THE RECORDING INDUSTRY is in the deep blahs. Although record sales are up 3% over last year despite the persistent recession, record labels are laying off employees, consolidating and signing fewer new acts for less money. While it used to take sales of 200,000 copies for an album to hit No. 1, they can now reach that position with 40% of those sales, and the foot traffic in and out of the chains has slowed, despite much autumn superstar product.
In short, as the record industry ages, its rate of failures grows rather than shrinks.
Believe it or not, that rate is staggering. Only one out of 46 new acts makes money, an incredible success rate of about 2.2%. The only other business with such a disparity between winners and losers is the toy industry, and even it does a little better.
The record business, no matter what any promo man or publicist says, is an industry that runs solely on supply and demand. If the public doesn’t want or like an act’s CD, then it’s goodbye, adios, farewell, no matter how much marketing muscle is placed behind it (if there is any in the first place).
The culpability for so many crap-outs can be traced back to one source at every label–the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) departments that are responsible for the signing and nurturing of the music.
One of the great mysteries in the business is how A&R executives get their jobs in the first place. There are no solid criteria to speak of for an A&R gig, no training programs, no performance standards.
Even in the post-MTV era, the fact is that the music is everything, the bedrock upon which all marketing decisions are made, not vice versa. And the music that is being chosen for consumption is being picked by people who are wrong almost always. Why?
The reason songs and records are considered great and satisfying is because they strike a common nerve in the public psyche. The genius of a successful A&R man is to recognize the factors that go into that music and to be able to qualify specifics. But because they’re wrong so often, there must be a superior alternative to the traditional A&R exec.
WHY NOT CHIMPANZEES? As man’s closest relative in the biological family of life, chimps are but one tiny gene different than homo sapiens. They are capable of communicating directly (already a plus over the average A&R man, who’s incapable of delivering a straight answer, and besides, chimps don’t screen calls or hide behind their sexually harassed secretaries. Not yet, anyway.), and as a group, they tend to respond to stimuli without prejudice. Compare this to the routine of a typical L.A. record executive, barraged day in and day out with mountains of hype and hoopla.
One L.A. A&R exec, who insisted on anonymity, went so far as to say, “If you replace them with chimpanzees it would be a step up, in fact, because most of them are lemmings.”
Chimps are ideal, because they would react solely to the tapes they’re played. Because all successes are the result of the greatest numbers in the community responding most favorably to one or two examples of a product being put in front of them, why not simply give the apes beat boxes with, say, 10 tapes to pick from. The primates would invariably (as people do) overwhelmingly choose the same tape to hear over and over again, kind of like a simian CHR station.
This would save the labels a fortune. No longer relying on the jaded opinions of a questionably qualified few, they would have an unprejudiced test market that would cost them peanuts (or bananas, perhaps).
In a controlled environment, chimps are as close to a perfect sampling as can be found. Can you picture a manager sidling up to an ape at the Griffith Park Zoo and saying, “You know, there’s a huge buzz on this band?” Or, “This band is gonna be huge. Freddie DeMann (or Jerry Weintraub, or David Geffen, or whoever) is interested.”
Because music bizzers have become so caught up in the lies and hot air that have zilch to do with good songs, timeless performances, etc., maybe what is required is a complete catharsis.
After all, how much worse would a chimpanzee do than the average exec? If one was to be blindfolded and throw a dart at a board covered with artists’ names to determine who was to get signed, the success/failure ratio would probably improve.
AND AT LEAST WITH THE CHIMPS, you’d get some honest figures to back up your claims. At a lower cost, too. Chimps seem to be satisfied with their lot, and probably wouldn’t demand expense accounts and pricey lunches at Le Dome, although their table manners might be an improvement. Best of all is that the apes would be satisfied with music that they like playing in their habitats without taking credit for their signings’ successes, unlike their arrogant human counterparts.
Provided that the business really wants better results in the first place. The status quo is firmly entrenched, and even if profits aren’t nearly what they could be, most of the labels are doing better than General Motors is this year. Record companies are run from the top down, so it’s logical to assume that if the stockholders knew of the tape methodology in picking what would become fantastically successful acts, they might replace the entire hierarchy of the labels with simians.
And then the rest of the entertainment industry would take note, of course. Next week: Dolphins in movie development. Stay tuned.
John Carmen is a free-lance writer who usually works under the nom-de-plume “Johnny Angel” for various publications. He also fronts a rock ‘n’ roll group, Johnny Angel and the Housewives, who don’t expect that this essay will help lead to a deal with a major label.