Sign And Fail: How The Traditional Music Industry Killed Culture

December 1, 2011

By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

We talk a lot about how this era of the music business is a particularly good one for the independent artist (by that, I mean an artist not signed to a label; someone who releases his/her own music either by him or herself or with a small team).  The reasons for this are many, and largely due to technological advances: companies like TuneCore made it possible for you to have your music distributed world-wide very efficiently; Pro Tools (etc.) allows for the efficient creation of music; social media enables you (in theory) to promote your music directly to fans, etc…

However, one thing we don’t discuss often enough is that there is another reason why now is a fantastic time to release your own work.  While it’s related to the above, it does stand apart enough to merit observation.

The bottom line is that a significant reason that now is a great time to release your own music is that the cost of failure is so low.

Let me explain.  Historically, when you decided you wanted to be a musician and release records, you chose a very specific path.  This path required you to, among other things, dedicate nearly all of your time and energy to essentially getting a record deal.  What this meant was that you were forced to do everything in your power to attempt to get the attention of a series of gatekeepers (press, radio, managers, booking agents, club owners, label A&R people, etc…) in the hopes that they would give you a series of chances that would lead to a record deal.  During that time, while you were attempting to get this series of chances, you needed to be monomaniacal with respect to your purpose.  An inordinate amount of time, therefore, was spent not making music, but rather attempting to position yourself favorably in the eyes of these gatekeepers.   Doing this, obviously, had a “cost.”  This cost was not necessarily one measured in dollars (though, pre Pro Tools, it sure wasn’t cheap to record demos), but instead one measured in time/distraction.  Economists call this “opportunity cost.”

In the off chance that you made all the right moves, and the stars lined up, and you were offered a record deal, your cost of failure just went through the roof.  While the label I ran (for better, and, sometimes, for worse) frequently worked with artists who had had major label deals, a lot of the time, an artist who had a record deal, and, for whatever reason, didn’t sell enough records to be deemed a commercial success, was forever labeled as a pariah; never to be offered another deal.

Essentially, the cost of failure with respect to getting signed to a label, and then not selling records was being barred from ever competing again.

In both cases — the road leading to getting a record deal, and actually getting the deal — mis-steps along the way (real or perceived) had a huge cost associated with them.  In essence, there was really only One Way, and if you veered from this path (or were thrown off the path), it was very hard to get back on.

In hindsight, this is sort of insane.  In what other business is it expected that you come right out of the gate, fully-formed, and achieve success on your very first effort?  While there are certainly vocations — from doctor to stock broker — where screw ups can bar you from the field, these (and most others) tend to not even let you into the field until you’ve been trained (medical school, MBA, etc…).  Part of that training is learning from others and learning from mistakes.

The old music business didn’t allow for this.  One could argue that this high cost of failure, one that deterred people from straying from a fairly narrow path (artistically and in a business sense). led to the homogenized nature of the music business during this era.

This is because, of course, it wasn’t just the artists who have a high cost of failure.  Rather, it’s the executives at the labels as well.  If you’re making a few hundred large a year, you will do almost anything to keep that money flow coming.  This also means that you won’t do anything that puts your salary at risk.  This leads to a culture where few, if any, are willing to push for anything innovative or new, and most feel it’s safer to repeat the status quo.

Arguably, the major labels are still caught in this cycle.

The good news is that most artists are largely indifferent to the old-school label system at this point, and an increasing number are working hard to find new ways to create music on their own terms and build sustainable careers.  This is partly because the major labels (or any label) just aren’t viable (or appealing) options at this point, but it’s also, I would argue, because the cost of failure has come down dramatically.

As it’s now easier than ever to create and release music, artists are freed from the one-album-every-eighteen-months cycle that raised the stakes (and cost of failure) to such a scary degree.

What results is that artists are much more inclined to create a work and put it into the marketplace quickly.  In so doing, they honor a time-tested management theory known as the Deming Cycle.  W. Edward Deming developed a philosophy that revolutionized industries, and, like most revolutionary philosophies, it can be stated simply, but takes some time to understand and implement.  At its core, the Deming cycle recommends a circular process beginning with “Plan,” moving to “Do,” then to “Check,” then to “Act,” and then back to “Plan.”

This can be understood as “Ready, Fire, Aim” as opposed to “Ready, Aim, Fire,” so long as you also understand that after you fire, you must check where your shot went, and adjust before you re-fire.

This approach demands iteration over cogitation.  It demands that you move quickly to get something into the marketplace, because only in so doing can you truly understand if what you’re doing will have an impact.  Importantly, it demands that you study closely the results that occur upon entering the market, and assumes that you will refine your efforts prior to re-introducing them into the market.

This method works best when the costs of failures are low enough so as not to be fatal.  In the old music business, you essentially got one shot.  There was no opportunity to refine anything.  Now, given the tools at the disposal of just about every artist, and a culture that not only expects, but demands agility (see the preponderance of “betas”), it is incumbent upon you to get into the game, learn, and then refine.

I strongly believe that this not only results in a higher chance of success for artists, but also in a more diverse musical landscape.  This is because no one, no one knows what the market wants, and for too long people thought they did.  This resulted in a lot of music being put into the market just because it resembled something else that had been successful.  With the Deming approach, and a low cost of failure, we are able to do what we should have been doing all along: create what is in our hearts, and then — if we so choose — continue to refine as people respond to our work.


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 an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at:

Related to this article: Why Everyone But The Artist And The Music Fan Is Doomed