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What Does it Take to Make It … Then and Now

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Over the last two weeks, we've seen glimpses of various ways to make it in the music business, how it used to be and how it can be done today.

The old-school ways were on display at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction last Monday night in New York. The evening's centerpiece inductee, Madonna, made her way to fame and fortune by, shall we say, networking through the Big Apple dance music scene of the early-'80s and, then, morphing into a master of self-promotion and reinvention.

John Mellencamp was first marketed as a post-Bowie glam artist called Johnny Cougar but soon rejiggered his image as a heartland-bred spokesman for the common man. The Ventures only had two major hit singles, which bookended the decade of the '60s, but they sold large quantities of albums of guitar-driven instrumental rock in an era when the LP charts were dominated by Broadway cast albums, movie soundtracks, comedy albums, and non-rock "good music".

Leonard Cohen was a poet first and songwriter second who never tried to "make it" but whose songs became quite influential. And The Dave Clark 5 made it via Dave Clark's Hollywood-style looks and the band's spiffy onstage threads to become the first real challenge (in America, primarily) to The Beatles by one of the new breed of British bands. But times have changed and one can make it very quickly under the right circumstances.

The evening's non-performer inductees were the '70s Philly soul icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and Gamble mentioned co-writing the Billy Paul mega-hit "Me And Mrs. Jones" and commented that there apparently was a "Me And Mrs. Jones"-type story brewing in New York that very night.

Indeed, the news had broken that afternoon of New York governor Elliot Spitzer's involvement as a customer with a high-price call-girl service. By midweek, the 21st century Christine Keeler at the center of the scandal turned out to be a 22 year old girl from an affluent New Jersey family and, like many girls her age, Ashley Alexandra Dupre (a.k.a. Kristen) has a MySpace page with two recordings by her.

They're pretty typical hip-hop/dance material and, after the page got millions of hits within a couple of days, the songs were moved to a pay download platform and were selling like, um, hotcakes by the weekend. One suspects, though, that Ms. Dupre's time as a hitmaker may be even shorter than her shelf life as a celebrity but, hey, so are those of most of the "winners" on American Idol. Heard much from Ruben Studdard or Taylor Hicks lately? Fantasia and Clay Aiken had to go to Broadway to keep their careers afloat. Even Kelly Clarkson is giving every indication that her career may have already peaked (take note, Carrie Underwood). But "Kristen", presumably, and the "Idol" winners show that the potential for having a short, forgettable career in the limelight is magnified in the A.D.D. world of 21st-century celebrityhood.

But, then, there's South By Southwest, the confluence of film and music festival and brainstorming conference that just concluded in Austin, Texas. SXSW, as it’s come to be known, began in 1987 as one of a number of indie rock showcases but is now one of the highest-profile examples of the 21st-century music industry. While there are certainly representatives at SXSW from the four mastodon mega-conglomerates that now house the major record companies, the vast majority of acts there, both young and old, represent the new alternatives for making it in music today.

The boomer audience knows about the recent success of Paul McCartney and of The Eagles with new albums marketed outside the normal channels (McCartney through Starbucks' Hear Music, The Eagles through Wal-Mart). But the new technology is, naturally, more the domain of young musicians. In the age of Pro Tools, it’s possible to make a professional-quality recording in one’s living room and, then, put the track up on MySpace and give it away free as a means of getting known. The track could well end up getting the attention of Internet and/or satellite radio or be placed into a commercial or a movie soundtrack.

The act can merchandise its music through its own website or through iTunes or the other digital music domains or sell music and t-shirts and such at club gigs or, yes, festivals.(There were some 2,000 bands who were seen at one venue or another during SXSW.) In other words, they don’t need the record companies or terrestrial radio.

Now, admittedly, there are more acts out there looking to make it than ever before and virtually no band or individual artist is going to quickly make a lot of money and most will be seen by far fewer people over the course of a year than see a typical episode of American Idol. But an act now has so many more ways to get its music out to the public than there were even a decade ago and none of them involve selling one’s soul to a record company. That’s bad news for a mainstream record industry that is seeing number one albums with all-time-low sales figures because CD sales have plummeted and even the digital domain versions of those albums aren’t selling, with individual tracks the overwhelming consumer choice via iTunes. So it only makes sense for acts of all ages to use alternative means of exposure to get their music directly to the people.

In fact, when one thinks of this year's Hall Of Fame inductees, which of them, if they were just starting out in the business, would have been the most likely to take advantage of the new technology? Without a doubt, it would have been Madonna. Oh sure, she would have done a certain amount of networking, um, the old-fashioned way. But, given her flair for self-promotion, you know she would have had a MySpace page and likely would have placed videos of herself on YouTube. She probably would have been too cutting-edge to make it past the audition stage on American Idol but, given the large hip-hop/dance presence along with the rock bands at SXSW, a young Madonna certainly would have made the scene there.

