Independent Music

In December 2009, I was asked to manage a start-up local arts center focused on art and music. I was laid off and had ten years of non-profit management, there was a great group of people involved, I enjoy listening to music and looking at art, but I’m neither a musician nor an artist, so I said yes.

18 months later I’ve learned a lot. I’ve written previously about the approach we’ve taken and about some of the things I’ve learned, such as working within limitations.

Today, a post on the Next Web really caught my attention. “How musicians are making money returning to their roots”  by Brad McCarty.

McCarty met with three music labels and some musicians about the business model and state of the industry. He explains that the golden era ran from the 1960’s through Napster’s adoption in the late 1990’s. He explains how US and UK musicians have different challenges, the industry executives aren’t sure what to do, and at the end of the day musicians must now work harder at the business of music because they have the ability to manage it themselves.

Oversimplification: a one to many model in the past has transitioned to a many to many model, go read his article. It’s great and really got me thinking. Below are wide ranging thoughts on the topic that I keyed while enjoying this beautiful Sunday morning on my deck.

I’ve been working with a lot of musicians, across all career stages and musical genres. It amazes me how much talent is ‘undiscovered’. Most have recorded at least one CD that they will sell at their shows and many have accounts on various sites. McCarty mentioned BandCamp, with which I had heard of, but not used. I know several musicians who sell through iTunes, but as noted it is a fixed price model.

For promotion, many still have MySpace pages, but most have YouTube channels and Facebook to promote. Many use ReverbNation to connect with small venues like the one I manage (visit our page here), and its a great tool to see if a band is a good fit for the venue.

It was easy to understand how the one to many model worked. A handful of labels signed a select number of bands, promoted them, toured them, and profited off sales of albums, tickets, and thanks to KISS merchandise.

Small bands were left to struggle.

Today, however, they’ve been empowered in the same way bloggers have been. Traditional journalists scoffed at people getting news from bloggers. In five years it has become common-place.

Monetizing this empowerment is the trick.

Individual song sales can take place via download sites. At a dollar or two per song, the band will have to sell lots of songs to make enough money to do this full-time.

CD’s can be recorded at a much lower cost today and there are some very good local studios, but again paying off even the lower cost studio time means selling a lot of CDs at shows.

Performances can yield some return, but there are trade-offs.  A bar or cafe puts the performer in the role of ‘sideshow’, but can afford to pay more than a listening venue with limited seating. We can hold up to 80, but tickets are often $10 and we rarely sell out. Typically we split gate so on a great night the performer or band could walk away with $400 plus some CD sales.

Some performers teach during the day to supplement the revenue stream, while sharing knowledge of what they love to another generation of musicians.

A segment that I think is often missed is sheet music, specifically tabbed music. Again, I’m no musician, but living in Nazareth, home of Martin Guitar, I happen to have a Martin Mandolin and Backpacker. This year I tried to learn to play the mandolin.

I found a few good sources to learn chords and notes. I also found that lots of people contribute tab music for popular songs. Tabs are like cheat sheets to help you visualize which strings to play and what fingering to use.

Once I started to get a sense of how to play a handful of chords, I looked for songs that mostly had the chords I could play. Then I would download the song so I could here it or play along with it.

Wouldn’t it be nice to purchase a song along with sheet and tab for an additional fee?

Currently, there are systems in place where songwriters submit their songs to studios who pass them along to ‘known’ performers. Wouldn’t it be great if all these singer-songwriters who are playing for tips could have their work considered?

The combination of streaming services, ubiquitous internet connections, and mobile devices could very well kill traditional radio. Radio is another one to many service. Very little music that is produced ever makes it onto station rotations, and when they do, the duration is not very long.

Streaming services that allow for customization, subscription, and recommendation could open the door for many more artists to be recognized, which in turn should allow for greater monetization of their music.

It wouldn’t be that hard to imagine some mega service that allows you to customize streamed music, be able to purchase said music for future use, access the sheet music for a specific instrument, be alerted when that band is within 60 miles of your most common locations, look up the venue, get directions, and buy tickets.

Lots of opportunities out there, lots of very talented individuals, will be interesting to see where technology leads the industry and what model rises from the ashes.


One response to “Independent Music

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