Wednesday, September 17, 2014

You Are Not Entitled To Make A Living Off Of Music

Want to survive in the music business, prepare to shed some blood

The idea of having a certain amount of entitlement is just plain bad for business. This could be your personal business or maybe that of you as a musician, for this quick discussion. Who cares if you have toured thousands upon thousands of miles and have fans in every state of America. If they are not buying your music and the audience isn't growing or sustaining your career, call Houston, because there is a big problem.

Defining where art, entertainment and commerce meet is a very slippery slope and one that holds a constant visage of self reflection in striking distance. Music is entertainment and at the end of the day, people choose what to spend their money on and more times than not, buying music is on the bottom of the list. Bleeding hearts for the arts is great on paper, but more respect is given to those who excel and do it while holding their heads high.

The music business has morphed into a "I need it now, and if I don't get it two minutes, I will have already forgotten about it" type of business environment. We get lucky when fans truly want to interact with the bands and or even pay to download music. It is our job as a music label to help curate this process and for the bands to get even more involved with their careers

No one gives a rat ass what is was like ten years ago. If you aren't working within the band dynamic as a small business, change your mindset to someone that just enjoys playing music with no expectations and leave it at that. If you want to grow your fan base and audience, really start to interact on a deeper level and give them what they want. Create songs that will last the test of time and don't settle for anything less. 

As music fans, we want a very simple solution. We want to be able to sink into another realm in which a three and a half to five minute song, could potentially change the world around us. That is the best form of altered reality and entertainment money could ever buy.

Below is a great article by the folks over at Sound Opinions and dives deep into what is going on with music today and how to craft a living from it.

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Read this article and more on American Songwriter

“How many people are in a band here?” Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot asks the crowd. When three quarters of the hands in attendance shoot up, Jim DeRogatis, a fellow music journalist and Kot’s candid co-host on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, releases an impish grin. “You’ve all already flunked your first test,” DeRogatis said. “Why are there 30 of you guys, and none of you have emailed Greg Kot or Jim DeRogatis to say, ‘I’m so excited for your class. Here’s the link to the website of my band?’” As the bewildered musicians in attendance would soon find out, they still had a lot to learn about being a rock star.

The Old Town School of Folk Music was the site of the Sound Opinions-hosted “Everything You Need to Know About the Music Industry in 2014.” Labeled as a “half-day rock-and-roll boot camp,” the conference allowed listeners to soak in the experiences and advice of industry veterans Kot and DeRogatis. The two men have covered everything from the rise of Kurt Cobain to the fall of Napster, and they offered an engaging forum on topics like boosting YouTube views, booking a weekend gig, and separating your band from the million other indie rock wannabes in pursuit of prominence.

Kot and DeRogatis began with a brief introduction on how the music industry has changed since the early 2000s. Before the Internet forever changed the way people purchase and share music, there were six major record labels that dictated whose videos would be on MTV and who would be stuck playing at their local coffee shops. Warner Brothers, EMI, Sony, BMG, Universal, Polygram and Clear Channel were the primary gatekeepers to rock and roll stardom before 2000, and as Kot bluntly put it, “If you didn’t play ball with Sony or Clear Channel back then, you didn’t get noticed.”

The record labels served as banks, promising up- and-coming artists publicity and prosperity while simultaneously saddling them with inexorable debt. “Ninety-eight percent of artists on major labels don’t get money,” DeRogatis estimated. “Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips worked as a fry cook at Long John Silver’s for eight years while being signed to Warner Brothers, one of the biggest labels in the country.”

Any advances provided from labels to artists had to be paid back in full, prompting the overwhelming majority of artists to fall victim to what felt like one huge scam. It was only a matter of time before the tides would turn in favor of the musicians and the fans as the advent of the Internet would allow listeners instant access. With sites like Napster revolutionizing how fans got music, the inevitable decline of record labels as middlemen began to transpire.


Instead of trying to capitalize on a new marketing medium, record executives reacted like elephants to mice, roaring in anguish and attempting to stomp any adversaries who dared pilfer their profits. The rise of peer-to-peer networks, MP3 download services and streaming platforms forced those in charge to reconsider their means of distribution. But the tables were already turned, with fans suddenly determining the direction of music ownership and the suits having to play catch-up. The overall result of this shift in power was a major blow to revenue, but a boon to artist exposure.

“More people are listening to music today than ever before in the history of the world,” Kot said. “All your attention should be focused on your fans.”

It might seem obvious in hindsight, but failing to consider the needs of those who financially supported the ludicrous tour riders and hotel damage bills was the downfall of the music industry. While free downloads, indie blogs and unlimited streaming services may have killed aspiring artists’ caviar dreams, no one can deny that finding an audience and getting your music heard is easier than ever.


If there was one takeaway from the seminar, it was that Kot and DeRogatis were not there to coddle the congregation. Statements like, “You are not entitled to make a living off of music,” and, “It’s never a bad thing to be too persistent if you don’t suck,” were common, but never delivered without some encouraging piece of advice.

