The music scene's new groove

How do record companies, musicians and schools deal with the cellphone and Internet era?

By
June 27, 2007 12:13
The music scene's new groove

broken CD 88. (photo credit: )

 
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The digital age has claimed many casualties the world over: printed classified ads, snail mail, music CDs, and no less than all of these, record companies. Music technology and the internet have transformed the way creative musicians produce, market and distribute music, rendering many artists less reliant on record companies. Artists can now brand themselves as record labels, creating full albums from the comfort of their own bedroom for little more than the cost of computer hardware and software. Israeli record companies are restructuring their business models to adapt to industry developments brought on by new technologies. Music schools are adding technology and music business courses to their curricula, and artists are picking up new, non-music related skills in order to compete as self-sufficient artists. To help musicians navigate the redrawn industry battleground, Koltura, a Tel Aviv-based production and public relations company, held its first "Conference for Israeli Musicians" earlier this month, drawing over 100 musicians over the course of three days, covering topics such as breaking into international markets, grass-roots concert promotion, penetrating the cellphone market and self-management. "In our two years of operation, we have encountered many artists who are very talented but face obstacles in getting their music heard, making a living from music, and managing themselves in the music industry," explained Oded Mizrachi, public relations director of Koltura. "Many musicians manage themselves in a way that was relevant 20 years ago - they view record labels and radio as the main means. Today, in the world of the internet and cellphones - an age when everyone can record in their home studios - there are many more opportunities for artists who haven't signed with a record label to promote themselves, whether through internet marketing or intense field work to get gigs." During the same week of this conference, the Hed College of Contemporary Music in south Tel Aviv held a week-long seminar on the music business - a largely underdiscussed topic in local music schools - as part of the school's 16th anniversary celebrations. Entitled "How to Advance a Music Industry Career," the seminar brought top industry professionals to lecture on topics such as copyrights, the functions of a record company and public relations. "Today the name of the game is marketing, PR, collaborations and initiative," says music producer Danny Recht, who lectured on the effect of industry changes in the market. Recht runs his own music consultancy firm and has produced hit albums for Israeli bands including Rockfour, Teapacks and Knesiat HaSechel. Speaking with Metro at his sleek studio loft in south Tel Aviv, he noted that the most striking change in the music industry has been the proliferation of quality home studios that have made the "master recording" - the main commodity of music companies - obsolete. Some music today doesn't even require packaging. Songs or tracks could be created using digital synthesizers and then transferred as a digital file with the touch of a button. Recht pulled out a "relic" from Israeli modern history: a two-inch tape of the 1994 album of Knesiat HaSechel on which 24 pre-mix audio channels, symbolized by grooves in the tape, have been recorded. "I keep it as a souvenir," he said. Today, modern sequencing programs simulate the process of a two-inch tape, allowing producers and artists to record and mix dozens of music channels through their personal computer. New sounds can be synthesized using sound design software and some artists can bypass recording acoustic instruments by incorporating natural-sounding instrument music samples into their tracks. As methods for creating and distributing music have become cheaper and more accessible, artists, managers and record labels must divert their energies and resources to creative marketing and promotion if they want to break into the mainstream market. "I think music production geared for a commercial audience has to have behind it someone who can strategize and develop an artistic concept," says Recht. "Today, it's not enough that a song will sound good. A place has to be created for it on the crowded shelf." Udi Henis, A&R director for one of Israel's largest record labels, Hed Artzi, and teacher of music business at the Rimon School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon, considers record companies "pass " and notes that they must now refashion themselves as "music companies" to stay afloat. This means focusing more on distribution, public relations and artist management rather than traditional music production. "They've suddenly understood - it took a bit of time - that you can't make a profit from CDs alone," says Henis. "They're getting more into management, booking." This does not mean that artists do not seek homes - and transformative backing - within large record companies that have already built up connections, credibility and resources to advance their artists. Henis himself has been responsible for signing breakout artists such as Harel Skaat, Keren Peles and Din Din Aviv. "We still have a lot of artists. The A&R department is also searching for artists, not necessarily those who are just starting out," says Henis. Realizing the importance of the home studio, contemporary music schools in Tel Aviv have all made classes in sequencing technology a required course for its students, although schools vary on the weight they give to music technology. Muzik, a relatively new music school founded in 1997 as "the DJ School for Contemporary Music," has recently developed a three-year academic program born out of the recent changes in the music industry. The approach at Muzik is that technology is not only a means to record, but an indelible part of the creative act, often expressed in electronic music genres such as electro punk, minimal techno, industrial R&B and funk metal. The school offers courses in traditional topics such as music theory, orchestration and arrangement, alongside courses in professional home studio creation, sound design, live performance software, self-promotion and management. "Until about 12 years ago, a composing musician would have to create a demo, in which he recorded himself singing with accompaniment and presented a cassette to a record label," explains Ronen Heruti, director of Muzik, from his office near the Azrieli