Halfway through music writer David Browne’s fascinating new book on Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, he tells a story that neatly illustrates just how much the music industry has changed over the past two decades.
The year was 1994. It was six months after Sonic Youth had released their album Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. The album hadn’t sold well – but then, Sonic Youth albums never sold particularly well.
That was hardly the point. As Sonic Youth producer Butch Vig put it: ‘‘Sonic Youth is the sound of rock music being destroyed.” In other words, they were the kind of band who would inspire other musicians rather than trouble cash registers overmuch.
When Sonic Youth’s lawyer, Richard Grabel, met with their record company Geffen, he put that argument to them in even more direct terms. Thanks to Sonic Youth, bands like Nirvana, Hole, Beck and Teenage Fan Club had signed with Geffen.
That alone, Grabel asserted confidently, meant that Sonic Youth deserved to have their contract renegotiated in favour of a deal for seven albums, substantial cash advances for each record and a signing bonus in the seven-figure range.
Although some of Geffen’s lawyers were horrified – this for a band that had sold barely more than a quarter of a million records? – the label agreed. Sonic Youth had won their deal, based not on the amount they sold, but on their influence.
It was a strikingly unusual situation, even back then. But now, it sounds like a deal drawn right from fantasy land. These days, with the influence of downloading casting a long shadow over the music industry, the notion of a record company championing a band not because of their sales capacity, but because they believed in them – or at least in the fact that other bands believed in them – seems unfathomable.
In this climate, the whole notion of so-called ‘prestige artists’ – artists who don’t sell albums, but who add credibility and definition to a roster – is gradually fading away.
There are many good things about the democratisation of the industry – for one thing,t he explosion of music available courtesy of YouTube and MySpace – but the diminishing of any kind of artist-motivated principles in music has troubling implications, not simply for the bank balance of the artists, but for the quality of music emerging.
Sure, you might argue that Sonic Youth, although often brilliant, have plenty of sounds that are torturous to listen to, and maybe didn’t deserve quite everything that they got, but one of the great things about them is how they force the listeners to readjust their expectations of what music is and can be.
As music critics are given to saying about commercially unviable, artistically significant bands such as My Bloody Valentine, about ten people might have bought the record, but every one of those people formed a band.
If the modern-day versions of artists like Sonic Youth aren’t cherished by record companies, then how will they survive? I’m guessing it’ll be mostly by doing other jobs in the day-time and making art in the nighttime.
That’s one way to continue along the artist’s path. But it’s not the best way; it’s almost certainly not the way in which those artists will make their best material. For music fans everywhere, this situation is to our detriment.