Pop & Circumstance: The business of making music: Artists face the almighty dollar

“If the record’s two mil, I’m just tryin’ to move three/Get a couple of chicks, get ’em to try to do E/Hopefully they’ll ménage before I reach my garage”- Jay-Z

Profits. If the Big Five major music labels and their subsidiaries don’t see them over the next two quarters, there’s gonna be hell to pay. It’s been a rough couple of years for the music industry, as everyone knows, and the labels still have not quite figured out a decent business model for the file-sharing age. The big question: How to cultivate a stable of consistent, money-making artists when it already takes a multimillion-dollar investment just to get the song heard. It’s a terrible gamble; the price of cultivating an artist’s image, renting a mansion and jewelry for the video, paying off the fascist clowns at Clear Channel for airplay and publicizing the artist is too often higher than the return, considering that millions of fans will download the mp3 for free instead of buying the artist’s record. Make no mistake about it – everyone in the biz is suffering.

I guess they’re doing something about it, finally. The RIAA is cracking down, suing a couple hundred of the 80 million who share music illegally on the net. You can’t sue all the people all of the time, but you can sue some of the people some of the time. This is a wise strategy, but a PR nightmare; trying to make an example of a 12-year old girl from the projects is like shooting a puppy dog to raise money for medical research. Good cause, but you’re likely to make more enemies than friends.

Aside from the lazily fought war against stealing music, the record companies are trying some new strategies for the holiday season: lowering CD prices to $12-13 bucks, making CD-DVD hybrids with a bunch of extras and licensing more and more music to Apple’s iTunes program, which will soon expand to Windows. Will it work? Ah. Let me send out a reminder to the label heads, if they’re reading this (and they’re not): if your product sucks, it doesn’t matter what kind of box you put it in.

This is as serious a problem as any legal battles the labels might have. There are only a couple sure things in the music industry right now: Eminem, who’s decided to produce instead of record lately; Jay-Z, who’ll be releasing what he says is his final album in November (say it ain’t so Jay!); and. . .I can’t think of any others. Maybe 50 Cent. I think at this point any record with his name attached will go multi-platinum (although it should be noted that sales of his debut album have dropped off recently despite the success of recent singles). So it is with a critical eye that I turn to the upcoming album releases that the industry is betting on to turn things around a bit. Donald Trump said on “Da Ali G Show” that music itself is the most popular thing in the world (Ali G contended that it was ice cream). I’m inclined to agree, but it’s also big business, now more than ever.

Album: Limp Bizkit, Results May Vary (Flip/Interscope)

Release Date: Sept. 23

The Lowdown: Call me stupid, but I still don’t think combining rap and metal is necessarily a bad idea – collaborations by Public Enemy and Anthrax and Ice-T and Slayer proved that years ago. The problem is that you have these hard-hitting metal bands fronted by the worst MCs in the world. Bizkit is certainly guilty: they’re not a bad band by any means, but Durst’s faux-rapping is so arrhythmic that it’s insulting. Luckily, rap-metal was a fad, and everyone from Korn to Papa Roach has decided to phase out the hip-hop influence in their music. But nu metal hasn’t sold nearly as well as it did a couple years ago, and I don’t think Limp Bizkit will do any differently, despite Durst’s loud Britney-baiting publicity benders. The actual music, however, might surprise some people. Durst is an effective singer, and with Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen producing, the album could really push the metal envelope.

Prediction: One or two hit singles, low album sales.

Album: Obie Trice, Cheers (Shady/Aftermath, Interscope)

Release Date: Late September

The Lowdown: The fact that Eminem produced this is all you need to know. He could produce nearly anyone’s next mixtape and it would go multi-platinum. Obie’s an able MC, as heard on the 8 Mile soundtrack, but he’s not an easy sell. He doesn’t have the traditional gangsta image and he doesn’t have a 50 Cent-like gimmick. Still, Em has proven to be a surprisingly gifted producer, and I imagine that this will be a pretty good record. Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records, the man who is responsible for every time a white kid from Jersey says something stupid like “schnozzle,” knows how to spot hip-hop talent better than anyone in the business, and Obie Trice has his seal of approval. It will be interesting to see how they market him.

Prediction: Heavy video rotation, strong first single, okay album sales

Album: Britney Spears, Get In the Zone (Jive Records)

Release Date: Nov. 18

The Lowdown: Well, she still can’t sing. But when Jive Records surrounds you with the best stylists, publicists, songwriters, producers, agents and record engineers money can buy, it just doesn’t matter. Make no mistake: this girl is all smoke and mirrors, and yet no one wants to know who’s behind that curtain. Why? Because she’s beautiful, has a perfect body, and kisses Madonna on the MTV Video Music Awards (which, by the way, was the most blatant cry for publicity and record sales that I’ve ever seen. Pathetic. Still pretty hot though. . .). Her first single will be called “Me Against The Music” (how ironic), which she debuted at NFL opening night. According to Spears, the album has a more “sensual” feel than usual. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds spine-crushingly awful. Look – she’s already ruined popular music for five years. When is this going to end? Let’s just hope that the songwriting is a little better than it was on her last album.

Prediction: A few million units moved, media overexposure, etc. Nothing new. You have to admire someone who sells her body for money. No wait – those people are usually called prostitutes.

Album: The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)

Release Date: Oct. 21

The Lowdown: Youth, good looks, great songwriting, fresh sound – the Strokes have it all. Their music is pure rock and roll and they are marketable to the nth degree.

Unfortunately, this marketability has resulted in a severe Strokes backlash from hipsters and critics who refuse to listen to any music that relies on mass media to do business. It’s unfortunate, because this band is the real deal. And there are damn few rock and roll acts left that have the ability to crack the mainstream. I expect some good music, but I just don’t think that they have the ability to cross over into other markets like Outkast or Eminem. Which is a problem, because the rock-buying public is older and no longer spends money on music. They give their money to their kids and then the kids spend it on music. The success of this album depends on whether the Strokes can appeal to your average 13-year old mallrat ADD case.

Prediction: Tough to say. A hot single and video will help them immeasurably.

Album: Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy (Evil Media Conglomerate, Inc.)

Release Date: To be determined

The Lowdown: Thanks to noted metal fan and Playboy Mansion hanger-on Mike Piazza, one of the tracks from this album got leaked on the radio. It wasn’t bad. But Axl’s kept the fans waiting for so long, it’s difficult to care too much about Democracy. With any luck, it’ll be released soon (not likely). Oh well. Guess I’ll listen to Appetite for Destruction for the billionth time.

Prediction: There are a lot of closet Guns N’ Roses fans out there. This album could hit No. 1 if they ever release it. Does Axl still kick ass? We’ll have to wait and see. . .