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They (Should) Work For You – Record Labels as though Music Mattered.

April 8th, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

link to a photo of a road sign saying 'Money Street'Ever since the advent of rock and roll and the vinyl record explosion in the 50s, record companies – whose business is making money – have been using music in order to meet that aim.

Whatever musicians managed to talk themselves into believing regarding the altruistic motives of the record company moguls who schmoozed them, the bottom line was always ‘make money or get the hell out‘. And tough luck if the music you love to make goes out of fashion – you’d better change. After all, there are bills to be paid. Your contract says so.

The size of the record label has almost always been in strict inverse proportion to their interest in “unfettered music”:

picture of a graph of how much record labels care about music

And so many of the discussions ‘the industry’ are having with itself at the moment are centred around the premise that the relationship between record company as money-making-machine and musician as compliant-provider-of-noise-fodder should be maintained.

I, perhaps not surprisingly, think nothing could be further from the truth. So here’s my version of how record companies crapped on musicians even as they made countless millions for themselves:

The record label principle is basically that of a “spread bet“. In gambling terms, that means you split up the amount you have to gamble with across a number of bets, in the hope that the ones that win outnumber the ones that lose, and you come out ahead. It’s a system that worked for the labels, to remarkable success.

The problem was always in what they did with the ‘winnings’ – you see, if I’m putting money on horses or roulette, the only winners are me or the book maker. The ‘bet’ itself is neutral. The cards aren’t indebted to me if I lose. I’m gambling my money.

The record label model was that they were gambling our money on our careers, with precious little consultation, spreading the bets so they win, but still leaving the ‘losing hands’ in debt to them. Whenever Elton John had a hit, his label didn’t write off the debts of smaller bands. Instead, they pocketed the winnings and went straight back to telling the band that had lost on its first album what it needed to do for the second one.

On top of that, there are the mechanics of how the deals themselves were operated. The standard record deal worked out like this: a label lent an artist the money, to pay the label and its affiliates to make a record, charged them interest on the loan, and when it was paid off, still owned the product that the loan was for. They won 3 times!

When this was the only way to get a record out, we just had to grin and bear it. And to be fair, a heck of a lot of great music was made and released this way. (and, as you’ll see at the bottom of my fictitious graph, there were and are a lot of small labels that really care about music… they just aren’t, for the most part, particularly efficient…) However, an awful lot more music was squashed, lost or ‘stolen’, and a lot of great artists went bankrupt, leaving behind their future earnings to pay off the debts of reckless spending by the label that leant them the money in the first place.

But we had little choice. Print media was a monolith, radio a fortress, and while fanzines did their vital part in keeping sub- and counter-cultural arts alive, they weren’t a worldwide force to be reckoned with.

Clearly, now with all the resources we have available to us online, It doesn’t have to be this way.

  • We can do it our way
  • we can change the terms of the relationship
  • we can opt out of “the industry” until such time as the industry does what it should’ve done all along – provide innovative ways to amplify the awareness of and message about great music.

Let the musicians make music while the non-playing infrastructure of the music biz just makes it easier to get that music out to as big an audience as is necessary for the artist to keep doing what they love. Audiences get better music, musicians get less interference from people who don’t understand what they’re doing and the industry side of things gets to focus on what they do best. Innovation and creativity win out in every way.

We are now in a position to consider the level of success that is optimum for our own happiness and as an incubator for our art. We no longer need to be constantly pushing to be bigger and bigger, selling more, being more radio friendly, making pointlessly expensive videos, doing grueling promo tours. No, we can define where we want to be and assemble the kind of help (if any) we need to get there, negotiating over what gets done and how much that is worth. We’re also then in a far better position to barter and swap skills with other musicians to reduce the needless costs of making music for all of us.

Take control. You can, it’s your music, your voice, your career. And don’t let any millionaire record company exec desperate to hold onto his greedy piece of the pie tell you otherwise.

Further Reading: This article from Wired Magazine about the Nine Inch Nails iPhone App, and all the other community-driven ideas they are implementing – outstanding innovation…

Comment ideas – what excites you most about the possibilities of a world where musicians make the music they REALLY want to make? Q2: how do we take the NIN ideas in the Wired article and apply them to an unknown or little known artist?

Similar Posts elsewhere in this blog:

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No Comments so far ↓

  • Netvalar

    All great things

    you end with how to take the NIN model to the small unknown artist?

