The Summit is 2-day conference for music industry professionals and musicians, and is organized by the Future of Music Coalition. The FMC is a non-profit that advocates for musicians’ rights, and helps educate musicians on issues that are important to them, even though they may not realize it. Besides giving musicians a voice in Washington, they may be best known for their Artist Revenue Streams research project that gives incredible insight into the details of how musicians make money in the digital age. The Summit will begin with the latest analysis on that treasure trove of data.
I’m also looking forward to the rest of Monday morning, where conference attendees will be serenaded by government leaders in intellectual property, followed by a counterpoint on copyright from musicians and music businesspeople.
I’d like to ask the copyright panels how they would reform copyright to balance the needs of the individual and the culture versus the need to profit from corporations who have all the legal and lobbying resources to shape the law. Shouldn’t we decriminalize song sharing by adopting some of the ideas successfully employed by Creative Commons? Don’t we have enough studies showing that “piracy” actually increases fan engagement and spending?
I would also question whether virtually infinite copyright terms perpetuated by corporate lobbying have anything to do with the original intent of copyright. I would ask the musicians if copyright exploitation is perhaps a less ethical business model than direct fan patronage, and now that technology has enabled the latter, we should focus on what technology now enables rather than stifling innovation to protect anachronistic models.
Finally, I would posit that free access to music is a net benefit for promoting all of the underlying tenets of copyright: the right of the individual to be compensated for their labor, the right to own and control one’s personal expression, the right of society to benefit from creative works, and the right of a culture to use those works to perpetuate itself. Has anyone noticed how our copyright system works against these ideals by hoarding wealth at the top, appropriating our personas, creating a large deadweight loss in music consumption and denying cultural re-use of creative works, in a culture increasingly based on re-use?
All that will probably have to wait for the cocktail party. Maybe I can get the person who curates the copyright panels drunk and you’ll see me and Larry Lessig up there next year wrestling some lawyers from the Copyright Alliance and the Center for Copyright Information. The gauntlet has been thrown.
The lunch breakout session is the “Band as a Business” workshop, which is funny, because that’s almost the same name as my free “Band as Business” video course on Udemy. I reached out to workshop facilitator Paul Rapp when I realized he was 2 hours north of me in Albany. I asked him why crowdfunding wasn’t covered, considering it’s the next big thing in how musicians can make money. I also dropped the whole copyright spiel on him, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised I didn’t hear back. Looking forward to taking the workshop nonetheless, as there’s always something new to learn, especially for those who teach.
The rest of Monday is dedicated to the “Future” part of the Summit, where we’ll be discussing the cutting edge of music markets and marketing. I expect artist discovery and fan engagement to take center stage here. Over the last few years, we’ve really seen the music industry embrace the kinds of marketing best practices that were developed by natively digital companies. In particular, the idea of a “fan lifecyle” (analogous to a “user lifecycle”) is central to any modern musician’s business strategy. Success comes from identifying target fan markets, coming up with strategies to engage those fans, and then creating a system by which those fans drawn into an integrated marketing funnel, generating more revenue the deeper they go. Digital tools and services can go a long way to facilitate marketing and conversion, and I’ll be curious to see which names from that industry are dropped.
The last panel of the day is the one I’m looking most forward to — a discussion of streaming, crowdfunding, and the future business models of music. Most people are confused when it comes to this topic, and I understand why. But I’ve been a digital native all my life, and I’ve dedicated my life to music, technology and the intersection in between. The “future” of music business is, without a doubt, many different streams. The days of one dominant stream from copyright exploitation are leaving us. When we talk about the “old” business model dying, we’re not just talking about selling CDs or MP3s, we’re talking about paid vs. free access to recorded music, and things are moving inexorably toward free. It’s a net benefit for fans and musicians, and more music is being made and listened to than ever before. It’s awkward and sometimes devastating to professional musicians who are having trouble adapting, or who put their heads in the sand and blame their own fans for their career woes.
At the same time, the “new” business models like crowdfunding are revolutionizing the band as small business… and it’s all just the tip of the iceberg. We have seen but a fraction of the potential for new music markets and models. Perhaps if the market wasn’t mostly controlled by a handful of enormous corporations, it would be agile enough to shift. But no matter, individuals will flip the paradigm and enable new categories of paid musician that defy the dominant “professional” title. Indies will continue to innovate. The majors will hulk along collecting back catalog royalties until music is a utility like electricity or water… and we’ll be there sooner than you think.
