“I want to be at the forefront, whether it’s art, music, or fashion. I want to be at the round-table when decisions are made,” Lawrence Parker tells me with a serene smile. He’s leaning against the walls of his newly reopened Traffic Boutique, its stark white walls covered by vivid paintings, its open, modern space sparsely filled with racks of new and vintage street wear. Along with Traffic, the Uptown native also runs Supreme Street, a local hip-hop production company that provides traditional label functions while officially eschewing the “label” label. While the New Orleans music scene remains vibrant, local labels still struggle with the technological and economic changes that have been crippling the music industry for the last decade. Parker’s multifaceted creative company is among several local labels that are experimenting with new business strategies to compete in a flailing industry.
The digital revolution has allowed consumers to access music with unprecedented ease, while email and social networking have connected artists, labels and fans with equal ease. Local labels, like labels worldwide, have simultaneously been helped and harmed by this revolution. From 2004-2009, global digital sales grew by 940 percent while total music market sales plummeted by 30 percent. But by digitizing music, the music industry has effectively shot itself in the foot. “The big advantage of digital media is its easier to distribute, create, and less expensive. This is also the downside,” says Basin Street Records’ founder Mark Samuels. Basin Street Records, founded in 1997, represents New Orleans artists such as Kermit Ruffins and Theresa Andersson.
The global music industry generally blames digital piracy for declining sales. Since anyone with Internet access and a little creativity can illegally download music, consumers have less incentive to legally purchase music. Local labels Park the Van Records, Supreme Street and Community Records deal with this issue by choosing to distribute some music, including mixtapes, for free rather than wait for it to be stolen.
“We’ll put a free song on a blog just to get it out there,” Parker says. “The feedback you can get from that is actually getting to put on a show where you can get paid to perform that one song.” Mark Samuels feels differently. “Streaming of music has certainly changed some people’s attitude towards music, as almost a loss leader,” he says. Freebies are also most effective when promoting new or unknown artists, and since Basin Street Records represents more traditional and nationally-known artists, free downloads are less useful.
As physical sales decrease, labels must look for other sources of income. “Licensing is hugely profitable,” says Park the Van Records President Chris Watson. Park the Van is New Orleans-based, but has expanded to Philadelphia and California. It represents local artists such as Generationals, Giant Cloud and Empress Hotel. As a band’s popularity increases, so does the demand to license its work. Right now, Generationals is on television nightly as its music is used in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial.
Local labels must successfully market artists outside of New Orleans to benefit from licensing. “There’s a lot of demand for work in music and soundtrack licensing,” Parker says. “A lot of my instrumentals have been playing in Germany, like on Snoop Dogg’s show, which isn’t even played in the U.S.” As Kermit Ruffins gained national acclaim from HBO’s Treme, Basin Street made increasingly lucrative licensing agreements for him. Still, Samuels says, “The biggest driver of CD sales and downloads is live performance.”
Because of the Internet, promotion has never been easier or cheaper, but the recession—not the Web—has hurt artists’ fees. “Money’s not the same as it was,” Parker says. “Rather than charging $7,500 [for a performance], we charge $3,000, and for local artists it’s as low as $1,500. With the recession, locally it’s like payment plans. It’s down to that type of economy.”
Traditionally, labels were responsible for recording, marketing, booking and merchandizing. Now, technology enables virtually anyone to perform those functions with minimal cost and manpower. In recent years, several artists have risen to prominence without label backing by doing just that, writing a new script for what musicians need to succeed. Without a label, artists save themselves a sizable cut and retain creative control of their work. “Artists can do all those things, but I find few of them want to,” says Watson. Samuels agrees: “No artist needs a label, but all artists need the functions a label provides. Most artists prefer to be artists.”
While label backing may continue to be sought by artists, their role is changing. Community Records, which represents indie, ska and punk bands, including Fatter Than Albert, Maddie Ruthless and Caddywhompus, is an example of a uniquely structured label. “We think of ourselves as a collective, not a label,” say presidents Greg Rodrigue and Daniel Ray. Being musicians themselves, they work to provide the connection between local musicians and the resources they need. Community forgoes formal contracts in favor of verbal agreements. “We want to work with people we trust and like, and most of the artists we work with are also friends,” says Rodrigue.
Rabadash Records, which produces artists such as Big Daddy “O”, Lindsay Mendez and Waylon Thibodeaux, is thriving from the rise of digital sales. Previously, Rabadash Records was constrained by the lack of a steady CD distributor. Now MP3 sales allow Rabadash music to reach a wider audience than ever before. John Autin, owner and founder of Rabadash Records, is tickled by changes in the industry. “Our business model is now the new business model,” Autin says. “Gig sales, promotional sales and downloads—those are things we’ve been doing for the last 10 years.” Autin eagerly embraces new, Internet-driven business and promotion strategies. “I’m setting up YouTube channels for each of our artists. We’re encouraging them to videoblog and are creating gig videos and sizzle reels.”
Parker’s strategy is to aggressively cross-promote his music, fashion and art endeavors. “Fashion has merged into hip-hop, and hip-hop has merged into fashion,” he says. “With the music we promote the fashion, and with the fashion we promote the music.” Musicians he works with wear Traffic clothing, Traffic provides free mixtapes with purchase, and clothing racks are rolled away to make room for gallery events. Traffic Boutique recently released its new logo—a star, heart, and dollar sign—to begin branding merchandise. Parker is personally involved with each step of the creative process. “If we want to record a song and put it online, we can release it that night. I produce, engineer, mix it, master it, I do all of that myself.” After a song or album is created, Supreme Street develops album graphics, music video production and cyber promotion.
On the other hand, Domino Sound Record Shack, a local music store and independent label, has avoided digitally brought hardship by simply never going digital. Matt Knowles, owner of Domino Sound, began releasing music in 2007 with Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, and has released both local (a live recording of 2009’s Krewe of Eris Mardi Gras parade) and international (De Kift, a Dutch classical/punk/rock ensemble) music. Domino Sound solely sells and produces music on cassette and vinyl. “Records aren’t going to die,” says Knowles, confidently. “There are just a select few out of the masses who really use it as a medium, but I’m alright with that. The people who are into it are usually really passionate about the music. It’s nice.” Domino Sound Record Shack has carved a unique path of success by producing music unavailable anywhere else and selling un-copyable, un-downloadable formats that remain in demand after decades of technological change.
Although challenges facing local labels should not be underestimated, neither should their capacity for change and innovation. While new technology has brought negative change changes, it also brings positive ones. “You can utilize music to cross over into other businesses, and you can have the opportunity to reach and positively influence the world.” Parker says, beaming. “Everyone has his or her fair share and the same opportunity to do something great and succeed. The playing field is now even. Anyone’s music can now positively effect the world. There are no boundaries.”
“How do you make a million dollars in the music industry?” Autin jokes. “You start with 10 million.” In the face of national disasters, economic decline and traditional business model meltdowns, Rabadash and Basin Street have proven themselves survivors. But why survive? Why work or start a new business in a chaotic industry for modest and erratic pay? “The music business isn’t all that glamorous. It’s mostly hard work,” Autin says “But there’s this moment when you get the magic take, when the musicians click and it just goes BOOM. That moment is what keeps me going, and I’ll keep going until the day I can’t get out of bed.”