By George Howard
(Follow George on Twitter)
I recently wrote a piece that outlined The Top 10 Most Inaccurate, Erroneous or Irrelevant Things Being Stated about the Music Industry. As I stated in the intro to that article, when you want people to come to your blog, create a list. Well, I wasn’t wrong, and people seemed to (largely) agree with the items I put forth. In the grand tradition of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I herewith present another list of fallacies of the music industry.
This list, however, has a certain slant to it that the prior one didn’t. Specifically, while the last list was more general in nature, this list addresses some common fallacies related to the marketing and promotion of music.
So, without further ado: 10 Inaccurate, Erroneous or Irrelevant Things Being Stated about Marketing, Promotion, and Success in the Music Industry.
As always, this TuneCore blog is about conversation, and we try to answer/respond to any question/comment posted. The best types of conversation involve genuine back and forth (listening/empathy), and while the nature of this type of communication dictates that it begin as something of a monologue, the good news is that it doesn’t have to stay that way. That’s a long way of saying that these are my thoughts — based on longer than I’d like to admit spent in the trenches of the record industry — but they’re not a priori “right,” and should be taken with the spirit they’re intended: to stir thoughts, conversation, and debate…man, do I wish we could do this over drinks!
10. The vinyl resurgence is due to the fact that vinyl sounds better.
I started with this one, because it allows for an easy metaphor for the rest. I think we can all agree that vinyl does sound better than the alternatives. However, there’s another reason why people desire vinyl. It’s what I (and others before me, like Hugh MacLeod) call a social object. That is, it’s something that can be held, and displayed, and, most importantly, shared. The importance of a social object in the age of downloadable/streaming music simply cannot be overstated.
Humans are hard-wired to share, but we as creators must provide constituents with something more tangible than ones and zeros to share if we hope to have the desired impact that is associated with sharing; that is, shifting the burden of converting new fans from the creator of the content to the fans of the content. Social Objects, are, therefore, the tools you need to arm your evangelists with. Vinyl suits this need better than just about any other music-related tangible item.
It’s counterintuitive to think of something that has been around long before the Internet as so essential to the success of marketing in today’s Internet-centric universe, and that’s why I began with this item. Much of marketing in the music business (and other businesses) has been focused on conventional wisdom, and “gut” instinct. While there is (maybe) nothing wrong with these things, gut alone doesn’t represent anything like innovation. Innovation requires being deeply dissatisfied with the current state of things, and looking for a way to change it via non-traditional avenues. And thus, taking a tool that just a few years ago seemed destined to be a footnote of history (vinyl) and re-thinking about it, repurposing it, and reconnecting it with current trends is a great metaphor for what must be done generally.
9. I (artist) need a booking agent to succeed.
This (and the subsequent “I (artist) need a…” fallacies all relate to the above idea that it’s not so much about discarding what has historically been part of the music business (e.g. vinyl), but rather re-calibrating your notions of how to employ these tools.
Playing live is an essential element of success in the music business, and it always will be. However, waiting around for a booking agent to enable you to play live is a surefire way to a slow and painful death in the music business.
Like many things in the music business, there’s a chicken-and-egg element going on here. You hear bands say with some frequency, “I need a booking agent to get gigs, but I can’t get a booking agent without gigs.”
The latter part is true; the former, untrue. No booking agent worth their salt will sign a band up for their roster unless said band can demonstrate that they’re capable of playing a good show; hence, the band has to get gigs. However, to think that you must have an agent in order to get gigs, is sort of the definition of the “entitled” artist mentality.
The very best thing you as an artist can do is to begin thinking of your live performances as “events” where people with shared values come together. This should lead you to consider non-traditional types of venues. As an artist just starting out, rather than repeatedly banging on the door of some venue, begging for an opening slot on a Tuesday night, instead create your own event: find a cool space (be it someone’s back yard or the VFW), and make it a memorable event.
Do this for some period of time until you actually are getting people responding in the way they should be to your music, and then (and only then) book yourself one of those Tuesday night opening slots, and make sure all these converts you’ve made during your non-traditional gigs show up. At that point, not only will you be more polished, but you will blow away the club booker who will be expecting it to be like every other Tuesday night where no one typically shows up to see the poor bands.
