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"Art First" – Why the 'Present of Music' is the Best it's Ever Been for Musicians

April 6th, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: Geek · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

photo of clown art from the Urban Scrawl ExhibitionFrom Thursday to Saturday last week I was following Andrew Dubber’s tweets from a music industry conference in Finland called Is This It?

The premise of the conference is that it’s a ‘music seminar about music‘, though there was a baffling and conspicuous absence of actual musicians speaking at it. The overall tone, it seemed – as drawn from the various tweeted quotes – was that it was a bunch of music industry people desperately trying to come up with a way to continue ‘business as usual’ – marketing strategies, ways to feed more data to collection agencies to get paid, and the usual crop of should’ve-been-left-in-the-70s ideas involving scantily clad women as a marketing draw. So far, so heinous.

What’s even sadder is that this is the still the prevailing message coming out from the large music business institutions – that the music industry is under threat from unlawful downloading, that we need to come up with stronger legal penalties for ‘piracy’, that revenue now must come from live gigs and ‘360 deals’ with single agencies handling recordings, merch and performance (not surprisingly, the Live Nation rep at the conference was quoted as saying I’d be happier if everyone just gave away their mp3s and got people to go to live events.”) Every old school institution is selfishly fighting their own corner, and try to divert the discussion away from musicians being freed up from dependency on mediators and distributors to get our music out to the people who want to hear it.

But where’s the money going to come from, Steve?” I hear you say.

To which my answer is that the money was only ever needed in the quantities it was spent in before because of the system, not because making and releasing music required it.

That stalwart of seditious thinking on the music industry, CBBC, has a breakdown of ‘how much it costs to have a hit single‘. Here’s their breakdown:

  • Recording – £3,500
  • Video – £40,000 – £60,000
  • Remixes – £5,000 – £10,000
  • Merchandising – £9,000
  • Video plugger – £2,000
  • Radio plugger – £3,000 – £5,000
  • Posters – £3,000
  • Stickers – £1,500
  • PR (press) – £2,000
  • Promo copies/postage – £3,000
  • Website – £10,000
  • Manufacturing costs (50p per CD) – £20,000
  • Songwriter’s royalties – £11,000
    • Total – £113,500

    For a SINGLE… how much more for an album?

    That’s how much a record label, doing it old school, spends before the record is released. Ergo, YOU, the artist, are over a hundred grand in debt before you’ve even thought about selling any copies. The only bit of the CBBC Breakdown that could be yours pretty quickly is the ‘songwriter’s royalties’, which you’d split with your publisher, who most likely would be an affiliate of your record label…

    However, if instead you go with a marketing strategy that costs nothing, and so start with nothing when your record comes out, you’ll be a hundred grand better off at the starting gate than a signed band.

    Now, in all your fears about piracy, have you ever thought that your “losses” are going to come anywhere near £100,000? I’m guessing not (if you have thought that, you’re so deluded it’s laughable, sorry)

    So what are these ‘free’ marketing ideas? Here’s a few off the top of my head:

    • let people in on the process
    • offer teaser material as the album comes together
    • talk about what you’re doing, let anyone who’s interested find out why you make the music you do
    • provide easy ways for people who like what you do to send it to their friends – weblinks, widgets, free downloads, etc. etc.
    • allow the people who care about what you do to make their own promo materials – posters, ecards, website designs – encourage people to build things around what you do. Reward it by being publicly grateful.
    • when the album is finished, do sliding scale sales from zero to anything. Offer packages for people who WANT to invest in what you do, open up the design process of those packages to suggestions from your audience.
    • release multiple versions of the album – remaster it for laptop listening, do an acoustic version of it, put up stems for you friends and fans to remix it.

    There are LOADS of things you can do that will cost you time and creative energy, but leave you at close-to-break-even when the record comes out. Yes, you’ll have to record the album yourself. You’ll have to get creative, call in favours, swap resources and learn some recording skillz pretty fast. But the alternative is not where you want to be, believe me… there are ways of getting music colleges to do the recording for you (most music recording courses are desperate for quality bands to record – do it, and in exchange get the raw files to take home and use for your album). I’ll write more about this process soon…

    These are all avaiable to you NOW. These aren’t the ‘future of music’. These are the ‘present of music’. And it’s never been better for us, for musicians, and for music lovers looking for music untainted by speculative music marketing strategies based on pushing artists away from their instincts and towards the lowest common denominator guesses about ‘what’s hip’.

    If you are going to press CDs, invite those who want them to pay up front – almost all of my albums I’ve released have paid for themselves before I even needed to spend anything (given that the CD pressing was invoiced for on delivery).

    If you are going to spend any money on conventional marketing, keep control of it – if you run a print ad, make sure it’s in a mag that’s going to write about you anyway – without the context of an interview or at least a review, print ads are pretty much worthless. With that context, they can be a good way of letting people know that the album is out.

    The web has removed the need for those expensive, wasteful intermediaries. Does this mean there’s no future for the music industry infrastructure? Of course not – most people still find music through TV and radio, and as your band grows, there’ll be bits of the process you want to bring people in to help with. Tour organisation is a massive job, and as you get to the point where its viable, getting a company that knows what they are doing to handle it for you makes perfect sense.

    What’s changed is who’s in the driving seat. No longer do we need to feel grateful for the appalling terms that we got from record labels when the alternative was trying to sell badly-dubbed cassette versions of our live tapes at Camden Market.