We’ll need a drink after that one. Lucky for me, Mailchimp‘s buying.
The second and final day of the conference features a potpourri of unexpected topics.
I’m also looking forward to the panel on music and social change. MC5’s Wayne Kramer (who makes an appearance in my Band as Business course) chairs a particularly interesting pursuit involving instrument donation to incarcerated people. I’m a huge fan of music charities, and music’s ability to provide meaning, healing, joy, comfort or entertainment to people who are aimless, suffering, unhappy, uncomfortable or just bored. It’s the reason we have music! Too often we lose sight of music’s true purpose in pursuit of profit. As such, the following panel on “Nonprofit Models for Supporting Independent Music” shares similar potential for being an awesome eye-opener.
Before lunch, the Director of External Affairs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will run out on stage and scream, “Musicians can afford health care now!” and then disappear in a flurry of pyrotechnics. Or not. But either way, I can’t think of a better place to tout the Affordable Care Act than a conference for musicians, even if I can build a better website myself, for hundreds of millions of dollars less.
The breakout session I’m headed to after lunch is all about how we can provide a better career education to musicians. That’s my mission too! I just launched the Songhack website to do just that — educate musicians on how they can “hack” the music business and make their own careers. My work with John Snyder at Artists House Music (we did the Band as Business course) has given me a unique look into the realm of institutionalized music career education, and the huge challenges it faces. I look forward to gaining more insight from the panelists of this talk… because despite the best efforts of the FMC, most musicians don’t have any idea how musicians make money!
Tuesday wraps up with a more philosophical take on the issues from our distinguished hosts and a group of accomplished musicians. Diving deep on the cultural value of music with the Producer of Blue Oyster Cult sounds like a pretty sweet ending to me.
I’ll be missing the conference-closing NPR All Songs Considered Listening Party. Gotta hightail it back to New York to keep the entrepreneurial machine running. But while I’m there, I’ll be tweeting up a storm and posting daily updates, both here at Mediapocalypse and over at the Songhack blog. Please join me!
Are you headed to the FMC Summit? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am about free access to music and throw a drink in my face? (I know there are some of you out there!) Or have you seen the same bright future for music that I have, and want to join forces to spread the good vibes? Leave me a comment or drop me a line on Twitter and we’ll hang.
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.
If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do I make money from music?” this is for you.
Tens of millions of musicians want to make money from their music. Only one percent ever do. Why?
Ask most musicians how they plan to make money and they all say the same thing: I’m waiting for my music to be discovered. I’m waiting for a good manager, a good booking agent, a good label. I’m waiting for my moment, my big break.
Musicians would not be this passive if making money was the primary reason they made music. Almost all musicians would like to make money from their music, but it’s not why we make it. We make music because we have to. We have to express ourselves. We have to communicate something and connect with people. As Henry Rollins once said, “I’d rather be heard than paid.”
But we can get paid. In fact, we have more opportunities today than ever. But waiting for opportunities to come remains a losing strategy. Opportunities are made — our moment will only come if we create it, and only then if we’ve developed our skills to rise to the occasion.
There is a simple formula to making money in music and many other creative endeavors. The greater your skills, the greater your opportunities. Conversely, more opportunities allow you to further develop your skills. Amplifying this feedback loop is the way to succeed.
So what skills does the musician need to tap into the music economy? They boil down to four broad categories, and it’s no longer enough to be competent in one or two. There are simply too many musicians in the world trying to make money from their music. It used to be you could be a master of one of these skills and that might be enough to get you “discovered” and exploited. Today, we must be competent in all four skills, and masters of at least one or two to truly have a shot at making our own breaks and earning significant revenue from music.
There are more musicians creating more music than ever before in history, and most of history’s recorded music is accessible to anyone with a computer. The bar has never been higher for novelty and originality — it’s the old chestnut of “it’s all been done before.” As we learn more about composition, we realize the challenge is to create an original expression from musical building blocks that seem to have already been combined in every imaginable configuration. And yet out of these seemingly infinite combinations, we put our own spin on the patterns of popular chord progressions, lyrical motifs and song structure that emerge. We create by taking our influences and making something new of them.
