By Hans Ebert
A friend recently asked who is the best music company executive. The “best” in any industry is tough to name these days as so much is hidden from view with smoke and mirrors creating illusions (and delusion) of success, whereas in the music industry, the impression, rightly or wrongly, is that it’s still controlled by The Old Boys Club with their self-serving agendas.
Of course, this doesn’t answer the question as to who’s “best music executive”- it’s most definitely not anyone in the Asia Pacific region- but this depends on what actually goes into making someone “the best”. There’s also the role of management versus that of a music company executive which makes things even more grey. One has to trump the other and the winner who always takes it all is management.
The main question that needs to be answered is what is the role of a music company today? Does it even have a role? If it’s to sign and develop new artists, what can it do that management can’t? Or any smart, creative, business-minded artist with a damn good lawyer can’t do for themselves?
Who exactly is stone, paper and scissors, and is there anywhere around today with the foresight of a Chris Blackwell- unfairly described as a “parasite” by some who feel he “stole” and got rich by exporting the music of Jamaica- Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Berry Gordy Jr, David Geffen, Jac Holzman, Bhaskar Menon, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss etc- those pioneers of the music industry who created labels like Island, Motown, Elektra, A&M etc, and had the courage of their convictions and love of music to sign, nurture and invest in young talent like Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Eagles, Supremes, Doors, Pink Floyd etc?
Then again, these were founders of the greatest music companies in the world who doubled as confidantes of the artists they believed in purely because of their talent and signed them up so that the world could hear their music. This, in turn, created a chain reaction when it came to the sharing of music- not through the exchange of various digital playlists which have reduced music into something cheap, discardable and, often times, anonymous- but through a product one could touch, hold and feel and get to know more about artists through liner notes, admire the creativity of album cover designs, read the credits, watch mini films for the music before the music video etc. It was a total creative package and experience.
It’s this tactile ability to feel music along with what was seen and heard that gave birth to the music fan. It’s why concerts are so important today. It’s the only way artists and their fans can truly interact though the bigness of many has robbed any form of intimacy. It’s just bragging rights to say, “I was there along with my iPhone. Look at my photos.”
The ‘live’ streaming of concerts and interviews with artists on social media platforms like Facebook is better than nothing, but it’s also pretty much as faceless and empty as podcasts- and arena-type concerts. It’s just more discardable fluff. Like any good song, there’s no hook. It’s monkey-see, monkey-do “thinking” in a world where technology is the idea. Where’s the music? Where’s the beef? Lost in the mix. Lost in the rush to get something out there even though it has zero longevity and no immediate impact.
There’s something missing to all of this- something extremely simple. But having become slaves to technology and social media, we can’t seem to wrap our heads around what this might be. And whoever manages to figure out what this missing link might be could very well be the “best music executive”- but a very different kind of music executive to today’s model. Today’s music executive is mostly someone who is incredibly boring, someone viewed with suspicion, and with no balls and zero decision making power. Then again, what decisions would you want these people to make?
If not an artist, but a client- let’s say a brand- how many executives in a music company are good enough deal makers who can offer you something truly unique- something that’s a tangible return on investment for both sides? From where this writer sits, it’s always been a one way street: “Tell us your budget and we’ll tell you what we can offer.” And these offers are the same old same old- paying for advertising on streaming services, paying for advertising on social media platforms etc while you sit there thinking, “These people are f-ing dweebs who think that you were born yesterday.” And if born yesterday, you’re too smart for these gremlins, many being what’s left of the traditional music industry almost by default when their mentors saw the grim reaper to the industry standing by the door and bolted. Most are toadies with titles that are meaningless as they eventually answer to bean counters or the irrelevant head of human resources. None of this actually exudes creativity nor confidence. None of this makes for any form of exciting business partnership.
As always, the music company has no bananas and is looking for easy handouts. Money’s too tight to mention and the sense of entitlement is laughable. It’s like asking artists to pay for their recordings AND all marketing tools and which, through the “kindness” of their heart, music companies will help “distribute through their channels” and take a percentage of sales. Dear god, please.
Corporate bollocks like this has gone on for way too long. Why? Because this is how it’s always been and no one with the business acumen and knowledge of music and music marketing has come along and pressed the Refresh button.
It’s probably why in recent months there have been too many who have crossed my path with this and that idea, but where everything has either been done, or else you’re seen as having the funding for these users to make a few extra bucks with their daft ideas that have not been thought through, especially regarding a return on investment.
Sorry, but ageism is rife, and if pushing forty or fifty and still trying to make it, if a good enough musician, either focus on being a session musician or songwriter with a good roller deck to have your music heard by artists or artist management looking for original material. Either that, or change careers. As an ex used to always say about an unknown and average singer-songwriter from the UK who thought he was entitled to be the next Robbie Williams and would become cranky when getting nowhere, “Why don’t you tell him to try being a bricklayer?”
Who’s the best music executive around today? I’m sure there must be someone, but in this day and age of clutter, they’re no doubt not given their proper dues. Then again, looking back to when a music executive with two majors and coasting through life, what did anyone of us actually do? Those at head office swanned around the world clocking up air miles just to show up with the latest videos and music by “priority acts”, and to have the most inane, useless meetings that led nowhere. But in those days, music companies had money and though we dreaded having meetings with these people, they represented head office and so we had to make nice and play Willie and the Hand Jive.
If not clocking up air miles, it was the tedium of having weekly conference calls with these executives and the huge expense of video conferencing where hours would be wasted with no one hearing or seeing each other. Why not a simple call on Skype? No, it had to be video conferencing because of the number of people involved. One has to laugh. Hard and long.
What did us executives actually do when in the office? Get in around noon, sign a few cheques, make up expense accounts, and then wait for lunch and never return. How could we? Most times, we were legless. Our PAs knew how to cover for us. Frankly, they ran the office.
For weeks, I couldn’t be bothered coming into the office. What for when all us senior executives were working on individual plans to start our own businesses? And you know what? Nothing much has changed. The one thing that has is that the executives today are not smart enough to hide their weaknesses and huge conflicts of interest.
At least during my time, we had the smarts to pretend to do something while doing nothing, though, when need to be, we creative accounting in place to meet our KPIs and be seen as indispensable.
Some of us had the A&R skills to produce some hit records and work with partners on creatively fulfilling win-win projects. But, deep down, we all heard the Fat Lady clearing her throat and stayed on for our payouts. The end wasn’t just near, the end had arrived. It was the end of music companies just as MTV crashed and crumbled and has been reduced to visuals flickering in the background.
Today, working with the Hong Kong Jockey Club with its hardware comprising two racecourses and venues for ‘live’ music, an average attendance of 12,000 every Happy Wednesday at Happy Valley Racecourse, and 100,000 at the track at Shatin last Sunday for the Longines Hong Kong International Races and a turnover of over HK$1.5 billion, has afforded the opportunity to have written and produced more music than all those nickel and dime days at EMI Music put together. And form our own label and produce its first product. It’s been fun. And it’s just the start of more to come.
The best music executive? They’re around- but, most likely, not in any music company. And on the subject of music companies, one just hopes the video conferencing and conference calls with those supercilious airheads at head office asking the same dumb questions have stopped. But I doubt it. It’s all about Survival in a world that gets more and more confusing every day.