Sunday, November 11, 2007

The New Deal: Band as Brand

IF you surveyed the crowd this summer at the punk-flavored Vans Warped Tour here, thick with unexpected piercings and regrettable tattoos, the Paramore fans were hard to miss. Many were clean-cut young girls sporting the same shaggy orange-and-blonde hairstyle as the one worn by the band’s singer, Hayley Williams, in the music video for this pop-punk band’s hit song, “Misery Business.”

“I just want to be just like her,” said a 12-year-old fan named Christine, who cried while standing in line to get autographs from Ms. Williams, 18, and her band mates. Ms. Williams cupped a hand over her mouth and spun away for a moment for fear of losing her own composure.

Paramore is undeniably ascendant: after three years of tireless runs through clubs and festivals, the band, from Franklin, Tenn., has built a passionate audience that has snapped up more than 350,000 copies of its recent second album, “Riot!,” more than doubling the sales of its debut. And now the band is selling out theaters on its biggest tour to date.

Though its success is in large part due to smart pop songwriting and a fashion-forward frontwoman, music executives and talent managers also cite Paramore as a promising example of a rising new model for developing talent, one in which artists share not just revenue from their album sales but concert, merchandise and other earnings with their label in exchange for more comprehensive career support.

If the concept takes hold, it will alter not only the way music companies make money but the way new talent is groomed, and perhaps even the kind of acts that are offered contracts in the first place.

Commonly known as “multiple rights” or “360” deals, the new pacts emerged in an early iteration with the deal that Robbie Williams, the British pop singer signed with EMI in 2002. They are now used by all the major record labels and even a few independents. Madonna has been the most prominent artist to sign on (her recent $120 million deal with the concert promoter Live Nation allows it to share in her future earnings), but the majority of these new deals are made with unknown acts.

It’s not possible to tabulate the number of acts working under 360 deals, but worldwide, record labels share in the earnings with such diverse acts as Lordi, a Finnish metal band which has its own soft drink and credit card, and Camila, a Mexican pop trio that has been drawing big crowds to its concerts. In the United States, Interscope Records benefits from the marketing spinoffs from the Pussycat Dolls, including a Dolls-theme nightclub in Las Vegas.

“Five or eight years ago an eyebrow would be raised,” said the music producer Josh Abraham, whose recent credits include recordings by Slayer and Pink. “Now it’s everywhere. You can’t talk about what a deal looks like without seeing 360.”

Like many innovations, these deals were born of desperation; after experiencing the financial havoc unleashed by years of slipping CD sales, music companies started viewing the ancillary income from artists as a potential new source of cash. After all, the thinking went, labels invest the most in the risky and expensive process of developing talent, so why shouldn’t they get a bigger share of the talent’s success?

In return for that bigger share, labels might give artists more money up front and in many cases touring subsidies that otherwise would not be offered. More important, perhaps, artists might be allowed more time to develop the chops needed to build a long career. And the label’s ability to crossmarket items like CDs, ring tones, V.I.P. concert packages and merchandise might make for a bigger overall pie.

Not everyone is sold on the concept. Many talent managers view 360s as a thinly veiled money grab and are skeptical that the labels, with their work forces shrinking amid industrywide cost cutting, will deliver on their promises of patience.

“That’s a hard speech for many people to buy into,” said Bruce Flohr, a longtime talent executive who signed the Dave Matthews Band to RCA Records and now works for ATO Records, an independent label. “You can speak to me that you’re going to work a record for 18 months. You’re going to work a record for 18 months when it’s selling 420 copies six months from now? Come on — really?”

Even inexperienced performers may resist sharing their take from the box office, particularly at a time when plunging CD sales have pushed artists to rely even more on their concert earnings.

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