“There are so many reasons to be optimistic today,” DeRogatis told the crowd. “No matter how obscure your music is, anyone can find it on their phone. The only thing that’s worse than not getting paid for your music is no one listening to your music at all.”

With the industry in such a major transition, how do you distinguish yourself from every other basement-recording virtuoso and get those fans to listen? Kot and DeRogatis then offered a crash-course in making it as a musician. First, they said, artists need to properly define the level of their ambition: whether they’re comfortable with the occasional weekend gig and free pizza or if they’re willing to put the time and effort into building a loyal fanbase that could someday pay for a tour across the country.

You don’t need an expensive online press kit to get attention. Kot and DeRogatis instead suggested that you start with a simple, easily accessible website. The front page of your website should have music, a solid biography and a few photos to establish who you are quickly and effectively. If a booking agent or music blogger has to click more than a few links to listen to a song, they’ll most likely grow frustrated and give up. Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Facebook are all functional and inexpensive platforms that can connect you to other musicians and fans, while providing a sufficient layout to stream your music.

Now that you have music and an online presence, here comes the real work: marketing. The first rule of marketing from the Sound Opinions team? Be unique.

“It’s a bonus to have a unique angle or story to tell to your audience,” DeRogatis asserted. “The first 1,000 vinyls of Steve Albini’s debut EP with Big Black included a gift with each copy, such as a used razor or a condom.”

Steve Albini's band, Big Black

While giving out contraceptives and weapons isn’t a requirement for your strategy, Kot and DeRogatis make a good point. Creativity goes a long way, and a little research doesn’t hurt, either. If you’re a punk band, Google nearby venues that book similar acts and work to make a name for yourself in that scene. Something like, “Our sound marries the manic lunacy of the Sex Pistols with the political awareness of the Dead Kennedys,” captures the imagination far better than simply listing names of bands you like.

A common music industry cliché is that it’s all about who you know. And if you don’t know anyone yet, that’s okay – thanks to the Internet, reaching fans can be as easy as learning the opening riff to “Smoke On The Water.” It just takes a little networking.

When it comes to contacting venues or booking agents, persistence and patience are key. If someone doesn’t write back immediately, don’t despair. They get hundreds of emails just like yours, which is why it also doesn’t hurt to use an eye-catching subject line. “DON’T MISS OUT ON BOOKING THE GREATEST BAND EVER!!!” has a better chance of getting opened than, say, “Indie band looking for show.”

Building buzz around your shows has a lot to do with your live performance, but reaching out to the press, no matter how small the outlet, is a crucial component of gaining exposure. Once you book that first gig, email every music blogger, magazine, and industry connection you know to try and spread the gospel of your music. Every new person you reach is a potential fan, and leveraging the power of local publications can put you in front of hundreds of people you wouldn’t have reached otherwise.

It might sound backwards, but getting a little old school might be one of the more progressive ways to market your music today. If you have a show on the horizon, print off some crazy flyers and post them everywhere. Just finished recording a new EP? Get some vinyl pressed and hit up the local record store to try and sell a few.


Kot and DeRogatis concluded the seminar with the top five most common mistakes for new artists, and they are as follows:
  1. Impatience
  2. Not putting in the work
  3. Not being on the same page as bandmates with goals
  4. Not asking, “Do we suck?”
  5. Not realizing it’s okay for music to be a hobby
Those first two mistakes go hand-in-hand, with bands often believing that site hits and notoriety will magically accumulate simply because they’ve played a few shows and once had their names mentioned in a local newsletter. The next two are arguably the most important, though. If your bassist is frequently skipping practice or your drummer is missing his second show in a row due to work, it might be time to move on. Finally, the last mistake is something that most artists can’t stomach. But there’s nothing wrong with being a weekend warrior and jamming as often as possible while balancing a hectic work schedule. And hey, if you keep at it, you never know when it could pay off in the long run.

Even if making money isn’t your endgame, Kot and DeRogatis urge wannabe performers to acknowledge that while music is an art, it’s also a business. If the time comes where your band is lucky enough to have emerged from the depths of PBR binges, broken dreams and bowling alley gigs to book a tour or require an agent, preparation is crucial. While gaining popularity doesn’t necessarily require a label deal or a manager, infrastructure is a must-have, so do your research, be clear with your bandmates about expectations, and be ready to pay for whatever you get.

What it all boils down to for the Sound Opinions team, though, is passion. Kot shared a personal story in which he witnessed a young Kurt Cobain take his budding band to Chicago for the first time, where they bared their souls on stage for roughly eleven people. It’s a performance that still elicits vivid emotions for the veteran journalist, not necessarily for the musicianship but because it showed an artist who displayed true passion for his craft, even when he was performing for a nearly empty room.

“What are we looking for when it comes to music and art?” Kot asked. “We want to be shaken to the core.”

This article appears in our September/October 2014 issue of American Songwriter