|NYC: State of the Music Industry
Mike Levine & Paolo De Gregorio - November 11, 2012
When The Great Recession hit NYC in 2008, the music industry was already dealing with the aftermath of two very serious sector crises: The revolutions brought by the advent of mp3s and home recording. These dual developments combined to deprive labels and studios of a previously reliable source of revenue. Due to this ongoing hardship, the music industry was more prepared to deal with the recession than any other field.
By 2008, musicians had already adapted to the new times, abandoning hopes of life- changing record deals but enjoying the advantage of being able to save big time on record- ing costs. Pretty much every NYC emerging musician not in school had a day job, which meant that those who were forced to leave town because of the recession didn't necessarily have to do so because of a lack of income from their music careers.
On the other side, the local businesses who survived the aforementioned industry crises were already operating in a mix of damage control/explore new possibilities mode and looking for ways to adapt to a shifting scenario. The strongest contenders 'greeted' The Great Recession as a new opportunity to test their survival skills. Here's a memory from Cameo Gallery's Jify Shah:
'A few weeks after we opened our doors, the economy crashed. I remember thinking we'd do $10 tickets for shows on weekends, but right away we had to settle for $5 - $8. Then we did a whole bunch of specials: like $3 beers and free wings for happy hour.
What Jify didn't mention is that Cameo Gallery could also offset some of the venue's losses through its popular front door restaurant, but nonetheless, it's responsive thinking like this at the origin of any business' successful change of course. Everywhere we looked, we saw this same kind of rewired thinking going on in response to economic hardships.
If there's one over-riding impression that we got from taking a look around and asking people what they thought about what was going on, it's that there isn't any single way working for artists anymore. Instead, there are a lot of different types of musicians trying out a multitude of ways to make it. Experimentation is key, and constant, perpetual evolution a must.
Olive Juice - One Man's Adventures in Paying the Bills
Matthew Roth embodies the hustle of a local artist fighting against an economic current. His group, Schwervon!, is that band you fall in love with without realizing you have. A noise-rock duo with the thrash of Sonic Youth, coupled with down-to-earth tales of love in the real world like Yo La Tengo. There's a simple honesty to the group that's instantly translatable to an everyday experience so vital to the makeup of any local scene. He's also arguably been one of the hardest working artists around NYC over the past 15 years or so. Since 2001, Roth has single-handedly managed to set up and run a world-touring band, a local label (Olive Juice Music), a recording studio and a production company in Manhattan, while simultaneously working once a week at a neighborhood co-op.
'My days in New York were pretty varied. In the morning I'd be processing orders, filling envelopes and going to the post office. Then maybe I'd have 2 or 3 recording sessions a week... Then band practice 3 times a week. I'd be constantly tweaking the OJ website, trying to blog and write reviews as much as possible... Between my band and solo project I'd probably gig an average of once every 2 weeks. In between all that I'd be working on mixing Schwervon! stuff or Major Matt stuff. I'd also moonlight as a live sound engineer so maybe one night a week I'd be doing that until 2am. I worked at the 4th Street Food Co-op receiving produce on Friday mornings. Occasionally, I'd put on live shows so I'd be working on booking and/or promoting those, making flyers, sending emails etc... Towards the end, it got really crazy trying to make ends meet. I'd be selling stuff on Craigslist or going to these paid test-marketing things. I'd do any thing to pay the bills and keep my schedule flexible for music. I'd probably also go see a show at least 2 to 3 nights a week on average to either check out a friend or a new venue.
Here's a man who lived, breathed and ate music, and still had to do test-marketing to make ends meet. So if there's any reason an artist/entrepreneur like Matthew Roth was able to make it work, it's because he saw a demand, and figured out how to make that need work for him. It's also interesting to note that after 11 years of this hectic lifestyle, Matt finally moved back to his home- town Kansas City in April 2012. All his struggle and hard work during the last difficult period was done almost as if to prove to himself that he could make it through the post recession years: Adapting your business to economic hardships is a challenge, and challenges are motivating.
Record Making and Wizardry
In the past decade, NYC has suffered unspeakable losses in the recording studios department. Roth ran with this need for low-priced, 'ok quality'recordings: 'I started recording people because there was a real need for it. The Internet was just catching on and not a lot people knew very much about recording outside of 4-track cassette. I was fortunate enough to work in a studio at the time that had Pro Tools. I saved up some money and got a 001 system for myself and started re- cording bands in my apartment in the L.E.S. for cheap. It was better than a 4 track and cheaper than a studio.
Many more musicians followed this path in the following years, so much so that today, recording engineer might as well be the most widespread (non-paying) job in the Big Apple. The older and better-established studios are definitely feeling the crunch in this area.
Mastering Engineer Joe Lambert has a long and important role in mastering a lot of local heavyweights, from Eleanor Friedberger's first solo CD,Last Summer, to The Dirty Projectors's seminal Bitte Orca. So it's of concern to him that 'increased quality of at-home setups, changes within the actual music industry and economic downturn all seem to be factors as to why recording studios aren't booming like they used to.
