Artists Touched By The Hand Of God

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.”


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

  • Ramy

    Awesome Awesome Awesome!

    Ramy Antoun
    Creative Arts Group
    Career development for Music and film makers

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      • Thanks George.I look forward to meeting you some day soon.I don’t reply to most stuff i read,but had to on this one.My wife has been on my but to put my music on youtube for a wile.Then we watch Nightline and catch the Rebecca Black story that aired 4/15/2011 that gave me the idea to do what I’m fixing to do. And your article just helps fuel me more. So keep an eye on me George.You will be able to use me as an example. I’m gifted with a writing ability in music.But being poor and not knowing the right people have held me back.Thanks to social media, the internet and people like you and God. My time to shine is here!!!. And I get to finally show my talents that AR’s and record labels have looked over all theses years. And I get to help a lot of people and kids on the way!!!!

        Thanks for the article.

        look forward to meeting you.
        And we will meet one day soon. Papa Daddy

        • i look forward to meeting you and using you as an example in future posts on this subject – i know i will.


  • George, I agree with everything you said here, and from an artistic point of view, it’s spot on. The only problem is that no one is buying those home-recorded, marketed, and distributed albums, or any other albums, thus making it a very difficult time to be an artist.

    • completely untrue. there are countless examples of artists making, promoting, and selling their own records.

      i would argue that it’s in fact far LESS likely to sell a sustainable number of records when signed to a label as compared to doing it yourself or with a small team.George

      • I agree completely that is easier for artists doing it on their own to sell a sustainable of records. There’s a difference between sustenance and stardom however. I don’t think that anyone would argue that CD sales have fallen off a cliff. As for the major labels, it’s just a matter of throwing dirt on the corpse. Yes, if you’re willing to accept a new mindset, and diminished expectations, it’s easier to be an artist now. Me, I would like to have been signed to Warners in 1967.

        • i never said anything about stardom, and i think for most people they realize that that’s as much serendipity as anything else (even if they don’t want to readily admit it).

          it’s all about how you calibrate (or re-calibrate) success. for me, it’s always been about being able to continue to make your art on your own terms. if you get to do that (and only that) that’s stardom. it’s also entirely unrealistic in just about any other artistic endeavor; how many writers do you know who *just* write? poets? photographers? etc. they ALL have other gigs that help sustain their gigs that sustain their spirit.George

      • …and even more who tried and failed. Yes an artist CAN produce, promote and sell their own recordings but not in the volumes necessary to sustain a productive and professional career,those days are gone for the majority…yes there will always be a minority that get the breakthrough due to some fortunate marketing strategy but the cake today is no bigger (probably smaller) then it was in the 60’s,70’s and 80’s yet millions upon millions of artsist are all grappling for the same tiny slice. 

        The digital revolution isn’t progress but regress, quality has given way to quantity in every respect, mp3’s out selling audio quality cd’s and the same regenerated rubbish we’ve all heard thousands of times before and these kids for the most part spend more time at the computers then learning their instruments hence the shocking mediocrity of much of todays music…especially that which is produced by the UK….no-one seems to be able to write melody anymore and the musicianship is not much more then a joke…listen to some of what was around in the 70’s and 80’s and compare it with the last decade of over produced, pitch corrected bubblegum tosh!

        • so what do you suggest? this sounds very bitter? 


          • I have no suggestions, there is no solution…it’s too late to turn it around. We can all just observe the demise of the music industry from our armchairs over the next few years…..a few artists will remain, those whose have maintained their integrity and who play for love not money…art for arts sake as it were but the industry for the most part will face the consequences of it’s own actions. No I’m not bitter….it was inevitably going to end up this way and I hope to be one of the few that do survive through it…even with the meagre wages on offer these days.


        • The cake is still the cake… when “labels ruled the earth” an artist STILL had to create a great song… and the label still had to market it… 

          A agree songwriting has suffered… but thats was happens when a generation of kids grows up with boring musical influences…. the kids of the 90’s got totally screwed. Lennon and McCartney grew up listening to Gerswin tunes and Delta Blues.. singers like Bing Crosby (who was one of Lennons favorites) and Muddy Waters…  and it shows in the diversity of their writing.