    Well for the I-Phone app a small unknown with only 200 or less fans can’t make it but through the power of shared community that 1 artist can join forces with 10 or more artists similar and make such an app worth while. The 2nd leg of record label 2.0 in my blog

  • Simon Fairbairn

    Just on how much labels suck, I knew of a band that got signed because they had a sound very similar to another artist the label already ‘owned’, and that were being promoted heavily.

    The label then proceeded to totally ignore this new band. They were basically removing the competition, which may have been a savvy business decision but wasn’t particularly nice for the guys.

    What excites me at the moment is the possibility of new and exciting musical genres – such as MC Frontalot and his Nerdcore hip-hop. (http://frontalot.com) – that suddenly become commercially viable precisely because there are no labels involved.

  • John Goldsby

    Great post! I think the piece could alternately be called “They (Should) Work WITH You (but they usually don’t).” I think the artist/label relationship is often not clearly defined from the start, which leads to everyone feeling that the other party underperforms. When the artist takes charge of the recording, production marketing and distribution, then they find out where they stand. It does not always guarantee success, but at least it guarantees transparency and control over the music.

  • Mike Arthur

    Perhaps I’m a horrible person Steve but I think you’ve failed to account for a big difference between you and a lot of other musicians (not most but a lot I’ve met).

    They know at least part of the above but they don’t care because they want to get very, very rich and so long as they are the “in thing” at the moment they don’t really care nearly as much about artistic expression as getting a huge house.

    This doesn’t apply to your or any of the musicians I’ve met through you and I realise I’ll probably get flamed for this. For what it’s worth I agree with all the above and if I ever became a full-time musician I’d totally adopt the above.

  • Netvalar

    @Mike actually you are soooooo correct about the majority I always feel ecstatic when I get to sit and talk with the ones who don’t fit that mode.

  • Tobias Knapp

    I agree with Mike Arthur and I think this is a little bit too much the independent artist’s point of view.
    This is what I expect (major)labels to do for their bands:
    Lead them through massmedia forrest by using their connections. Leads to Airplay and popularity.
    Support bands with management competence. You are a musician. You (normally) don’t have a clue. This does also mean to react on the market by changing a band’s sound, if needed.
    By signing a contract, a band becomes a product within the industry that must be set up for a certain target group.
    If a band can handle production, marketing and distribution by themselves, they should do so, but usually they (still) don’t have the competence.

  • Neil Ward

    I am currently finishing a degree in Music Technology. I’m in a position where I can push my music towards merciless record labels or use the skills I have learnt in music industry and production modules to craft my music how I desire, with no external forces. It is posts like this that continully push me in the direction of the DIY ethic and for that I thank you. With this becoming more common I hope that the long tail can engulf the big dogs and turn the whole industry on its head!

  • Pär Berglund

    I agree with you Mike that a lot of artists still maintain this goal, maybe not about the house, but to get rich. It’s part of the lottery business culture that the labels want the artists to embrace. The illusion that the big hit is the ultimate goal to a long career. Somewhere along the way their intentions with their music change.

    Problem is that chasing fortunes is like chasing happiness or the end of the rainbow. I believe that ANY business that have set it’s true goal to make as much profit as possible will loose in the end. And that insight will take quite some time for many artists to realize.

    What excites me the most is exactly what you ask in your question: that artists can make the music they want and find their audience. That the idea of average music for average people is vanishing as people more and more searches for the music that is exactly what they love.

    Love Trent and his drive, but the exciting thing here is that anyone can tailor their own way of engaging fans and communicating with them.

  • John Goldsby

    Most musicians seem to just want to be able to make a living — bring home as much dough as the average plumber or car mechanic. We also want to document our music and our playing. Nowadays it has become easier to document and market our music as part of the grand plan (making a living/surviving, bringing home about as much money as your auto mechanic). Getting gigs and concerts is just as hard as it always was, but building a fan base has become easier in a way. I think the musicians who are out to get rich do not last very long in the business.

  • Steve Moyes

    Great stuff, Steve. I hope your blog gives plenty of ideas and inspiration to any musicins that read it.

    What surprises me slighty is that you seem to think there is anything new in any of this. You talk about how “When this was the only way to get a record out, we just had to grin and bear it” but I don’t think that was ever the case. There have always been alternatives. There have been musicians putting out their own recordings and running their own careers for a very long time, from jazz musicians in the 1960s, and punk bands in the 70s up to the present day. Lots of folk musicians have always done it.

