What’s Wrong With Tom Silverman

Wired posted the other day an interview with label exec Tom Silverman, titled “What’s Wrong With Music Biz, per Ultimate Insider”. In this blog post I will try to show why the guy is wrong. And too late.

Tom basically advocates that the solution to the music industry’s decline is this: setup new LLC companies for each artist, and share everything 50-50 with the artist from the profits. The difference with the old model is that the artist now will be supposedly receiving more money, and because everyone in that company will work together, and towards a single goal, the career can be crafted more carefully.

On the surface, it seems that Tom wants to help the artists and the labels by creating a situation that’s more fair. And that’s a step in the right direction. However, what Tom fails to realize is that the world is changing towards not needing labels at all anymore. He’s trying to save his business, in a world where his whole profession is going to go extinct.

When Tom was asked about why Sweden was the ONLY country in the world with sustained physical sales, he said: “If it were the music, you’d know that there were three groups that were all the equivalent of Abba that came out last year, but there were not. […] Where are the Swedish numbers coming from?”

And that’s Tom’s big problem to gasp the truth: he thinks in terms of super-stars. He believes that if there are no super-stars, there are no sales. If Tom knew anything about music today he’d know that the most innovative country in terms of music today, apart from the USA, is Sweden. Here’s a country of just 9 million people which has had over 30 major acts in the indie scene last year. Acts that made the jump to this side of the pond too. They might not be in the Billboard top-5 like ABBA got in the ’70s, but they are many, and they are leaving a mark. A mark that actually influences a lot of US musicians. As I wrote on Twitter a few months back: the Swedes are coming. Be aware of the Swedes. They know how to write NEW, good, music. And they’re having Pitchfork’s blessing too. All this innovation makes the Swedish people go out and buy music. Because the bulk of their music is good.

Tom said: “Back in the early ’80s, when the cellphone was first invented, there were more artists breaking on their own, with no technology, than they are now, with technology.”

This is not true. Back then you were either with a label, or you didn’t exist. You’d be lucky if you could work on weddings or in cruise ships.

Tom said: “80 percent of all records released are just noise — hobbyists”.

So we rather limit art creation and personal expression just so Tom can have a yaught and no competition?

“Who uses Photobucket and Flickr? Not professional photographers — those are hobbyists”.

FlickR has some amazing pictures in it, some of them better than pro photographers. The part that Tom fails to understand is that technology has made musicianship a COMMODITY. Just like what digital cameras did to the photographic art (both my brothers in law did not use pro photographers for their wedding for example).

“79,000 releases that sold under 100 copies. Under 100 copies is not a real release — it’s noise, an aberration.”

So you’re saying that these ~5 million copies should not be counted in the overall sales numbers of the music industry? Because these guys are not part of your industry?

“I guess you could put toxic gases in it and maybe that would change the environment. I guess what they do in China is they find a way to filter it, to prevent certain kinds of sounds from going through. That’s a way that they could change it. Deep packet inspection could possibly change the fluidity or the transmission properties of the medium.’

Wo-wo-wo… If I’m reading this correctly, Tom says that free or indie music should be filtered out from the consumer. And bringing China into the discussion, it kind of makes me think that he would love to make it illegal for people to give away their music, or even release it! And of course I’m saying this with the context of the recent ASCAP bullshit happenings, where they want to kill Creative Commons!

And this is a major point. First, the labels went against the consumers. When this failed, now they go against the real competition, the indie artists. They figure, if they can stop music from ever being free or easy to make, or easy to market, people will have to buy again from a limited selection of artists.

Nice try.

“The songs on Susan Boyle’s record are forgettable, and her performance is just okay. There are a million singers who can sing that well at least. It’s just the story that sold it.”

Here we go again with the star system. Tom seems “jealous” of the Boyle phenomenon. Boyle is just that, a phenomenon. Boyle is not an artist. She is just someone with a nice voice, and that’s it. Indeed, what sold her records was the story behind it. However, we should not forget that the human race gets smarter with every passing day. People I socialize with, usually software engineers, don’t listen to Boyle. Not only they don’t listen to her, but they don’t bother with her. They don’t watch her on Youtube, and they definitely don’t buy her record.

Maybe today a good story still sells. But for how long this will last? Young people are getting over the star-system. They’re getting over the drama sold by Hollywood. They don’t care if Lohan will go to jail, and they don’t buy her music either. Instead, they buy music from some obscure Brooklyn band, with no “story”.

Sure, sometimes I do read Perez Hilton myself, but only to laugh at these idiotic actors and singers who have everything one would ever wish and they still manage to screw up their lives. Rest assured I don’t buy their movies or their music. I read Perez’s site the same way I read the LOLcats site.

So again, hunting “the next Boyle” will only get you so far. Maybe it will give you another 10, or 50 years of business. But it’s not a sustainable strategy for the long run either. Simply because you can’t base your success on selling the personal stories of people, and the ignorance of the consumers. At some point, consumers will get smarter, and will simply demand better music rather than a good story.

This is why all the American Idol artists have failed and have lost their contracts. Because none of them was a real artist. They were singers, who were given pre-cooked songs to sing, and all they were selling was image. Well, this doesn’t work in the new world order anymore. Not among my kind of people anyway. And we’re getting more and more everyday.

