Eric de Fontenay from MusicDish has posted a compelling editorial, inspired by the Supreme Court’s opinion on Affirmative Action. Although Eric and I agree on many things, I’m not sure I believe that establishing airplay and store space quotas for independent artists is the right direction to move in.
First of all, look at France, where state-imposed quotas on airplay result in charts that are wildly different than what store sales indicate. Music buyers there have developed a sixth sense to determine what’s getting played because listeners want it and what’s getting played because government wants it. In a free market, the wallet decides.
Second, the idea of “independent” has such a different meaning in today’s economy and with today’s technology. There are many independent labels that, at the end of the year, are far more profitable for their owners than major labels are for their shareholders.
As someone who happens to own stock in more than a few record labels, I would reframe Eric’s stated goals this way:
1. Record labels have a fiduciary responsiblity to their shareholders to develop a pipeline of strong artists, in the same way that drug companies invest heavily in medicine that won’t be approved for use for years. The focus on quarter-to-quarter results is what has put such a strain on musicians and label staffs — thinking along a seven or ten year strategic plan (and developing artists accordingly) will benefit our culture and our wallets.
2. It’s time for a smart retailer to step up and take responsibility for educating audiences. Is it any wonder that music sales are dropping — it’s no longer fun to shop in most record stores. Independent stores have as much responsibility as the big boxes — many mom and pops have become downright initimidating to shop in. Believe it or not, people are more than willing to try out new things if they have a trusted voice to guide them. A smart retailer who can hire and develop good floor staff — giving them the tools and the time they need to be able to make connections for customers — can regain ground in this otherwise losing battle. A knowledgeable record store staffer who can say, “if you like [this artist], you’ll really like [this artist] and we’ll let you sample this right here in the store” does more for sales than any label advertising can.