Composition is truly an art in and of itself, and too many musicians simply brush it off to focus on performing and recording. Many musicians fail to make money from their music because they are not songwriters. They channel their influences so directly, nothing original emerges. They sell the song short.
The old adage “writers write” applies to composition as well. One must first write songs to write good songs. What album would you rather listen to: the first ten songs a musician wrote, or the best ten songs chosen from the first 15 songs the musician wrote? By the time you are writing great songs, you will have written many.
Composition not just “where the money is” from a copyright perspective, composition is the art of music that gives rise to the other skills: performance, recording and entrepreneurship. You are getting paid for your labor to create something completely intangible, so the profit margin can be enormous. But it’s also highly competitive with a significant “right place at the right time” component. To cut through the noise of more musicians writing songs than ever before, your song needs to be performed, recorded and “shopped” at a professional level.
Performance is the Holy Grail of revenue for musicians. It’s always been where the highest profits have been for the musician themselves. This has only become more true in the Digital Age as selling access to recordings has dried up as a primary revenue stream. Post-scarcity music distribution shows that sharing songs is not stealing, and the only thing a musician loses when their song is copied is a single opportunity to charge the listener a fee that most would not pay. In turn, they gain an opportunity to make a fan, which is far more valuable in the long run. In order for this equation to work optimally, the composition has to be great, and performance has to be a part of your plan, because it’s where fans show their most value.
Touring and T-shirts are nothing to scoff at — even though gas is more expensive and ticket prices have not increased by much, the profit margin is usually greater than sales of any recording. When a fan is at your show they are the most charged up on your music than at any previous moment. They want to leave with a T-shirt and talk about how awesome the show was, marketing your band and paying for the opportunity. It takes great performances to put them in that state.
The same advice for composition applies to performance: perform, perform, perform. Book any gig you can find. Performing is a process of “paying your dues”. There will be awful shows and huge mistakes, but eventually so much of performing will come naturally to you.
To the extent that performance is a challenging skill to learn, working on your show is a fun challenge (unless you have stage freight). What’s more of a challenge are the logistics of putting on a live show that looks and sounds great, not to mention the huge sacrifices that must be made to tour. As the age bracket gets older and older, there are fewer and fewer musicians who find touring manageable. Locked in a traveling vehicle killing time for most of the day, away from family and friends, is not how most people want to spend 200 days of the year. Touring makes it hard to have a normal life, normal relationships, a normal home and job. But performing musicians are not normal, and it’s a big part of why people are so attracted to them. There are plenty of us who feel that hour on stage makes all the sacrifice worth it. And with a properly managed tour, a we can come home with some money in our pockets, having made fans we can count on to support us not just when we come to town, but also in between releases and show dates.
The internet has enabled musicians to book their own shows and tours, but many have not mastered performance. It’s an art in and of itself, a combination of equipment, stage presence, focus, charisma, mystique, emotion, crowd interaction, and a host of other factors. They’re difficult skills to teach, but come naturally as you play more and more shows. To maximize your opportunity to create value from your music, performance is critical to the overall strategy.
By now you probably see the pattern: the internet affords you incredible new opportunities, but they can’t be taken advantage of unless your skills are well-developed. Recording is no different in this sense, but it is very different from composition and performance in how one develops the skills.
That’s because unlike composition and performance, which are accessible to anyone with an instrument and an imagination, not everyone can record whenever they feel like it. To be sure, home recording technology has completely transformed the way musicians record, and more than ever have the ability to record themselves. But it’s a small minority of musicians who can produce, engineer, mix and master their own recording at a level of quality consistent with professional releases. It is getting easier as the tools get better and listeners being appreciating a wider spectrum of audio fidelity.
Today, every musician should have some way to record at least demo-quality recordings at home. A big part of learning the skill of recording is learning how to perform under the magnifying lens of the studio. There is also the task of “getting a sound” in the studio, a process often wholly unique from its analogue in developing the sound of one’s live show. And there’s no better way to get what you want from the studio you’re paying than to play them a rough idea of the sound in your head.
Every musician should have some way to demo songs in order to work out as much of the recording in advance as possible. Even when done at home, recording a song or album is a big production. It only happens once, in the sense that the recording you make is the recording you’re stuck with until the end of time.”
