Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,


The other day, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the recording industry--not about the RIAA specifically, but about recording industry practices in general. As the WSJ is wont to do, they made their point by focusing on a single person: Carly Hennessy.

Never heard of her? Not surprising. Her latest album sold about 300 copies. Think she's part of a garage band cutting CDs at her home computer? Nope. She was signed by MCA Records, and they paid over $2,000,000 for that 300-copies-sold album. Not that they gave Ms. Hennessy the money, though they did support her for two years in NYC while she produced this album. They paid for handlers, promotional tours, tried to sell her to radio stations, got most of the way through the recording process then scrapped it and started over again from scratch, brought in new managers--you name it. MCA even pimped her on the Internet.

Is this an unusual story? Nope. Contrary to popular belief, being signed by a major label isn't the key to instant stardom. Record companies sign up new talent all the time, and spend money primping and preening, promoting and producing, only to see these acts fizzle into oblivion. MCAis going to try Ms. Hennessy overseas next; if that doesn't give her a hit, they'll cut her loose. Though that doesn't mean she's gone. She can try again at some other company, with the caveat this time that the process will be much cheaper, since she knows what she's doing now. She has an excellent voice, or, at least the WSJ tells me she does. (I haven't heard any of her music myself. To be perfectly honest, with an album title of "Ultimate High" and a single called "I'm Gonna Blow Your Mind" she doesn't sound like my kind of artist) . More than that, she's young (18? 19?) and pretty.

Why did MCA spend all this money to produce a huge flop? Because they wanted to own the next Britney Spears (in fairness to both Ms. Hennessy and Ms. Spears, while I'm sure that I must have had some of Ms. Spears' music reach my ears at some point, I have no recollection of it and couldn't tell you what a single line from her sounds like), and they thought they could make Ms. Hennessy into her.

And when I say "own", yeah, that's pretty much what I mean. If Ms. Hennessy had been a success, that success would have belonged to MCA. That's the way the standard recording industry contract goes. It's a far cry from "slave labor", but the acts themselves really don't get very much of the money that comes in from the albums. For example, Ms. Hennessy won't see any profits from "Ultimate High" until after MCA recoups all of their costs on it. (Like that's going to happen.) When Tool sang, "I sold my soul to make a record," the line was more than purely rhetorical.

MCA, and the RIAA as a whole, holds up Ms. Hennessy as justification for these contracts. "We need to make a fortune on the Don Henleys and Britney Spears and Madonnas of the world, because the music industry is a crapshoot and we never know if an artist will be successful or not. We spend millions grooming new talent. Those big names complaining about us now benefited from the system when they were new. Now they have to pay so we can keep doing it for more new names."

And all I could think is: these people are idots.

Because $2,000,000 doesn't produce great music. Great music gets made for free, every day of the year, because so many people are so in love with the idea of producing music that they'll do it whether you pay them or not--and some of that music, inevitably, is magnificent. I have friends who bought recording time in a studio so they could cut their own CD. It'll cost them a few thousand dollars--a lot of money to them, but pocket change for MCA. But do you know what? I bet they'll sell more than 300 copies.

It reminded me of stories about Soviet-bloc athletes. The Soviets and other communist countries produced (and some still do produce) great athletes by paying modest stipends to those who showed talent--supporting, grooming, and training them for many years. You never know which 10-year-old is going to be great, so you just pick the ones with some evident ability, and hope for the best. Whoever succeeds doesn't make any more money than those who fail, because it's "just a crapshoot" and the risk is all borne by the state--and accordingly, so are the rewards.

That's the RIAA's methods. Socialist, if I can apply that word to a company and not a government without doing too much violence to it.

And they have the gall to stand there and tell me "this is how we have to do business." No, it isn't, you morons. The Soviets may have indeed produced some great athletes in their day. China may be producing some great athletes today. But so is America, and we don't "own" our basketball players or ice skaters.

No, it's not the same thing. Socialist countries are largely poor, and if they didn't implement these intensive state-sponsored training programs they would have few, if any, Olympic-quatily talent. Conversely, if America brought her, much more considerable, resources to bear to construct similiar programs, we would probably have even better athletes, at least in the short run. (In the long run, if we turned into a socialist state, we'd just be poor like they are, and then we'd all be in the same boat.)

Likewise, the RIAA has a point: if they didn't groom and promote and manage and style these hapless 18 year-old girls, pimping them to the masses, we might not have any more Britney Spears.

You say that like it's a bad thing.
Tags: economics

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