DIGITIZED Regina Spektor found her audience on the Internet.
Although music isn’t necessarily getting more political in content these days, it does seem to be borrowing a trope from the political world: popularity of musicians seems to be in direct correlation to their outsider status. In this analogy, the major labels are the Beltway of the new digital-music world, and music consumers are voting the incumbents out on their asses. That message is clearly reflected throughout our latest Best Music Poll.
Just look at the winners. Regina Spektor, the artist who took the most categories on the national side of the ballot, got her start in NYC’s fertile anti-folk scene, which was really just a group of singer-songwriters who didn’t fit the typical strum-along folkie mold. Her first three albums were self-released before Sire finally convinced her that they could provide more promotional muscle than the Internet. She came to Sire not as a talented singer/songwriter/pianist who nobody had heard of, but as an artist who’d already been spreading the word about herself to an eager audience for several years. And our rap/hip-hop winner, the diminutive Lady Sovereign, got where she’s going by uploading her raps onto the Internet, where she hooked up with collaborators and eventually a label. That she’s British, not American, is further evidence of how far hip-hop has penetrated worldwide as pop music.
The Raconteurs — Jack White’s side project — may have won Best Song, but Gnarls Barkley, who beat out the more traditionally rockist (and more traditionally marketed My Chemical Romance) for second place, achieved a historic first: their single “Crazy” topped the British charts solely on the strength of digital downloading. The Barkley boys are an interesting study in just how much things have changed. The duo’s beatmaking producer Danger Mouse was an obscure DJ when he dropped that next-generation shit known as The Grey Album, a brilliant mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ “White Album.” Sure, it was illegal as hell. But that only made the buzz surrounding it louder. His Gnarls partner, Cee-Lo Green, however, is a product of the previous generation of recording artists: as a member of Goodie Mob just a decade before hooking up with Danger Mouse, he was releasing albums the old-fashioned way, when big major-label contracts and big money paid for big singles.
Fittingly enough, our Best Male Vocalist Beck was on the cutting edge of this trend more than a decade ago. His big break came with a cheaply recorded single that had major labels falling all over themselves to sign him to a deal with all kinds of artistic freedoms — freedoms that, in the past, were largely unheard of for unproven talent. That has to make you wonder why a band like the Decemberists would even bother signing to a major when the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are doing just fine without one. That Jack White is free to record with whomever he pleases is an even greater reflection of the shift of power back into the artist’s hands. That a song by a just-for-kicks side project like the Raconteurs could have such a big impact is another example of how diverse the digital-era landscape has become.
The major labels continue to watch in horror as sales of full-length CDs decrease on a quarterly basis, and digital downloading of single tracks from any number of Web sites keeps picking up steam. That wouldn’t be a problem if singles themselves hadn’t evolved into loss leaders years ago: sell consumers on the artist by pushing the single on radio and in stores and, if all went well, the higher-priced album from whence the single came would start bringing in some major cake. Unfortunately, that model was based on an imbalance that has existed for most of the rock/pop era: artists had the talent, the charisma, and other skills, but the labels were the ones with the money — the large amounts of capital needed to rent expensive recording studios, press hundreds of thousands of albums (vinyl, cassette, CD, whatever), and then ship those “units” to stores and warehouses all over the country and the world. But as we’ve all seen in this new digital millennium, it no longer takes much money to record a song or an album or any random number of tunes in home studios; there’s no reason to press those songs into CDs or any other format when iTunes is happy to sell indie product and MySpace provides an open forum for distribution of downloads or streaming audio. And if there’s nothing to press, there’s no need to truck hundreds of thousands of units to warehouses across the country. To say it’s put major labels at a major disadvantage is a major understatement.