But Rabbit Rabbit Radio is just the entrance to this rabbit hole. Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt are partners in music and life, with decades of collective experience playing for some of the most interesting and inventive indie bands on the scene. They are supporting themselves and their growing family through music, which necessitates a wide variety of money-making strategies and an entrepreneurial attitude.
I spoke with them recently about the challenges and opportunities created by the rapidly changing business of music. Independent musicians would be wise to pay attention. Instead of bemoaning the changes brought on by the digital age, Matthias and Carla are pioneering the new music career as real-deal, working-class musicians. Or, as Carla puts it: “At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.”
By adapting their lifestyle and business model to best serve their dedicated fan base, Rabbit Rabbit is an inspiring example of triumphant musician-entrepreneurship.
Can you tell me a little about your musical background, and how Rabbit Rabbit Radio came about?
Matthias: I played in a lot of bands. Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots, made a lot of records with people like John Vanderslice, St. Vincent, Tiger Lillies, Pretty Lights. I played music with my wife Carla — she’s a great violinist — in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and The Book of Knots. We had a kid, we have a second kid on the way. We decided since we’re not touring as much, why not start this thing that keeps us in touch with our fans. Especially because we’re basically removing ourselves from society and moving to the far reaches of Massachusetts.
Carla: I too have played in a lot of different projects with a lot of different people and had a pretty super-fun and very hydra-headed, multifaceted musical life including Tin Hat, The Book of Knots, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and with our friend and compatriot and hero Fred Frith — various recordings and projects of his. Lots of classical music and contemporary classical music. We’re kind of musical omnivores in that way.
I used to tour ten months out of the year with various projects. That clearly is not the best way to raise a kid, unless you’re a millionaire and can bring your school and your nanny along with you. So that’s in part why we’ve done Rabbit Rabbit Radio. It’s been super-fun and challenging, and we totally made it up as we went along. We kind of pieced together our livelihood via various things. Rabbit Rabbit Radio at this point is a tiny fraction of our actual living. Basically, it makes enough money to pay for itself. Which is great — we wanted to get there in the first year and we did. I also teach at New England Conservatory part-time, and I do a lot of commissions. Matthias writes a lot of music for various things.
M: We do radio documentaries, I do video game music. We definitely make it up. Our goal is that Rabbit Rabbit Radio should be a bigger part of the monthly income stream. It’ll never be passive income given how many man- and woman-hours go into it every month. We have to generate the content freshly every month. We’re just chugging away. There’s a steady but slow climb up. Certainly the Times article, this summer’s tour and the publicity surrounding that really helped get the word out.
You’re clearly doing everything you can to make money from music, and that means doing a lot of different things. Musicians often have this attitude of “if I make great music, I’ll get signed and that will be that”, which is definitely not the case. What advice would you give musicians who want to follow your model?
M: In the Times article, there’s that quote from John Schaefer of WNYC where he said, “If Radiohead did this, it’d be huge. They’re already millionaires, they’d be gajillionaires.” We had the benefit of touring a bunch in a total grassroots style, earning one fan at a time.
C: We had an interview yesterday with someone who had read the Times article, I think she works for YouTube. The reason she wanted to interview us is because they want to do something similar, and kind of steal the idea. (laughs) It’s an idea worth stealing and we’re not protective of it, because it’s an idea a lot of people have been thinking about. We just decided to pool our resources and really make it happen, build it from the ground up. It is complicated and hard.
I think there’s a few things that made it work for us. One is that we signed on two team members, one of whom I’d already been working with: composer and arts administrator George Hurd. He helped us do all the research for the behind-the-scenes stuff that no one ever sees, like the companies that take the payment information. There’s all kinds of things like that which you’re never aware of as a subscriber. His partner is a wonderful graphic designer who we’ve already worked with a lot. She designed the site. So basically, the team is the four of us.
We have a few other things working in our favor. We crafted it to suit our very specific set of interests, and not every musician’s interests would be the same as ours. For example, I’ve always loved the written word, photography and visual art. I totally dove into learning how to do video editing. I really love that part of the site that’s not just the music. Not all musicians want to spend all that time on the stuff that’s not music. I really enjoy that part of it — putting music into a bigger context.
We’ve been touring collectively for some decades already, in very self-made, grassroots operations. [The YouTube interviewer] was asking questions like, “How do you get fans?”
M: There’s no “get fans” button. (laughs)
C: There’s no Facebook button that says, “Get totally devoted fan here.” You get fans by touring 20 years in various high-level, really committed, interesting, engaging projects and devoting your life to that — stepping off stage, talking to people afterwards, interacting with people at the merch booth… years and years and years of a whole life around being committed to creative music. Our fans are not the people who just care about the Billboard charts are saying. They care about deeper content and richer musical experiences.
M: It works for someone who has done this. If you’ve had a band that’s done well, like a reasonably successful indie rock band that has some fans, it can work. If this model came out as a more codified platform, a lot of bands would get lost in the fray. You need to be out there playing and meeting your fans for it to work.
C: The important thing about it has been the whole idea of context. Music has always lived in a context, in a community, with a community of players and a community of fans and listeners. We moved out of a really rich, really varied music community (New York City) to a place fairly far removed. And digital music, for the most part, people find the track they want and download the track. It has no context at all the way that LPs did, for example, where you’d have liner notes, photographs, imagery that went with the songs, lyrics… various things that gave you more of an idea of what the whole project was about. Our intention is to bring context back in a digital format — to bring an analog context to a digital format.
M: Our personalities are suited to a more magazine-style release every month because Carla’s a great photographer, because we like writing, because there are things other than the song. I think you have to have had some exposure out on the road touring. You also need an interest in other things that will buoy up the content of your song every month to make it interesting.
C: I don’t think having all these different facets is a prerequisite for making it work, I just think it suits what our interest is and what we enjoy.
M: But because of that, I think it makes it an interesting thing that could grow to accommodate more people — because there are five subheadings within the monthly issue. It feels like a template for someone else, it could really work as opposed to a single WordPress page with a little embedded play button and a single sentence.
One thing that stands out about your approach is that you’re thinking about your music like entrepreneurs. I think that’s really lacking in musician culture. Many musicians think, “I’ll focus on my songwriting, my performance, my recording” but they can’t make a music career happen because they’re not running their band like a small business.
C: Yeah, the world has really shifted in terms of what skill set you need to be not just a musician, but an actual, viable musician. This is for better and for worse. Nowadays you have to have some sense of what goes into graphic design, you have to understand how fundraising works. You have to understand how PR works and how to gather and keep your fans and your people resources. You have to be a travel agent.
And it means you have less time for music, it really does. I wish I could say it didn’t. I wish I could say that I can actually muster some hours every day to simply work on some music. It’s not true. A huge amount of the time I spend on music is spent on the business of music.
