This post originally appeared on BMA on December 20, 2005. If you would like to read all the BMA posts, click here.
“There are amazing women musicians out there. But the industry signs acts based on marketing. It’s definitely a loop. There aren’t women out there doing well, because they haven’t been signed, so (the record) industry doesn’t sign any more, figuring they won’t do well.” – Jason Mraz
The explosion of music downloads in the late 1990s cut deeply into the cash coffers of record labels. As a result, record executives decided to cut back on promoting ‘unproven’ artists, and went from focusing on talented female artists, to looking for a marketing vehicle. Out with Lilith Fair, in with Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. So as Gen Y helps prompt a change in the country’s musical tastes, this poses a very tough question for female artists whose last name isn’t Spears or Simpson: Do they try to reinvent themselves like Jewel did, or forge forward relying on their talent to win them fans?
And this isn’t a problem reserved for undiscovered artists. Some of Jewel’s contemporaries such as Sheryl Crow and Alanis have seen their album sales slide since their Lilith days. Many of today’s labels see a woman onstage with a guitar in her hands as a ‘marketing risk’. But musicians don’t have to reinvent themselves every few years simply because tastes temporarily change.
A perfect example is Sarah McLachlan. Her music is basically the same today as it was in 1989 when she released her first album, Touch. Touch sold over 500,000 copies, while Afterglow, which is her fifth and latest album of new material, currently has over 2 million in sales.
The best way for Jewel and other female rockers in her position to re-establish a strong bond with their fans could be, you guessed it, the internet. There are so many ways to reach out directly to fans. Artists can tap fan sites, mailing lists, MySpace, anything. Blogs are another obvious way for artists to reach their fans. Such viral efforts are already being used to launch the careers of female artists such as Missy Higgins, they could easily work for established stars. These moves are authetic, and fans will respond to any musician that reaches out to them in such a personal way.
While the current music climate has put a temporary crunch on some female artists, the ultimate loser here could be the record labels themselves. As the record companies make it harder and harder for emerging and existing female artists to make a name for themselves, these musicians are looking for other outlets to promote themselves. And the risk that labels run is, once these acts find a way to circumvent the current system, will they ever return?
“The major label system is broken, but I’m not crying. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.” said Carla DiSantis, editor of the magazine ROCKRGRL.