          I was pretty disheartened at the songwriting I’d been hearing… but recently I’ve heard some stuff that makes me think new artists are finding their way to melody again….

          The real challenge for an artist is to master the technology (Protools, Logic, etc) – then stop adding to that technology (plugins, etc)… and focus only on creation… structure, melody, lyrics, arrangement… Tom Scholz did this when he wrote his own songs, then recorded them in his own homebuilt studio. Bostons 1st album is still a sonic masterpiece. Scholz controlled his own destiny,

          We artists now have very same tools and opportunity. 

          We just have to get past the technology and back to creativity.

    • Kenneth HIggins

       I hear you on that one bud.

    • Al

       Absolutely..this is the very worst time to be an artist…way too much disposal generic garbage has cheapened the whole industry. Quantity now reigns over quality!

  • Greensleeves32

    Great article. I was one of those “Home Studio ProTools users” that evolved into a professional engineer at a real studio through years of learning, fumbling and practice, being mentored and then more practice. I encourage all my clients to get their own rig for at least pre-production. If nothing else, it enables the artist to be more aware and prepared during the recording processes and more able to articulate what they want in a mix. God Bless Avid and friends!

  • Damascus1151

    thank you so much for your encouragement…my husband Damascus is so AMAZINGLY gifteda nd we have been SO HARD AT IT—-and I have been WANTING A RECORD deal-jsut to relieve the pressure of marketing…but thank you for the encouragement in your post-he has wanted FOREVER ti be independant…it’s just the funds that become a strain to do so—————-BUT! The Lord’s will be done-and we will just keep plugging away and using all the resources we have THANK YOU!

    • you’re very welcome. tell him not to wait for anything or anyone.


  • Ribbs

    I’m curious to hear you expound on your opening paragraph, particularly ”
    the imminent revenue destruction as we inexorably move from a download to a streaming culture”. It occurs to me that streaming, coupled with a calibrated metering system, could be the death of piracy and the birth of a massive revenue stream for all creators of IP. We are creating a new personalized radio, hopefully with performance rights attached thereto. I’d love to read your thoughts.

    • i largely agree with you. certainly, piracy with respect to to downloading will diminish as there will be an increase in people who can access the music they want via a stream (even if it’s via youtube, etc.).

      with respect to revenue, your thoughts mirror jeff price’s (founder of tunecore) almost exactly, and – to a lesser degree – mine. we’ll definitely be able to monitor and track digital streams far more easily than we could terrestrial (i.e. analog plays), and given this, we should see an increase of money collected from b’casters for pub perf (both terr and digital), and an increase in streams.

      where i diverge from you (and jeff) is that, currently at least, the compulsory license rates are so low that it takes literally thousands of streams of a (c) for it to add up to even small change, and thus it’ll take several orders of magnitude increases in streaming frequency to equal the revenue from a single dl (i.e. mechanical royalty payment).

      the knee-jerk response is that we must therefore raise the rates for b’casters. but, as you saw when pandora killed sound exchange in the court of public opinion, b’casters are unable (so they claim – and i tend to believe them) to afford to pay higher rates based on current revenue levels derived from ads and/or subscription.

      so…where does that leave us? we need vastly more streams, i guess.

      at the end of the day, music may become completely commoditized, and we just pay for the ux??


  • Anonymous

    George, this is a great article. Thank you.

    Most people ponder the question of whether it is better to be a musician today than past eras from the standpoint of access to tools (as you said “control your own destiny”, pro-tools, social media, etc). I’d argue that, while that is true, the greater uncertainty still today is whether an artist can rely on his or her fans to know how to support them meaningfully. Young artists can think popularity is an end goal, an approach that may result in complete financial ruin before they wake up from that misconception. The goal of Weathervane Music (a non-profit I started in 2009), at least in part, is to inspire more meaningful support for artists in hopes that their careers can be longer than just an album or two. We’ve got a long way to go, for sure. Nonetheless your advice at the end is superb: know what your assets are and then make them work for you.


    • the burden is on the artist to communicate to the fans how the fans can support them and why and then present the fans with both a compelling value proposition and an easy way for them to provide support (financial and evangelical). do this, play live a lot, and have music that connects with people on an emotional level, and it’ll work.


