The Modern Music Business

September 4, 2017

The Modern Music Business
A recent Facebook post asked the following question: “Calling all musicians/artists/songwriters/music business peeps – It would be amazing if you could answer 1 or both of the questions below. Peace x
1 – What frustrates you (if anything) when it comes to the music industry?
2 – What is the biggest obstacle standing in your way from you getting what you want from your career?”

My immediate response was “1. People who expect the old business model to work. 2. The same As 1…” but a little more flesh on those bones is required.

The “old business model” (also known as “the dream”) was this: form a band, write some songs, do some gigs to start building a following, attract the attention of a manager, sign to manager, manager then helps you get signed to a record label and publishing company… bingo.
The business model pursued by the record labels was: sign 10 acts, invest a million quid in each, one will become successful and make you 20million quid, total profit £10million, dump the other 9, start again with 10 new ones… It all worked fine as long as sales of pieces of plastic with some sound embedded in them were buoyant, but the Internet put paid to that. Instead of selling a unit of your product for £10 you now sell (or rent out) a unit of your product for less than £1. No business can survive a reduction in its revenue by a factor of 10 and survive. Alongside that, factor in a change in culture in which popular music no longer dominates the cultural landscape and you have a recipe for what is politely called “disruption” and less politely called “disaster.”

But colleges and universities sell “the dream” as though it still exists. At least one London college boasts of their ‘industry connections’ but staffs their classrooms largely with freshly-graduated students. They have some tutors who are active in the industry, but if those teachers are so active professionally how are they finding the time to teach 2 days a week? The industry is clearly not keeping them busy full-time.
And the industry is no longer centred in London… or New York, or L.A. Technology has “disrupted” that as well but still the myth persists that to achieve success in the music industry it is necessary to live in one of those major cities, so students put themselves massively in debt by attending one of the London colleges and further in debt by paying London rents… The myth would have you believe that by playing live in London you will come to the attention of “the industry” but that industry will tell you that the last thing it does is schlepp out to some pub to hear 4 over-loud out-of-tune acts “supported” by their mums and flatmates in the hope of hearing one decent act.

So how DO you get “signed?” The most common response from major labels is “come back when you’ve sold 10,000” but if you can sell that number independently why would you go back to a record company who would then reduce your share of the income from 100% to 10%? Crazy…

And the live scene in London is completely screwed up: the so-called “promoters” will give slots to acts who can bully their flatmates and family into coming out to see them regardless of whether they are actually any good, which results in a vicious cycle, a downward spiral of bad bands who put people off paying to see live music…

Ok: enough of the doom and gloom:-) Get out of London and you can make money gigging because the audience is not spoilt for choice. Make your own records for reasonable budgets because you can sell them to a room full of people who have just seen you perform. Pursue other revenue streams: sell deluxe products to your super-fans. Align yourself with brands that want to be associated with “cool” artists (I recently had a conversation with the manager of a “cool” artist who told me that they had generated as much money from a one-day branding exercise with a magazine as they had from sales of the new record.) Look for synchs. Play venues outside of the traditional gig circuit (collaborate with a sculptor in an art gallery, for example.) Consider the traditional functions of the musician in society: how could you exploit these functions?

Most importantly, recognise that you no longer operate in an isolated ghetto insulated from the world by the income generated by sales of recorded music. Think different.
Forget the old dream: build a new one. Study the career of Jane Sibery and other independent artists.
Most of all, accept that you can make a living, not a killing.