If you do this, you won’t be playing Tuesday nights long, as word will get out. Do this in three or four markets, and you’ll have booking agents approaching you.
It will then be up to you to decide whether or not you need an agent (and are willing to give up the 10% of the gross from your future gigs).
8. I (artist) need a manager to succeed.
Keeping with the theme, this too derives from a misguided (but understandable) belief that many musicians have; these artists believe that others have the answers with respect to their careers.
Certainly, there are many, many managers who do in fact have answers (and connections and capital and experience). It is this type of idealized manager that many artists quest for. However, like the booking agent above, if an artist has to look for a manager, the manager will typically not be there. Rather, it is when the artist determines that he or she can and must devise a plan that accurately and honestly assesses his or her current state, determines a desired state, and then creates a set of strategies to close the gap between the two (i.e. becomes his or her own manager) that more established managers will begin emerging. And, like the decision an artist who has successfully begun booking himself, the artist who has successfully begun managing himself must decide whether the value a manager brings is worth giving up 15% of his income for.
7. I (artist) need a publisher to succeed
This is a trickier item that relates to number four below. At this point, you realize, of course, where I’m going. Sending/emailing your songs to publishing companies in the hopes that they will miraculously pluck your demo/listen to your emailed mp3 from their pile/inbox is not a strategy.
Rather, getting the attention of a publisher requires first getting the attention of people outside the industry; i.e. fans. It requires building a level of authentic awareness around your work that eventually grows into that overused, but apt term, “buzz.” At this point, the publishers will come to you. You will then have to determine if the value proposition that the publishers bring to the table is worth giving up as much as 50% of the income derived from the exploitation of your copyrights.
6. I (artist) need a publicist to succeed.
I will get nasty comments for this one. In order to perhaps lessen the hostility of these anticipated comments, let me start by saying that not all publicists are bad, and, in fact, some are great, and play a key and decisive role in creating awareness for artists that leads to these artists developing sustainable careers. However, many publicists (like many doctors, lawyers, and Presidents) are not great, and they prey on artists’ most fundamental desire (the desire for someone to write about their music), and leverage that desire to extract money from artists, for which very little of value is received by the artist.
The best publicists have fantastic and close relationships with media outlets (traditional and “new”), and can help artists craft “messaging” that increases the odds that the artist’s work is at least listened to by these so-called tastemakers in the industry.
However, do consider that there is something troubling (understandable, but still troubling) about the fact that these publicists are your advocates so long as you’re paying them, but cease their advocacy when you stop paying them. Given this dynamic, it calls to question the whole nature of the “relationships” between publicists and the media.
The alternative, of course, is for artists to develop their own relationships with those arbiters of taste in the media. These relationships, in theory, will prove more durable than those that run out when the dollars run out.
Notwithstanding the forgoing, ask yourself when was the last time you bought a record from an artist you had never heard of because you read a review of the artist on some magazine/blog/newspaper.
5. I can be a songwriter and get my music covered by others/used in music without playing live.
I get variants on this a lot. Those who fancy themselves songwriters, but, for whatever reason, don’t want to (or don’t believe they can) perform their songs live. Instead, they simply want to sit in their creative space (typically, at home) and churn out songs to be performed by someone else.
It always pains me to tell them, that the chance of this happening is pretty much zero. The great songwriters who have established themselves to the degree that they can now largely stay in their creative space and parcel out songs to great performers without playing live don’t do that, and never did that. Go to Nashville any night of the week and you will be able to hear someone playing and singing his heart out in a little dive, and when you ask him how things are going, he will tell you, “pretty well.” And if you push him he might admit that he just got another song on another hit album. And you will wonder why in the world he’s out there playing his heart out on a Wednesday night in a dingy club, and the answer is: because there’s no other way.
If you resolutely refuse to do the above, your only other recourse (and it’s not a great one) is to take the Elton John/Bernie Taupin or Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter approach, and find yourself someone who can sing the hell out of your compositions, and hope like crazy that this performer has some similar magic to that of Elton John or Jerry Garcia. Good luck with that, by the way.