Everyone started complaining twelve years ago, bemoaning that the record industry is dying. The fact is most parts of the record industry didn’t serve the independent musician that well anyway. I have a lot of stories under my belt of little bands like Tin Hat that get picked up by the big label — “Woohoo! Success on the horizon!” And then the guy who brought us onto the label, who’s passionate about our music, who worked for that big label for 25 years gets canned at Christmas because his label got bought by Warner Bros. So when the record comes out, no one’s there to care.
It’s kind of a fallacy that now we’re in the end of times because the record industry’s dying. It’s like now, what are we gonna do about it? At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.
Do you think you can grow Rabbit Rabbit Radio to the point where you can bring other people in to manage the business aspects, freeing you up to dedicate more time to making music?
C: I hope so. I have to say, I love doing the film every month, even if some months it comes together totally last-minute. We created our own little gerbil wheel, and I’d love to get to the point where we’re a month ahead, which isn’t quite where we’re at now. For sure, we could use another team member.
M: It’s been a rough few months. We’ve made our deadline, but it’s been a scramble. We just had a really busy summer of touring, and writing other music for other things. We’ve done it, but it would be helpful to have another pair of brains.
C: There’s a lot that needs to be done. George Hurd, our co-manager of the site, wears fifteen different hats for what he does in Rabbit Rabbit Radio. We pay him a nominal monthly fee plus a percentage, so he has a vested interest in helping it grow. I have to give credit that we haven’t given yet to our unofficial fifth member, and that is a friend of ours named Jon Evans. He has a studio that we work in a lot here on Cape Cod. He’s got a beautiful studio. He’s a musician, producer and engineer. We do a lot of our recording with him. Every once and a while we also work with our friend Joel Hamilton from The Book of Knots, who runs Studio G in Brooklyn. He’s further afield, so sometimes we send him mixes and he mixes them. But we actually do a lot of very hands-on recording work. That’s why the quality of the recordings is so high. Sometimes we do stuff at home in our living room, but often we get to work with Jon and that’s been a huge help. it’s really helped us keep the baseline quality of the recordings really special, so it doesn’t seem like we’re just throwing something together every month on our little SM-58 in the living room. But I love doing that too.
How do you plan on growing the fan base? How do you plan on marketing Rabbit Rabbit Radio?
C: All sorts of ways. It’s good old-fashioned touring every now and again. It’s reaching out when you have a show in a specific city to the two or twenty people that you know would love to know about it and will tell their friends. It’s keeping occasional photos and posts on Twitter and whatnot. It’s inviting special guests to be a part of the issue on some months and then asking them to spread it to their fans. We are literally trying every possible way.
If we had another team member, we could probably be a whole lot more cohesive on how we approach that. That’s what another team member would be partly responsible for, helping us strategize that. Right now we’re so close to it, and so up close with our own deadlines, it’s hard for us to think further ahead than month-to-month.
Musicians are constantly debating whether the changes in music brought about by digital technology are good or bad. It seems very polarized. On the negative side, people complain that quality is suffering, that freer access to music exploits musicians. On the positive side, folks point out there is more music being made and heard than ever before, and more opportunities for independent musicians to make money without being exploited. What are your thoughts on the digital music debate?
M: I think it’s great that more people are making music. I think it’s great that people are getting a shot. There’s always going to be crappy music. I feel like everyone deserves a shot. We’ve lived on both sides of the issue. I think this is a far more rewarding way to own your output completely.
C: I think in terms of quality there’s always been great music and shitty music. There’s been a lot of high-budget shitty music, and there’s been a lot of really wonderful low-budget living room music. So I don’t really see that the financial continuum always reflects the quality continuum. I think it can. I just finished a recording session in New York for four days with Ben Goldberg from Tin Hat, and he pulled together a budget to record at one of the great studios. It would have been a sacrifice for that project if we had to do it in a living room. It’s a nine-person band. So there are some projects that really do need a support budget behind it.
The project that Rabbit Rabbit Radio is based around is just the two of us, and sometimes our friend Jon — so it’s very malleable. We can do recordings with just the two of us in the living room if we need to. We can also go work with Jon or work with Joel and augment it, make the recording production bigger. Either way, we are in charge of our own production quality control. And either way, we would do everything we can to make it as great a musical experience as possible.
How has the transition to family life affected your music career?
C: That transition forces all kinds of new ways of thinking. (laughs) The funny thing is, I don’t like touring on that incessant level the way I used to. I used to really like it. There’s something hormonal that changes in you where what’s not good for your kid isn’t good for you anymore.
That said, we know people like Nils from Sleepytime and his partner Dawn have a duo together called Faun Fables. They have two kids and a third on the way. They’re touring as much as they ever did. They load into a van with a “manny” and they just hit the road. They’re making it work. And I think the kids are enjoying it and getting a different kind of worldly education. Our daughter had been to Europe five times before she was two. She’s a relatively well-traveled kid, and that has also been a part of her growing up, in a cool way. I think every family has to find where that line is for them, and for us it was a little closer to the less touring side.
M: We’ve started to get selective. There are certain projects that can go out for a third of the time now, and make three times as much money. It used to be Sleepytime had to go out for six weeks. We’d start breaking even at four weeks. The last two weeks were the profit. Because of how many people were in the band, we had to go out for these long periods. That’s exhausting. We’ve gotten a little smarter in that regard. We’ve worked long enough that certain bands can go out for less time and still make the same or more money.
C: I always wrote music at the service of touring — writing it and going to rehearsal because our band’s going on the road. I’d always been in the service of that model. Now, I’m really enjoying a deeper, more involved identity as a composer that needs more home time and needs a little more solitude. It’s also that I’m ready for that now because I’m not just answering to me, I’m answering to the family and our daughter.
I always go on tour with three books and a whole bunch of manuscript paper, and my headphones, and my this and my that, with five projects I’m hoping to get done. I never touch any of it. Especially not now when we’re sensitive to the fact that our daughter really doesn’t like it when we disappear every night to go out on stage for a while. So during the day I try to give her as much as I can, so there’s no day time. When the day is done and you’re off stage, you’re too wiped out. I always go with my total unrealistic optimism and it never pans out, so I’m actually enjoying the kind of productivity we’ve been able to have at home. The whole gerbil wheel has been great because it keeps us in line creatively.
“We are Ben Folds Five… When we started in Chapel Hill, NC in 1994 it was the heyday of grunge music. It was all guitars and no harmonies. Many said we didn’t know what we were doing. They were right. And in 2012, we still don’t. But we’re not alone now. Because in 2012, nobody knows what they’re doing. Except for Steve Jobs and Amanda Palmer.”
Besides being incredibly funny to anyone who follows musician crowdfunding, it’s also illuminating. Crowdfunding for musicians — particularly those who have had success releasing albums in the “traditional” way — is often thought of as an “experiment”.
But what’s really more experimental: taking a loan from a record label where 9 out of 10 artists fail to turn a profit, or asking 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 of your biggest fans to finance the record with hardly any risk?