Ultimately, most musicians will find themselves paying a professional to create a professional-level recording. Your closest fans may accept less, but it’s hard to build a substantial audience around music that is recorded poorly. Fans want to listen to your music all the time, the better the recording, the more attractive it is to listen to over and over again. A chance to be heard is a chance to be paid, and you increase your chances with a great recording.
Most musicians intuitively know they need to write and perform great songs, and record a great version of them to win fans. Entrepreneurship is the art and science of building a business around those fans, and the compositions, performances and recordings they want.
It used to be musicians waited to be discovered and signed by a label. The label would provide the business services to run their careers. Nine out of ten failed, and those who succeeded were often ruthlessly exploited, but it was the only game in town until the internet disrupted it all.
Independent labels can still make good partners for bands that grow their businesses beyond several thousand fans, but increasingly musicians are making their own income directly from fans. Though the Digital Age has made this possible and even easier, but it is still not exactly easy.
Entrepreneurship requires waking up every morning ready to tackle the tasks that lead to accomplishing your goal of making money from your music. It requires understanding and development of the skills needed to accomplish your tasks. You must set specific goals that lead to making money.
In the pursuit of making music, composition, performance and recording come naturally. In the pursuit of making money, entrepreneurship must be learned. You will draw on your natural abilities to be social and network with people, and develop those relationship-building skills if you lack them. You will become a master at exchanging value, the fundamental concept that underlies all business. Marketing and PR follow from the skills acquired in building these connections, and are critical for getting people exposed to your compositions, performances and recordings.
This ultimately leads to building enough fans to finance your business, either directly through crowdfunding or by attracting a working partner who believes in your business, such as a manager, booking agent, producer or promoter. Do it yourself does not mean do it alone, and entrepreneurship is all about making the personal connections that will sustain your music as a business.
(Note: If you’re into learning these skills, you might like the Band as Business course I co-produced.)
Hang out for a few minutes and I’ll tell you why Grooveshark may be more ethical than Spotify.
Brief History Lesson
By suing Napster and its kin out of existence, the music industry elite created a “soft landing” for its multi-billion dollar business of selling access to recorded music. They couldn’t kill so-called music “piracy” (also known as song sharing), so they killed the nascent technology companies that tried to build a business around it.
To what extent have musicians benefitted from this business model? Until access to music became free, it was our primary revenue stream. But too often we got such a small piece of the overall pie. The record business was never particularly ethical, with its exploitative contracts, shady accounting and history of corruption.
Free access to music wiped these ethical dilemmas off the table with one click of a mouse, giving us a new debate over the question of whether music should be free to access and share.
Notice I didn’t say “free music”. Music isn’t free to produce or market, though costs have dropped considerably any way you spin it.
At the time of Napster, music suddenly was free to access with an Internet plan and a computer. It took the industry hundreds of millions of legal and lobbying dollars to finally stop the bleeding. In 2013, the slow death of physical media has been largely offset by the rapid growth of digital after a precipitous $3B drop.
The corporate music industry would be quick to tell you that suing innovative digital music companies and individual file sharers was all about protecting musicians’ revenue, that they saved our bottom lines. This is the same industry that coerced us to sign exploitative contracts, that price gouged and price fixed consumers, that bought off radio to play the same songs on repeat.
But musicians are starting to wise up as they see the bottom line on their streaming revenue reports. To be fair, Spotify (and iTunes) pay roughly 70% of its revenue to artists (more accurately, “rights holders”, which are primarily the labels who exploit the artists’ copyrights). A lot of the negative reaction can be chalked up to failures in long-term vision — as the decibel point moves right in our royalties, the multiplier grows exponentially. But the current streaming royalty system clearly favors the big four major labels over the short and long term, because it is harder for independent, unsigned and emerging musicians to compete with their massive back catalog of perennially popular music and marketing budget to match.
Some musicians are coming around to bridging the art/business divide and becoming entrepreneurs themselves. They’re sick of having to rely on someone else exploiting their rights for increasingly less money. The Internet allows direct fan patronage in the form of crowdfunding, tipping, or selling both virtual and physical products from one’s own website. Home studio production is getting cheaper and better. Licensees are hungrier than ever for the latest music. Marketing is as easy as creativity > strategy > click. These aren’t empty catch phrases like “downloading music for free is stealing” and “piracy is bad”, these are realities clear to any musician working in the field today.