    I have been a musician for ove 30 years and have never had a recording contract or publishing contract. Neither have I had a manager, agent or publicist. I have never become rich or famous, but I have survived. Three months from today my mortgage will be payed off. More importantly I have never played music that I didn’t want to play.

    What’s great about the present is that technology has made life a lot easier for independent musicians and is opening up a lot of new possibilities.

    Keep up the good bogging and tweeting. Always worth reading.

  • Simon Fairbairn

    @Mike – I agree there are those musicians out there, and it still amazes me that they think doing music is a shortcut to getting rich. But, if that’s their dream, then best of luck to them, because the traditional route is going to exist (for the short-term, at least) for those who are willing to give up more and more of their art (I was once told how to dress and how to act by an A&R girl), and that’s fine. If they’re willing to do, fair play.

    What posts like this do, however, is to give hope and guidance to those who want to make the best music that they can above all else (including riches and fame), so I don’t think that it’s a flaw that these posts are aimed more at independent musicians.

    However, they are still useful for musicians who want to get signed, because it lets them know that there IS a choice.

    And it educates them about the reality of the situation. The more educated musicians are, the better it is for them when it comes to negotiating deals.

    In response to Tobias, yes labels can offer these things, but at what cost?

    Trent Reznor: “One of the biggest wake-up calls of my career was when I saw a record contract,” he says. “I said, ‘Wait — you sell it for $18.98 and I make 80 cents? And I have to pay you back the money you lent me to make it and then you own it? Who the f*** made that rule? Oh! The record labels made it because artists are dumb and they’ll sign anything’ — like I did.”

    http://blog.wired.com/underwire/2009/04/trent-reznor-wa.html

  • Greg Collins

    Back in the 80’s when I worked in a studio I encountered a lot of young bands making their first steps in the business, and a lot of “has- beens” who were broke and a bit bitter. Both groups used us because we were very cheap as the recording side of the business existed only to subsidise the main business projects of the owners of the studio (they had to have a studio to do what they needed to do, and it made sense to own one and then re-sell time in it when they weren’t using it).

    Most of the kids were basically going into music to avoid getting a real job, to get paid to do something which they described as a “laugh”, to smoke dope or snort coke freely with the encouragement of their employers, and to get laid as often as humanly possible. They weren’t in it for the art or to be “artistes” they were in it for what they could reasonably expect to get out of it. No one from their label ever held a gun to their heads and made them sign the contracts they would latter come to regret. Their handlers portrayed the labels as some sort of altruistic Godfather with their best interests at heart and the kids were either too naive or too stupid to realise otherwise and so colluded with their own ultimate downfall. And a lot of them were bright educated boys with good middle class backgrounds with parents who were accountants, or quantity surveyors, or doctors with all the requisite business nous that involved. But they weren’t listening to their parents; they weren’t listening to anyone because they were in it for the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle.

    The has-beens were a fascinating lot, and I learnt a heck of a lot from them – somewhere out there are a few obscure albums with me singing backing vocals or with sequencers tracks I programmed. But they all felt they had been stitched up by some suit or other in the business and were all convinced they were about to cut the track that would relaunch their careers; thus taking them back to the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle they still craved. Very few were prepared to accept that they might have played a part in their own situations. Very few were in the studio for the sake of their art, they were professional musicians; the studio was their office and this was (all they knew) what they did. The fact that the product they made was unsellable was blamed on the potential consumers ignorance rather than the shortcomings of the product itself. With the invention of cars, the buggy whips used for driving horses became redundant. But I’m sure the last company on earth to make buggy whips made the best damned buggy whip ever – but no one wanted to buy them. Is that the fault of the car drivers…? Or the guys who make the whips….?

    There were exceptions to this but they were few and far between, in fact the vast majority of people who were in it for the art and not the lifestyle benefits were the classical musicians for whom being part of whatever orchestra was, in effect, a day job.

    Now I, like Mike Arthur, have a totally different experience of the people I’ve met via Steve. Strangely these people seem to be rather like Steve himself, generally gentle, well rounded, balanced folk who put creativity and “art” (whatever that means) and being honest to their copious, and in my book God-given and therefore a gift not a commodity, talent above headlining Reading or making ££££’s.

    The little music I “do” I do for for re-creation not for profit. I don’t expect anyone else to want to listen to me, though it seems some of my Church “audience” value my contribution, nor to pay for the dubious privilege of doing so. The last band I played in was strictly expenses only – we gave away any profit we made or re-invested it in the band. Still huge fun.

