Then vs. Now: The Path to Success for Artists

By George Howard & Jeff Price
(follow George on Twitter)

(Intro by George Howard)

We hear a lot about how it was “better back in the day.”  Gauzy nostalgia aside, I assume the “day” being referred to is some analog world (or, at least pre-file sharing world) where people purchased physical goods, and artists—ostensibly, at least—got paid a portion of the transaction associated with these purchases.  The refrain seems to go something along the lines of: pre-file sharing there was a system in place in which labels signed artists, promoted them, and then, when their records sold, paid them.  Sometimes stated overtly, and sometimes implied, in this line of reasoning is that, by dint of the fact that labels could only sign so many artists, they selected the more meritorious artists to release, and therefore the customer had fewer (and, following this line of reasoning, better) choices.  As opposed to today, where anyone who wants to release a record can, and, in so doing, “clutters” the market, which makes it more difficult for deserving artists to gain attention.  In other words, there are artists (and many industry types) who long for a return to these “simpler” times when an artist could make some demos, get signed, release a more-difficult-to-share record, and get paid.

I’m here to tell you that as is almost always the case with backwards-looking reminiscences, the memory is far more appealing than what was the actual reality.  I know this because I lived/worked through “those days,” and continue to work/live through “these days.”

But, you shouldn’t trust my or anyone’s recollection without some support, and so let me detail what “those days” was actually like for an artist.  Alongside that, my colleague, Jeff Price, has detailed what “these days” are like, and what “those days” were like.

As you look at the comparisons, some things should jump out at you.  You should be seeing that a tremendous amount of time, energy, money, and hope was spent (and, typically, wasted) in the old days on trying to attract the attention of so-called gatekeepers.  Another important thing to remember is that, even if you were able to have the gatekeepers anoint you, and you got a deal, your cost of failure was massive. In other words, you usually had one shot and you were out.

But enough of our editorializing. Take a look below, and let us know if you think now is better than then, or vice versa.


George Howard is the Executive Vice President of Wolfgang’s Vault. Wolfgang’s Vault is the parent company of Concert Vault, Paste Magazine, and Daytrotter. Mr. Howard is an Associate Professor of Management at Berklee College of Music

  • there is zero mention of promotional costs. it is pretty silly. band/record label, whichever you are, your promotional costs to garner any sort of real sales will erode most of the supposedly higher share you are receiving. 30% is about the same markup brick and mortars charge on albums, even though they have higher costs… i appreciate tunecore offering an easy way to get music to iTunes, but to compare tunecore to a record label contract is bonkers. and as for the article that started this discussion… the girl is saying she doesn’t buy from iTunes, that’s the problem… so the point is moot in the rebuttal.

    • tunecore


      Im not sure I agree with you

      I ran a label for 17 years (spinART). We spend a fortune on marketing in the old world
      In this new world, I have watched thousands of bands not spend this money and yet sell a significant volume of music. All without radio play, print ads, indie promoters, postage, envelopes, co-op advertising not to mention no up front costs to make anything and hope to god it sold
      The trick to selling music is creating art that causes reaction – this is damn hard. But if it happens, social networking, YouTube etc allow it take off.
      Just look at YouTube stars as one example of many


      • you prove my point right there though, you are playing to the viral hit, which is rare. and i bet those 1,000’s of bands you are referring to are not making enough to live off of… no matter what their revenue streams may be. i know the industry well and what the real stats are, and you are being disengenious in your statement, all of those artists are still working outside of playing/creating music. volume sure, but what was the profit? in the real world, building an artists following takes time and effort and a lot of cultivation, and that all costs money no matter how you slice it. are there less gatekeepers? sure are, but now the tolls have to be paid by the artists up front, and to ignore or represent to bands that they suddenly don’t have to spend money to promote their music is bad business. unless they want to be the next Rebecca Black, then fine… have at it.

