By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

Of late, my articles have focused on any number of challenges that today’s artist faces.  In particular, I’ve presented a troubling scenario with respect to, what I believe to be, the imminent revenue destruction as we inexorably move from a download to a streaming culture.  I’ve mentioned other challenges; in particular, all of the inter-related difficulties associated with being both an artist and a business-person — as the current industry so often demands.

However, I was recently speaking on a panel, which, as always had an audience of people who, by virtue of taking time and money out of their lives and showing up at a music business panel, care more than most about their careers.  Given this, I always try to give it everything I have and provide the most distilled advice I possibly can; thereby (hopefully) giving them their money’s worth.  Perhaps it was this confluence of things that added the necessary liquid to my glass to put me over the half-full mark, when I was asked at this panel if it was better to be an artist working today or ten years ago.

I answer the question here in the same way I did at the panel, only now with the benefit of a bit of thought: It is unquestionably better to be an artist in 2011 than it was in 2001, 1991, 1981, 1971 or 1771.

The fundamental difference between 2011 and the preceding eras can be reduced down to the phrase “control of your own destiny.”

While there is undeniably still a mindset amongst a class of artists that they will somehow be magically anointed by a gatekeeper with the power to change their lives via a record deal, the vast majority of artists today have moved away from this mentality.

In so doing, both artistic and business creation have become more pure.

It all started in some respects with ProTools.  This technology allowed for a general change in the historic transaction between artist and patron (record label, etc.).  Prior to ProTools, the cost of creating a quality recording was beyond the grasp of most artists, and they, therefore, traded the equity in the copyrights of their creations for access to a studio (money advanced by the label, and then recouped out of the artist’s sales).

I distinctly remember the shift.  I was running a large independent record label, and began noticing a trend of artists coming to me with what typically would have been referred to as demos (historically, sketches of songs, inexpensively recorded), but now these “demos” sounded comparable to many studio masters.  They no longer needed my money to go into a studio to make competitive recordings, and thus, no longer wanted to trade the rights in their recordings to me for money.[1] They wanted to lend me the recordings for a period of time, under a license agreement, and then have me return the rights to them.

Still, these artists did need me and other labels.  While they could — to a certain degree (see footnote below) — create competitive recordings, they (at the time) needed me for marketing and distribution.

Well, shortly after leaving the label I was running, I sat around Jeff Price’s dad’s dining room table with Jeff, Gary, Peter, and Gian Caterine, and helped cook up a solution to distribution.  TuneCore, of course, solved the problem that, prior to its existence, was “solved” for artists by labels: getting an artist’s music distributed.  Once TuneCore came into existence, a label was no longer required for an artist to get distribution, and thus no longer could a label force you to trade equity in your copyright in order to gain access to their distribution services.

Of course, the labels still — to this day — attempt to justify their existence, and justify the right to not only own equity in the copyrights to your sound recordings, but, frighteningly, equity in your merchandise, tour revenue, as well as publishing under so-called 360 deals.  Apparently the last vestige of the label is “marketing.”  Lyor Cohen was recently quoted as saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that in order to gain access to the talented executives of Warner Music Group you must enter into a 360 deal (i.e. sign over the rights to your masters, tour income, merch income, and publishing income).  I’d offer as Exhibit A WMG’s recent (and continued) loss of revenue via their quarterly report as to why this may not be a great quid pro quo.

No, “marketing” in all of its loaded context is now increasingly accessible to the individual.  Social Media, for whatever you may think of it (and remember, while it may — like the Internet before it — be a bubble, when it pops, the world will be forever changed), does in fact allow for a direct “marketing” relationship between creator and constituent.

That’s all we ever wanted.  All the smart record labels, where there actually was time devoted to marketing, always wrestled with how we could expose the music of the artists we had the pleasure of representing to a constituent group whose values would align with those of the artist.

All smart marketers know that no matter how much money or power you have, ultimately you hit a wall with respect to the number of people you can expose.  Sooner than we’d like to admit, the burden has to shift from those who are doing the marketing being the ones introducing a work to a new potential fan, to existent fans being the ones exposing what they love to their friends (i.e. new potential fans).  Long before the term social media was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, this is what good marketers have done: found ways to shift the marketing burden to existent fans, and, in so doing, making them evangelists.

Social media simply gives us the tools to do this more efficiently than before.

And that’s really what the new music business is about.  The tools are all out there — from creation of masters (ProTools, etc.), to distribution (TuneCore), to marketing (Social Media) — it’s no longer a game that requires more money or more power to succeed.  Rather, it’s a game that requires more creativity and more stamina to succeed.

I’ll take that bet any day.

Many of us have been given unfair advantages — be it what family we’re born into, being at the right time/place, who we know (or Dad knows), etc.  The old industry was very much about this: certain people with advantages having disproportionate access.

The new business levels all this out.

Does it really matter if you have more money than another artist if you both have equal talent?  Does it really matter if your dad’s cousin’s son is an A&R rep at DefJam?

No. Of course not.  What matters is if you can create music that connects emotionally with people, and if you have the creativity and stamina to amplify your offline (i.e. live) connections via the tools that are available (for free) to everyone.

What also matters is the mindset.  You simply must understand that from the moment you create a recording of an original work that you are both the copyright holder of the song, and the copyright holder of the master, and that until you assign these rights away, you are the label, publisher, distributor, and marketer.

With these rights come benefits.  As master holder and songwriter, you enjoy a stream of royalties any time your song is downloaded, streamed online, or played on radio or TV.  While the amounts are small, the opportunities for income (particularly via online streaming) are growing daily.  And so, with these benefits come responsibilities.  You simply must get your affairs in order.  Register your copyrights, affiliate with a PRO, and — most importantly — find ways to creatively exploit your work by playing live, looking for licensing opportunities, and looking for strategic partnerships.

What you must not waste your time doing is reverting back to 2001 thinking and waiting for some vague “hand of God” to anoint you as a chosen one deserving of a record deal.  These so-called gatekeepers, tastemakers…whatever are wrong far more than they’re right, and they are very much an endangered species.

The revolution has gradually occurred, and the artist who writes her own music, and creatively works to build real and sustained connections directly with her constituent group has won.  Now, it’s time to prosper.


[1] Before anyone who runs a studio gets upset, I am profoundly cognizant of the fact that it is very difficult (if not impossible) for most artists to create high-quality recordings at home with a ProTools set up.  That said, it is inarguable that ProTools radically altered the quality of home recording for the better, and led to any number of artists largely eschewing studios in favor of setting up their own home based “studio.”

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George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is a Professor and Executive in Residence in the college of Business Administration at Loyola, New Orleans. He is most easily found on Twitter at: @gah650

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