What’s the role of a record label in an era when musicians can manage their careers with platforms like Kickstarter and Soundcloud? According to industry executive Dick Wingate, a good label matters more than ever before, if for no other reason than to help artists break through the cluttered music landscape those digital platforms have ironically helped create. Wingate has a perspective largely unmatched in the music business. He collaborated with musical giants such as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd as those artists exploded to superstardom in the 1970s.
Dick Wingate and Bruce Springsteen at the printing press inspecting the cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town
He held executive positions for labels such as Epic, PolyGram and Arista during a golden era for the music industry, signing and having hits with Eddy Grant and Aimee Mann (‘Til Tuesday), among others. He worked for technology pioneers such as Liquid Audio long before his industry peers were waking up to the disruptive power of digital. And now his storied career is coming full circle with the launch of BHi Music Group, a label he founded in November 2013.
Wingate recently discussed with me why he returned to the label side of the music industry and his excitement about emerging artists on his roster, such as Jon and the Jones and AM Aesthetic. As he explains in the following Q&A, musicians today face a paradox: on the one hand, it’s never been easier for an artist to break into music thanks to do-it-yourself recording and distribution tools such as Tunecore. But as he points out, the flip side to having fewer barriers of entry to the music industry is that “there is so much music available it is almost white noise to the average consumer.” Consequently, not only must an artist’s music be great, but also the artist needs to work harder on marketing and touring to cut through the clutter. And rising above the noise is but one function that someone like Dick Wingate can play for an artist working with BHi Music Group.
Read on for more wide-ranging insights into issues facing artists today, ranging from the impact of streaming services to the very future of music.
Congratulations on the launch of BHi Music Group. Why did you return to the label side of the business?
It wasn’t planned. I was on the board of startup Big House Music Publishing and as I became closer to the founders, Christian Cedras and Krista Retto, we found our musical instincts very much aligned. When a great singer/songwriter (Jon Moodie) came in with literally dozens of great songs, a unique voice and a great look we decided to record him with a band, which we put together as Jon and the Jones. After that we fell in love with AM Aesthetic and suddenly we had the two acts with which to launch the label.
How would you describe BHi Music Group in one sentence? What sets you apart?
We are very hands on with our artists, meeting regularly to review songs, arrangements and stage presentation. So we are focused on artist development above and beyond everything else. Not every act wants that much input from their label.
The BHi Music Group Facebook page says BHi Music Group bridges the gap between DIY and majors. How do you do that?
DIY usually implies that a band records and releases and does a little bit of social marketing to the extent they can afford it. We provide a great deal of hands-on management and artist development, as well as putting our collective decades of connections and experience to work to create partnerships, get sync licenses, create videos and bring the right tastemakers to see or hear our artists.
What type of artists are a good fit for you?
The genre is pretty open but the artist must be willing to take a lot of direction (if needed) from BHi on songs, performance, staging and appearance. In order to do this we are very focused on the New York City region as we want our artists to be available for regular meetings, showcases, etc.
Tell me more about Jon and the Jones and AM Aesthetic. How did you find each other? What do you like about them?
As I mentioned Jon came in as a solo artist. He constantly writes so many songs there is really a fantastic wealth of material. His attitude towards collaboration with the label and bandmates couldn’t have been better. Most importantly he has worked hard to improve his performance on stage and his songs have become bigger in scale and arrangement, taking advantage of the (now) four piece band. It’s a heady combination of rock, blues and alternative, and doesn’t fit into any defined category.
With AM Aesthetic, the material is consistently compelling. They are a dynamic, loud three-piece band that lights up the room with their melodic alt/rock combination. We see them as playing festivals in the near future, with college kids and young adults as the core audience. They also work very closely with us on songwriting, arrangements and staging and are wonderfully open to suggestion.
You obviously bring to bear strong digital technology savvy given your past endeavors. How do you apply digital in operating BHi Music Group?
Digital is obviously critical to any campaign and we have much planned upon the release of our first two albums in the spring. Digital platforms are extensively used in our operations and by our publishing company as well.
How would you compare the industry today to when you broke into music?
It is more open as far as artists getting their music released, obviously. With all the DIY services anyone can distribute music online for next to nothing (Tunecore, etc). And recording is dramatically cheaper with today’s technology (ProTools, etc). But the flip side of that is that there is so much music available it is almost white noise to the average consumer. They still get most of their impressions from radio (both terrestrial and online) and recommendations from friends, music services and social networks. The music must be absolutely great to break through the clutter, and the artist must be savvy with online marketing and perform regularly.
I can’t think of an industry that has been disrupted more than music. Where do you see the music industry headed?
I think it’s going back to the roots of focusing on small successes, i.e. letting artists grow naturally and not shooting for the moon. There will always be pop artists where it’s all or nothing (i.e Lady Gaga, already fading even with gigantic marketing expenses), but the Arcade Fire method of developing organically has much more long term value. Arcade Fire doesn’t need a hit single to tour arenas and stadiums. Neither does Dave Matthews. Never did.
We can’t talk about the music business without mentioning streaming services like Spotify. Spotify is often characterized as being great for listeners but not so good for artists because Spotify’s royalties are so small. Your take?
Spotify gets unnecessarily knocked for paying so little to artists. The reality is they don’t pay artists, they pay labels. What the labels pay the artists is another thing altogether. No one will succeed financially with streaming services unless they scale to 10’s of millions of users. It has to scale like cable TV did and that means bundling with cable or cellphone packages. Up until now it’s been painfully slow because there’s so many ways to get free music.
What’s the role of a record label at a time when artists can bootstrap their careers with social media and Kickstarter?
Hands on with artist development, songcrafting, performances, videos, syncs, partnerships, sponsorships and marketing that most artists cannot execute by themselves.
You have worked with Bruce Springsteen, an artist with tremendous personal vision. Who are some emerging Bruce Springsteens today?
I have to toot my own horn, because Jon Moodie of Jon and the Jones is a songwriter and artist of that caliber. Of course he’s at an early stage of growth, but if you saw Bruce’s early performances as a solo artist you’d appreciate the analogy.
Jon and the Jones
Any closing words of advice for artists who want to succeed in the music industry?
Be GREAT, not just very good. There’s too much very good music. It doesn’t rise above the clutter. Perform every show like it’s your last, no matter how many people are in the room (Bruce did). And do not go into being a musician to make money. The odds are you never will. Be a musician because it’s the only thing you can do to express yourself, it’s your lifeline to the world. If you expect success to come easily it won’t.