules. Worse, YouTube insisted that the "exposure" the song gained would surely result in income from other avenues. "That's BS," Waterman countered. "Nobody buys music they can get for free on sites like YouTube."
Unlike Waterman, services that serve the independent music community like Tunecore, CD Baby and Bandcamp have found ways to contort YouTube and other social media into their business models. At the top of Bandcamp's website is the tag, "In the past 30 days alone, artists have made $374,714 USD." This sum is shared by Bandcamp's entire roster of artists, including superstar cellist Zoe Keating, who recently quipped during an interview on KQED's "Forum" program that she purchased a "dilapidated house" from her online earnings. Keating's real estate aside, the fact is, she does make a living proffering music live and online while deftly leveraging social media marketing and online distribution. When host Michael Krasny pointed out that not all artists are as entrepreneurial as she, Keating swiftly replied, "They should be."
Whereas a decade ago "entrepreneurial" was a euphemism for "selling out," it's now regarded as integral to an artist's success as traditional opportunities disappear. Strategies include packaging "artisanal" releases of vinyl, posters and other ephemera paired with download codes to licensing music directly to brands in commercials. As Ben Sisario recently wrote in the New York Times, "Lifestyle brands are becoming the new record labels." Indeed, Converse is opening a recording studio in Brooklyn where bands can record for free, and Mountain Dew releases MP3s on its own record label, Green Label Sound.
As a project for FMRL, the Future Media Research Lab (this columnist's media think tank qua branded-entertainment startup), we are experimenting with a variety of music monetization schemes all at once. The question is: "Can we create an act, cut a track, package it in a concept attractive to a brand and see it through to profitability?"
We started with the music, which came via Penngrove-raised singer-songwriter Orion Letizi and multiplatinum producer Jason Carmer, whose credits include work with the Donnas, Chumbawamba and Run DMC, among others. How did we get a mega-producer? We emailed him and asked.
As Carmer comments on Ear Whacks, a music-themed video blog, "You can actually work with a lot of really good producers now because there's nothing going on. There are a lot of guys just sitting around trying to make the transition." Carmer suggests that producer talent is available to new artists at lower fees for reasons as obvious as the economy to the reality that labels no longer pursue the musical styles that interest them most.
Next we wrapped Letizi's '80s-inspired ditty "Yeah, We Know" into a narrative that could support several episodes of a web series. The pitch: "Four Sonoma State students enlist in a sociological experiment that finds them sealed in a biodome. They form a band and hope to sell enough music and merch online to buy out their contract." We cast local twenty-something actors for the "band," shot and edited a video, then shopped it to several brands until one bit—a foods company, which came in as a sponsor and whose product will be seamlessly integrated into upcoming storylines.
The video, Still in the Dome, features a shorter mix of the tune and is free. The "album mix" of the song is available for paid download. Will it work? Perhaps. All creative contributors have already been paid—a triumph in itself. A case study of the experiment will be published at FMRL.com next month. In the meantime, the music industry should know, we're never gonna give you up.
The first 100 signups at StillInTheDome.com receive a promo code for a free download of 'Yeah, We Know.'/