Getting Paid

May 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa



Education Guide

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That may be true, but the breaking of records has less and less to do with establishing and maintaining careers in the brave new world. While a handful of indie bands, including the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists, have accepted offers from major labels to make the most of the career momentum they'd established on their own, others have turned down lucrative offers from majors in favor of sticking with indie labels, which generally split net revenues from sales of physical and digital product with their artists on a 50/50 basis after expenses. They include Arcade Fire, Spoon and M. Ward on Merge; Sufjan Stevens on Asthmatic Kitty; and The Shins and Iron & Wine on Sub Pop.

Son Volt, which recorded three albums for Warner Bros. in the '90s, recently made a 50/50 deal to release new album American Central Dust on indie label Rounder. “That's the way it seems to be going,” says bandleader Jay Farrar of the equal-split arrangement, “as opposed to the old model, where the record company was like a bank, throwing a huge loan at you. Ultimately, this way works better for everyone involved; it's more of a shared responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Prince, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have abandoned the major-label system to go it alone, retaining ownership of their master recordings, and the members of Metallica have intimated that they may follow suit.

Everything But the Kitchen Sync

The good news for the rest of us is that nontraditional means of kick-starting and conducting careers — and potentially making money — are plentiful these days.

Says Todd Brabec, who recently left ASCAP after 37 years to devote his time to teaching and speaking, “Just consider all the new uses that have come up, like greeting cards, interactive dolls and toys, even musical door chimes. There are a lot of licensable situations out there.”

Jeff Brabec picks up the thread: “Novels use lyrics from songs and pay for that use. These are all publishing and songwriting areas versus the record label area. That's why this article is important with respect to the song aspect because so many producers are songwriters.

“Videogames have obviously become a major source of income for writers, music publishers and record companies. The labels have a real asset in the master recordings. But the great thing about the publishing business is that we're not tied to one particular master. Mechanicals have gone down, but other areas are increasing. So the music publishing and songwriting aspects are still hanging in there, and in some areas are actually going up.”

Sound to Picture

Referring to the oft-stated contention that “TV is the new radio,” Tom DeSavia notes that Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson are among the previously unknown artists who have broken big from having their songs used in prime-time series. “Until the last few years, the biggest request we got from bands we were courting was, ‘Will you showcase me?’ That was our carrot on the stick. Now it's, ‘Will you do a show for music supervisors for me?’ or, “Will you showcase me at Sundance or Tribeca in front of filmmakers and music supervisors?' With the contraction of A&R at the labels, music supervisors like Alex Patsavas, Gary Calamar and Lynn Grossman have become the new cool A&R people. They're the audience bands want to get in front of, and that is a way to generate real income.”

“Nothing pleases me more than to see a new artist that I've discovered get some screen time,” Calamar says. “At the same time, the biggest priority is finding a piece of music that works for the scene and adds to the drama, humor, emotion, action in a significant way. I'm finding music all over the place. I keep my ears to the ground. I read a lot of music magazines, blogs, MySpace, iTunes. And KCRW, of course. [Calamar hosts The Open Road, airing Sundays from 9 p.m. to midnight on the NPR station, with archived shows streaming on] I seem to be on everybody's — and their brother's — mailing list. Yesterday, I was walking down the street and a car stopped and the driver handed me a CD. I'm open to well-known or obscure artists. Obscure artists are, of course, generally easier to work with budget-wise, which is always a key factor.”

Calamar points to his use of Sia's “Breathe Me” to play over the climactic moments of the Six Feet Under final episode as “the most dramatic case of turning someone's career around” in his own experience. “Sia's label was about to drop her and had decided not to release her album in America. I knew her from her work in Zero 7 and had been playing the track on my KCRW radio show.”

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