"The music industry is a cruel and shallow money trench. A long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson (misquoted)
That quote is attributed to the late Hunter S. Thompson, a music journalist from a bygone era. He didn't actually write that. He wrote something similar but that is such a good misquote that the fact he didn't add the last part about the negative side and the fact he wasn't even talking about the music industry is not known to most people in this crazy business.
This Is A Changed Business
Nevertheless, the music industry isn't what it once was in many, many ways and fortunately, the seedy reputation it once had for taking advantage of artists, reaping outrageous margins and spending them on drugs, hookers and ostentatious luxury are, for the most part, a thing of the past. I'm not saying it's unheard of today but as a general rule the business has been turned on its ear and that part of it is either over or dying. Just as in politics, social media has injected many businesses with a kind of transparency that's never before been seen. It is increasingly difficult to preserve one's undeserved good name. Acting unscrupulously just doesn't make business sense anymore because it can so easily and quickly disseminate and that's very costly. Dream vultures get outed quickly in this new music business landscape.
Everyone knows that the digitization of music, piracy, illegal file trading and the industry's own miscalculations have brought about unprecedented hard times. I won't rehash that here but my point is that new technologies changed the landscape and it's taken time for things to begin to shake out but the new structures are emerging and it's becoming more clear how the music business will function. We're starting to see profits return to the sector and entrepreneurs have successfully been harnessing technology to reduce inefficiencies, create better ways of helping artists get their music distributed to the masses, to digital music retail outlets and to enable their music to simply be found and discovered. However, one thing has not changed. Most artists are themselves still not very good at business and that prevents them from being able to effectively harness these new technologies and tools to do it themselves despite the DIY labels many of the services tout. But with a small team that knows what they're doing and a fair amount of money it can be done and I believe we're going to start seeing this model emerge as one of the most efficient paths to success -- or at least a path to getting an act to the level where a big backer (e.g. a major label) can step in and help finish the job.
This is now possible because it requires a lot less infrastructure than it did in the past to accomplish many of the services the old industry could accomplish almost exclusively. What infrastructure it does require is available to everyone and with the music industry having reduced its size over the past decade, there are plenty of free-lance solid teams available for hire.
Don't get me wrong. The major labels still have incredible muscle, know-how and a very big role in the new ecosystem but they seem to be limiting their involvement to the very top tier of artist promotion. They no longer engage in artist development nor wait for the third album to flop before cutting an artist from the roster. While there is no hard and fast rule, more often than not, in order to get the attention of a major label an act must already be well on their way. The fact is an act is not very likely to get well on their way without the help of solid business professionals. There is much more room in the market for more artists than the majors will be breaking over the coming few years. So, after years of drought, we may now be moving into the best time to be a musical act in decades, if not ever. A time when there is less incentive than ever before for any business person to prey upon the aspirations and naivety of artists and a time when artists can hire their own business teams and be off to the races.
I am certain that we will see some very creative ways in which artists will become famous. There will be more paths to success than we've ever seen. I don't claim to foresee them all but here's one replicable way I think it can be done.
Four Steps To Break An Artist
Disclaimer: I've spent nearly 20 years working in the music business on both sides of the mic and my team and I have carefully analyzed the recent problems and challenges facing both artists and industry professionals. Meanwhile, we've been addressing these challenges with the solutions generated by our best thinking. For several years we've been building a part of the infrastructure that will be needed as the music business rebuilds itself from the most transformational period in its history.
That said, I would advise an emerging artist to do the following:
1. First and foremost you must have talent and great music. That's a given. You must get some professional feedback. Knowing that your mom, girlfriend/boyfriend, group of friends or other local musicians dig your sound is not enough. That's not usually sincere nor professional validation. Get the professional opinion of people who have made a living from their golden ears and gut instinct. Be flexible when it comes to re-evaluating your songs even after you think they're finished. Your songs can always be changed and improved upon if you get feedback you believe in. And yes, it can be hard, rigorous work. That's what separates the professionals from the hobbyists. Take your time. The time it takes to write a great song is not a measure of talent. It's a measure of experience and inspiration. Plenty of masterpieces were written over time.
2. Professionally record your music. Hey, don't get points one and two in the wrong order. Don't go spend a lot of money recording your songs before you've honed them from the songwriting perspective. Also, no need to go out and spend a ton of money in the best studio you can find. You're probably going to have to record your songs more than once and perhaps with a couple different producers so work your way into this. Do something first that illustrates your style and sound. Even though you may not have to hire a Grammy-winning producer the first time you record your song, do make sure it sounds good and as close to radio ready as possible so that the listeners don't have to use their imagination to hear how the song "could" sound. Then, get more feedback and go spend the big bucks when you know you've got it right.
3. As you're working on points one and two be performing live. That's more important for honing your stage presence than it is for building a local following. Yes, you want to build a local following but more than that you want to be an awesome live performer. Learn to love performing live if you don't already. Your revenue from live performances will be a big part of your income. Consider working with people who specialize in career coaching and artist development.
4. Get the right people to hear your music. As I've said in previous posts. Most of the time it's going to take a mass exposure event or series of events to break an artist. The slow build is nice and you should continue to spend efforts in that direction but it's the so called "lucky break" that's going to get it done for you every time. They call it a lucky break but "luck" is just the convergence of being prepared for success while you knock on every door trying to make it happen. When you know you've got the right song, sound and look - go for it. Submit your song to every appropriate opportunity. Chances are that if the professionals you're getting feedback from in step one are telling you you're ready, you're ready and a deal (or series of deals) will come if you just get your music into enough of the right hands. In fact, some of the professionals who are giving you feedback might even be the ones who end up offering you a deal. You never know.
Interact with industry professionals. Build the relationships. It's not only about how many people hear it through your own efforts. A large number of Myspace and Facebook fans alone will not get you signed or make you massively famous. The most it will do is add to the reasons an industry professional will take you seriously. In the end, it's about how many of the right people hear you so they in turn can give you the oppotunity to get your music in front of millions.
Most artists will be challenged to execute those four steps on their own. You're more likely to get this all done right with a solid team around you. Get someone who is good at business, promotion and PR and who will work night and day for you to get your music into the right hands. If you don't know anyone locally who can help you, consider submitting your music to managers seeking to manage new bands and other professionals who are just looking for the right musical talent to join with their talents in business to make it happen.
Each week I discuss tips like these and the new music business on my podcast.