      • Anonymous

        Agreed the burden is currently on the artist to convey these things, and that’s why there’s a million different messages cluttering and confusing the thought process of your average music fan. We’re just trying to make it a community wide conversation, ie. what support means, how fans can do it, and how artists can inspire it. 

        • right, but you can’t create community. all you can do is provide (elegant) organization.


          • Anonymous

            Ah… interesting.  

  • Great article! 🙂 And most importantly, it’s EMPOWERING and underlines the notion that “it all lies within” (if we go spiritual) – that we all have the power and tools to be deliberate and educated creators, molding our own destiny! 🙂 Thanks to TC+team for being a conduit for that! Happy creations everyone, and may WE ALL prosper and fulfill our destiny!


    Andy Roda

  • Thank you George.. Any advice on building a band?? I have a brand new project and can’t seem to build my team.. I have a great band name in mind and a great set of danceable new original songs…

    • find the right people – don’t worry about “ability” etc. find people that share your values. it’s all about value and expectation alignment.


  • Stanlalst

    For those who have hope- for those who believe, for those who have something to share that will open the minds, and enlight us – -our future is the beam of light that is always hopeful. Personally, i could have been killed in an auto accident 3/26/2010 when and 18 wheeler hit me three different times. I trust, and I believe, I shall never given in or surrender to my hopes, and my dreams. If anyone can hear, me, see me, feel me, and know as I know. I say never ever stop, never give up, don’t look to the success of others and as why, stay rooted and continue to believe that your time is coming….stay blessed – -Spirit

    • thanks for sharing this – inspiring.


    • Kenneth HIggins

       We can always have hope mate, not quite the same as faith which is very hard to have unless fundamentally inclined.

      Never giving up is a very good but even a drowning man gives up eventually  when the reality of the situation and the hopelessness overwhelms.

  • Alejandro

     Great great article! it’s great to have people like you that summarize the trends so clearly. I’m from Argentina, we just launched our very first studio album in english; still it is so hard to get rid of the traditional business model in which we expect that magic hand. This article has given me a lot to think about.

    if someone wants to see my first music video just check

    good luck to everyone!

  • Thank you for the article.  It is indeed a great time for musicians, personally I am quite proud to be working with emerging artists to develop their IT infrastructure aka ‘social media system’ and document in short, remarkable video form, what they are about and what they do.  I hear the audience say ‘well what is a social media system?’  For me it means a wordpress website with a decent design ‘theme’, connected to Facebook for primary interaction purposes and then YouTube as a video storage location.

    The job of the artist is to make regular content updates and share their ‘story’.  Too hard to do?  Not at all.
    Based on the capacity to build lowcost mobile apps that feature an artists YouTube videos, Facebook site and link to Tunecore / itunes / amazon for direct purchasing of music, right through to having an audience of subscribers from which a percentage pay a $ amount to access the most regular content, if musicians can walk the line between self-promotion, consistent response and ongoing creation, they can fend for themselves and indeed get paid for doing what they love (music).

    For reference I spent a few days at Atlantis studios filming ‘s making of video then setup his IT, and similary with – now when Fox Road go to gigs instead of saying to people ‘Do you want to buy our album?’ they add ‘or download our free mobile app’.  

    Within the mobile app you can find videos, information and music, but importantly you can easily share the content, which for the artist is the best kind of marketing – digital word of mouth.  

    If this is really new to anyone reading, I made 2 videos in early 2009 called ‘Building your zero-cost web 2.0 startup’ – the update I would make is saying now I principally get ‘1 click wordpress hosting’ via GoDaddy rather than the cloud hosting guff at the start of the video, but you should get the idea; 
    SO..  to all the muso’s out there..  you want to get yourself an audience?  You have to talk on camera.  You want to be remembered?  You have to create short pieces of content consistently.  You want the audience to grow beyond your initial family and friends?  You need to put your content on Facebook and YouTube.  You want to easily update the website?  You need to use wordpress as a base.  

    Be remarkable (in the Seth Godin sense of the word) aka

    Props to TuneCore for your service.  It enables information architects and directors like myself to support talented musicians in getting their music directly to the people that matter – the listeners.

    • all good, but remember: you don’t make connections online – they occur offline. social media etc. only  has the possibility to amplify those offline connections.