    The music industry is just that; an industry; it churns out sausages because it finds making sausages is highly profitable; it doesn’t give a monkey’s about the pigs. It will do everything it can to protect its sausage franchise against rival ways of consuming similar foodstuffs. It is an industry; that is what industries do; too many people make way too much money and get way too “cool” a lifestyle from it for them to want to change it. Turkey’s rarely vote for Xtmas.

    NIN’s model has its merits but it a model developed by someone who has made it, who is at the top of the tree. It is a vision that someone must try to implement to see if it can work in reality.

    sorry for the way to long comment 😉

    PS anyone wants to flame Mike – I’m with him

  • Chris Bestwick

    A quick thought re Tobias’ comment: wouldn’t the opposite of an independent artist’s point of view be a dependent artist’s point of view? Why would I be interested in what they think?

    I know I’m just playing with words but I think it highlights one of the key points Steve’s making – we don’t need to be dependent on anybody anymore!

  • Simon Fairbairn

    With regards to Greg’s comment, I think you’ve deftly illustrated why the death of the industry as it presently stands will be great for real musicians who care about music and who are willing to work hard.

    With regards to the NINs bit – I agree that their model comes from someone whose already ‘made it’.

    So here are some examples of guys who are totally independent and making what at least appears to me to be a decent living out of music:

    Jonathan Coulton – http://www.jonathancoulton.com/
    Brad Sucks – http://www.bradsucks.net
    MC Frontalot – http://frontalot.com

    @Chris ‘we don’t need to be dependent on anybody anymore’. Amen to that. I think it’s a really exciting time for music.

  • Jim Offerman

    What I’m seeing more and more is bands taking full control of their creative outings and _using_ the service of a record label (and other organizations) to reach a bigger audience. It’s basically the same paradigm I’m following myself. I have management agency to book shows and incite press interest, because they do those jobs better than me.

  • Steve

    Mike et al

    My reason for ignoring the money grabbing, fame hungry morons who see music as some kind of get rich quick scheme is that a) they’re so deluded about the odds of success, they might as well buy lottery tickets, b) their mistaken belief that it’s possible is built on the lies that the big labels in collusion with the myth-peddling music media have perpetuated & c) they’d be in a much better place for sustained, “real” success if they concentrated on making great music then used it as a bargaining tool with whoever in the big labels was smart enough to see the potential.

    If people want to “use” music as a vehicle to “get famous” or rich, my attitude towards them is a mixture of pity and contempt and I’m certainly not about to waste my time writing blog posts helping them pursue their hopelessly unlikely rock star fantasies. My pity is largely for them missing out on just how wonderful a part of being human playing an instrument can be if you do it because you love it. To persue money & fame over that is cultural bankruptcy of the saddest kind.

  • Greg Collins

    having read all the comments it seems to me a distinct possibility that if a musician genuinely only makes the music they want to make in a kind of no-compromise-art-for-arts-sake way then they make expect to struggle to get any sort of audience at all. so my question would be what does a musician want from their audience? Filthy lucre, perhaps only in small auto-mechanic amounts, some form of external validation of their art, admiration, relationships.

    So guys and gals what are your audience for?

  • Mike Arthur

    To continue this further and expand on Greg’s point:

    Something I think you’ve maybe missed in this Steve that the record labels also provide that the independents don’t: sheer numbers.

    There’s certainly an appeal for some people in having their song heard and liked by millions and millions of people rather than just a select few.

    I’m a software engineer by trade and certainly the code I’ve been most proud of is the stuff that’s gone into KDE and the Linux kernel so is used by millions. It hasn’t been my smartest or best code but it’s in use by more people.

    Thoughts?

  • steve

    Mike/Greg,

    I’ve made the point before, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate it – my main reason for ‘making music for myself’ and suggesting that other musicians do the same is that ultimately it’s the most trustworthy way to make the ‘best’ music we can.

    The music I hear that is written very specifically for a market definitely trends in the direction of being formulaic, often transparently cliched, lacking in substance. (just look at what happens to almost every cool band who suddenly find themselves playing stadiums and start writing mid-tempo anthemic sing-alongs because the eclectic range of their earlier material no longer works in that environment – see U2, Coldplay, RHCP, Green Day etc…) It’s also not a particularly successful formula, given the range of musical people trying it and those who end up making any money at it.