        • Ferrell

          Promoting anything is hard but atleast under the new system artists are promoting themselves and making that promotion part of there art. More music and more importantly more diverse music, because what can be released is not determined by the gatekeepers, is a good thing, why should music be something made by the few to get rich off the many? the tolls to quote do have to be met by the artists, but they are a fraction of what they used to be in the old system creativity is the real currency, ‘all of those artists are still working outside of creating playing/music’ why does that matter? most artists are not trying to get rich and famous just creating something they love and finally free to put it out to the world the way they want not the way they are told they have to.

          • Comments-on-websites

             Its very simple: If you need promotion (TV, Radio, Magzines…) you need a lot of money for someone who will promote you and marketing (TV- and Radio-Spots and so on). Often musicians/bands does not have that money. They need an investor! If you find an investor you can spend money on marketing and people who promote you as an artist or your releases, concerts…… If you have not found an investor you have to do it yourself. My experience: And for that situation it is wise not to spend that money! You have to promote yourself via concerts, flyers, internet, mouth propaganda …… like the old days 😉 without a majordeal. If you will have more and more fans, you can continue as an successfull artist and at a certain point you will get an offer from an investor 😉

            we still have all indicators for your success:
            newsletterlist: is it growing, how many fans subscribe every day?
            websitestats: how many visits? is it growing?
            concerts? do you have more and more inquiries…
            sales? how many? is it growing?

            if your newsletterlist, websitestats, concertcalender, sales, fanbase…. are not growing, it might be possible that your music does not interest anybody out there. its hard, i am sorry, but maybe the truth. think about it.

            if you does not want to get on the top of of the musicworld out there…be famous, every discussion is totally unnecessary. just upload your music for free on soundcloud, facebook, myspace….. and be happy!

          • Dancehutch

            “if you does not want to get on the top of of the musicworld out there…be famous, every discussion is totally unnecessary. just upload your music for free on soundcloud, facebook, myspace….. and be happy!”
            Well lets say you would really like to but you are not as so called good or popular as a lets say chart star why not still have on iTunes etc. Why does it have to be for free on soundcloud. Thing is everyone has a right to showcase there music in anyway possible and make music by it how they wish. Sometimes you need the niche markets, the not so popular ones the ones who do different music to the ones that most of the sheep listen to. Check out ‘The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

          • Guest

             If you don’t want to make your living by your music, why should you spent money on selling it? 99 % of indie artists don’t sell more than the listung costs are – see cdbaby stats 2008 😉

          • Dancehutch

            Coz I many consumers are fickle, if they see something for free they think it is less quality. I think a good balance of free stuff, stuff for sale and gigs, merchandising etc. I understand where ya coming from but I think we need to get away from this music (only)=money. Music is art first and foremost, money and fame (if ya want it) should be a buy product of that art. Now how you choose to portray that art or et it out there, for free or for ‘listing costs’ who cares. The new model is great for art but probs not for the big company vultures that scavenge on the art.

          • CD Baby stats are misleading.  My wife has an album on there and finally sold the 6 copies she sent them (never saw payment on the last one).

            But she has sold hundreds of CDs and made a profit on her album by selling them live at gigs.  We more than recovered the costs we spent on the album even though she only had a run of 1000.

