Hyper space: when A&R overreaches itself

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

I went to see an incredibly “hyped” new band recently. Over the past few months they have rocketed from seeming obscurity to seeming ubiquity. In music business circles, at least.

When it comes to hot new acts, the music business is a beautifully awful version of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, endlessly reflecting back on itself.

Suddenly a particular new act lands and, within days, it appears that everyone in the industry is talking about them and that everyone in the industry has opinions about them (for good and for ill). Then, almost as if it is running to a tight lunar timetable, the waves of the backlash crash down, then it recedes slightly, then comes back again twice as ferocious as before, then it ebbs away somewhat.

There is something innate, something habitual, about it all. Like baby birds in the nest that reach a day where they somehow just know how to fly, there is something deep in the DNA of people in the music business that makes these structured responses inevitable. Hype feels like a melody that everyone has heard their entire lives and that they can instantly join in on because they already know the lyrics.

Hype, then, is like mass karaoke, where the verse is the anticipation and the chorus is the affirmation, but then the middle eight marks a swing into derision before circling back to the start.

I won’t name the act in question for two reasons: a) it’s probably a bit cruel this early in their career; and b) I would only be contributing further to the layers of hype (like an irony lasagne).

There are, inevitably, multiple conspiracy theories already flying around that they are a cynical concoction. They are rich, it is claimed. Or they have rich parents. Or they are operated by Svengali, Machiavelli or Mephistopheles. Or all three.

The facts we know about them are that they have a huge agent behind them, they have a huge management team working for them and they are signed to a huge label. They have released mere minutes of music officially and yet are getting the kind of hyperbolic media and social media coverage one associates with the breakthrough of [insert the name of the last buzz act that did or did not survive the hype here].

Whether or not I believe they are any good is beside the point. For the record, they were really good for 45% their set, reasonably good for 45% of their set and average-to-underwhelming for the remaining 10% of their set. To be fair, that’s a description of most live acts. In that regard, they have a roughly 50/50 chance of either making it or dramatically blowing it.

I should caveat all this by saying that I am not always the best at predicting success. I saw a badly dressed band at Glastonbury in summer 2000 who were getting some buzz and loudly announced to my friend, “These guys are going nowhere.” The following Monday, they released ‘Yellow’.

I saw The Darkness play a tiny pub in Salford as part of In The City before they had released a single. Justin Hawkins came through the crowd and down the corridor, where far too many people were jostling to get in for a look, riding on the shoulders of a roadie while playing a guitar solo and screeching as if he was Bon Scott and Angus Young at the same time. Again, I declared they would achieve nothing, predicting an eternity on the bill below the puppet show. As it turns out, I was wrong, then right, then partly wrong again.

My dubious A&R skills aside, this latest hotly-tipped band mostly made me incredibly sad for them. Yes, they are in the sulphuric blast of hype and astonishing blanket praise. Yes, they seemed to be having tremendous fun on stage. But the pressure on them to deliver on that hype is already overwhelming. I am getting the bends even thinking about it.

At a time when music is utterly, endlessly accessible, with our attention spans being shattered into a million pieces by a thousand algorithms, standing out, getting attention and holding onto that attention has never been harder. And it has never been riskier. You arrive amid overpowering scrutiny and you thrive or you die under that cruel, unflinching scrutiny.

It all reminds me of the febrile nature of Silicon Valley in 1999 when hype was the default setting and no one could even comprehend that the dot com crash was less than a year away.

“For such hyped startups or new acts, they have to become instantly profitable. If not, they are damned as instantly disposable.”

Perhaps then we need to understand new acts not just in artistic terms but also like they are a startup. The intensity of the hype cycles are remarkably similar in the A&R and the VC worlds. There are those with vested interests unhelpfully inflating the hysteria as they think that will guarantee quick success, often with no regard for the people (and/or the product) at the heart of it. They become almost secondary to this desperate thirst, exacerbated by self-interest, from those around them for success. Hype becomes the derestricted autobahn to success.

For such hyped startups or new acts, they have to become instantly profitable. If not, they are damned as instantly disposable.

If, however, a startup is bootstrapped via self-funding and then seeks angel investment when they start to get some momentum, they can play the long game when it comes to VCs. They can start to pick or choose, not getting swept away by promises that are as bold as they are hollow. They are not handing over most of their equity on an early but potentially low valuation which means the exit strategy, if it happens, could make the founders incredibly wealthy and ensure their company endures as a shining example rather than a caustic punchline.

If you have already attracted the biggest VCs in the world before you have any product in the market, the pressure to succeed, to drive astonishing ROI, is going to be unbearable.

The nascent act or startup, whether or not they are any good, will be pushed and marketed and hyped and pushed again to happen big and to happen fast. Failure is never an option.

They now lie prone at the bottom of an enormous money pit with ravenous backers burying them alive under bales of cash. These backers might claim they are “artist-friendly”, “backing paradigm-shifting ideas”, “all about the music”, “all about the interface” or whatever other platitude they choose to lean on this week. And yet… they are also corporations who expect profits, who are entirely defined and justified through their profitability.

This is so very rarely a benign investment in the arts or technology. At its apex (or, more appositely, its nadir) it is an early doors VC play that is endlessly alarming in its ruthlessness.

What is left after the storm clears is either gold or bones.Music Business Worldwide

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