Yes, there will always be artists who dare not sully their art with business concerns, but they are an increasingly lonely breed. The new musician adapts to the meager streaming royalty stream not by petitioning for higher royalty rates from Pandora, but by embracing business models with far more promise than selling access to recorded music. If only the record business elite would step off. But there’s billions at stake and they like their yachts. Who can blame them? They’re the last generation of the American Dream and they don’t want to wake up.
Really? What about “a digital world that rewards the gatekeepers between artists and creators”. That’s really what the IFPI is concerned about. It doesn’t represent the interests of musicians, it safeguards the commercial exploiters of musicians’ recorded music copyrights. Let’s tell it like it is — the money trickles down through the cracks in their multi-billion dollar pavement. The markup on music remains artificially high to justify the expense of major label production and marketing. They also need to even out the variance from gambling on bands like derivatives traders.
What’s concerning is to see musicians jumping on the IFPI’s bandwagon, supporting the suing of technology companies, demonizing their own fans for sharing music. I mean, what do these musicians think is going happen? Are we going to all of the sudden roll the music industry back to 1996 when a CD cost $14.95 and you were forced to buy 9 crappy songs for every hit single?
“Of course not,” these skeptics will tell you. They love new technology, it just has to be applied fairly to musicians. Technology companies, they say, are even worse than the exploitative record labels, because they want to use your music for their own gain and pay you nothing!
It’s not even remotely that simple. Of course, there are plenty of digital music companies exploiting musicians’ copyrights. But it’s precisely because we’re still working within the model of copyright exploitation established by the labels.
Grooveshark is an exploiter. Spotify is an exploiter. And on the face of it, Grooveshark would appear to be screwing artists far worse than Spotify. Google has decided to blacklist them from certain search functions under pressure from the IFPI and its minions to fight so-called “piracy”. But Grooveshark has only been convicted in the industry, not in the court. They’ve literally been blacklisted from the industry for daring to question the status quo of corporate-hijacked music law and technology.
Corporate Hijacking of Music Law and Technology
The majors and some indies have refused to license their music to Grooveshark. As a result, the majors are trying to sue Grooveshark to death just like Napster or all of the other -ster’s they shut down with copyright infringement lawsuits. We know how well that worked — unauthorized song sharing only grew more popular. The industry’s well-documented and cyclical fight on piracy is the same kind of endless war the US is engaged in overseas. The industry has been fighting it for 100+ years and the only true goal has been to co-opt the developments of independent innovators rather than truly eliminate piracy, which is quixotic. (See the book Pop Song Piracy.)
Spotify and its ilk only use officially licensed music. But what happens when the legal system is broken? Copyright is supposed to protect our right to profit from our labor and to express one’s personhood. It’s also supposed to promote social and cultural welfare, and benefit the greater good by making creative works accessible to the widest possible audience. The cost for access is supposed to be high enough to incentivize creators to keep creating, while low enough to prevent a large deadweight loss, depriving the least amount of citizens from access to the work. These are the moral and economic foundations of copyright, and they’ve been hijacked — just like the political process, the food supply and our media — by large corporations.
In 2011, the four major labels controlled 88% of the market share for recorded music. That’s enough to make the Monopoly Man jealous. These labels own the rights to the vast majority of the music we listen to, and use their enormous legal and lobbying resources to keep it that way. It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s standard American capitalism, and the American way of music business is increasingly the way of the world.
Don’t Bring Back the $14.95 CD, Bring Back Napster
People rallied around Napster for two reasons. One was that it made it possible to access all of society’s recorded music for free. The second was that many music consumers knew they themselves were being exploited by major labels almost as much as musicians were. They witnessed a history of major music industry settlements for price fixing, price gouging and payola. They heard the stories of great musicians suffering because a label coerced them into an onerous contract. They paid $14.95 for one good song.
The music industry was incapable of embracing a world where all of society’s recorded music was available for free, even if that’s clearly what consumers wanted. (Most people at this point will say, “of course that’s what people wanted, people want everything to be free” to which I reply, “Yes they do.”)