Crowdfunding is no longer an experiment. It’s a proven formula. We’re still figuring out some of the details, but the theory is correct: fans want to support artists directly in exchange for exclusive access to the band and their creative output. If anything, it’s this musician perception of crowdfunding as “experiment” that’s slowing adoption — the fans are screaming at the top of their lungs asking for it like a back catalog request at a live show.
Musicians: the future is bright and under your control. Put on your shades and deal with it.
Of course, musicians themselves aren’t solely responsible for failing to adapt. The market itself has been slow to respond to the specific needs that surround crowdfunding an album.
There are relatively few companies that understand crowdfunding is going to be the dominant way albums will be made in the future. Certainly, you have the meteoric rise of Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but they have broader missions to change the dynamic of funding creativity in general.
There are only two companies right now that are seriously and directly competing for album-specific crowdfunding. They are Sellaband and Pledge Music. It’s unfortunate that their potential is to some degree being drowned out by the juggernauts of crowdfunding (Kickstarter and Indiegogo) because what musicians truly need is a crowdfunding platform created just for them.
There certainly aren’t only two companies competing for a share of the direct-to-fan artist revenue stream. Topspin, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Reverbnation, Bandzoogle… the list goes on. The definition of “crowdfunding” could be made broad enough to include them. Here, I’m talking specifically about platforms that actually have people on staff to work with artists and their managers to produce album-specific financing campaigns.
I’m going to focus on Pledge Music because they share many basic features with Sellaband, but also have several major differentiators that I consider genius. Sellaband is the more established of the two platforms and I’m not trying to diss them, I’m just really excited about the potential behind Pledge Music’s particular approach.
Pledge Music is a managed music crowdfunding and retail marketing platform. The “managed” part? Pledge Music staff will actually set up and run your crowdfunding campaign, so it’s “white glove” service for musicians and their managers. They’re experts that will consult with your management and coordinate all efforts to minimize risk and ensure your fans are engaged and get exactly what they pay for. They’ve run the “experiment” of album crowdfunding enough to have established solid best practices for success, and have built the tools to facilitate that success.
You’ll pay a standard and reasonable 15% cut that includes all payment processing fees. With respect to its crowdfunding component, it’s analogous to what you know and love about Kickstarter or Indiegogo except for a few truly genius moves:
Crowdfunding campaigns don’t end until the album is funded.
The dollar (or euro) amount being raised is hidden from public. They only see what percentage of the album is funded so far.
99% of musicians on the platform opt to give a small portion of the funds raised to the charity of their choice.
Musicians are encouraged to market to their fans through the platform with exclusive content as part of the value offering.
When the crowdfunding campaign ends, a pre-sale window begins.
That last move is critical. When you think about it, there’s a blurry line between crowdfunding and a pre-sale. Most of the difference seems to be whether or not you have financing on the outset. So it makes perfect sense to start a pre-sale immediately after receiving financing. It’s one of those “why didin’t I think of that” strokes of genius that I see as the beating heart of Pledge Music’s common sense approach.
That’s because Rogers has research showing 37% of the money raised by Pledge Music album campaigns comes in after the crowdfunding period ended. Ouch. That could have gone a long way.
See, on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you build tons of buzz in the closing moments of your campaign to push toward and beyond your goal. Our goal was $3,666, which we hit about ten days before our campaign ended. We were able to push another $700 past that by pulling out all the promotional stops.
A few weeks later, we put the album up for pre-sale. We figured we wouldn’t get much interest because most of the fans that wanted it already got it through Kickstarter. But every day our inbox would pop up with new Bandcamp messages saying someone had pre-ordered the album. We saw the names and realized these weren’t old fans, these were new fans we’d attracted while doing all the crowdfunding promotion.
The secret to Kickstarter and Indiegogo is that they capitalize on one simple fact: true fans want more. They want the full brunt of your creative force. That’s why they’re patronizing your work. They want your creativity maximized, they want to have a hand in exposing others to what they love about your work. They don’t just want your music, they want your original lyric sheets, the shirt you wore on tour, and the bucket you puked in when you got off stage. Exclusivity is the new scarcity now that access to music is ubiquitous.
The average fan on Kickstarter contributed $39 to our campaign, as opposed to $5 for our pay-what-you-want pre-order on Bandcamp. If we turn out to have at least 42 people pre-order our album, as we’re on track to do, that actually works out to $1,661 we theoretically left on the table, because those people would have potentially purchased a reward package at a higher dollar amount had they taken part in the crowdfunding campaign.
There’s another, less obvious but very important reason to go with Pledge Music, and this applies to both small acts like mine, and the more widely known acts that seem to be Pledge’s bread and butter. It has to do with a very smart decision they made: The amount of money you’re trying to raise is never displayed in dollar amount. Users see what percentage of the goal was reached so far.
There’s this sort of inherent fear in setting your Kickstarter goal because the penalty of not reaching it is total failure. Since you also have to be 100% transparent on the amount, you’re compelled to set as low a number as you can get away with so your fan’s don’t think you’re overreaching. For example, we set our goal lower than we wanted to be safe and ended up unable to afford to hire a PR agent as we had originally planned. And there were still cost overruns in many of the rewards, some of which we’d planned for, some of which we hadn’t. On a larger scale this could have been disaster and is a fairly common complaint with Kickstarter. (Indiegogo is even more prone to this, because it rewards projects that fail to reach their goal, but takes a higher cut.)
Not only does Pledge Music have the expertise to help you avoid these problems, but their attitude is much more conducive to success: “Set the budget you need to do what you need to do, and you will get there eventually, just keep at it”. On Pledge, our band would have set our original budgeted goal of $6,000. We cut it down to $3,666 because that was our educated guess on how much we could realistically raise in 60 days, and we weren’t too far off. But it felt like the final round in the Price is Right.
Would it have taken longer than 60 days? Yes. Was there something about the deadline and the consequences that drove us and our fans to reach our goal? Yes. Obviously, it’s a big reason Kickstarter chooses to take its approach.
But here’s what it really boils down to: Behind every successful album on any platform — be it digital crowdfunding or just selling CDs out of the back of a car — is a successful manager. Kickstarter works because its platform that has features that enable the average artist to self-manage, whereas Pledge Music is built more as a tool that their campaign managers, along with the artist’s management, can use to engage the fans of the artist they represent.
You can read the case study on how our crowdfunding campaign succeeded, but basically, it was proper management and passionate promotion. I’m sure Pledge Music’s campaign managers can corroborate the amount of time and effort it takes to keep fans engaged is not to be underestimated. If I were scaling the crowdfunding campaign into five or six figures like most artists on Pledge Music, outsourcing management would quickly become mandatory.
The big lesson we’ve learned from watching projects fail on Kickstarter is that over-promising and under-delivering is a major risk. I’m reminded of many stories of indie bands that unexpectedly sold out of records or CDs and didn’t have the liquidity or production resources to keep the supply of recordings moving to fans. This is just a 21st century version of that problem.