Even now, as a middle-aged celebrity well past her hitmaking prime, she’s running her career outside the record company box. Whether or not one is a fan of Madonna’s music (and you can put me in the non-fan category), she’s perhaps the classic example of “making it” in the music industry in the late-20th century and that example is one to build on within the new realities of music’s new frontier.

Speaking of the new realities, Sony/ATV, which controls usage rights to most of The Beatles’ song catalog, is reported to be having discussions with Activision about the possibility of a Beatles version of the wildly popular “Guitar Hero” video game. This news comes a week after the long-expected Beatles nights on American Idol finally happened, though without the rumored celebrity “advisors”.

Now, I will plead total ignorance regarding “Guitar Hero”. I don’t do video games so I’ll completely reserve judgment. I don’t do reality shows, either, and “American Idol” is at the top of the list of shows I don’t do but, thanks to YouTube, it is possible to sample the show without having one’s brain eaten away by “Idol” cooties. Indeed, that’s probably the way to watch Ido” because having to wade through endless commercial breaks, needless up-close-and-personal profiles of the contestants, the slick hype of the dreaded Ryan Seacrest, and the by-now totally-stylized comments from the three judges would be just too much to sit through.

With all that, the contestants get about a minute and a half to do a song so they race though it as if they’re double-parked outside. And, of course, the musical barriers put up by the Idol producers ensures that all the contestants fit into the homogenized musical and performing “Idol” stereotypes (the Mariah Carey vocal clone, the Michael Bolton clone, the “rock chick” who really isn’t one, the Carrie Underwood-esque Nashville pop-country passes). Of the clips I saw from the first "Beatle Night", not one was up to the originality or creativity of the performances in the recent “Across The Universe” film, let alone the huge volume of Beatles covers that are currently clogging up my iPod. No appreciable harm was done to any of the songs but there was nothing very interesting, either. And, oh yes, Billboard gushed over the fact that the second hour of the show rated a Nielsen estimate of 31 million viewers. On February 9, 1964, in a country that at the time had about 190 million people, 73 million people tuned in to see The Beatles’ live American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Now, THAT’S “making it”!

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About Al Sussman

  • TOBYTYLERTUCKER

    Author knows nothing about what he speaks. First of all, Clay Aiken has been touring constantly for 5 years. Successfully touring, and only took the role on Broadway for something to do while recording his next album. Maybe Fantasia took the role for that reason, I don’t know but she missed more performances than was in. Not a ggod move. Ruben is doing a Broadway tour soon and Taylor Hicks is doing what he wanted to do when he signed up for Idol: performing. What other facts are wrong here?

  • Dave

    On February 9, 1964, in a country that at the time had about 190 million people, 73 million people tuned in to see The Beatles’ live American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Now, THAT’S “making it”!

    —————————

    That’s when there were only 2 channels to choose from.

    You are surprisingly out of the loop when it comes to today’s music industry and particularly ill informed about the past American Idols and their careers. Of course its just your opinion but what ever happened to fact checking?

  • jean

    Ruben is NOT doing a ‘Broadway tour’. Ruben and Frenchie are in a ‘touring’ cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (that is if they can sell tickets. Ruben and Robin Givens were to be in a ‘gospel’ play/musical last year and preshow ticket sales were so poor the show was cancelled before it even began). Clay has been ‘hounded’ by several Broadway producers for ‘a few years’. He just wasn’t ready to ‘do’ Broadway. With touring twice a year; recording successful albums, numerous tv spots; traveling for UNICEF as an Ambassador and also a Celebrity spokesperson for Toys For Tots (best year ever in its history was the year Clay was the spokesperson!!!); fundraising for his own very successful charity (Bubel/Aiken Foundation), etc. , etc.; Clay just had to ‘find’ the time and the right vehicle to do a Broadway run. And what a run!! OMG-he is incredible-acting, dancing, comedic timing and of course, his singing!!! Go catch him in Spamalot by May 4th!!

  • LIZ

    AMEN! You are right on! The first honest article I have read about Clay Aiken. He is an artist in every word. Thank you.

  • Bella

    It is an honor to be cast on Broadway with some of the most talented, hardworking singers and actors out there. Fantasia and Clay both did a phenomonal job in their roles. I’m sure Ruben will do well in the touring production of Ain’t Misbehavin. All of these three are working on new albums and continuing along with their recording careers in addition to the theater. More power to them! They are all so talented.

    I have no idea what ever happened to Taylor. I will give you that one.