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These days, performers are not only creating songs, but also their own marketing strategies

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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - Of all the embattled, entrenched industries in America, few have weathered more public criticism and financial blows than the music business.

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Highlights

By Preston Jones
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
1/6/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

The slow death of relatively fresh-faced, multi-platinum pop acts, the rise of illegal downloading and the agonizingly inept response by major labels to new technologies have dramatically and permanently altered the landscape for established and emergent acts alike.

But the promise of a rock star career isn't necessarily out of reach.

Although the major labels (only four _ EMI Music, Sony BMG, Warner Bros. and Universal Music Group _ remain standing, in various states of disarray) are increasingly betting on standard bearers like U2, the Rolling Stones and Madonna to shore up the bottom line, there are still new acts being signed that are having modest success.

These bands can benefit from immediate access to producers, studios, marketing departments and touring apparatuses, but there's also the specter of possible termination hanging in the background.

Taking charge of one's own career and potentially bypassing the world of major labels entirely is becoming easier and cheaper every month. Social-networking sites such as Facebook, Imeem or MySpace; low-cost software like GarageBand; and previously uncharted avenues of exposure _ Apple iPod commercials, placement in prime-time TV shows or making a splash on YouTube _ combine to create multimedia outlets for musicians.

Multiplatform approaches are blossoming into bona fide springboards that can, if nothing else, help sustain a band or fling one into the mainstream. The road to success may include soundtracks, commercials and movie trailers _ witness the rise of eclectic indie star M.I.A. from buzzy blog favorite to Grammy contender on the back of her single "Paper Planes" gracing ads for the comedy "Pineapple Express."

In a Dec. 24 article, The New York Times'pop critic Jon Pareles pondered the notion that the long-accepted way of not only breaking out but making a living in the music industry was fast becoming obsolete.

"Musicians have to eat and want to be heard, and if that means accompanying someone else's sales pitch or video game, well, it's a living," Pareles wrote.

Steering your own ship is also advantageous in an increasingly wintry economic climate, one that has seemingly affected everyone from major corporations to mom-and-pop ventures. Musicians are susceptible, too, which makes the concept of "alternative delivery" appealing and timely.

According to David Peisner, writing in Spin magazine's January issue, "digital piracy and corporate shortsightedness have combined to siphon an astonishing 43 percent of the industry's business since its high point in 1999." That's a gobsmacking figure, particularly when you consider that a decade later, the hobbled music industry continues to shed jobs, cast about for viable digital profit centers and try to reap some of the profits enjoyed by the concert side of the business.


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As the new year dawns, icons and indie acts must consider embracing new technologies and techniques, with plenty of hard work and a bit of luck, to get their music heard.

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Texas artists are as well positioned as any to capitalize on the rapidly changing music industry, seizing opportunities as they materialize. For instance, North Texas-based the Bright, which has been featured in multiple MTV shows, including its popular reality series "The Hills," is working on the title track to a forthcoming video game and has signed a deal to write music for a motion picture, all without the support of a major record label.

It was Dallas-based Cyberathlete Professional League, a free online gaming league, that provided the Bright with its initial break. The group's lead singer, Texas Christian University grad Julie Lange, says that after the Bright wrote and recorded a theme song for a forthcoming video game, doors began opening.

"It worked out so well, and we were able to get a lot of other opportunities," Lange says. "Having a record deal doesn't mean anything _ you have to create your own buzz."

The Bright has an album, "In Lucid Dreams," under its belt, which Lange says is less about baiting major labels and more about having something to hand music supervisors and talent scouts searching for the next soundtrack for commercials for Outback Steakhouse, Jaguar or Apple iPods.

"If a record label were to come to us, I think it'd be a great thing," Lange says, "but until then, we're not going out and beating the streets for a record deal. We've had a lot of friends, musicians, who have been signed and their careers are no longer in existence."

The Bright isn't alone either: Lewisville native Brad Skistimas, a singer/songwriter who performs as Five Times August, has built a successful career _ earning airplay on all four major TV networks and HBO and a national distribution deal _ with little outside help.

"I started Five Times August when I was 18," says Skistimas, who is 25. "The idea was to get a label and go that route like so many artists, (because) when they start out, they think that's the way things are done. As I accomplished more and finally got myself to a point where I was meeting with labels and talking to them, I realized how much I had accomplished on my own. I just decided to stay the route I was going because I was getting things done the way I wanted to get them done."

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Working with only one other person _ his manager, Kelly Vandergriff _ Skistimas has built a network of fans (he has racked up more than 16 million "plays" on MySpace) and an impressive retail presence. Five Times August's appropriately titled 2007 album "The Independent" was the first record to receive national distribution in Wal-Mart stores, and his most recent album, "Brighter Side," secured nationwide distribution in Best Buy, Borders and F.Y.E. stores.

Of course, these achievements come with a price.

"I've been doing this 24 hours a day since I was 18 _ that's how much effort it takes," Skistimas says. "You have to know the business side of it and really figure out; there are so many opportunities you can make for yourself."

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Even established, critically acclaimed musicians such as Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen are moving from the world of major labels to utilizing the Web for the next stages of their careers. He recently released a live album, "Marfa After Dark," as a free digital download on his Web site (www.robertearlkeen.com) and placed his extensive back catalog in the iTunes Store. The longtime singer/songwriter says technology has proved quite useful.

"I've always thought the Web was the musician's greatest friend; the trick is figuring out how to use it properly," Keen says. "For me, it gets a lot of info out there that, pre-Web site, you'd have to figure out where you're going to publish this. If you feel like you've come to the end of the road on any project, you can stick it on the Web site, and there it is. I love that aspect of it."

They may be reeling, but the major labels aren't going away anytime soon.

"The traditional route still exists, and it's still the fastest way to become a superstar," says Steve Knopper, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of the forthcoming "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age."

"There are fewer and fewer of those slots than ever. The flip side is it's easier for bands who are small to stay small and ... still be able to play because they have many more promotional outlets than they ever had and they can do it themselves easier than they ever did."

In the future, Knopper says that the music industry may simply be scaled down, and function less as cultural gatekeepers.

"If they can turn themselves into more of a holding company, they may survive," Knopper says. "I think there will always be a need to transform a Beyonce into a megastar, but it'll be a megastar who will sell 2 million records instead of 10. The business is diminishing."

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(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

None of the artists interviewed thought a major label deal _ despite the potential for more exposure and financial backing _ was essential to building a successful career.

"It's taken a little bit more time for us _ we've been together three years now _ (but) these opportunities that we've been able to conjure up are things that friends of ours that have been signed haven't had," says Lange of the Bright.

Five Times August continues to thrive, Skistimas says, because he's willing to make sacrifices _ he jokingly mentions days when label support "would be easier" _ and to keep breaking barriers.

"I set out to prove to myself and other people that it's possible to make a living doing it completely unsigned and independent," Skistimas says. "We've accomplished a lot."

___

© 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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