So how to we convince musicians to embrace crowdfunding as the status quo for making albums? Education is a big part of it. With this blog and my online course, I’ve been doing everything I can to spread the word.
Ultimately, musicians will have to run the “experiment” themselves to see that it’s the most equitable financing solution for both musician and fan, potentially more lucrative than any record real if managed correctly, and much more rewarding from a basic human and artistic standpoint.
It will take companies like Pledge Music to convince musicians and their managers that crowdfunding is where music is headed. They’re going to need to better differentiate themselves from the Kickstarters and Indiegogos that dominate the market, while offering a user experience that is engaging for both fans and musicians. These are the areas that Pledge Music is weakest in. It’s not really standing out from the crowd in a marketing sense, and much of that has to do with a user experience that fails to be as innovating as the ideas behind it. Competing with Kickstarter is no small task, but I think Pledge Music has the potential to carve its own lucrative niche in the direct-to-fan artist revenue stream with the right leadership.
There were a few strategy/marketing moves that really worked, and a few unexpected but important issues that arose during the process. I’d like to share them here with my fellow musicians.
This isn’t about how to make a great video or a great campaign — I’m assuming your campaign is already totally awesome and your album rules. I’m here to give you the war stories so you don’t repeat the same mistakes and make real money with these Kickstarter best practices for crowd funding an album.
Kickstarter is the most established, fully-featured and polished of all the platforms. The only reason to consider Indiegogo is because unlike Kickstarter, you keep whatever money you raise even if you don’t reach your goal. You will pay a 9% fee instead of a 5% fee for this honor. When we weren’t 100% confident in our goal, we lowered it until we were. Indiegogo is perfectly fine (and charges the same 5% fee if you reach your goal), but we went with the established player. Remember, many of your backers will be funding their first project and will have to sign up with Kickstarter, so it pays to go with a trusted name.
Why We Set 60 Days to Achieve our Goal Instead of 30 as Kickstarter Recommends
I’m not going to dispute Kickstarter’s assertion that 30 days is the optimum length of a campaign — I’m sure their statistics clearly show it. But for us, 60 days was the right length. I think that for bands just getting their footing with marketing and sales, it’s better to have a longer window to utilize — think of it as a challenge to keep your audience’s engagement for a continuous two months. It’s hard to do, you will make mistakes, there will be lulls… but it’s a fantastic learning experience. If you’re not in any particular rush, more time will allow you to draw in more people from outside your fan base.
Delays to Watch Out for at the Beginning
Don’t expect to have your campaign up and running the day you decide to launch it… or, for that matter, anytime that week. Unless you’ve done a campaign before, you’re going to wait 2-ish weeks for Amazon Payments and your bank to work things out to where you can accept payments. You’ll need to provide tax info — oh yeah, you’re getting taxed on this income. You really ought to have an LLC and a business checking account, but you can squeak through DBA yourself with your personal account.
You may also be delayed if any of your campaign rewards (or any other piece of data) triggers Kickstarter’s moderators to flag your submission for violating the terms of service. That’s not limited to penises in the promo video and human blood as a $100 incentive. Our campaign was stalled because our top backer package offered free admission for life to any of our band’s gigs. Apparently, lifetime rewards are not allowed. There are dozens of “small print” rules like this. For us, it was an easy fix, but it’s important to be aware your launch can be delayed a couple days if it’s not up to spec.
Remember Shipping, Taxes, Fees and Declines when Budgeting
Setting your goal is all about figuring out how much money you are 100% confident you can raise, and then creating a budget to produce the album that matches that amount. When you do this, don’t neglect to factor in additional expenses that will have a significant impact on the money that’s left over to produce the record.
Shipping– Shipping gets expensive quickly and is highly variable based on where the recipients live. You’ve really got to budget for shipping, and for that you have to guess how many of each package you’re likely to ship. Take your guesstimated total and round it up to be safe.
Taxes – If your band has an LLC or a partnership, your company will be liable for the taxes. Otherwise, the person who handles the money will be on the hook. Like shipping, taxes are difficult for the average citizen to estimate, but you should be building in some room for cost overruns in your budget, and setting aside some money for taxes alongside.
Fees – Kickstarter will take 5% of total funds raised, and Amazon will take ~3% for processing the payments (less or more depending on how much you raised). This quickly adds up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fees — you will wish you worked at Kickstarter when you see what they take out. Factor the fees into the budget!
Declines – Backers’ cards are charged when the campaign ends. Depending on how broke your fans are, you may get a number of declined credit cards. Kickstarter tries to get the cash by sending alerts to the backer every day for seven days after the campaign. Then they give up, and the money is gone. Everyone’s going to have one or two declines, but some may have more. You’ve got a real problem when someone backs you to the tune of hundreds or thousands, and then their card declines, but there’s nothing you can do about that except try to build a relationship with that backer outside Kickstarter before the campaign ends (which is a good idea anyway).
In our case, all of the above added up to roughly 1/4 of our total production budget, so pay very close attention to fees and charges that may not be apparent at the outset.
By the way, we were worried about how long it would take to get paid after the campaign ended because we saw some people saying it took them up to two weeks. It took two business days for the cash to hit the Amazon account, and another day to transfer to our bank account.
A great video, a bunch of great packages, a great album… these are all… great. But they are nothing without the hustle.
Put briefly, we made a list of around 300 people we thought would back us at some level. We also had our 600+ Facebook fans and 300+ Twitter fans as a captive audience, and we hit them up every day. But as the deadline grew closer, we ran our 300-person list like we were doing a fundraising run against terminal illnesses.
Preaching to the choir is not everything — you absolutely have to be drawing in people from outside your fan base. Around 30% of our backers were total strangers to us before the campaign. We constantly were meeting new people on Twitter and pitching the album, and that was good for a few hundred bucks. Ditto on reaching out to the Creative Commons folks, who gave us a spot on their curated Kickstarter page because we license all our music CC-BY-NC-SA.
So get out there, meet new people, and get them to back your dream.
Earlier this year I teamed up with John Snyder of the awesome Artists House non-profit to plan a curriculum that would engage and educate a new generation of musicians. Artists House has a massive video library — John brought to the table hundreds of hours of video footage featuring interviews with the top names in the music business.
I edited that massive mountain of content into 5.5 carefully curated hours, and with John’s wisdom (and 85 pages of written advice) to guide the production, we emerged with a course like no other.
Please head over to Udemy to preview the course — we’ve made one section available for free so you can get a glimpse of the top-shelf, real-world education we are offering here. There are no boring lectures that drone on, just solid tips from folks who have already proved they know how to make money from music.
I’d rather look at Google, the “do no evil” company and thorn in the side of the few corporations that control the majority of the US music industry.
Search terms can’t be gamed and framed the way U.S. Bureau of Labor data can… Google Trends searches are like Shakira’s hips, they don’t lie. Let’s take a look at some common terms associated with aspiring music professionals:
The search volume for music career, learn music, music business, songwriting and music sales are all noticeably down since about a decade ago. Seeing these and other terms on a downward trend paints a clear picture of a future with less professional musicians.
