Without question the music industry has undergone enormous change with the evolution of digital technology. Before the mp3, if you had the talent and the potential to appeal to a mass market, you got signed to a record label and your success was measured by how many copyrighted albums you could sell. Often, the decision to keep an artist on board was made within the first few months of cutting the album. Underground success was much more difficult to achieve, given the resources and connections needed to influence radio stations and record execs, which in many cases meant using “payola.” Given the vast influence of these gatekeepers and their propensity to sign artists with a high potential to sell, they were rarely willing to take risks, as was the case with Elvis and the evolution of rock & roll as a popular genre of music.
Last night the indie-rock sensation, Arcade Fire, won the Grammy for “Album of the Year” with “The Suburbs.” Not only did they win, but they were honored with the opportunity to perform two songs in front of the star studded audience. The live show plays out like the name sounds, with an arsenal of noise stemming from the likes of 7 members that play guitar, drums, bass guitar, piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass, xylophone, glockenspiel, keyboard, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin and everyone’s favorite Louis the XIV-era wooden string-instrument, the hurdy-gurdy.
Now add the likes of a face-melting light show in tandem with BMX bikers (including the notably insane Matt Hoffman) wearing helmet cams while performing flatland tricks around the live band. It could only be described as a visually bewildering circus of noise explosions. Complete with very emotionally revealing lyrics. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or fall down and start convulsing.
Something tells me this band didn’t scream “Grammy worthy” to record execs during their early years. Yet this group of vagabond hipster looking musicians took home the Golden Gramaphone, beating out the likes of wildly popular Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum. Didn’t see that coming? Maybe we should have.
The advent of social media has leveled the playing field, yielding endless possibilities for artists to connect, interact and grow along with their fan base. As our own Kris Adler recently pointed out, Susan Boyle went from a relative unknown to a global celebrity fueled by the viral success of a YouTube video of her performance on Britain’s Got Talent. It was a performance that the everyday man or woman could relate too. Raw talent and unbridled passion wins out over superficiality. It might as well have been the script for a made-for-TV movie. Interestingly, while the program had attracted a mere 6.4 million (ok, that’s a pretty big number for TV) the YouTube video to date has attracted 59,342,287 views. This means the exposure she received from the show accounted for only about 11% of her measured exposure on YouTube alone. And let’s not forget Justin Beiber, who was discovered by now manager Scooter Braun after posting YouTube videos of himself online. These days Justin’s video for ”Baby“ is topping out lists with nearly 463 million views. That’s not including the buzz generated from his fans’ multitude of tweets, Facebook groups, and blog conversations that fueled the success of the star picked from virtual obscurity. But YouTube successes are few and far between considering the vast playing field.
Recently, Arcade Fire chose a more deliberate and undoubtedly new and creative route to reach their tech savvy fan base through the use of HTML 5. In August of 2010 the band released an interactive music video for their song “We Used to Wait” in which users can type in the address where they grew up for a geo-personalized video experience. The innovative idea caught national attention on blogs and opinion sites, which likely attributed to the large spike in website traffic in the following months after its initial spike from the release in May (see above chart).
What do you think better qualifies success in the music biz, winning a coveted Grammy or racking up millions of views on YouTube?