        • tunecore

          Im not trying to be contentious, and I applaud your support of musicians, but you’re facts are just incorrect.
          I think artists should be able to keep their copyrights and make more money, not less, when the music sells. I also think they should all be let in if they want, there should not be an editorial gatekeeper.
          It appears you seem to think every artist should make enough money off their craft to make a living. I would LOVE This!!! However, this is, and never was, possible – the world just does not work like that. It never will.
          In the old system, of the less than half of a percent of all artists let into the system, 98% of them flat our failed. Done. Over. They did not make enough money off their craft to make a living, never will, and never got another shot as they were kicked to the curb as road kill and their careers and passion were killed. The cost of failure was so high that their possibilities were killed.
          However, in this new industry, each and very month, just via TuneCore, there are over 1,000 artists earning over $1,000 from sales of their recordings. The top end of that list earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each month, the bottom part of the list make $1,000 a month
          You may deem $1,000 a month from music sales as a failure, but I suspect the artists making this money would disagree.
          in addition, back in the day, I can assure you Warner Bros. was not mailing out checks for over $1,000 in band royalties each and every month to over 1,000 different artists
          In regards to costs up front – the costs up front for artists in the old system were far far higher. Just look at this list of things they had to do – record demos, mail them, book gigs, play for no money just to get a gatekeeper to pay attention.
          My god, bands spent thousands and thousands of dollars so they could bang on a door in hopes that it would open – and for 99.9% of the bands, the door never did.
          In regards to one hit wonders – I never mentioned that nor suggested that.
          The truth is: There are more bands making money now than at any point in history. Thats just a fact. Most are not making a living off this income, that too is a fact.
          However, I dont think that we should therefore go back to the old ways and put up gatekeepers that allow less artists in, kill most of them and have them make less money when they succeed.


          • Bill

             I love the new industry.  It gives me that freedom.  I’ve been with with Tunecore for over five years. I always read about top end royalties.  I know there must be thousands on Tunecore like me who would love to see $1.000 just one month if you lucky.You might see that over year, but its not as simple you make it sound


    • Ferrell

      I dont see why its a problem its just an honest reflection of whats going on. in the history of music people bought albums for a few decades thats barely any time in the overall scheme of things. that situation came about as a result of technology (recording equipment, vinyl etc) new technology has brought that system to an end and a new one will develop in time. its not a problem its just a change in the article she also said suggested she would be happy to subscribe to something that gave her the convenience of streaming whatever she wanted to hear whenever, similar to the views of most people i speak to her age. 

    • @facebook-22017555:disqus i ran – at the time – the world’s largest independent record label. i can tell you that the vast majority of promotional money and time was ineffective.  where it helped was when it accelerate the shift of promotion from the artist/label to the fans.

      that is, however rarely, some time of promotion will pique the interest of a fan who will then go on and convert others to the music that was promoted.

      the good news is that today – if an artist is great, plays live frequently and in front of people who share his/her values, and utilizes social media/email, etc – there is a far more efficient (in terms of both time and money) way of increasing the odds of shifting the burden of promotion from the artist/label to the fans than there was in the gatekeeper (i.e. press/radio, etc.) era.

      easy now? of course not.

      would i go back to the old system? of course not.


  • Allan

    thank you for this it explains why my recent decision to start selling my records digitally which I had resisted for a long time … was a good one

  • Dancehutch

    “As opposed to today, where anyone who wants to release a record can, and, in so doing, “clutters” the market, which makes it more difficult for deserving artists to gain attention.” What makes an artist more deserving than another? 

    • tunecore


      And how does your music being able to be found on iTunes if searched for stop Radiohead or Arcade Fire from selling?
      Thank You

      Jeff Price

    • Ferrell

      great point Dancehutch completely agree, the old way might be better for someone trying to get rich or famous from music, but for artists that are just trying to make music there way and get it out there the way things are developing is so much better!



        • tunecore

          here’s an artist that did it his way…

          Its an article that recently ran in Forbes magazine on the artist Alex Day
          Is YouTube and Chart Sensation Alex Day the Future of Music?

          When online star Alex Day got his first two music royalty checks for nearly $200k he had a choice to make. Do I follow the path of other self-made stars like Amanda Hocking (self-published books to a major publishing deal) and buy into the system, or do I continue to blaze my own path?
          He chose the latter. He said no to the offer of “a boot on his neck” and decided to go his own way. In this decision, he embodies the musician—the artist—of the future: self-sufficient, self-funded, and self-motivated. And now, with the launch of three new singles, he’s a pioneer of a new style of releasing and distributing music.
          The whole article is here:


    • @ffe5ab303da2ec854a2a69725d48b02f:disqus @375186984ec77d79bd93256d7ad6d5d5:disqus -hoping there’s no confusion here. I was never saying that i agreed with the “clutter” line of reasoning. i violently disagree. this is a line that gatekeepers toss out to support their old ways of doing business, which were exclusionary.

      just want to be clear.