Who’s to blame? Depends on who pays your bills. If you’re an old school music business person, you probably blame the content-devaluing “information wants to be free” tech sector. If you’re a new school musician, you probably have a chip on your shoulder dug deep by the exploitative, self-destructing record business which is ineptly responsible for the scorched earth you have to Mad Max a music career on these days.
Before we seek blame or solutions, let’s pause for a moment to consider what this means. Back to Google Trends. What about search terms concerned with more modern, everyday music practices?
Search volume for how to remix, mashup, garageband, how to record and how to make music are on their way up. There are more “musicians”, but less of them qualify for the “professional” distinction. You might call it the “amateurization” of music. More musicians, less music careers.
This is fun, let’s take another look at the “old way” of doing things:
Yup, interest is flagging in music publishing, music job, artist management, music copyright and music law.
So there must be a huge explosion of amateur musicianship, huh?
Hmmm… less people seem to want to go the traditional route of learning guitar and song composition through formal experience in training. This would seem to jive with less musicians going pro. Also jives with all the time those damn kids play video games on their mobile phones. They probably have a much more direct relationship to music creators, right?
Wow, crowd funding is exploding in popularity — there are clearly less careers these days built on exploitation and more facilitated through patronage. And lots of people seem to be picking up the habits of aspiring music professionals (Facebook pages, merch, albums). Perhaps we’re just in a slump, and there’s a digital music baby boom waiting to happen?
Of ourse, the situation is not as simple as I paint it here with the Google Trends graphs. For one, Google search terms are very broad in both scope and depth. If Kickstarter had an IPO, that might spike traffic, despite no correlating spike in user activity. Second, statistics can tell almost any story you want them to if you know how to frame them.
I’m not here to spew propaganda. I’m here to form solutions. Can this trend be turned around? Should we even care?
On the one hand, I believe we need more of a culture of entrepreneurship among musicians. The art/business divide is increasingly one of unsustainable, apathetic detachment from reality. It’s a cultural anachronism from a time when creative work found its utility in exploitation. Put simply, we musicians could use a little entrepreneurship with our sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everyone is creative nowadays — in a sense, creativity is getting more competitive. Those with the entrepreneurial skills have more and more opportunities for exposure than those skilled only in composition, performance or recording.
On the other hand, the music industry is growing, and while huge challenges remain (largely around copyright issues), it doesn’t seem as if the music market is in a downward trend. In fact, more people are listening to more music than ever before.
I think what’s happening is clear — we’re witnessing the dawn of a new creative class and a new type of creator-consumer.
We should continue to strive to figure out ways the old guard won’t lose all the value they invested in the music world these past few decades. But royalties — so-called “mailbox money” — are like a musician Social Security system, and just as unsustainable. Old rights owners (or their heirs) who no longer create anything are bogeying the music economy pie, leaving only tiny slices left for emerging, independent artists. This is why Spotify royalties are so low. I bet they love artists and would love to pay them, after all, they’re Swedish.
The purpose of copyright is to promote the production of creative works — how is that accomplished by giving the George Gershwin Estate millions of dollars? It may be a radical concept, but I think we need to divert some of this money into funding programs for the next generation of musicians. And we clearly need shorter copyright terms.
In any case, let’s push toward patronage and leverage the creative value in all of us to protect the independent class of musicians that represent our future. We may very well live in a world with more musicians and less professionals for a long time. But that doesn’t mean music is any better or worse off. Music is always awesome no matter how much we screw up the business side.
Artist Growth is a web and mobile app designed to amplify the entrepreneurial spirit of musicians everywhere. What’s next after first signing up? It’s time to customize your green, spherical avatar with a mesh cap and a pair of headphones.
Perhaps realizing that music and business are like oil and water in the minds of many musicians, Artist Growth puts the “fun” in fundamental music business practices. From customizing your avatar to creating “action tasks” around gigs and other events, the platform seeks to drive independent musicians toward the business goals necessary to flourish as a modern musical enterprise.
I instantly fell in love with the gamified UI when I started by entering an upcoming gig. After entering contact info for the other members of the band, Artist Growth prompted me to add an “action pack” to the gig, which creates a checklist of promo suggestions to get maximum attendance. It even prompted me to set a tour itinerary upon gig creation, ensuring all members of my band know when load-in, load-out, (and most importantly) dinner is.
Other highlights include useful functions to track band finances, generate set lists and schedule other tasks and appearances. These could all be easily handled outside of the app, but their inclusion shows a commendable commitment to completeness on the part of Artist Growth.
While the business aids are a great mix of fun and functionality, the true asset Artist Growth has to offer is a partnership with The Indie Bible. The venerable directory of venues, press and media published for independent musicians is the backbone of the app’s “industry search” function. Splitting the U.S. up into regions, Artist Growth gives musicians the tools to comb through the nation’s music establishments and target them with promo and booking efforts.
Rounding out the checklists and directories is “AGtv”, the app’s built-in video content targeted to musician-entrepreneurs. It’s a surprisingly well-developed aspect of the Artist Growth approach, featuring “channels” of content from the leading voices in career advice for musicians. From TuneCore to Taylor Guitars to Ariel Hyatt, all the big players are represented.
I haven’t seen such a fully-integrated musician-entrepreneur app since Indie Band Manager established itself years ago as the utilitarian Swiss Army knife of self-managed musicians, allowing them to “rock both roles”.
Artist Growth is today’s über-accessible platform to draw in and develop a new generation of musician-run small businesses. The mobile and web apps are not without their kinks. However, they persevere with a slick UI and a respectable balance of functionality and ease-of-use, and I see immense promise in their pioneering platform.
The Artist Growth business model is interesting. The company is riding the wave of new apps relying on a monthly subscription fee ($5 per install) rather than a one-time download price. This makes total sense for a service designed to be ersatz manager to notoriously non-business-minded musicians. I wouldn’t be surprised if bands that dutifully complete the “action packs” see up to a hundred-fold return for their investment. Of course, there will be many suckers on the line as well, paying their monthly dues like a gym membership for a couch potato.
The web is full of lame career advice for musicians. It can be hard to cut through the noise and find any useful guidance. Do we really need another “10 tips for branding your band on social networks”? We know how to post to Facebook.
Most musicians have only a vague idea of how to make money from our music. We spend the day as graphic designers, contractors, teachers and telemarketers. We are professional in our craft, but our bank accounts have little to show for it.
We’re not in it for the money, we play music because we have to. We have to express ourselves and connect people together.
Yet most of us are in the dark when it comes to earning a career from our musical pursuits. Let’s be honest with ourselves. For decades we’ve been told to focus our energy on making great music and being in the right place at the right time to be “discovered”. Just be special, they said. If you build the hits, the fans will come.
No wonder ours is a generation full of failed and exploited professional musicians. No one ever taught us how to do business.
