Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Survival Tactics

Given the current climate, what's a struggling musician to do?

By Michael McCall

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  For musical dreamers in Nashville--or anywhere, for that matter--the odds of staking a lucrative future in rock 'n' roll just got tougher. With the music industry trimming artist rosters and office staffs by an estimated 20 percent, the number of new signings will decrease sharply. Not only will major record companies sign and support fewer performers, but hundreds of bands and solo acts who just got cut from label rosters will be joining the ranks of those seeking a major-label home.

In other words, for the next few years it's going to be brutal for everyone except the most secure, established performers. If you thought the music industry was political and cutthroat in the past, you ain't seen nothin' yet. In the short run, corporate cutbacks and consolidations will also leave music fans with even fewer choices--at least as far as what they hear on the radio and what they can buy in stores.

In the long run, however, there may be a silver lining: Maybe rock music will get stronger again at a grassroots, street level. As artists and fans alike become dissatisfied with the workings of multinational conglomerates, maybe small, independent record companies will experience a resurgence. Maybe performers will focus more on building their own fan bases, and they'll stop buying into the idea that the road to success is the one paved by a giant entertainment firm.

A generation or two ago, the music industry was launched by hustlers and music lovers. They might have started small, but they also brought the world Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Jackson 5, and countless others. Recent consolidations have killed off all but a few of the companies that started out as independents and blossomed into major players. Left decimated and living on life support are Island, Geffen, Motown, and A&M--all started by visionary executives who signed artists ranging from Bob Marley to U2 to Guns n' Roses to Stevie Wonder. Add to that the deaths of Decca and I.R.S., plus struggling renegades like Sire and Asylum, and the toll starts to add up.

But if the history of American ingenuity has taught us anything, it's that when the road to opportunity is blocked, people simply start building new routes.

Local musician Doug Hoekstra, for example, has every reason to be discouraged by the recent downsizing. But he's not. "I actually think it might be a good thing, because it will shatter a lot of major-label illusions that people have," says the Nashville-based rock singer-songwriter, who released his third solo album, Make Me Believe, on Feb. 9. "There's a mentality that all that's needed is for someone to wave a magic wand and make them famous, and that's unhealthy."

Hoekstra knows. Bolstered by strong press reviews and radio support in such music centers as New York City, Philadelphia, and Austin, he has spent the last couple of years embroiled in contract negotiations with several record companies. For now, however, he's funding his own career while continuing to look for the right partnership.

While that process can be frustrating, he's determined not to let it keep him from being a musician. "People who work in other art forms--poets and writers and painters--know that they have to be committed to their work for a long time and that they have to mature and develop a vision and a personal style before they get recognized," Hoekstra says. "Why should musicians be different?"

Ned Horton, president of the Horton Group and owner of the Exit/In, advises the artists he manages to construct a solid business foundation of their own before doing anything else. That gives them a way to continue making and recording music, no matter what happens as far as corporate support.

"I want to encourage everyone to think more entrepreneurially," says Horton, who manages the Evinrudes and the Floating Men. "The first thing they need to do is get their own small business running. Instead of dreaming of that magic [contract] signing or getting rewarded at that level, they need to concentrate on chipping away at the grassroots level and get ready for whatever comes their way."

In Nashville, the pop scene is actually undergoing an upswing just as these consolidations are taking place. Several bands have released debut major-label albums in the last year, and several more are preparing to release records in the next few months. There's a lesson to be learned here: Many of these newly signed artists--including Wes Cunningham, the Evinrudes, the Nevers, Owsley, and Lifeboy--presented major labels with finished albums when signing their recording contracts.

"The major labels aren't in the business of developing acts anymore," says one local music industry insider who asked not to be named. "If you can come to them with a prepackaged act, they love that. It cuts down the amount of investment and work they have to do up front. To a large extent, the major labels at this point are more about marketing and distributing the talent and not about developing it."

There's the choice, it seems: Hook up with heavily connected lawyers, managers, or music publishers and take a gamble just on entering the major-label sweepstakes; or go out and build a do-it-yourself business that includes putting out your own CDs and booking your own nightclub dates.

Either way, it takes some business savvy and some tenacity. "People have to have their shit together," says Daryl Sanders, founder of Treason Records and chairman of the Nashville Entertainment Association's Extravaganza committee. "When I look around Nashville, I see hundreds of artists with the potential to be national. But I only see single digits as far as the number of artists who are truly ready to do that."

In other words, whichever route an artist takes, only the strong and the determined will survive. "The record labels are still going to sign new acts," Sanders concludes. "But it's going to be even more competitive because they are going to be more selective."

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