  • Rosss9897

    What is music worth to you as an artist? Many years ago an artist with success at some financial level might build a studio to record in. The dream of owning the means of production ahh! – for such people music jolly well had better be worth something – they had THEIR ‘investment’ to re-coup. Music HAD to be worth real money – now I have a better studio on my Mac than their expensive cumbersome bricks’n’mortar establishment was – beleive me it’s true. I have got the best of everything available and in real terms it hardly cost anything. My music doesn’t have to be valuable – I just require it to be ‘at the standard’ and out their for the world to hear. My concerns are artistic – as a long time artist (been thru the whole mega label sham years ago – look up Strapps on Google if you want) I just need my work to be out there ‘on release’ and available for people to hear and buy – if they like. As an ex-record exec myself – a wanker gate keeper – for a multi-national in the UK I simply say to you music should always have been born solely from a desire to make great music – any money should have always just have been a ‘happy accident’ post the event. TO ME THE CURRENT MUSIC INDUSTRY IS HEAVEN ON EARTH!

    • Ferrell

      completely agree

    • Ramses

      Hey Ross…Cheers my friend…I agree with you on home studios, and being about the music. I love creating. If it’s truly in your “blood”, one will never bottle up the magic that stirs inside. I mention to my bandmates that we will make it through the internet as it’s such a pure, raw form of trading and knowing your fan base worldwide. I’ve always believed it’s obout the music. If you feel it, let it out…and let the world feel your magic. Ramses
      Be well…

  • AP

    What makes one artist more deserving than another? The ability/desire to master their musical instrument(s), and acquire music theory knowledge instead of just learning how to play songs is one thing that makes one artist more deserving. This type of artist has more to offer an audience. Now whether the audience cares or not is another subject altogether.

    • Ferrell

      It’s up to an audience what they want from a performer and it doesn’t seem to be music steeped in theory generally it’s something they can dance to same as it has been for 40,000 years, under the old system the gate keepers chose what audiences should want now people can choose for themselves, I don’t believe any artist is more deserving then another but even under the old system it wast generally artists steeped in theory and experts on there instruments(and anything that makes a sound is an instruments, and often great music breaks the theoretical chains) didn’t get the biggest sales in my opinion the really great artists like John Coltrane, king tubby and Derrick may broke the rules but the thing is that’s just my opinion and everyone has an equally valid one and everyone has a right to put out any music they want all art is just opinion

  • Alricogan

    All that is so true !!!!!!

    • Iroha

       you are right!








  • Patti Black

    I’m in! Love it! Its almost too good to be true. Right? 😉

  • Rusadvise

    I couldn’t agree more with Rosss9897. You write for yourself. If other people like it fine.So many critics are caught up in ” where’s the hook’?, Where’s the bridge? Most songs stand on their own. Some are formulaic and others are just expression. It’s just a matter of how you feel and where the song takes you. When you play them live believe me, you will know how they go over. As for me, I just write and don’t worry about.

    • Ramses

      Dude…I agree 100%…You hit it right on the head about songs standing on their own.