There are millions of people playing music across the world at this very moment. Hundreds of millions more are listening to music. And billions of dollars are being made.
The ones making the money are treating their music as a business.
It begins by realizing you’re not just a musician, you’re an entrepreneur managing a small business. It’s really uncool to say, but the consolation prize is getting to do what you love for the rest of your life.
This is where Artists House Music comes in. The Louisiana-based non-profit is spearheaded by Grammy-winning music and media polymath John Snyder. He states his purpose with great clarity:
“Our mission is to help musicians, artists, and arts entrepreneurs create sustainable careers… We are challenging the lingering view that there is something inherently distasteful about the co-joining of art and commerce.”
These walls are already coming down thanks to the ways the web enables direct fan patronage on crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter, but they’re coming down too slowly. We need organizations like Artists House Music to push musician entrepreneurship forward, to provide expert knowledge and wisdom as a public service. We need a culture of entrepreneurship in music, and it won’t happen without the kind of leadership groups like Artists House Music provide.
The organization fulfills its charter first and foremost by providing a very active Livestream channel full of music conferences, concerts and other events, which are archived along with tons of other great videos on their YouTube channel.
Any musician that happens across this encyclopedic treasure trove of industry wisdom is sure to click subscribe and suddenly lose hours or days within its archives. For example, just the other day I started by demystifying publishing and licensing and got re-introduced to how musicians earn money by selling rights to use their music. Then I got a second and third opinion. I’ll be going back for a fourth and fifth because every topic is covered in exhaustive detail. It’s easy to emerge with a comprehension of complicated music business basics before you even realize it.
Regrettably, I am not only writing this on occasion of the non-profit’s demonstrated utility to musicians at large. if you’ve been clicking through to the amazing links, you’ve probably noticed Artists House Music’s grant funding has run out. They need our support to continue to provide this invaluable content. I wouldn’t be doing my part if I didn’t urge you to drop some coin their bucket to keep the good work moving forward.
We are clearly moving toward a new business model for music. It’s more sustainable and equitable than ever before. Now anyone can start a band, record and release a hit album in their basement overnight. It’s happening more and more. There are more opportunities — and more competition — than ever before. You don’t just have to work harder, you have to work smarter. Often success is as simple as setting your mind to achieving it.
If you’re motivated to learn about the opportunities for you to make money playing music, start at Artists House Music.
I am witnessing a disturbing trend among musicians: they are mindlessly joining the major label chorus and stigmatizing their own fans as criminals for gaining free access to their music.
The trend won’t last that long. If you’re one of these fan-chastising musicians, you will your bread and butter will be toast faster than you can say “filesharing is stealing”.
The approach for most artists is considerably more velvet-gloved than the RIAA, but the message is the same. The graphic pictured at right is a perfect example of the condescending tone some musicians are taking these days. Not surprisingly, I’ve noticed most of these complainers are those who profited from the old recording regime. This includes not only musicians but also producers and engineers, whom have suffered quietly for the most part.
Look, we’re all upset that fans buy $5 cups of coffee daily yet balk at spending the same amount on five songs a month. But guess what? As a Facebook commenter points out, “you can’t download coffee”. It is a scarce commodity. Music is not. Music is everywhere. If musicians suddenly stopped making music today, there would still be more music than anyone could listen to for centuries. But of course that won’t happen, because music will go on whether fans are paying $1 per song or not. In fact, all evidence suggests music will become more frequent, more diverse and more interesting as its price approaches zero.
These are the people who want to support you. Why are you suggesting they are thieves? Why do you think they’re freeloaders who are too lazy to drop you a buck?
Your fans know that the recording business model is broken. They know that when they buy the single for $1.29, a healthy chunk goes to iTunes, and the rest goes to the record label that’s still recouping on your marketing budget.
Your fans know the system of compulsory licensing is broken. They know it concentrates wealth at the top of the industry and creates a tall barrier of entry to those seeking a career as a professional musician.
Your fans know digital distribution costs practically nothing, yet you have to fork over $50/year or 9% annually just to get it on iTunes so they can take their 35% cut.
You’re not giving your fans a way to compensate you fairly. You’re not letting them contribute directly to your projects and to see that contribution reflected back on them and your fan community. You’re not engaging them on a personal level, at a level where you can communicate your financial needs and they can respond. You’re not providing incentives. Albums aren’t incentives any more. They’re advertisements for the experience of being a fan.
But even if you don’t believe any of that, guess what? Deterrence never works. It is a losing battle. Read Pop Song Piracy and learn about the technological arms race the record business has been losing for over a century. It’s not gonna work. All you’re going to do is make your fans not want to access your music for free anymore. I guess that’s what you want, right?
Let’s get a few things straight:
• The cost of access to music to fans is approaching free. In many ways it already is. Accept this and move on because it won’t change. Music is a utility, and you’re selling energy. Electrify the audience and they will power your career. Don’t extort them for loving you.
• Sitting back and collecting “mailbox money” no longer cuts it for a music career. Writing one hit and paying your rent for twenty years is a thing of the past. You and your business team are no longer selling a product, you’re selling a service. It’s time to get creative and forge new revenue streams because the old ones aren’t coming back.
• Fans sharing your music are the opposite of enemies — they’re your brand advocates. They’re out there doing unpaid marketing work, spreading your music virally among peer groups faster than you can fill out your ASCAP paperwork. You should be thanking them and listening to their advice.
• Finally, stop whining and go work on your music. You look like Lars Ulrich.
Last night, veteran musician David Bazan, known for being the man behind the seminal indie/emo group Pedro the Lion, played for a few dozen people in someone’s living room in Lubbock, TX.
Bazan spent almost half the year playing exclusively for people in living rooms. It’s not like he had to — his music career is quite accomplished. Tickets for his November/December tour of real venues are going fast, in part because he’s embracing another recent trend of playing classic albums in their entirety — in this case, honoring the 10th anniversary of Pedro the Lion’s finest concept album, Control.
Bazan clearly is right at home in yours:
Certainly, not every musician has the kind of intimate, almost humble delivery that makes Bazan’s solo performances a perfect fit for living rooms across America. But he is actually part of a long tradition that dates back to the origins of much louder, more aggressive music than his — punk and indie rock in the 70s and 80s.
Most of today’s unsigned, independent bands that have toured the country with no booking agent and no management have played their share of living rooms. I know I have. But these living rooms are not often the kind of urbane, sitting-down affairs you see Bazan playing for 30-somethings. Rather, the hybrid living room/venue is rooted in “punk houses” where a bunch of high school and college-age music fans get together to hang out, party and host local and touring bands. I can honestly say from personal experience these house shows are some of the most fun and inspiring shows I’ve ever played. Our fans have crowdsurfed into ceiling fans more than once (pictured here). But the reason these shows are so memorable has just as much to do with the performance as it does with the camaraderie of being able to meet and entertain people in their homes.
