Sunday, September 09, 2012

BC2012: Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business by Hank Bordowitz

With the subtitle "Why So Much Music You Hear Sucks", this book grabbed my attention at Half Price Books last weekend. Bordowitz has a broad range of experience in the recording industry, and he puts that knowledge and his connections to good use in this book. He covers just about every aspect of the business from contracts to recording to promotion to retail to radio.

As a follower of the music industry, I knew about many of the issues Bordowitz addresses, but I still found a lot of surprises. For example, I had no idea that so many of the classic recording studios like Muscle Shoals, the Power Station, and the Hit Factory closed around 2004-2005. While the ease of digital recording for the masses is an obvious cause, there are others including shrinking record company budgets and equipment pricing.*

Bordowitz explains how the major labels survive on a minuscule number of hit records -- in 2005, about 0.7% of albums accounted for 70% of sales. Consequently, they devote their resources to the records that pay the bills, leaving most artists to fend for themselves. He also addresses payola, which never went away despite occasional legal scrutiny. And of course, he writes plenty about the Internet and file sharing, which probably isn't killing the industry like the industry claims it is.

Dirty Little Secrets leaves the reader with the impression that everything about the record business is hopelessly screwed up. It has always been stacked against the artists, but now more than ever. Even worse, the major labels still market to "the kids" (as they always have) even though baby boomers are buying the most music. By handling the Internet and file sharing so badly, the record business has helped create a generation that believes music should be free, and yet they are trying to sell to those people. It's all a huge mess, really, and Dirty Little Secrets does a great job of examining the many facets of the issue in one handy volume.

* In short, it doesn't pay to be the first to get the latest technology. If you buy the latest console when it comes out, you might need to charge $2000 for your studio. But then a competitor gets one a few months later for less, and he only needs to charge $1800. In addition, the cost of equipment has gone up while the rate record companies are willing to pay has gone down. Larry Fast points out that in 1976 his studio had a $60,000 console and booked recording time at $200/hour. In 1994 the studio had a $600,000 console but couldn't get more than $80/hour for studio time.

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