February 26, 2008: the day music bloggers all over the world threw up in their mouths a little. That was when the New York Times reported the rumor that Warner Brothers is negotiating with celebrity blogger and fashion disaster Perez Hilton to give him his own imprint at the label—a deal that would effectively turn a guy who's most famous for using Microsoft Paint to scribble jizz on the faces of celebrities he thinks are gay into a for-real music-industry player.
The news triggered an avalanche of horrified blog posts that clogged up my RSS reader with omg perez hilton, and I'd probably have added to the chorus myself if I hadn't been laid out with the flu. The next day, during a lucid moment, I went back to the original story and read it a couple more times, numbing myself to the instinctual revulsion I felt. At that point I had what is, for me, a very rare thought: Holy shit. Somebody working for a major label has actually done a genius thing.
What actually prompted me to revisit the Hilton piece was a February 27 Times item about another entertainment megacorp wooing another celebrity I can't stand by inviting him to get his feet wet in the music biz. In this case the story was about Sony's desperate attempts to persuade Jay Leno to do a syndicated program for them after his tenure at The Tonight Show ends next year—they're offering him pretty much anything he could want, including "financial interest in Sony music artists who appear on his show." The music-related parts of Sony's proposal are pretty incidental, but they did get me thinking seriously about what Warner might hope to get out of Hilton.
For years the majors have been funding vanity labels run by their marquee artists, and the results have been hit or miss. The Neptunes seem to have the Midas touch when it comes to crafting hit singles for established stars, and their label, Star Trak Entertainment, brought Kelis and Clipse into the Universal family—but not even they can break an unknown with nothing but their endorsement, as stalled-out Star Trak signings like Rosco P. Coldchain and Fam-Lay prove.
Perez Hilton has zero credibility among music tastemakers, but his blog pulls multiplatinum numbers. Despite its often adolescent crudity, it has an eerie power to make and break trends among the much larger group of people who aren't musical tastemakers, with an estimated 2.8 million unique visitors per month—about twice as much traffic as Pitchfork. Hilton is like everybody's catty gay friend, and his obsessive posts about Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse probably deserve some credit for breaking both artists in the States—even though he only occasionally touched on their music. Hoping to benefit from that influence, Warner has reportedly offered Hilton $100,000 a year as an advance against a 50 percent cut of any profits his signings might generate.
The suits at Warner know they aren't looking at the next Ahmet Ertegun. Hilton is no A and R genius and in fact doesn't seem particularly curious about music. He likes what he likes, and aside from the odd outlier (Mika's futuristic cabaret pop, TTC's trashy French electro) it's pretty middle-of-the-road stuff. The Times reported Hilton as saying that the proposed deal wouldn't force him to praise acts on Warner Brothers on his blog and would in fact let him "rave about artists on rival labels," which makes perfect sense when you consider that Warner isn't courting him because it thinks he can actually spot future stars. What the label's trying to buy is a personality it can use to market music, and to be useful that personality has to survive the transaction intact. As long he doesn't start sounding like a shill, Hilton can make a personal connection with Warner's consumer base—something giant corporations are notoriously terrible at.
I was pretty sure the majors, as slow-moving as they are, would fail to adapt to the rise of niche-market narrowcasting—which, as the volume and variety of music available to listeners continues to grow explosively, is transferring power away from established mass-market channels and toward blogs and indie labels. I must have forgotten how big corporations cope when they realize they don't have that special something the public wants: if you can't make it, buy it.
I Want My PTV
Pitchfork has been an arbiter of indie-rock cool since before the word blog existed, and one Web site clearly isn't enough for it anymore. It's already got an annual music festival, of course. And the deal Pitchfork struck with 2K Sports to help curate the soundtrack for a brand-new baseball video game suggests all kinds of branding opportunities—though it also raises the possibility that one of the standard-bearers of indie-nerd culture might cross over to the jock side of the Force.
The latest news is the April 7 launch of Pitchfork.tv, the Pitchfork empire's all-music, all-the-time online TV network. It promises music-related movies, artist interviews, live footage, behind-the-scenes stuff, and of course traditional short-form music videos, all for free. This is a gutsy move for a couple reasons. First, video outlets devoted strictly to music don't tend to survive that way. For all its cultural impact, MTV couldn't stay focused on music, and neither could its imitators, competitors, and spin-off channels—they've all been overrun by reality programming or succumbed to a broader, shallower obsession with pop culture.
Second, porting TV-style programming to the Web hasn't yet worked for anybody—in terms of Web-specific content at least, audiences seem to prefer a la carte pieces like YouTube clips and video podcasts, not a single "channel" that offers all its own content. Most people still want their TV on TV, in other words. Vice's VBS.tv, though not music specific, is probably the best analogue to Pitchfork's proposed model, but despite a few successes—the Ian Svenonius talk show Soft Focus, the skater-dude extravaganza Epicly Later'd—it's failed to justify Vice's huge investment in it.
To make matters worse, Pitchfork.tv seems to be scrambling to pad out its offerings in advance of its launch—the show Don't Look Down consists of bands playing exclusive live sets on rooftops. But there are reasons to hope, too: over the past few years Pitchfork has grown out of some of its adolescent snarkiness, and its news portal now does less reprinting of press releases and more actual reporting. Those things bode well for the quality of Pitchfork.tv, if not for the size of its audience.v
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.