The real convergence spurring the living room tour revival can be explained by a concept I often use describe the music economy in an era of free music. The record business is no longer about selling content, it’s about selling context.
What I mean by that is, we never really paid for music, we paid for access to it. Now that access is relatively free, we’re paying for the experience of listening to it in a particular context. Besides a heartfelt need to compensate the artist (a sentiment that record labels destroyed through exploitation), pretty much the only reason people pay for music anymore is to have the convenience of accessing it in whatever context they’d like. There are few technological hurdles left in making music freely available this way, but corporate interests in the content industry continue to do everything in their power to prevent us from moving forward culturally. These corporations aren’t protecting the welfare of artists, they’re protecting their own bottom line.
As far as context goes, you can’t beat a live performance. Remember, before the phonograph was invented just over 100 years ago, the entire music industry revolved around live performance. Playing a piece live was the only way to summon music for listening, whether it was a world-renowned opera singer in an ornate hall or a family gathered around the piano in — you guessed it — their living room. With the record, suddenly we could experience music in any context we wanted… provided we paid the price.
But music is going back to the living room, and it’s headed there from two different directions. From the bottom up, more listeners are becoming amateur musicians. When they venture out to perform, they enter a network of home venues ranging from punk squats to the kind of well-kept living rooms Bazan has toured so successfully. Bazan doesn’t come from the bottom up, but nor is it at all accurate to say his career took a dive, requiring him to play living rooms. Rather, Bazan and more professional musicians like him are evolving their touring strategy to embrace modern music listening and consumption habits. He’s essentially an early adopter of a new model for professional music tours, where the idea of crowd sourcing meets a post-recording music industry in which context is the new commodity.
The truth is there’s not a whole lot of difference between the crusty punk squats and their tidier counterparts, dwelled in by young professionals — except, that is, for the money involved. At $20 a head, Bazan is charging a fairly comparable amount to a cover charge at a real venue. But consider that there are no other costs to cover besides food, transportation and lodging (some of which the hosts even provide). The venue gets no cut. The fans don’t have to pay for drinks, and have more money to spend on merch. And Bazan is almost guaranteed to make a killing selling merch because his audiences have a much higher concentration of total fanatics. That he sells out the vast majority of his appearances is a testament to this (although admittedly living rooms fill up pretty quick).
Now, the back-of-the-napkin calculation I come up with is that they’re netting in the low four figures at a sold-out show. A show at a “real venue” might be more lucrative for Bazan, but by what degree? And as a musician, I can tell you there is a certain psychological value in playing for a room full of fanatics instead of the somewhat random lottery of attendees at a “real” venue, not to mention all the business baggage that comes with dealing with promoters.
Bazan has clearly made a decision that these living room shows are the shows he wants to play even if it means taking a slight pay cut. Real musicians make music to celebrate its true meaning and power to move us emotionally, physically and spiritually, and unite us socially. We don’t make music to make money. Most of us simply want a lifestyle in which we can make our music, connect with our fans, and have them support us modestly. As direct musician-to-fan connections become the currency of the music industry, don’t be surprised if more well-known musicians start showing up in your living room.
Do you think today’s living room tours are more of the same, or is there something more there?
Well, I’ve finally been dragged into the Pinterest milieu. Last week I posted my first “board”: Best Web Services for Bands and Musicians. I give the rundown on each of the web-based services I would recommend to musicians, and provide pricing info as well. Please check it out and comment if you’ve used any of these services.
Certainly, the list of worthwhile web services for bands has grown quite a bit. There are over 20 great services on my board, and more I’ve probably yet to discover or are about to launch.
So, which of these services should you enlist with? It depends on where you are in your musical career, but even professional musicians will find something that can boost their revenue. In terms of budget, there’s something for everyone — these services range from free with a standard 10-20% revenue share to flat subscription and submission fees. Ultimately, my advice is to take it one service at a time and build slowly and strategically, out from the core of a strong band website. As always, none of this will matter if your music is no good, so don’t squander your hard-earned money until you’re confident in your songwriting and production skills.
Band Website: It’s hard to beat Bandcamp for setting up a band website with your music, and allowing fans to buy it directly from you. Other honorable mentions include BandPage, Bandzoogle and CDBaby. CASH Music is an exciting new open-source band website project that should pique the interest of developers. For less development-inclined but somewhat tech-savvy website construction TopSpin is leading the industry with a suite of widgets for band websites and social pages that accomplish pretty much anything you’d want a band website to do, with a focus on generating revenue.
Band Marketing: There are a number of great marketing avenues for bands. MusicHype is a great way to identify and engage your top fans. FanBridge is an easy-to-use email and social marketing platform purpose-built for bands. These specialized tools are simple compared to ReverbNation, which basically does anything you could think of in terms of band marketing.
Band Booking: SonicBids has been around forever and is still very useful for the right band to land the right gig. Indaba Music is a newcomer that helps match bands with music industry opportunities, including shows.
Crowd Funding: Sellaband predates Kickstarter as a powerful fundraising platform for musicians primarily based in Europe looking to support large production and marketing efforts. Pledge Music is a fairly new crowd funding platform that deserves attention for being purpose-built for musicians.
Digital Distribution: There are a number of solutions here, and which is right for you depends on your projected sales. CDBaby.com is best for musicians who expect to sell a low volume over a long period of time, as their one-time fee of $50 for album setup and low 9% royalty rate. For those who want to target specific digital distributors, ONErpm features low submission fees and no annual recurring cost. Finally, if you expect to net at least $100 in revenue from album sales, you might want to check out TuneCore, which takes 0% of your revenue but charges a recurring $50 per year fee whether you’re selling or not.
Music Licensing / A&R: MusicXRay, SoundOut, Taxi.com and Pump Audio are great low-risk options to get your music licensed. Which one works best for you ultimately depends on the type of music you play, and your expectations for licensing fees and opportunities.
Music Lessons: Independent musicians teaching amateur musicians is a growing revenue stream, and Bandhappy helps connect teachers with students to make lessons happen across web video connections or even in person.
Thanks to the hundreds of readers who made yesterday the most-visited day for my blog yet! And a big thanks to QuestionCopyright.org for their kind words about the article everyone was reading. If you haven’t checked out their site, it’s great.
As you can imagine I’ve been getting a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. I’d like to respond to a F.A.Q. that boils down to something Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (thanks to Aaron Wolf for the quote).
In other words, if I’m a musician that acknowledges free or near-free music as an inevitability, and I’m watching my income depreciate thanks to this effect, what the hell am I supposed to do? Isn’t it impossible to make a living as a musician if one’s music is available for free?
It’s an issue that Free Culture advocates should be acutely sensitive to. In fact, I believe most of the negative feedback I’ve received stems from the frustration of artists who don’t know how to approach this new business of free music.
