An old music industry program, revived for the Spotify era
Benn Jordan was flattered when he scanned his inbox.
Jordan is a musician who records and performs under various aliases, including as The Flashbulb. His music is best described as electro with occasional hints of modern jazz, and although he has enjoyed some success, he has yet to headline major festivals. So when a flattering email from a New York Times reporter arrived, he took notice.
“A weird question from a reporter,” read the topic. It was addressed to Jordan’s booking agent, who passed it on to him. “My name is Ian Urbina and I work for The New York Times,” Urbina wrote. “I am not contacting you for an interview as such, but because I want to share with you an idea which, in my opinion, could be of great interest. I’ve been a Benn fan for a while. My idea is to use music to reinforce the narrative.
Intrigued, Jordan responded and said he wanted to know more.
Urbina told him that the idea was to create a soundtrack for his next book. “By that, I don’t mean putting music behind the audiobook. Instead, I mean teaming up with an artist to create music that tells stories and conveys the feelings and issues of the book,” Urbina replied. He described the venture as a passion project, although he added that Spotify was doing a podcast related to the book and that Netflix and Knopf, a publisher, would likely promote the musical adventure as they were working on ties. with books.
“The album would definitely get a lot of attention and recognition, if only because it’s never been done before,” Urbina wrote, offering a phone call.
Jordan took it over, and the two had a long conversation, during which Jordan recalled Urbina sketching out how the business side of the arrangement would work. A label called Synesthesia Media would distribute the album, and the company had earmarked $50,000 for marketing. In exchange, Synesthesia Media would collect 50% of streaming sales and royalties.
Jordan was delighted to have been chosen by Urbina and he signed.
But after the initial buzz died down and he considered the contract further, Jordan began to downgrade on the deal. Urbina didn’t promise much, he offered a library of sound samples he had collected during his reporting. If Jordan signed, he could use them, but in exchange, Urbina would claim 50% of any song’s copyrights and royalties. For Jordan, that seemed like a lot. Too much, in fact. Jordan would come to regret the deal, calling it “a huge waste of precious time”. He wouldn’t be the only musician to feel this.
Urbina has since rolled back numerous contract clauses that had embroiled Jordan and other artists, but history shows how music streaming – as well as the internet’s tendency to reward dominant platforms – has instilled new life to a music marketing system that’s almost as old as the industry itself, David Lowery told Ars. Lowery knows it — he’s been in the music business for decades, having founded the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, and he’s currently a lecturer in the music business program at the University of Georgia.
“This stuff has happened before, but I find it’s more common now,” Lowery said. “It’s literally the centralization of things, whether it’s on the side of the rights holders, the consolidation of radio or the internet, who want one or two of everything,” he said. “Because so many of the structures we have now are centralized that way and directly or indirectly pass a lot of the risk onto the workers or the producers of goods.”
Today, recording artists, especially those not signed to major labels, bear the vast majority of the financial risk involved in creating music. For some, like Jordan, the desire to get their music known to more people can lead them to sign deals they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.