4. The way to succeed in the music business today is by getting your song used in a film/TV show.
While there is certainly a correlation between having a song used in a film/TV show/ad and success in the music business (though, certainly, one does not guarantee the other), the fallacy here is that one can simply make getting their compositions used in a film/TV show/ad their strategy, and achieve this without all of the related things that must occur for this to happen.
Put simply, it is music from artists who have a lot of other things going on that gets used in film/TV/ads. The way it frequently works is that an artist writes some great songs; an artist cultivates a good local following where people respond well to those good songs; the artist then amplifies this offline fan connection via some savvy online marketing; this leads to the artist being able to play outside of his hometown, and while doing that he visits the local radio stations that play music from unsigned artists.
Eventually, by following this strategy, the artist finds himself playing in NYC and/or LA, and has his music played on great stations in these cities like WFUV/KCRW; these stations are listened to by music supervisors, who likely have also read about these artists, and then decide to come out to their shows. After a number of visits to these cities, the music supervisor may decide to comp one of these artist’s songs in a project they’re working on.
The alternative, the imaginary version that a music supervisor will just magically stumble upon some artist’s work that has done none of the above is just that: imaginary.
3. The way to succeed in the music business today is by getting your song played on the radio.
I just wrote above that the savvy artist will visit the radio stations that support unsigned artists when they begin playing live, so clearly I’m not suggesting that radio doesn’t play a role in helping an artist succeed. Of course it does, but, as you likely have gathered if you’ve read this far, focusing exclusively on radio, and not making it part of a larger and more comprehensive strategy will not bode well for you.
A note about radio: Big time, commercial radio (i.e. stations that play Lady GaGa, Katy Perry, etc.) tends to be only accessible to artists who are signed to major labels. Sadly, but truly, it’s really the last wedge of exclusivity that the majors have. The reasons for this are a bit beyond the scope of this article, but, suffice it to say that if you truly believe that your music must get played on pop radio for you to be successful, than you likely need a major. That said, assuming you’ve seen the videos of both Lady GaGa and Katy Perry, before they became stars, you know that the road to a major label is often a winding one in which the artist has to develop a constituency on his own (ala the methodology above) long before a major comes into the picture.
2. I (artist) need a label to succeed.
Really? It should be very apparent how untrue that is. Doesn’t mean labels are bad. Doesn’t mean labels can’t help you succeed. It does mean that — like pretty much everything else on this list — that the quickest way to a successful artist label relationship is via not waiting around for one, but rather taking control of your own career, and developing authentic and meaningful direct, sustainable connections between you (the artist) and your fans. If you do this, you will have your choice of labels to either work with or turn down. Do remember, that should you ever consider working with a label, that you will have to negotiate a deal with them, and that in these negotiations, the more you bring to the table, the less they can take away. If, by some amazing degree of sheer luck, you as a brand new artist, with nothing more than a bunch of promising songs are negotiating with a label, you will likely make a less-than-favorable deal (i.e. 360). If, on the other hand, the labels are coming to you because you have developed a good touring circuit, and have a good direct sales relationship with your fans, and have a strong social media presence, you will be able to make a far more favorable deal.
1. An artist can do it all himself today.
While pretty much every word up to this point would seem to imply that you as an artist not only can, but must do it yourself, attempting to do so for most artists is as problematic as waiting around for some label to pluck you from obscurity. As any good economist will tell you, we live in a world of trade-offs and opportunity costs, and it’s very hard to do two (or more) things at the same time and do them both well.
Being an artist means being a creator, and honoring the creativity imperative. This means providing oneself with the mental space to let the muse in. If you gum up that mental space with all of the elements required to treat your musical career like a real business, you will axiomatically have less time/mental capacity to create.
In the early stages, when your business is developing, you will likely be able to juggle both the business and the art, but as your business grows, something will give: your art and/or your business will suffer. It’s at this point where you need to do what all businesses that are succeeding must do: scale.
You must begin outsourcing/delegating some of your business responsibilities so you can continue to honor your creative impulses. This does not mean that you must sign to some label. In fact, I would highly advise against this, and instead look to develop a small team (a manager and maybe an assistant), to begin growing and developing your business. With technological efficiencies, a team of two or three people all rowing in the same direction, and supporting an artist who really does connect emotionally with a constituent group, can change the world.
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: twitter.com/gah650