First, I need to dispel this myth that musicians are getting paid by the people consuming their music. In fact, it is the labels, publishers and performing rights organizations that get paid and then distribute money to musicians. Along the way, that money is subject to all manner of recoupment, administrative fees and questionable distribution formulas that favor corporate-backed music enterprises. So forget about this idea that when you buy music, the musician is making money. Too often, musicians making money is the exception to the rule.
Second, I need to dispel another myth — that when musicians make money, it’s because their music is good, or at least popular. It’s certainly much harder to make money off of bad music, though a casual glance at the Billboard top 100 shows it can be done if you throw enough money at the problem.
But creating music people enjoy is only a small part of the business of success as a musician. It’s the musician’s business team that often determines how lucrative and sustainable the artist’s career is. You may be surprised to compare two artists with the same amount of album downloads and see that one is broke while the other is buying an iced-out watch. A good or bad manager or lawyer is all it takes to make the difference there.
So, now that we understand musicians make money when they have a successful business team that knows how to play the game of squeezing money from labels, publishers and performing rights organizations, we are more qualified to answer the question, “How are musicians supposed to make money in a free culture?”
As you can see, it’s the musician’s business partners that first must answer this question. And no matter how well they understand the potential answers, it may be moot if the labels, publishers and performing rights organizations continue in vein to put off changing their old business models to new ones that embrace technology. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is exactly what’s happening to a large extent.
While efforts drag on to reform mechanical licensing and manage the complex micropayment chaos threatening the industry’s ability to compensate anyone fairly, the truth is none of the musician-industry intermediates are going to be making graceful paradigm shifts into a free or near-free music model anytime soon.
Therefore, the onus is on us, the musicians, to work with our business teams in ways that obviate the need for old methods of making money.
In fact this is exactly what’s happening. Steve “Renman” Rennie, manager of the uber-successful band Incubus, has publicly stated that record labels no longer have much to offer a profitable act. The list of bands foregoing labels is huge — keep in mind that it’s not the musicians saying, “we’re fed up with the old way of doing things” but the business team themselves. When the lawyers, wheelers and dealers that have to keep the money coming in are telling the labels they suck, we ought to take note.
Self-publishing is reaching new heights as well, with the ability to license music through any number of democratizing Internet services that aggregate independent music for paying licensees. And while the performing artist organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and SoundExchange here in the U.S.) continue to try to adapt to the changing landscape, musicians and businesspeople alike are starting to question their efficacy in helping small music businesses make money, noticing how much of the spoils are concentrated among wealthily, powerful industry incumbents.
The question is “How do musicians make money in a Free Culture?” and by now you’ve seen they can’t rely on record labels, publishing companies or performing rights organizations like they used to.
You’ve also seen this is a question that musicians aren’t asking rhetorically out into the ether — their business teams are hearing it, probably once a week at least.
Allow me to answer the question with a quick but relevant anecdotal aside. All around me I see people choosing to go into business for themselves rather than get a job at a corporation. In addition to the difficulty of finding a job opening in the first place, they know that we no longer live in a world where you work for 40 years and automatically become a company man/woman with a fat retirement package and full benefits. So I see many people making the smart move to control their own destiny and start their own small business. They know they can no longer rely on the corporations for sustainability.
The same exact thing is happening in music. Musicians and their business teams are realizing they need to aggressively pursue their own small businesses, no longer able to rely on the old methods of making money. They are taking matters into their own hands and taking full responsibility for their own success or failure.
I realize this may be more abstract of an answer than you were expecting. I’m telling you the way to make money in Free Culture is to look outside labels, publishing and performing/mechanical rights, but not giving any specifics as to what those outside sources are.
The Future of Music Coalition’s recent landmark study on Artist Revenue Streams is the best place to start looking for specific money sources. It identifies 42 discrete revenue streams that musicians and their business teams can draw upon. Granted, a bunch of them have to do with labels, publishing or PROs, but plenty don’t. The short, specific answer would be to comb this list for those exceptions — particularly those under the headers ‘Brand-Related Revenue’ and ‘Fan, Corporate and Foundation Funding’.
I have a marketing background, so I’m keen on thinking of everything as a “marketing funnel”. Basically, picture a funnel where the wide end represents casual interest in your band, and the nozzle is where true fans pass through with their money. Somewhere in the middle are your Facebook and other social media followers.
Free or near-free music represents the widest, cheapest funnel entry possible. In fact, it no longer becomes about marketing music in the traditional sense of manufacturing popularity. By democratizing music discovery, small music businesses have a shot at eking out a modest living. (If that’s at the expense of R Kelly having to take a taxi instead of a limo, so be it.)
Social media provides a filter for the funnel to catch and keep people’s attention. Looked at in purely capitalist terms, following a band on a social network or app is akin to saying, “I would consider spending money on this band or a product affiliated with its music”.
If you’re going to push fans into the money-making nozzle of the funnel, this is where you begin. Not somehow interacting with your online following, especially when it’s in the three- or four-figure range, is like opening a retail store and not staffing it. This is where the concept of “band as brand” becomes critical. If that whole idea makes you want to puke, well, you won’t be puking your way to the bank. Besides, that’s what managers are for.
Now that you’ve pulled your fans to the edge of spending money on your band, it’s time to push them over. This is where the formula for making money as a musician is super-easy to understand. Getting them to a live show to buy a T-shirt is your goal now. Clearly this will not add up to rock and roll riches, but will provide the cash-on-hand you need to run the business of your band. The second this basic revenue stream dries up, so does your business. This was true before Free Culture and still is.
Now, give the fans what they truly want: The ability to directly support you, and feel part and parcel toward your success. Patronage through crowd funding and other inventive means is the new label deal — a deal with your fans who are excited to know their money is going “directly to the cause”. They can see their money paying off in front of their eyes through behind-the-scenes updates leading up to the launch of the product they backed. It truly is one of the most exciting things happening on the Internet and if you’re not privy or convinced, read my recent article Top 3 Reasons Musicians are Scared of Crowd Funding and Why They Should Get Over It.
If that’s not specific enough for you, I’ll give you one more. It may be the least specific idea in and of itself, but from it you can draw many specific streams of revenue. My red-letter advice to musicians trying to make a living in a time of ubiquitous, free access to music…
Make something scarce.
Rather, make anything scarce — it doesn’t matter. Make limited edition vinyl. Make original artwork. Do you have a contingent of golf fans in your audience? Make custom golf balls. Make leather dog collars with your band name. Make a custom ringtone on commission. The only thing it takes is imagination to make something scarce — something sorely in short supply. But something tells me this movement to take back culture from the subjugation of industry and oppressive intellectual property law could mean we’ve got a lot more imagination to spare — and that’s a good thing.
Not incidentally, the same idea of scarcity that applies to your business applies to your music itself. The new scarcity in music is not about how many copies are made available — infinite copies have reached near-zero distribution costs on the Internet. The new scarcity in music is, “how awesome is it?”
We have our whole lives to struggle to make a living, but life is too short not to be awesome.
And remember, true musicians don’t make music to make money. We continue to rock whether it pays the bills or not.