Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

This is what the future of the music business looks like

What were you doing last Wednesday night? I know, I know, it’s the kind of question they used to pose on Garda Patrol and still do on Law & Order. Anyway, there was football on TV but there was also …

Tue, Oct 28, 2008, 10:24


What were you doing last Wednesday night? I know, I know, it’s the kind of question they used to pose on Garda Patrol and still do on Law & Order. Anyway, there was football on TV but there was also a couple of gigs happening in Dublin. Sly & Robbie were in Tripod, Pivot were at Whelan’s and White Hinterland played at Crawdaddy. There were a couple of hundred to see Sly & Robbie, a hundred or so at Pivot and 18 paying punters to see White Hinterland. Lets stick with White Hinterland because there is a lesson here about what the future of this business looks like.

First, the back-story. White Hinterland is the moniker used by Casey Dienel, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon. Some hugely talented musicians help her out, but she’s the only one in the pics so she is White Hinterland for the purposes of this piece. She released the “Phylactery Factory” album earlier this year on the Dead Oceans label and she also released the excellent “Luniculaire EP”, five songs sung in French including covers of songs by Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, and Brigitte Fontaine.

In September, a couple of Irish tour dates were announced which saw White Hinterland play in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Galway. This was, as far as I can work out, her first Irish tour.

So anyway, she played in Dublin last week to about 18 paying punters and a couple of freebies. Lets do some back-of-an-envelope gigematics about this. The door take for the night would have been €252 (18 heads at €14 a pop). Dienel has a booking agent so she was probably on a fee for the night which, lets be honest, was probably not covered by what was taken at the door. We’ll say she got €500 for her troubles. The promoter took a bit of a hit on the show but I’m sure it’s not the first or last time that will happen.

Now, you can look at the fact that White Hinterland pulled 18 punters to a midweek show in Dublin in two ways.

One: well, what do you expect? She’s an unknown. Her records don’t get played on Irish radio shows and there was no big buzz about the show. There’s a recession on. People ain’t going to small shows because they’re spending all their cash on tickets for AC/DC and Oasis and Kings Of Leon. Hell, there was football on the TV.

Two: an unknown act pulled 18 paying punters to a Dublin show on a slow, cold, dreary October night. Why did those 18 punters go to the show?

I’m more interested in the second reason because it tells a great story about the future of this business. We could look at this from the point of view of the promoter and how Recession 2.0 and banks putting on the credit crunch is going to mean a few Irish promoters going out of business, but lets concentrate on the artist for this one. As I keep banging on here, every single new music business model which comes to market is aimed at acts with established audiences. These acts are the ones who have built considerable fan-bases on the back of releasing records on major labels and touring to support these releases. They have been able to do both these things thanks to the largesse and patience of major labels. The majority of established acts owe their financial well-being, pulling power and ability to keep on trucking to a major label who took a punt on them.

New business model pimps are not prepared to put in the spadework or heavy lifting to build an audience from the ground up because it costs too much, takes too long and the audience remains hugely cynical and suspicious about brands, hence why brands go after established acts. They have large chequebooks and that is why established acts tend to respond well to what they have to say. Established acts know that the record label jig is up and they’re looking around for the next big pay-day because band members have college fees to pay or new houses to decorate or plastic surgery to get done.

This concentration on acts who’ve already grabbed their audience leaves White Hinterland outside the tent. Because the major label jig is up, she is probably not going to be able to count on the financial muscle of a major label to back her art. Sure, she has a label who will put out her record, but Dead Oceans do not have the wherewithall to push and plug and kick the ass off that record and turn her into the new, I don’t know, Feist. Such an approach wouldn’t suit the music, of course, but the label isn’t in that position so lets discard that one. Like every other act, Dienel has to tour and tour and tour to spread the word and make some dough, which is why she’s playing to 18 people in Dublin on a Wednesday night.

So far, so depressing, right? Well, not really. At the end of the show, Dienel went to the back of the venue and clocked in for her second shift of the day at the merchandise stand. About 9 or 10 people in all bought a CD or record or t-shirt after the show. Each of them had a chat with her and she signed their purchases. Her merch take for the night was probably around €200, not a bad haul for the night (I’m assuming the venue didn’t take a commission).

But far more valuable than all those euros was the knowledge which Dienel was probably squirreling away as she chatted to the fans. She was learning how those people found out about her music and what they liked about it. She was turning fans into friends and ambassadors. She was sowing the seeds for her next trip to Ireland. She was starting to turn those 18 punters into 100 punters. It’s something she’s going to have to do at every single damn gig she plays until she’s at a stage where she is playing rooms where some nosey fellow from a daily newspaper can’t do a head-count from where he’s standing.

That’s the future of this business for every act in it who does not yet have an established audience capable of keeping him/her/them in the style to which they think should be accustomed. They’re going to have to do – and are hopefully already doing – what Dienel is doing. It’s about making those connections, doing the informal data-mining after every show to find out what DJ is playing your record or what blogger is typing about you or who is best at spreading the word about you in that town. That’s the media info dope Dienel has to take from every show. It’s also about making sure those fans who’ve trucked out to see you go home happy. It’s not quite peer to peer – though many fans would like to think it is – but it’s certainly a lot more than business to consumer. That’s the business info dope Dienel has to get from every show. On top of all that, she has to keep writing the songs and making those records. Any act who is not prepared to do all that might as well apply for that job in Spar right now.