Q+A: An Analog Industry in a Digital World

Casey de Pont | November 14, 2014

photo: flickr/creative commons/Martin Hesketh

New York City has always been a sort of greenhouse for up-and-coming musicians. Singers, songwriters and bands from all over the country would move to Manhattan, playing show after show in dingy bars in hopes of being spotted by the right A&R guy. But the advent of digital distribution has blown the doors off the traditional discovery process. In the spirit of the PBS Arts documentary, Hitmakers, we spoke to a handful of people from the music industry in the New York area about how the internet has changed their experience and how they’ve managed to make it work for them.

Note: responses have been edited for length and clarity.

THE BAND:

Thank You Scientist is a progressive rock band from New Jersey who just inked a record deal with Evil Ink Records. We spoke to their guitarist, Tom Monda.

Was there a moment in your career when you realized how important it was to have a presence online and on social media?
That’s something that is understood by most musicians nowadays. People like to interact with musicians they dig (I know I do!), so keeping an open forum with fans is a vital aspect of any music career. When you are just listening to an MP3 it’s easy to forget that humans created it. I think social media reminds people that music is created by the blood, sweat and tears of other people, and that it’s vital to support them if they want more of it.

What do you think had a bigger impact on your fan base – live shows, or the internet?
The internet is great and all, but the reality is that social media numbers don’t mean too much in the scheme of things. Bands can buy Facebook likes, twitter followers, YouTube views, etc. TYS never subscribed to anything like that, but it’s certainly something that happens. Being an active and strong live band is THE component to being successful.

Is it still important for bands to seek out recording contracts with major labels? If so, why?
It depends on the music the band is performing. If you want to be a pop mega star, I’d lean towards yes as that requires an array of publicists and marketing strategists and lots of money. For a band with more “artistic” goals, it may not be as necessary, but still requires a great deal of vigilance and business acumen.

THE MUSIC JOURNALIST:

Brittany Spanos is a staff writer at Rookie Mag and writes about music and pop culture for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Vulture and other corners of the internet.

As a music journalist, how would you say you do most of your listening – at shows, or online?
I grew up as a music listener at a time where buying physical copies of music was slowly being phased out. It was the post-Napster era where a lot of older siblings were teaching my friends about sites like Limewire. Though I was pretty analog for a while, I became well-versed in how to scope out music via the internet at a young age. Today, it’s easier and more economical for me to use the internet as my primary way of listening but that doesn’t mean discovery via live shows has to be exclusive or suffer in the process. Also, [the internet] helps me go beyond the New York scene, which can become so homogenized.

Do you think that local music scenes have suffered now that so much new music discovery happens online?
I’ve found the internet to be extremely helpful to the local music scenes I’ve been a part of in both Chicago and New York. It allows bands to build a strong fan base and connect with them in an immediate way. However, I do think originality in the sounds being produced from many scenes, rock specifically, hasn’t been fostered as well as relationships with the community have been. It may be a byproduct of the information deluge, but there’s a cyclical nature to the music coming out of these scenes. There’s probably a sense of “if it worked for them, it’ll work for us.”

In Hitmakers, DJ Steve Aoki is quoted as saying, “YouTube is the new radio.” What do you think are the benefits of streaming “radio” services? Is there any part of the listening experience we lose with these platforms?
I love radio services like Pandora, iTunes Radio and Spotify so much because of their happy medium between YouTube and traditional broadcast radio. Discovery still happens, but at a more highly-curated level. I’ve created a tree of new stations based off songs or artists I’ve discovered while listening, so the process can be extremely fruitful. On the opposite end, variety outside of our own specific taste can be lost when it comes to streaming services.

THE LABEL GUY:

Ryan Harris is the Digital Marketing Manager at a major record label based in New York.

When your label looks for new bands to sign, how much discovery happens online as opposed to in person, at a show?
Quite a bit. Any band playing a show has music online. So if you’re actively trying to sign new artists, you’re a step behind if the first song you hear is at a show.

Do you encourage your artists to sign on to digital distribution platforms like Spotify in spite of the comparatively low compensation rates? If so, why?
I would say what is encouraged is looking at the whole picture. There’s a lot more to consider than just cents per stream. For example, in some parts of the world, streaming makes up the vast majority of how people consume music. Streaming also isn’t a one-time transaction like an mp3 sale and that makes playlisting very valuable. If you have a song that is breaking, and [it] gets added to those big top hits playlists on Spotify, that can be huge. That said, there are a number of arguments for and against…I think what is important is evaluating what works best for the individual artist.

A lot of media coverage around the rise of digital publication platforms suggest that this could be the end of an era for major record labels. Why should recording contracts still be attractive to artists?
Those services are just platforms. No one is working on your behalf as an artist. There is a lot that a record label can do that [algorithm-based] suggestions ignore.

How has the internet affected your listening habits? Let us know in the comments below.

Hitmakers airs Friday, November 14 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.