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  • Anthonybryant

     This is an Excellent read.  Just attended Musexpo Conference in LA and my mind opened up in a great way and this read just solidified much of what was discussed at the event.  

  • Ryan Houck

    Dear Lord, 3 things I pray, 1) Tools to record masterpiece 2) Distribution 3) Marketing …. Infallible touch of inspiration that cuts through haze and saturation…

    Nevermind, pharmaceutical career is calling…

  • Thinx

    Great article George. Hopefully you have pried the lid off Pandora’s box? I do think that there is a difference though in “controlling your own destiny” and being a “jack of all trades”. There is also a significant difference between self promotion and marketing.

    I’d love to see more discussion on the vast difference between the sales and marketing process, the musical creativity process and the business tools available to support each of them. I have never seen such chaos and misinformation as exists in the current music industry.

    For example, in my opinion, there is too much “industry” focus on the destruction of revenue rather than the different perspective that perhaps revenue has been created artificially. It is not a huge stretch to imagine the “gatekeepers” creating overpriced product of poor quality because they could. Driven by greed the “tech” industry suffered similar chaos in the late 90’s. One could argue the concept of “single”, “A side” and “B side”, “Long Playing (LP) record” and other terminology were purely early marketing efforts made to fit available technology / tools. They certainly have nothing to do with “art”. How many of us can remember really wanting a particular song and having to pay $20 for it on the premise we were at least getting “value” in another 10 songs that we never ended up listening to? Once technology allowed the consumer to revolt, the bubble of an apparent $60 billion dollar music industry burst.

    Current technology has allowed tech savvy but artistically barren individuals to foist their garbage into the marketplace in vain pursuit of fame and wealth. No technology will fix the entitlement complex so inherent in today’s wannabe’s. Thank your deity that P2P exists to sort through the crap. Most “pirates” I know purchase decent music that they like – and in many cases will pay top dollar for true quality.

    If indeed the 90’s music industry was over marketed, poor quality smoke and mirrors, then perhaps the much maligned CD is not yet dead? After all it offers a tangible product to “own”, a resilient back up and a souvenir of a memorable event. Equally, perhaps cloud computing is not *the* answer (just ask Sony’s customers how happy they are at the moment) and nor is streaming (have you tried watching what *you* want on Netflix? A Gb of bandwidth costs *how much* on my phone?). All of them are purely tools. A good business person will use the tools available at the time to maximize revenue.

    What the “industry” needs, now more than ever, is for people to stop thinking they can do it all, stop jumping on bandwagons, stop following “trends” that are anything but and to return to the root of the art: first and foremost it’s all about the music. If you are a musician then please focus on being a musician. You’re not the sales manager and you’re certainly not the tools guru. There is no silver bullet and no magic answer. I’m glad to say that we live in exciting times of rapid change but there will never be a substitute for hard work, focus, dedication and a great product. These things (which I think you call stamina) above all else will earmark your success.

    • Love this.

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  • I hate to kvetch, but I can’t read this blog post because the facebook/twitter/email box will not go away and will not get out of the way of the text. The problem goes away on Chrome, thank you Google, but not on IE.

    • Anonymous

      Sorry about that Bob! It should be fixed now, but if it’s still blocking the post on IE please let me know, and include the version of IE you’re using. Thanks!

  • Bukurson



    I still think if you are not making music for yourself first, then you
    are drinking some great Kool-Aid. I was one of those artists
    sitting in my basement over 20 years ago making one of those
    crude “basement tapes”(before Pro-Tools), and I known a few 1000 other bands,
    solo acts(I know and seen) over the past 20 years who have tried to “make it” (earn a living
    from it) ie their real job, not just a few gigs that when you split up,
    the proceeds among everyone, no one made enough to pay the rent.

    Yea a few bands and artists did well for a while, but none of the ones
    I’ve known ever made it as a career. The ones that loved music, are still in the business,
    but they work in a music store, or music studio, or teach music,
    or try to produce other peoples music, or work for Tunecore(lol).

    I guess  it’s part of the deal to sell the dream. I say make your music,
    play live gigs, and enjoy it. If you get a folowing and people
    like what you do cool. In ten years, they will probably say
    who was that guy(lol)