  • Dancehutch

    I believe the new system to be much better for the musician and artist. I produce my own music and I also present a community radio show playing Unsigned, Emerging or lets say under the mass radar music. Now in my time doing this I have had music sent to me, I have searched for music from various sources and ones I have seen at gigs. Now in this time doing this I have came across various different styles of music, different production techniques used by various musicians artists. What really irritates me is I even find myself weeding out stuff and become really angry at me dictating what should be played etc. When I started the show I always had a standard for music on my show, that was there wouldn’t be any standard or level or a better or a worse. Music is art, music is a core part of society and wether the artist is a chart topper with all the money behind them and so called great (modern) production techniques or not, all music is great music. Now to a few so called artists and there business men the old system was great and is still here is one form or another trying to keep a hold on this art form, but not for long. The new system is fantastic for the artist/musician and also makes bands etc think in a more creative manner as to how they make money out of there art if they so wish. At least the people making the money with the new system is people who actually care for the art as well. Lets say promoters etc the ones I know never make a fortune but they do it for love of the music, ok eventually they may get into a position to make money from it but hey at least they love it. This goes for musicians as well. The market is open to all sorts of new fresh ideas that make music interesting and artistic we so need (so called) shit music, we need all music it’s all an influence. I read a comment from a fellow radio colleague recently it read “why do I get more pleasure out of buying a local music track then any other chart topper” I responded with “because you have choose, and made that choice by actually hearing something and thinking yeah thats great and not had it rammed down ya ear ducks from all ends of commerciality.

  • Noone

    How about a modern version of ?


    I  started my own label OSCRECORDS at the same time I taught myself to work on Cubase years ago and now my kids are grown and I record on Pro Tool we built a studio in our garage and then I said I need to save money so I will start doing my own videos well we did Beastmode I am a female single mom from Detroit and now I own a home in Seattle on the river my love and I mean love for all kinds of music paid for all we are accomplishing and GOD we never went into doing music saying I am going to be a millionaire I love mac and cheese and now that I can afford steak I still prefer Mac and cheese we had people approach us already but we are artists and we educated ourselves on the game and the 360 deals and selling your soul trade off and we have not been trapped yet education is the key and never do anything that your soul tells you not too. What ever you are trying to do believe me I am a living dream I survived serial killers DV’s (Domestic Violence) and drug dealers I am an American Dream a mother who wanted better you can do it too. May peace with you while you chase your passion.

  • Kenneth jeter

    I to agree how bad the industry has been,I have friends that are still working in the industry,but i have to say to perform music is a lot

  • George and Jeff… earlier this morning, I left a comment to this blog… and now it’s not here.

    A few weeks ago this happened too… regarding managers… and band/manager divorce.

    Is it something I’m saying wrong or inappropriately?  If so, let me know what it is.

    That way, I can do it better each next time around.

    Just curious… keep up the good work.

    Brian Shell 

    • tunecore

      Hey Brian,

      I can see that your comment from this morning is there! If you go to the post “The Intern, The Artist & The Internet” and scroll to the bottom it’s displayed as the first one.


      •  Hey Jeff and Jennifer… thanks for the replies…

        The thing is… I posted a comment to THIS blog post… as well as the other one.  I saw the other one was still up… but the one I posted this morning to this blog isn’t there.  I mentioned a then and now…. comparing Tower Records (then) and iTunes (now)… as well as used CD/records stores (resale shops).

        Also, this happened a few weeks ago (again for a George Howard blog)… where the topic was managers/bands/parting paths.

        Once I type my post and go thru the captcha… they’ve posted… and then disappeared.  So I’m not sure why this has happened… as I like being active in trying to contribute my wisdom of going from engineering to a published author and a percussionist (I performed at The Ark in Ann Arbor last night).

        Honestly, it’s not that big of a deal… but it makes me wonder if there’s a slight bug in the system.

        Perhaps “The Adjustment Bureau” at work?  😉

        Brian Shell

    • tunecore

      we really dont delete

      its gotta be there somewhere.

      Im going to ask someone at TuneCore to investigate


  • Keara Littner

    My brother and his friends have been playing in a small band together for years, but they’ve only recently started taking it seriously. It’s neat to see them actually working hard at it so see if they could turn it into a successful career. I’ve heard that it’s certainly not an easy road to take, but I hope that they’ll at least have fun with it while they give it a shot.
    Keara |

  • Now many companies are promoting music artists in a short time period like Music Promo Today. The industry has not many experts.