Today’s business has no need for the bargain bin anymore. But, asks Peter Robinson (pictured inset, below), is that really such a good thing?
These days, the name Alex Clare might generally only enter discussion in relation to one of the unfortunate warbler’s songs being sung by Jorja Smith in a YouTube cover that propelled her to the precipice of stardom, but it’s always worth remembering UK artist Clare’s one-man hokey-cokey with Island Records: he was signed, then dropped, then signed again when one of his songs was unexpectedly picked up by Microsoft for a big ad.
And then, when that boost proved mercilessly brief, Clare was unceremoniously dropped again. This all happened in the dim and distant past of about five years ago, but how would it have played out in 2018?
In the 1980s a sacred, holy text delivered in fortnightly instalments under the name Smash Hits spread word of the Dumper — a sort of retirement home into which popstars were unwillingly inserted when their appeal had become, as Spinal Tap had themselves once put it, more selective.
Tickets to pop purgatory were inevitably one-way affairs.
While the Dumper may have taken on a mythical status as the grotty netherworld of downsized abodes, overdue taxes and classic sports cars being flogged in Friday Ad, its more tangible real-world cousin was the record store bargain bin.
It seems somewhat ludicrous now that when a single reached the end of its natural chart life it would be taken off shelves, shoved in a crate or basket on the floor and marked down in price again and again until someone eventually bought it for 10p, but that’s what happened: the song was no more, its usefulness had come to an end, and that was that.
Regardless of whether it had been a hit, the single would be deleted and largely un-purchasable.
What has become of the Dumper, or the bargain bin, in 2018?
“The long tail is longer than any of us might have expected.”
Clearly the bargain bins we once knew simply don’t exist, partly because physical singles don’t exist and largely because physical shops don’t exist, but mainly because bargain bins simply have no place in the modern music world.
Spotify doesn’t need to make room in its stock cupboard; labels don’t need to worry about the cost of unsold streams. The long tail is longer than any of us might have expected, the chart behaviour of The Killers’ Mr Brightside being one notorious example.
Thirty years ago it would have taken laser-guided marketing nous and a degree of advance warning to see a song selling after its initial chart run: in 1990 Berlin’s Top Gun-soundtracking Moroderbanger Take My Breath Away went back into the Top 5 following Top Gun’s first UK terrestrial TV screening, but it could only do that because the single had been repressed and restocked by Woolworths in time to be in shops the day after Top Gun had been on TV.
Mr Brightside, which originally left the Top 40 after just four weeks, recently celebrated its 200th straight week in the Top 100 — there’ve been no tentpole moments, like a Top Gun screening, that might have been deemed repress-worthy, but there it is, forever.
In 2018, we’re witnessing the end of failure. The Dumper has been replaced by pop’s answer to cryogenic suspension: songs that float around DSPs, poised for a comeback, or at least the chance to generate eight quid a month after being included on a popular acoustic chillout playlist.
Artists signed to 360 deals turn a profit even when their sales, 30 years ago, would have positioned them firmly in the Dumper; anyone can be Alex Clare, or might be, with the wind behind them, the planets aligning and fate smiling kindly.
“Acts who might once have gone AWOL are now going with AWAL.”
Focused analytics allow labels and managers to manage their own expectations, budget accordingly, and drop artists less frequently. On the surface this is excellent news for artists, especially when even ‘failed’ (in major label terms) acts like Nina Nesbitt, and a thousand others, can take themselves off to a label services company and enjoy certain aspects of success.
Boardrooms once reverberated to people bellowing that failure was not an option, but in 2018 that’s not just a figure of speech. Acts who might once have gone AWOL are now going with AWAL.
But for some artists, avoiding Dumperdom may simply be a stay of execution, and in many cases may not be ideal for mental health or longterm careers: it can’t be easy checking streaming stats each week in the way some people check their Lottery numbers, forever hoping that there’s a pot of $0.004 streams at the rainbow’s ungraspable end.
Have we ushered in a generation who have something in common with Les McQueen, the League Of Gentlemen’s hopeless Crème Brulee frontman who lived in a perpetual state of believing that this might finally be the year things turned around?
Just as significantly, what impact does it have on artistry? Musicians and creatives are often driven by the need to succeed but how many of them — how many of all of us — are equally driven by the fear of failure? And what, then, happens when we remove from the equation half the motivation to do well?
From labels’ point of view, little to no marginal cost in releasing multiple singles on the same day has opened up new ways of doing market research on the fly, throwing shit at the wall in full public view: A/B testing worked well for Camila Cabello, who released OMG and Havana on the same day, with near identical artwork.
Havana became the streaming success, got the video and launched her album; OMG, which fell by the wayside, didn’t get the video and didn’t even make it onto Cabello’s album.
It didn’t matter, particularly, that OMG failed; the only real cost was to give the song its own artwork, which in that case appeared to have cost around $8.
“How many of all of us are driven by the fear of failure? and what, then, happens when we remove from the equation half the motivation to do well?”
And to bring us full circle I recently interviewed Alex Clare advocate Jorja Smith, and we talked about how none of her singles had been a hit, and how her relatively slow release schedule was at odds with current trends.
She liked not being signed to a major label, she said, because there was no pressure.
Could she be doing better with a little bit of pressure? Possibly. Maybe it’s great that she hasn’t been thinking about failure.
But to put it another way, nobody enjoys being attacked by wild animals, and Usain Bolt’s pretty good at running, but don’t you think he’d run marginally faster if he were being chased by a lion?
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q2 2018) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.
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