Silverman’s proposal is too little too late. The idea of setting up an LLC for each act is not a bad one, but getting 50% off of it for setting it up is. Sure, venture capitalists have similar percentages when they invest to start-ups, but there’s usually some serious, expensive technology involved in that case. In the case of music, everything is relatively cheap. A new artist doesn’t need more than $250k to break it if he’s good (this includes staff, van, instruments, album mastering, booking, distribution, PR/marketing). And if an artist can work his way around on a few things, the only thing he might need is PR (e.g. Blitzen Trapper in 2007). Nothing else. Music videos you say? I shot at least three good music videos for $0, so I know what can be done with limited resources.

It’s interesting that Silverman is proposing this idea now that CD sales are down. You see, today, the only way for an artist to make money is to tour. So Silverman is now trying to get some of this touring money too, before it’s too late too. I’m pretty sure the artist will still be screwed at the end, especially if he’s not very successful.

So what’s the solution?

As I explained in the past, there is no solution. The music industry will die. But music won’t die. Hobbyists will carry the trends alive. But there won’t be “stars” anymore. Most of these artists will give away their music for free, and the best ones will also tour, and make a modest living out of it. The rest, will just record on their leisure, from their bedroom or their mother’s basement, release these works for free, and they will make sure they won’t stay up too late, because there would be lots of work at the office tomorrow.

No, this new world order won’t make music quality worse. Many popular acts today started off by recording, mixing and mastering their shit on their bedroom (again, Blitzen Trapper comes to mind, Wavves, Wild Nothing, Memory Tapes, Deerhunter etc). Also, technology will evolve to find easily the type of music we want to hear: just like FlickR makes it easier to find specific pictures. But the labels, and paying for most music, are concepts that will disappear. It’s rather simple, really.

I suggest to Tom to get out of this industry as there’s still time. Sell the company, move to a nice home in the suburbia, live the rest of your life happy with your family, get a hobby, and invest again only if you have to.

6 Comments »

dustinshey wrote on July 14th, 2010 at 11:30 AM PST:

His remarks are typical of this current ‘big business’ environment that is crippling the American economy. So many of these authoritarians are wanting to bring the old biz models back or slightly alter them because they don’t know how to innovate and find solutions to existing business problems without stepping outside their box.

I’d suggest that Tom Silverman take a minute and visit his local indie music watering hole to see that there is a movement going on. Some bands are in it for the money, naturally, and that’s the kind of shitty person he can get to sign on and agree to a 50% split (after many hours of adjusting their music for pop connoisseurs as well).

This old style is dead, and Eugenia, you’re right on the money. If a big label wants to survive and see how to keep its damn head above water, it better start talking to the ones who started out w/ a single artist and now boasts a decent catalog (i.e. Dangerbird, Jagjaguwar, etc.).

Hey labels, get your heads out of your asses.


oona wrote on July 14th, 2010 at 11:50 AM PST:

i don’t think sharing equal risk between labels and artists, making that risk an investment instead of an almost outright purchase of creativity, is such a bad idea. finding the people who are willing to risk as much as you are, and invest as much as you are in your art, is actually a wonderful warm concept.

of course, i didn’t hear it from Silverman first, i heard it from a friend whose mind i hugely respect.

as for Susan Boyle… i think her numbers were so good because the demographic her music was marketed to still buy CDs.


Suzanne Lainson wrote on July 14th, 2010 at 12:34 PM PST:

But there won’t be “stars” anymore. Most of these artists will give away their music for free, and the best ones will also tour, and make a modest living out of it.

Exactly. And the explosion of apps that allow anyone, even those with no talent or training, to make music that they are pleased with will mean that music will be even more accessible to everyone. Everyone will become a music creator/producer to some degree. Day jobs will pay the bills; music is what you do for fun and self-expression.


refe wrote on July 15th, 2010 at 10:34 AM PST:

There’s a lot of truth in your rant, and Silverman has certainly given us plenty of fodder lately.

But, I don’t think that the idea of investment partnerships with artists is such a bad one. As Oona said above, Tom certainly didn’t originate the idea.

The advantages could be that individual artists have both help and funding to get their music recorded in a way they are satisfied with, mitigate some of the risk of going out on the road, to help help them reach the point where they are making that modest living, and help them sustain it once they get there.

All of that may not take anywhere near the kind of money that it used to, but it still does take finances to get up and running and to stick with it for the long haul. Why would we not want to find a good way to accomplish that?

And, as I mentioned to Suzanne earlier today on Twitter, a model based on long-term financial partnerships could help to do away with the industry’s (and the marketplace’s) short attention span for career artists.

I think this could potentially be a healthy way to continue democratizing the music industry (because anyone with the funds to spare could partner with an artist they believe – it doesn’t have to be Silverman and the old guard) while still providing financial and administrative help for artists.


Yanni wrote on July 21st, 2010 at 8:37 AM PST:

Great article!


Larry Jones wrote on July 21st, 2010 at 11:55 PM PST:

Thought provoking and mostly I agree with you. But musicianship is not a commodity. Potatoes are a commodity, sold in volume, without regard for individual potato quality. Home recording technology has come pretty far, but when you buy Garage Band or Pro Tools you don’t get musicianship in the box. Maybe what Mr. Silverman doesn’t get is that you don’t need him to tell you if your musicianship — your composing, playing, singing, taste and production — is up to par.


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