Street Smarts: One-Stop Star-Making

A few months back, a great Nashville record executive announced he was leaving his job as head of the Nashville office of one of the world’s premier record companies.

He was the essence of power in the industry. He had built many of the biggest star brands in country music. He could survive anything.

And then he pulled out. I’m not going to call him and ask why he left. But I’m certain he hasn’t lost his passion for either the music or the business in music business. He will turn up again. My guess is he will be running a new kind of company, freed from the limitations of the old label model.

It is foolish for songwriters and publishers to pretend they can go on doing business the same way we did it before. I know professional songwriters today who continue to write every day with their songwriting buddies. They turn out some very good songs and it’s still possible to get a Tim McGraw cut, or a Blake Shelton cut, or a Reba McEntire cut without writing with the artist.

But make no mistake, the wonderful old model of writers sitting in their lairs writing great songs for the public, demoing those songs and handing them to their songpluggers for an even playing field song contest with a major cut being the prize for the legitimate winners – that old model is going away faster than you can say, well, “that old model is going away.”

The major publishers, as I have said before, are looking for young singer-songwriters. Sometimes they will sign a veteran, non-singing songwriter if that veteran has a great recent track record. The major record labels are also looking for young singer-songwriters. If you have a good look, can sing some and are not a confessed songwriter, the label will make you into one, legitimately or otherwise.

So if the old record model is going away, what’s going to replace it? Here is my guess. You may recall that I have talked about so-called “360” record deals, where the labels not only make money off record sales, they make money off all the artists’ income streams, like concerts, merchandise sales, publishing income and songwriting income.

Industry reaction to the “360” deal has been largely negative. People make it into a morality issue. The label is greedy, they say. They want a piece of the artist’s very soul. Blah blah blah.

But here I have to sympathize with the labels. They are fighting for their corporate lives. And they have a point. Labels do two things well. First, they can take a total unknown and, by shipping and promoting recordings to radio stations, they can make that person a known brand within a few months. Also, once they have made that newcomer a familiar voice on the radio, they know how to get product out to where people will buy it. Let us not forget that at little Sun Records, Elvis Presley was a regional artist capable of a country hit here and there. Then Elvis moved over to RCA and, yes, “Heartbreak Hotel” was a great record and, yes, Elvis had this great look, charisma and sound, but it was the power and credibility of RCA that made radio believe in the music and the charisma. The labels may have made mistakes over the years, but it is not their fault that the Internet has made plastic an obsolete sales product.

The labels are saying, “We are the people who make you a star, we are the reason you play big auditoriums and sell a million T-shirts, why shouldn’t we participate in all those revenue streams that we made possible?”

When an old-line record company tries to do this, it seems like a cheat. But suppose instead of a record company, you start a management company that just happens to promote their artists like a record company does? Managers have traditionally taken 15 to 20 percent of all their artists’ revenue streams and the industry considers that a legitimate share. What a plus it would be for the artists if the management company did it all – publishing, promoting, recording – a one-stop hit-making company. Well, there are those who would argue that a manager is a necessary tool to protect the artist from the excesses of publishers and labels, and that putting all under one roof would give them too much power. But most successful artists have a music attorney who can protect them against management excesses.

I’m not saying one-stop star-making is perfect, or even better. I’m saying it’s possible that the next big thing in the music business is the one-stop star-maker. In fact, it’s probably already out there, I just don’t know it because Cumberland University is my ivory tower. These new management-cum-record labels (and publishers) will have to be very sharp in keeping up with all the new Internet ideas that are eating into the role of radio as the exposure medium for their artists. But they will. And in the end, the record companies will not have gone away, they will simply have a broader role in star-building.

Should new artists work with these new companies?

Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a business decision they will be making, not a moral decision.