But mastering studios have fared relatively well com- pared to recording studios. Although, as Jim Bentley from The Fort recording studio told us, there are also a lot of challenges when committing to lo-fi that many artists aren't aware of at the outset, and this is causing a reverse exodus back to the studios at some point in the musician's career.
'When the economy shit the bed, everyone ran out to buy a $200 condenser mic and some crappy interface for their laptop and thought they were going to make magic. It's like going to the chain music store buying an entry level guitar and amp... never played the thing in your life and bam you're supposed to be Eddie Van Halen or some- thing... it takes experience, chops... Nice gear helps, but understanding how to craft the way the music feels and technical skill (like knowing what mics sound like on this or that and how to move them around to get the sounds you want) are the weapons of the 'big studio sound ... It's next level wizard shit...
The Textured, Dancey Sounds of the Bedroom
An obvious consequence of the bedroom recording phenomenon is that NYC has experienced an explosion of lo-fi, electronic and/or semi-electronic artists who perform music that lacks the live 'oomph,'choosing to focus instead on other production values like danceability, texture and/or the most important of all: songwriting.
While there's no need to write the obit just yet, there doesn't seem to be nearly as many straight-ahead quality rock bands coming out of the city anymore. Even Long Island, once a well-cultivated home for East Coast-grown hard rock, has largely abandoned its radio stations and is known more today for their Cabernet than hardcore groups like Dead Superstar and Powerman.
Nowadays, you may have to take the Path down to Jersey to check out what's new in this genre. With Glen Rock's Titus Andronicus and New Brunswick's Screaming Females representing from across the Hudson, that's quite a bit of pressure for any scene. But maybe the 2nd decade of the 21st century wasn't meant for rock anyway.
Bands like Rubblebucket, for instance, are taking the freakdom of Brooklyn's psychedelic scene, and finding a new place for their flags to fly built on top of the noodling rhythms of Afrobeat. This is similar to what Spanglish Fly is doing for a little-known sub-genre of soul-infused salsa music called Boogaloo. With this revival genre picking up steam, the 13-piece ensemble is electrifying alt-jazz clubs like Nublu and SOB's with their live shows.
In a 'market'where recorded music isn't paying the bills, probably many musicians are again adapt- ing by creating a music that, through the seduction of danceability, has the potential to attract more people to the live show experience. Or maybe it's an unconscious process: survival of the fittest?
Bring It to the People
This brings us back to live venues, a sector which, in NYC, has actually been thriving in the aughts, and which has also recently undergone some of the largest changes of any institution. The introduction of many 'multi-tasking'spaces betrays the effort to improve the classic business model (consisting of one room with stage AND bar) which has too often proved fragile: hence the proliferation of venues which like Cameo, Pianos and Cake Shop host a restaurant, a coffee place or a record store in a separate room often including a recording studio somewhere in the basement.
'Right when the recession first hit, there was a noticeable dip in attendance and sales at the venue, but things pretty much leveled out really about three months later. Attendance now is actually better than before the recession,'says Zach Dinerstein from Spike Hill, another venue with a separate bar and restaurant right on Williamsburg's Bedford Ave.
Dinerstein is almost institutionalizing experimentation by allowing it in the small room he books, which gives artists an opportunity to grow in front of an audience, while finding alternative sources of revenue to keep the mission alive: 'Like most places in the city, we rent our venue out to events, like film shoots, catered parties, private film screenings, things like that. After working in the industry for a few years, I honestly don't think any- thing will keep people from pursuing music. If it's your passion to create music, you'll find a way to do it, even if that means music alone won't cover your bills.
Making the Dream Happen
So, whether you are in a band or in a business, even if 'making it'in the music industry hasn't become any easier, this city offers quite a few ways (many probably unexplored) to get to the same goal i.e. sustainability. For Matthew Roth the changes in the music industry are two-fold. On the one hand, there's less money going around... but on the other, there's a lot more going on nowadays than there used to. 'I think it's a lot harder now for bands to get noticed or to get label support. But I think that's good. You really have to love what you're doing. I think Brooklyn is still a fantastic place for bands in the early stages just because you have so many places to play and stuff to inspire you.
Arien Rozelle from Feeling Anxious PR is helping artists do exactly that.
'New York will always have amazing musicians. It's where you go when you want to pursue your dreams. And I don't see that going away ever. Additionally, economic downturns typically bolster creativity. A poor economy often forces us to look inward, and in doing so, we turn to the arts.'That's something to think about: What if a bad economy is actually good for the arts? Is it possible that there is an inverse relationship between the health of a local scene and the health of the economy at large? After all, the last wave of big NYC indie bands (Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio) happened right after the recession following 9/11...
Music Is for Lovers
Although all musicians naturally hope to get to a point where music will be their full-time job, true artists make art because they need to, in some kind of spiritual way. The creative process might not bring food to their table, but it does feed them spiritually: Artistic creation generates feelings of joy and euphoria, makes people feel alive and gives a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
It takes more than a bad economy to dissuade lovers from pursuing their love, dreamers from chasing their dreams. And if the best love stories are the ones that overcame the hardest of obstacles, a bad economy may as well be the best premise for a music renaissance.