Opportunities and Challenges for Artists in the New Music Business
So how do artists distinguish themselves from the heard and rise above the noise?
New technologies have wrought revolutionary changes in the music business for all its players including labels, publishers, songwriters and artists. This note focuses on the new challenges and opportunities presented to artists.
The inspiration for my book, the Future of the Music Business (Hal Leonard 2008) was a visit to Pitman NJ. In 1995 I was still a lawyer in the business affairs Department at Sony Music. A senior attorney organized a tour of the Pitman plant, one of Sony's several CD factories. The factory was as big as a football stadium. Once inside they to the mezzanine. We looked down to see dozens of workers in white suits with clear plastic masks and white surgical gloves. They looked like astronauts and were tending to machines spewing out millions of shiny discs bearing the names of our successful artists of the day such as Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Pearl Jam, Celine Dion and others.
Outside were huge trucks waiting to take all those shiny discs to warehouses for delivery to music stores throughout the Northeast. A few years later an artist could use the internet to reach not only an audience in the Northeast but throughout the world. And they no longer needed that factory, the trucks and the warehouses or the music stores or all the people who worked at the factory, drove the trucks or handled the discs at the warehouse or sold the CDs to the stores. That is the magic of the internet. It makes it possible to reach a worldwide audience without any record label at all let alone a major.
In addition, digital technologies made it possible to record a commercially acceptable album for a fraction of the cost that it took in the old days. Now an artist can use a software program to simulate an orchestra, and multi-track an album on their laptop. Which is probably why Sony sold their studio on 54th street and they are selling condos there instead of recording records. And the legendary Sire recording studio, which was down the block, has been turned into a condo as well. Not good for the recording studios but great for indie artists.
Artists have taken full advantage of the new technologies. There is more music than ever before. In fact, there are an estimated 8 million artists on MySpace. And that's the challenge. As Harry Allen a/k/a the "media assassin," who recently interviewed me for his radio show, said "anyone can be on the Internet, and now anyone is on the Internet." At the recent New Music Seminar Tommy Silverman sited some interesting statistics from SoundScan: There were 106,000 albums released in the United States alone in digital or physical form. Of those only 10,000 sold more than 1,000 units and only 1,000 albums sold more than 10,000 units. This does not include sales at gigs but it gives you a good idea of how tough it is to succeed.
So how do artists distinguish themselves from the heard and rise above the noise?
As a practicing music attorney, and as host of a radio show (Future of the Music Business at www.myrealbroadcast.com) who has interviewed artists such as Moby, entrepreneurs such as Terry McBride of Netwerkk Music, and music journalists such as Greg Kott author of "Ripped," (all of these interviews are available on demand) I have developed a few ideas.
The paradox for artists in the digital age is that the web provides a worldwide audience for their music, but if it's not great, few will listen and practically no one will buy. Mo matter how many web stores carry their music, they can't get far unless their music is brilliant, or at the very least they look fabulous. But if you are a great musician or look fabulous, the Internet can serve as the milk for your music to rise to the top.
Woody Allen said ninety percent of life is just showing up. So get yourself in front of a live audience. Living Colour performed at CBGB and Mick Jagger happened to be in the audience. Aided by a demo that he produced Jagger presented the band to Epic Records who signed them. There they had a great career including recording the "Cult of Personality" which won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. Although no longer on Sony, they all have had success after the band disbanded and are now doing tour with a new record released by an indie. My friend Dan Beck, who was a senior VP at Sony, discovered Cyndie Lauper at a club in New Jersey. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records discovered Ray Charles at a club. There are countless other examples.
In the old days the record company would take 85% or more of receipts from selling records and even more with the deductions such as packaging (25%) and "net sales." Now you can sign up with paypal and keep more than 98%. All you need is a merchant account and some code to attach to your website, and wham you're a record company with international distribution! CD Baby or Tunecore can help you with downloads for a modest fee.
Try a New Business Model
Jill Sobule set up a website to raise $75,000 for her record. She asked fans to contribute for various rewards starting at $10 for a free digital download of the album, when it's released. To $25 for an advance copy of the CD. Weeks before the masses. For $500 at the end of my CD, "I'll do a fun instrumental track where I'll mention your name and maybe rhyme with it. And for $10,000 ("Weapons-Grade Plutonium" donation): "You get to come and sing on my CD. Don't worry if you can't sing - we can fix that on our end. Also, you can always play the cowbell." She got $88,000 in two months. That's the power of the Internet! This model was actually created by Artistshare.com. Take a look and reach out to them or do it yourself!
I could go on for pages, but you get the idea. Now that you can do it for yourself, just do it! Besides, now that majors are faltering, you may have no other choice.
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