Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The indie label signaling game is broken

The major labels have plenty of money to throw around, so it's no big deal for them to snatch up any and every band out there that can demonstrate a shred of artistic potential. If a band is successful, the payoff is enormous; if not, they are held in permanent indenture. Either way, the decision to sign is relatively straightforward and painless for the labels, since it involves little risk for them. In its heyday, this system was foolproof.

By contrast, the indie labels don't have unlimited resources at their disposal. Thus, they can't invest in unrealised potential; they invest in working bands. The decision to sign can be agonisingly difficult: who can really say that one band is intrinsically better than another, out of the tens of thousands of bands out there? In the end, local buzz and a history of touring make all the difference; from the perspective of the labels, this kind of proven track record conveniently signals a band's seriousness and competence. And in its heyday, this system was pretty effective as well.

We all know that thanks to the Internet, the major label system has been broken for quite some time now. Few seem to have noticed that the indie label signaling game has been no less compromised, however. I would argue that a signaling game is broken once those sending the signals are: a) aware of its rules, and b) able to affect the outcome based on that awareness. In this age of the self-empowered artist, these two conditions are increasingly the norm. Bands today have both the incentive and the wherewithal to cultivate their signaling devices directly, while cutting corners on improving the artistic skills that such signals are meant to signify. To be fair, these efforts are almost always sincere, not cynically manipulative; they simply follow the wisdom of our day, after all. And the difference is so subtle and the change has been so gradual that few of us even notice.

Look at touring, for example. In the past, with nothing else at stake, bands used to tour only once they believed they were either good enough or popular enough to recover the exorbitant costs involved. Plus, it's easier to develop as a songwriter and musician when one isn't under constant pressure to tour. Doing things in this order just makes sense. Nowadays, though, bands barely half a year old willingly go on tour at a loss, playing to empty bars and clubs in cities where no one has heard of them, hoping that such efforts will signal that they're good and popular enough.

And it's hard to argue with this wisdom when the indie labels receiving these signals haven't bothered to modify their interpretations. But they will soon enough. I'm reminded of the emergency exit doors in the subway stations here in New York, which emit a high-pitched siren when opened. They also double as service doors for large carts, strollers, and anything else which can't fit through the turnstiles, in which case a station agent will deactivate the alarm. But due to budget cuts, many stations are no longer manned by an agent, so people are constantly streaming out the doors every other minute; as a result, the emergency siren is now just more background noise to tolerate and ignore. It no longer signifies anything; it is useless as a signal.

And since any band with a whole lot of free time can jump aboard a tour van, or badger their friends with emails about upcoming shows, the results obtained by these measures are now useless as signals of artistic worth; they have become just more background noise to filter out. Someday soon, the indie labels will have to acknowledge that their signaling game is broken. And then what? What will all that time and effort spent sharpening one's signals be worth then? I'd imagine it would feel like maxing out your credit card to buy leather pants the week before grunge broke.

So this is why I'm spending the next few months working on a comic book to go along with the upcoming Rosalind Franklin album. I enjoy drawing, I think the album will benefit artistically from it, and I believe there are enough people out there who can appreciate it. I'd like to get better at creating outstanding works, not worry about bringing those works to a wider audience, so that's where I'll concentrate my focus. It's a lousy mindset for getting signed to a label, yes, but a great strategy for being worthy of one. And it's only a matter of time before this observation becomes too painfully obvious to ignore.

So my advice to anyone out there interested in something beyond just transitory recognition, whether in the arts, academia, relationships, or anywhere else, follows this line of thinking: Invest in your talents, not in signaling devices. It doesn't benefit you in the long run to play anyone's signaling game. (Of course, only time will tell whether my advice is actually any good!)

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