As a quick aside, I believe music is closer to a necessity than a want — closer to food, affection, sex, shelter, etc. than a new TV or a Snickers bar. As a society we should endeavor to provide free and fair access to music — a Right to Music — on a humanitarian level. (Follow the link for more.)
Free access to music is good for musicians for one simple reason: An opportunity to be heard is an opportunity to be paid. Anyway, the best musicians make music in order to be heard first, paid second. The motivating factor of copyright and the potential of being the 1 in 10,000 musicians that become a rock star have been greatly exaggerated. If copyright law evaporated tomorrow we’d still be making music. That the music industry lost half its value and we have more artists creating more music than ever before is testament to this fact.
Grooveshark vs. Spotify
This all relates to the Grooveshark vs. Spotify ethics question, because Grooveshark is pretty much the only company of its size that believes access to music should be free (or nearly so.)
Spotify, and the dozens of other streaming services (many of them restricted to certain geographical regions because of licensing rights restrictions) believe that the way to save musicians is to increase payments to the labels that exploit them.
Let’s contrast two opinions, the first from IFPI chairman Domingo:
“…policymakers better understand that the internet does not make music “free”.”
Here we have a straight-up threat by the IFPI to stop funding politicians’ re-election campaigns if they don’t pass legislation protecting major labels’ ability to exploit musicians’ rights for maximum profitability. Spotify et. al. would agree with this statement. As we’ve observed, just because the Internet provides free or near-free access to music, that doesn’t make the production and marketing costs of music zero (though costs have inarguably dropped significantly).
Storm the Gates
It seems we are left with two solutions. The one proposed by the IFPI is to protect the gatekeepers by charging a monthly subscription fee for access to music.
I have no problem with this business model, nor do I think should musicians.
I had no problem with it back in 2000 when Napster brought us the technology and proposed the exact same business model. But too many salaries built from exploiting musicians were on the line, and they were sued out of existence. It wasn’t done for the musicians. It was for the executives, the lawyers, the lobbyists and the other business associates at the multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations. Any musician who thinks these companies have their best interests in mind are deluded. It’s not entirely black and white — I’m sure there are plenty of employees who do good and mean well. But even the legends that deserve our respect, like David Geffen, eventually had their ethics compromised by commercial forces. A cursory glance at music industry history clearly demonstrates why gatekeepers between the artist and fan are a really, really bad idea from an ethics standpoint.
Musicians had no choice but to put up with it to get paid. This is no longer true.
Let’s contrast Domingo’s threat with Grooveshark SVP Paul Geller’s vision on where the music industry out to be headed:
“…I think that we have to be creative about how to get more money into this ecosystem, because I don’t think anyone sees those numbers [streaming payments] and is really inspired by them, I think people look at them and say ‘well this is a soft landing for the music industry,’ it’s ‘hopefully we don’t have to lay off too many people.’ And that’s why I think that Grooveshark is out there trying to be creative about how to infuse the industry with more money in ways that I don’t think are commonplace right now.” (from Digital Music News)
Grooveshark’s technology and innovation was neck and neck with all the other streaming music sites a few years ago, prior to having to dedicate an enormous chunk of their time and revenue to fighting legal battles with the majors. They recently rolled out some nice new features to compete with the Spotifies, but it’s clear they are living in a legal and fiscal nightmare. Their CEO Sam Tarantino admitted as much while doing an interview for Grooveshark’s new Broadcast feature. I can only surmise by statements like the one above that the people at Grooveshark truly believe they are fighting the good fight. And why shouldn’t they?
Grooveshark does pay artists, it’s just that they haven’t reached a licensing deal with the majors because as of yet they’re unwilling to bend over far enough. To Grooveshark, the majors are just trying to extort them and screw musicians anyway.
If you’re an independent artist or label, you can register your music with Grooveshark and they will pay you a share of their advertising and subscription revenue. These payments may be even smaller than what Spotify can offer, but Grooveshark is also much smaller, and draining their pockets just fighting to exist. Legally, they are in the right, because the DMCA allows for a safe harbor to exist for copyright-infringing, user-generated content, provided the company removes this content upon request and the platform has other significant uses beyond so-called “piracy” (really just unauthorized sharing of songs… does that sound so bad?)
