Who's Foolin' Who?

So online initiatives kneecapped major-label strangleholds on commerce. But are artists REALLY more in control of their success?
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Same as it ever was?

The new-media world likes to pat itself on the back for providing access to everything all the time so that normal human units can be in full control of their informational and promotional destinies. It’s kind of like a virtual “inmates running the asylum” scenario. But while we can certainly Facebook and Tweet and On Demand ourselves to near death—or, at least, towards soul-numbing boredom and idiocy—do we really have the tools to promote ourselves to actual, measurable, and revenue-generating success?

Online tools do exist, of course, and some lucky or extremely savvy and/or talented individuals have absolutely forged their own brands to become thriving entrepreneurs. If we focus solely on the music industry, however, the exact same thing occurred in the pre-download, major-label controlled record business. Some artists worked up the talent, moxie, and good fortune to get record deals, tour, and develop ongoing careers making music in the corporate strata. Other artists dredged onward with tiny pockets of success here and there, or failed outright. But if you weren’t signed to a major or major-indie record label—with all their promotional power and access to television, radio, press, and other “get in front of the public” outlets—the chances of finding your career in the “fail” bin were pretty darn huge.

The current media system was supposed to tear the walls down on closed, exclusive music traders. Today, everyone can become a YouTube sensation, reach the public directly, bypass the irrelevant old label system, and start collecting Bentleys and summer homes in Monte Carlo. And yet, breaking out of that oh-so-crowded field of aspiring musicians to seduce enough of an audience to make a living selling records and touring remains a daunting task. Don’t visit your local Bentley showroom just yet.

In fact, even some well-established artists—who seemed to have the most to gain from the old-time record business imploding due to their massive audience bases and potential for direct-to-consumer sales—are struggling. I’m sure you’ve read the on-demand music rants about pennies for plays.

The bottom line is that some business entity needs to partner with an artist to promote their work above what an artist can do themselves with the same web tools available to every aspiring musician on the planet. Unless you’re extremely charismatic and talented and lucky—traits that have always served success even back when fragile 78s were played on Victrolas—you must consider that when everyone is shouting, no one is really heard.