    The channels for getting your own, creatively inspired, music-that-matters out there to an interested audience willing to help by telling their friends have never been more accessible, easier to use and more exciting to get involved with. We can make the music we love – Art first – and then tell the story of that, without having someone entirely disinvested from our process and purpose telling us what we should do to have hits.

    Resources: Firstly, go and dowload Andrew Dubber’s New Music Strategies e-book, and start reading his blog regularly. Secondly, go and buy Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Jennings. Read his blog too. You need to.

    Comment questions – if you’re a musician, what’s your favourite tip for getting people interested in your music, and if you’re a music lover, what’s the best online strategy that a musician has ever employed to get you involved in their creative process?

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    • steve

      For further reading, do check out Andrew Dubber’s first blog post about the conference (he was actually there) – click here to read it. It’s brilliant :)

    • Simon Fairbairn

      Great post!

      “when the album is finished, do sliding scale sales from zero to anything.”

      This can apply to gigs as well – let your fans decide how much they want to pay for your CD.

    • Jim Offerman

      Hear hear!

      My favorite tip for getting people interested in my music is quite simple: just be available to talk to them about it (online, offline, whatever). Always works (for me).

    • Chris Bestwick

      Hi Steve

      I was also following Andrew’s account of the presciently titled “Is This It?” conference and found myself increasingly angry and frustrated at what he was describing. As a Helsinki-based musician I felt incredibly patronised that a bunch of mainly non-musicians should come to where I live and talk about what I do, without my having any voice in the process!

      It would be hard to imagine a conference about the future of medicine to which no doctors were invited, because doctors are regarded as trained professionals whose opinions matter, whereas musicians seem to be thought of as childlike beings who need “music industry experts” to make our decisions for us.

      It seems that just at the point where record company mediation of the musical experience is dwindling and musicians have this exciting chance to reach people immediately, a whole new raft of charlatans, to use Dubber’s word, are trying to (re)insert themselves between the musician and their audience.

      There are decent intelligent people like yourself and Andrew making a positive contribution to the debate about where music is heading, but there are many others who seem to think that cobbling together a semi-literate downloadable e-book of truisms and banalities somehow makes them qualified to give advice to musicians.

      I think from now on it would be a good thing if anyone wanting to speak at a music business conference had to give a brief musical performance first. It might help separate the useful opinions from the bilge.

      As for my tip on how to make people interested in my music – I try to make it at good as possible (I’m not claiming success, merely effort!). I don’t mean this flippantly; a side-effect of all the advice to musicians is that there are many people out there now with nice-looking websites, coherent social-media strategies, pithy bios and intriguing USPs, but when you listen to the tunes….

      Kind regards

      Chris Bestwick

    • steve

      Simon – nice idea, I like it!

      Jim – accessibility is, I think, key. The aloofness that people indulge in who buy into the rock star mythology greatly reduces the possibility for us to learn from and become friends with the people who enjoy the music we make. That seems a shame to me.

      Chris – your point about making the best music you can is so key, so utterly pivotal to the rest of it making any sense, that I usually leave it out, assuming that anyone who isn’t spending their time making the best music they can possibly make is already doomed to the crumbs that the old industry throws their way.

      My next blog post is about re-imagining the recording industry as though music was the most important element within it, not money. I think you’ll like it :)

    • Jim Offerman

      Agreed. Although I do feel that the rock star mythology thing (still) works for some… it’s just a shame that many believe it to be the only model.

      I do see more and more people (artists and fans) warm up to the whole idea of becoming friends. So there are good times ahead, it would seem 😉

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    • Jim

      I’m a consumer.

      Free samples (preferably highquality and fullsong!) There are at least 25 times where I’ve bought a song on the basis of falling in like with it over time (you might fall in love the first time, other songs require time): Meg Hutchinson, Kris Delmhorst, Ane Burn, Kate Rusby.

      And at least a dozen times where a free song led to an album purchase. (Itunes 30 seconds doesn’t allow for this, esp, when theyrr are badly edited)

      Tip to musicians: ALWAYS fill your mp3 metadata fields! Why give away a song if all you know about it a month later is “song #5″?
      But don’t do a hardsell by putting your website in the artist title; put it in the comments field–if your music doens’t grab you, they won’t take music for free. If it’s intriguing, they’ll track you down

    • Carl Morris

      That CBBC article is, like, so 1980s.

      Singles are essentially four minute adverts for albums.

      And they show this stuff to KIDS? I despair.

      It’s like a rehash of this Steve Albini article – with the wisdom taken out.

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    • Dean Whitbread

      Huzzah! Re: “Reward it by being publicly grateful.” That kind of attitude works no matter where you are on the economic ladder.

      in the endless game of keeping people entertained, acknowledging and being prepared to thank are important.

      well said.

    • Bryony

      Heres an alternative model:

      my bands last record:

      Recording: 200 for a full day (we did 8 songs, which will be spread across 3 7″ records)
      Petrol to get to the studio: 50
      Pressing 400 7″ records : 750
      Production of Covers: 110 to photocopy
      “Promotion”: 30 website hosting

      Everything else – setting up a wordpress plugin to sell the records via paypal – i learnt from google searches and knowing the right boards and networks to post it on, asking people to repost etc

      We sold out of records and put the minimal profit (400 records at 3 each, but we traded with other DIY labels for their releases and didnt always sell theirs) into the next release, and on it goes.

      Bands that spend a grand and a half on stickers = “okay”

      Albini got it right (god knows he produces some turd these days though)