Nobody knows right now if Grooveshark will give out and sign away their seemingly sinking ship to the majors, or if they’ll keep fighting the good fight until the courts deliver a predictably narrow, safe harbor-eroding decision. Law was never good at keeping pace with technology.
Toward a Two-Way Music Industry
The majors would like to continue collecting 88% of the market share for recorded music (and then pay a fraction of it to musicians because they signed exploitative contracts at low points in their career). How does consolidating wealth in media gatekeepers accomplish the IFPI’s mission of achieving “A digital world that rewards artists and creators”?
This fits into the larger context of corporations and governments trying to kill Internet freedom. Ask yourself, “Why wasn’t radio two-way? Why couldn’t the listeners also be the broadcasters? What about television?” At a glance this seems to be a technology and cost issue, but it’s not that simple. There are powerful commercial forces that ensure these technologies are developed in a way that maximizes profit for corporations, creators and consumers be damned. That’s why we have a long history of gatekeepers in all creative industries, not just in music.
The Internet changed all that with one simple feature — the consumer is now also the broadcaster. Large corporations have spent the last 15 years trying to litigate and legislate their way back to one-way media. Discouragingly, they continue to make gains every day.
This is why I believe Grooveshark may be the more ethical approach on balance. Spotify may talk a good game on paying artists. They may be expanding the pie we take our little piece of. And we can’t rush to conclusions that just because a single stream payment looks small today doesn’t mean it will add up in the long haul. Ultimately, any discussion of musician’s revenue share is taking place within the context of what their revenue share will be after the technology company takes their 30%, and then the label takes its majority share. Spotify and the IFPI are really only innovators in repressive legal maneuvers and artist exploitation. They’re profiting from a 15-year-old idea Napster first realized.
How can I say Spotify and the IFPI are exploiting artists when they’re trying to collect more money for them? Because it perpetuates the old model of exploitation on new technology. It’s repeating the same cycle of co-option that happened with the phonograph, with radio, with cassettes and with CDs. It’s a smokescreen to prevent you from thinking like an entrepreneur, from adapting to free access to music, from finding new opportunities to profit without the gatekeepers and stealing their market share. They desperately want to continue the same systematic exploitation and price-fixing that the record industry has been guilty of for the last 100+ years.
Grooveshark is more ethical because it rejects this corruption. They aren’t saints. They’re certainly pariahs. They haven’t figured out how to improve upon tiny streaming music payments, but they’re trying so hard they’re sacrificing their personal lives, their livelihoods, their reputations and quite possibly their sanity.
The vast majority of musicians will see no significant increase in revenue until the major labels lose their market monopoly, and their revenue share drops considerably. In this sense, Grooveshark is using loopholes in the DMCA to kick the IFPI in the nuts — pretty much its only defense against the obscene legal might of the industry elite.
As a musician, do you really think the IFPI or Spotify (if they can stay in business) are going to solve your revenue problem? Of course not. They’re looking out for #1: the record industry elite.
The solution for musicians is to start looking out for #1 too. That means building a culture of entrepreneurship. That means direct patronage from fans via crowdfunding and tipping. That means cutting out the gatekeeper and giving fans exclusive access to products that are still scarce. Selling access to music is no longer viable, and only by corrupting copyright do corporations make it so. The ethical foundation of copyright is sound, but it has been corrupted.
The greatest lie told by the IFPI is not that their mission is driven by musicians (they have musicians in mind, maybe, but certainly not a priority). The greatest lie told is that they are somehow going to bring musicians back to a world where they were fairly paid for their labor, where they are free to express their personhood without exploitation, where society can access and share music freely, and where more music of higher quality and greater diversity is listened to with greater frequency.
That world never existed. But it can today, with free access to music as the great equalizer.
The only way to fairly solve the musician revenue problem is for musicians to reject the century-old system of exploitation and fight to keep the Internet free so we can build a new culture and economy of direct fan patronage and musician entrepreneurship.
Trying something a little new this week… a video blog.
I hear a lot of people say we need to “save the music” by preserving the old business models of the music industry. “If there are less career opportunities for musicians,” they argue, “surely there will be less good music.” I call shenanigans on this short-sighted perspective. There is more music than ever before, and a new breed of musician is being born, blurring the lines between creator and consumer. Bring on the new thing.