towers. "A band would go into a recording studio and create a rough sketch. There was only one address: the record company, who usually rejected them. [If not rejected,] the record company would begin the process of signing the artist: producing an album in a professional studio; hiring a musical arranger; coordinating rehearsal rooms; recording, finishing and mastering the work. It was an expensive process. Few artists could afford this production process on their own." The mass marketing of the CD-R, the increased speed of computer processors and peer-to-peer technology have changed all that. "The home studio was born. Suddenly, the computer could be the center of music creation. You may not achieve the same results as recording in a very expensive studio, but you can create something at a professional level," Heruti expounds. Muzik's curriculum is based on the vision of an independent artist who can rely on his home computer to draw from a full orchestra - plus original synthesized sounds - to produce a self-made album. "Our students build their own independent home studios from the moment they enter school," explains Amit Hecht, the academic director at Muzik. "They view it as their most important creative tool and do most of their production work from home already at the end of their first year." Muzik recently partnered with the Open University to offer a BA in humanities specializing in music production. As part of its pioneering approach, Muzik does not offer formal classes for more traditional musical instruments such as guitar, but rather requires students to study keyboard skills and a percussive instrument. The keyboard serves not only as a piano simulator, but as MIDI controller. For the uninitiated, it is hardware or software which generates and transmits MIDI data to MIDI-enabled devices. Many artists point out that technology still has its limits, and some are wary of jumping on the "do-it-all-yourself" bandwagon. Even those conversant with the latest sequencing program or instrument plug-in prefer to focus on developing their musical talent and vision, deferring recording and mixing to technicians. Michael Gottlieb, a recent graduate of Hed and an aspiring film soundtrack composer, does not rely on his home studio to produce his songs, even though music technology is an integral part of Hed's curriculum. "The home studio is mostly to create demos. For electronic music it is an alternative, but for recording live instruments, it's not." Some genres are less affected by the digital age, among them classical music and jazz. "Jazz is something that is live. You don't record jazz albums at home," points out Rimon saxophone student Udi Aranoff. "CDs of instrumentalist music are not recorded at home, [although] the work of a creator can be done at home." Aranoff uses the sequencing program CuBase to compose and test his own melodies. "No musician works without technology. It's like a kid who doesn't know how to surf the net," he says. Na'ama Waisel, 18, a first-year student in composition and arrangement at Rimon, envisions herself as a "total musician." "The musician of tomorrow wants to do everything, to multi-task: production, playing, arrangement, composition, sound and promotion," she proclaims. Rimon, Israel's largest school for contemporary music that began its career two decades ago as a school for jazz, has embraced music's technological advances, having added required courses in computer sequencing programs for all students. Yet the school maintains a focus on producing quality musicians steeped in traditional principles of music and performance. "We teach music first of all and then add technology, hoping that good musicians will know how to use technology to make good music," says Amikam Kimelman, director of Rimon. "You can view technology as a new platform - it's like another orchestra. It has new sounds, new abilities, but it's still another platform. It doesn't work by itself - you have to fill it with music." Nor does he think that the Internet or cellular phones are powerful enough platforms to create stars. Radio and television still remain the medium of choice for exposure. "Of course you get plenty of stuff in the internet, but psychologically people prefer to be heard on Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) rather than an internet radio station," says Kimelman. "That's where most of the action is. People use television and radio more than computers for music. Songs do sell, you can now buy music on-line, but you can't really be heard. People still try to get into the major labels or a spot on television before trusting their website. It doesn't promote itself." Henis of Hed Artzi maintains that (Army Radio's music and traffic updates station) Galgalatz, for example, is still very popular and a coveted destination for mainstream artists. "We're very much dependent on radio. We try to use the Internet as much as possible, but radio is the secret." As it has been for decades, getting on a radio playlist is not as easy as posting music on a Myspace page or Youtube. "Radio is a very sore subject," says Henis. "We have no control over the radio. Many times I get music which I know from experience and my guts will do very well, but the only way it'll get heard is through radio, and they won't play it." To reach the radio and television, even extremely talented artists cannot rely on their entrepreneurial spirit alone. Like actors need agents, a musician generally fares better with a creative, insistent, visionary manager. With the decline in income from disc sales, artists and record companies must look elsewhere for sources of income - and for the resourceful artist, they are not lacking. Moshe Morad, a music consultant and manager who served as CEO of NMC and marketing executive at EMI, dispensed advice and encouragement to students at the Hed seminar, slamming the myth that piracy has robbed artists of a significant source of income. "Today people buy music more than they ever did: computer games, telephones, ring-tones, elevators, cafes. Music is now a part of life. Even if you don't hear the first source - you don't buy discs - you're surrounded by music, in commercials, on television." As an example, he passed around an e-mail he received from an advertising company seeking a "unique" musical piece for a telephone commercial. The musician is given specific guidelines for the piece: "distinctive, not retro, original, fresh, unique, warm, positive and emotionally charged." Such solicitations, however, wouldn't reach an artist directly and are generally channeled through a manager. The potential of publishing - selling the music's rights - is becoming an increasingly developed field in Israel, as it is abroad, with artists charging hefty sums for the use of their music in television, commercials, films and a variety of other consumers. Among the leading purchasers of rights are cellphone companies, who pay artists handsome sums for exclusivity. Artists receive royalties for every download - instead of boasting gold albums, they now literally boast "gold ringtones" which means their song was downloaded from cellular companies at least a certain number of times. [see sidebar] Recht notes that the phenomenon of sponsorship is increasing and that big companies will seek to associate themselves with certain artists to maintain a certain image, making branding all the more important for an artist seeking to make megabucks. Merchandising, Henis said, is still an underdeveloped field in Israel, mostly because "it's hard to have idol quality in Israel because everything is so close." But while Israel, the hi-tech bubble that it is, has adapted rapidly to technological changes, the local music business still lags behind. "Changes in the music industry allow almost everyone with talent to check out the potential of his or her music to reach a crowd, but on a parallel level there's not enough grooming of professionals in the music business," remarked Recht. Unlike American and European schools, no Israeli colleges offer a Bachelors or Masters in music business. As an example, Recht pulled from his library a sample of books in English on the music business, noting that "there are no equivalents in Hebrew." "There are very few entertainment lawyers," said Henis, who says that Israeli studios can easily out-do some European studios in their level of sophistication - a sophistication generally not matched in the field of music business. "Money is always a problem here. Music doesn't have the allure and money that it has in the States, but I think [the local music business] will grow." Recognizing the need for good music business professionals, the Hed music college is seeking to team-up with a local business college to offer a BA in music business. "I think the industry in Israel is run by people who don't have a clue about how business should be run. Most of them are musicians," says Yehuda Cohen, director of Hed. "To know how to run a school, orchestra, band or theater company, you have to have knowledge - and it's not something you can learn in a regular music school." Given all the advances in technology, there are some musical experiences that technology can assist, but not replicate. "The digital age still can't reconstruct the art of stage performance," notes Recht. And performing artists who don't perform have little chance of surviving beyond the computer screen. "I won't sign artists who won't gig," says Henis. "If an artist won't gig, there's no use. They won't sell a copy. Before they come to us they have to gig. I have to know that they're hungry, that they want to get their music out there." According to Henis, Israel suffers from another ailment that no software can fix. "There's a huge lack of talent. There's so much happening. So many studios and home studios, so many people recording, but very few stand out. I don't know why that is. I have a hard time explaining it. We'll sit through huge amounts of stuff. It's not easy." He attributes this in part to the fledging rock and pop culture in Israel. Another cause may be the need for local artists to spread their energies. With such a small market, a creative musician must be a jack-of-all-music trades to make a living: teacher, performer and technician. "Because of the economic situation in Israel," notes Henis, "someone who only does one thing has no chance unless they're the best at what they do. For the very best, there's room for only four or five." The technological advances that make creation and promotion much more accessible to artists do not mean that success is achieved with the touch of a button. "One of the important things the musicians learned is that being a musician is a full-time job," said Mizrachi, speaking after the Koltura conference. "They let go of the fantasy that you can be signed to a record label and sit back. Musicians have to understand that their success depends on their own efforts." Music On Call It's hard to say if or when the internet and cellular phone companies will supersede radio and television as the coveted source for music broadcasts, but a few local entrepreneurs and phone companies are coming up with ideas to speed up this process. "The music market in Israel and in the world is undergoing significant changes, such that technology allows cellular phones to also act as a personal music player," notes Adi Cohen, Vice President of Marketing at Cellcom. "In Israel, there's a rise in the number of artists who want to reach wide audiences, but since the market is small, it's hard for artists who aren't considered a 'sure gamble' to produce a single and video clip that will help them reach an Israel audience." To expand the market and give beginners a stage, Cellcom announced in March its own homegrown digital label, "Volume," which will distribute, promote and play new Israeli artists via cellphones and the Internet. Artists will be scouted at clubs and through Cellcom's music portal, www.heep.com, where aspiring artists can post their clips and songs and be rated - and possibly discovered. Cellcom promises financial support for producing music videos by the most promising artists. Another venture by Shai Ben-Shabat and Rafael Herman will bring face-to-face interviews with Israeli artists to the palm of the hand. The first artist to appear on the program, entitled, "On Cover," is Sharon Holzman, whose hit "What I Want" accompanied the popular television series Mesudarim. The program, available to Orange subscribers via "third generation" cellphones, will focus mostly on the artists' musical influences. "I thought about what would be new, interesting, accessible in a different way," says Shabat, also a music writer for MSN. "People are getting a lot of music from the Internet, and download more ringtones for their cellular phones. I thought, why not produce more artistic content for cellphones?" Shabbat envisions entertainment media getting smaller and smaller, such that the cellphone will eventually act like a personal computer, housing an entire world of entertainment. "Technology is getting smaller and smaller. Television will move to computer and then to the cellphone. The cellphone will be such a powerful device that it will eventually take over from the computer," he predicts.

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