    So working on the principle of a ‘worst case scenario’, if I make a record for me, I can assume that – unless I spend my life dancing around to the sound of the fridge door opening and closing – that there will be other people out there with similar taste to me. Hopefully, I’ll then be able to tell the story of the music in a more honest way, ‘represent it’ as enthusiastically as you’d expect someone making the music they love to do, and then do everything I can to make that available.

    *If* that doesn’t work, I’m stuck with 1000 CDs that I LOVE, that I’m proud of, and will give away, donate and continue to promote because I love it, not because it’s my job.

    If, on the other hand, I write music to be famous, to play stadiums, to do big tours, blah blah blah, I have a) bought into the myth that that will make me happier (Mike, there’s definitely a part of all this that is me shouting at fame-hungry musicians – “give it up, you’ll get there and probably hate it!!” – as my genius friend Kennan Shaw once said, “first prize is 10 years on a bus”) – but if THAT fails, which for ALMOST ALL BANDS , it will, you’re stuck with an album even you don’t believe in (after all, you belief in it was predicated on it being a success; no success=no belief), and are also trapped in a deal built around you spending money based on the likelihood of fame… lose-lose.

    Success, and recognition for what you do, are no bad things at all. I wouldn’t mind selling 100,000 albums. (In fact, I’d rather sell 100,000 than a million…), but it’s not a motivation that will lead me to make great music.

    Fame is the DOWNSIDE to success. Using me as an example, I already have all the recognition I need to motivate me to keep going when I have moments of self-doubt. I have praise/accolades from many of my musical heroes, from people whose opinions I value greatly. That’s enough.

    As I’ve said, once record deals are reinvented to serve the purpose of connecting musicians with an audience, I’m in. I’m happy to share profits with people who are helping to get the word out. Skills and work deserve to be compensated. I don’t think that musicians are charity cases who should get everything for free – far from it.

    What I object to are the insane, near-criminal terms of most record contracts, and the utter heinous bull-shit myths about fame. You’re climbing to the top of a pile of shit and find that all there is at the top is another shitty slope down the far side.

    To be motivated to produce art by the quest for ‘fame’ is a piss-poor reason, and I’m not about to write advice for people who are desperate for it, beyond ‘give it up’.

    As the great and wise Tom Sine once said, ‘Why Settle For More And Miss The Best?’

  • John Goldsby

    re: Greg & Mike: My comments are coming from a jazz musician’s point of view.

    There is a large conceptual gulf between pop musicians who are looking to get over in a big way, find the lowest common denominator to reach the biggest group of listeners, and musicians who are just satisfied making a decent living, being heard and supported by a discerning yet loyal fan base. I am not saying one path is better than the other, but they are different paths.

    I think the days of the mega-super-pop-star are coming to an end (what do I care if someone supported by Sony/Warner/EMI is at the top of the MTV charts if I never ever watch MTV?). But — the future for musicians who play well, compose well and like to connect with listeners who really want to listen to their music are rosy indeed.

    The new opportunities arising in the last few years encourage musicians to be the best they can be. Of course there have always been players who did it themselves—Charles Mingus, Marian McPartland, Peter Ind and others had their own record labels back in the ’50s and ’60s. But, musicians back then could not compete with the distribution that the majors had—until recently. The playing field is getting very level, very fast.

    One more pop/jazz comparison: Most pop musicians I know who struggle for five or ten years and do not break through and get a “deal” with a big label (see Steve’s original post) tend to give up. The jazz players just keep practicing and working gigs, the attitude being: just focus on the music and everything will fall into place.

    I am referring to jazz players because that is what I know, but I think my attitude is shared by many working musicians in various musical genres.

    And there is always the opportunity to be heard by millions . . . I play on a lot of recordings for others, movie soundtracks and the like, but to paraphrase Mike: It hasn’t been my smartest or best playing but it’s been heard by more people.

    @Greg: What is the audience for? The audience is important, but there is a point where the audience is on their own—I can’t make them like what I am playing.

    My goal is to be a good musician first—so I can honestly listen to myself and like it—and then I assume that some of the people listening will also dig it. I am extremely conscientious about my music and my playing, so if someone in the audience doesn’t like it (which is inevitable)—then it doesn’t matter to me. I play for myself, and for the people who like what I am doing.

    I think most people who really enjoy music can hear if a musician believes in what they are playing.