Spose, the major labels, and the new music biz

Did he make it?
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 12, 2011

Nine months ago, this town was celebrating the success of rapper-from-Wells Spose: huge hit single, top of the iTunes charts, major-label deal in his pocket, big-time national debut album on the way.

Today, we're reviewing an album, Happy Medium, he released on his own dime with his own label, Preposterously Dank (if you don't get the weed reference, you won't get Spose), named after his debut indie album from 2008.

Does this mean it's over? No. Not at all. That major-label record is still on the way. But there might even be another indie album released before then. Or maybe a "mixtape." Who knows? It's a cloudy crystal ball.

How did Spose, to paraphrase one of his newest songs, get here from there?

"I got to this point," he says, talking on the phone from his home studio, currently receiving renovations funded by the Universal Republic Records deal, "by believing too much in the major labels for a little while. I think when I initially signed the deal I was under the impression that my years of independent grinding were behind me and they would just snap their fingers and make the Web site and everything else happen, and that's not the reality."

This becomes obvious when you go to the Universal Republic Web site, on which you can find a very sad-looking page dedicated to Spose (see it at tinyurl.com/URSpose). It's a Web site for "musicians" (some of these people couldn't picking out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the piano, I'd wager) where you can listen to exactly nine songs, one per artist, on their little proprietary music player. The "Hot Topics" you sometimes see scrolling on the right of the page haven't been updated since 2008.

"They don't have anyone who specializes in online marketing," Spose says, "no one with day-to-day contact with blogs, who knows how to work YouTube," he trails off, sounding a little depressed.

But it's also true that these guys aren't dummies. You've heard of Colbie Caillat? Owl City? Mika? Amy Winehouse?

Actually, maybe you haven't. It's hard to say. There's some kid named Kevin Rudolf on the front page of their artists page who looks like a caricature of the white-boy rapper, and I've definitely never heard of him. (Nor can you listen to one of his songs from his dedicated page.) The way the music industry works, nowadays, it's harder than it's been for a very long time for a song to break into the public consciousness. The influence of radio is on the wane. Taste-making TV shows are ever-less universal. MTV is dead for new music. The old Johnny Carson drew more people to a show than Letterman, Leno, and Conan now draw combined.

This — and file-sharing, to an extent — is changing the music business. Ethan Smith reported on January 6 in the Wall Street Journal (tinyurl.com/wsjalbums) that sales of all kinds continue to plummet, according to SoundScan, the long-time music-industry reporting firm. Sales in 2010 were down more than 12 percent from 2009. And you think iTunes is rocking? Single-song downloads are up just one percent. That doesn't even keep pace with population growth. That's going backwards, especially considering it's supposed to be the new and growingly popular way to consume music.

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