The Next Big Thing

At the M3 music conference it was that audacious crossbreed The Grey Album

"I wasn't trying to challenge copyright law," Danger Mouse insisted. "It sounds corny, but I was trying to do something artistic, to challenge people's ideas about rock music."

After a round of questions from his audience, he was barely able to dismount the stage before being besieged by a scrum of TV cameramen, photographers, and one very angry A&R woman from a major-label record company. "Answer your damn phone!" she hollered at Danger Mouse. "I've been trying to reach you for days!"

Yet while he may be the new poster child for the music industry's woes -- from online piracy to the aesthetic realignment caused by the mainstreaming of hip-hop -- Danger Mouse made for an unlikely revolutionary. The rail-thin 26-year-old blinked unsteadily amid the popping flashbulbs, perhaps contemplating a bolt for the safety of his hotel room. Still he had one last twist to reveal to Kulchur. EMI, perhaps realizing that younger rap fans oblivious to Sixties rock offered yet another opportunity to hawk the Beatles' catalogue anew, had changed their tune on The Grey Album.

Danger Mouse (left), suited up and ready for turntable 
Danger Mouse (left), suited up and ready for turntable action

"I'm in talks with the EMI guys now," he told Kulchur, dropping his voice conspiratorially. "They might want to do something with me." He smiled, rubbed his chin, and then shrugged: "Or they might still sue me! It's that close."

The rest of M3 was free of the "next big thing" hype so common to past years of the Winter Music Conference's (WMC) competing industry gathering. That meant the WMC's hordes of Midwestern rave promoters and suburban drug dealers looking to "go legit" were refreshingly absent. Also missing were Hustler magazine's troupe of "DJ girls" in hot pants, busy making the rounds of the WMC's host hotel.

Instead M3 served up a welcome dose of cold business reality: The party's over, but the beat goes on. "Major labels need to sell 500,000 copies [of an album] to make a profit," explained Steve Beckett, president of Warp Records, during one panel. Unlike the self-delusionary "high point of ten years ago," Beckett's company had realized that its artists -- such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, and the Boards of Canada -- were never going to shift those kinds of numbers in America, regardless of how much glowing press they received. Accordingly, Warp had stopped trying to strike ambitious distribution deals with the majors -- or even larger independents. Scaling down its vision and going it alone was the new philosophy: "For us, if an artist sells 10,000 to 50,000 copies, we can make our [new] business model work."

That sentiment was echoed by Beth Urdang, founding director of the New York-based Agoraphone agency, responsible for placing obscure electronic songs in TV commercials for products from Nike sneakers to Saturn automobiles. Those TV spots may be a great way for underground musicians to bypass conservative radio programmers and reach a mass audience, but they were hardly transforming the marketplace -- as once predicted.

Rather Urdang was seeing "the advent of a musical middle class," cutting-edge artists able to live comfortably -- not spectacularly -- with their licensing fees buttressing their otherwise meager record sales. It was only the platinum-selling acts that were pulling down platinum-size commercial fees, such as Ozzy Osbourne -- whose "Crazy Train" earned the family man $1.5 million from Mitsubishi, noted Deutsch advertising agency senior vice president Vinny Picardi.

Over at the third annual Dancestar USA dance-music awards gala in downtown's Bayfront Park, organizers got the message. Their goal may have been to put a Grammys-style stamp of artistic respectability on dance's leading lights, but with B-list starlets such as Carmen Electra, Paris Hilton, and Jaime Pressly holding court as presenters, this was one musical upheaval that sounded awfully familiar. By the time "Ian Schrager's Sky Bar Girls" went into action, the evening's shrewdest visionary seemed to be the brain trust back at Hustler.

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