It may be, whatever that means, but it’s not relevant. You can make a better fruit salad than the one you get in a tin. You can make a better breakfast than McDonalds. You can grow better vegetables than you find in a supermarket. Sales charts are market rankings, not quality charts. Music charts are a snapshot of the mainstream music mass market. You don’t earn a place in the charts by being better than everyone else, you simply have to sell more breakfast cereal in the same week. Is that what you’re best at? If you make cornflakes, what makes you think the world needs yours too? It doesn’t. Are you lucky, adaptable and very well-connected?
Again, maybe so but not relevant. How many acts like yours do you see in the charts? None? It’s not because you’re special—it’s because you don’t belong there. How many musicians like you do you see in the charts? None? That’s because niche acts are not global mass media acts. The mass audience is not like 200 fans in a small club, or a fan seeking rare classics in a small record shop. The mass market is made up of many people with different tastes and it demands only the lowest common denominator. Folk, jazz and classical musicians are always better writers, players and singers than the stars on telly, but they aren’t doing the same job. And even if you are the lowest common denominator, what makes you think the world needs your act? It doesn’t. Have you got good hair?
The Sixties won’t happen again—circumstances were unique.
Once mainstream pop was established, transistor radios, independent labels and pirate radio (frequently snubbed by establishment labels) fed a young underground pop culture. The mass music market was growing (and has grown ever since) but it was still compact enough to produce genuine popular hits. Each subsequent decade, with built-in growth, less reason to be great, diverging music markets and new mass entertainment options has inevitably been poorer musically.
Most people who work in music as writers or performers don’t have a record deal. People outside the industry often confuse music with records, and records with celebrity. The record industry isn’t even the richest part of the music business (film and TV are much bigger). If you’re fixated with the idea that a record deal is the best way into music you’re mistaking popular mythology for career research and mistaking fame with success. Many ringtone, advertising and soap theme composers earn more than Major label household names. Chart celebrity burns an enormous amount of money, often all the money it earns. Many less well-known self-employed and freelance writers are better off. The music industry isn’t even the top career choice for writers. J K Rowling has sold 13 million books in the UK (nobody sells that many records), her films have grossed nearly $3 billion and she’s worth over £500,000,000. Nobody in music has earned that much in the same period of time.
Well, that’s what the record industry thinks. That’s what the big labels who manufacture entertainment products think. That’s what every kid who only wants to get signed by a record label thinks. That’s what every couch potato with just a CD player and a TV thinks. But music isn’t records. Recorded music didn’t rule the entertainment industry until the 1970s. In that decade touring was heavily subsidised by income from records and big labels called the shots. By the 1990s it was all over but the popular view of the record business hasn’t caught up. Expresso Bongo and A Star Is Born are history. Today the erstwhile giants of recorded music are traded by venture capitalists and struggle to survive.
Music happens before, after and without records. Without the music business and the record industry there would still be music. You can play songs without making records. Recording is just a tool. Recording is optional. Music isn’t. Records cost money but music is free. Amateur musicians don’t “just do it as a hobby” they just do it. Music doesn’t need a reason, or an excuse for being uncommercial. It’s something we do because we want to. Sometimes we record it, most often we don’t.
Record labels at opposite ends of the spectrum are not even in the same business. The smaller labels are in the music business and the bigger labels are in the lifestyle accessory business. Their ethics and goals are different. Smaller labels are artist-driven, larger labels are market-driven.
There are evil priests, doctors and teachers, and of course, managers. But it takes two for one of them to get away with it. Show me an artist who got ripped off and I’ll show you an artist who left business to their manager, usually so they could “concentrate on their music”. Bless. The artist and manager are necessarily joined at the wallet, they must also be joined at the brain, and if possible the heart.
You’ll learn. It will be an expensive lesson.
Ultimately good music will sell itself, anything else would be rather odd. People might buy it for other reasons but they expect to enjoy it so they must surely buy the music itself. However, that’s a very long way from the whole story. There’s no point having a great song and waiting for it to go off and sell itself. You still need to get it played and get it in front of people who might want it. It won’t do that for itself.
It doesn’t. The web is just a big cheap public network. There are thousands of unread bloggers, unheard podcasts, and unvisited sites. There are millions of unplayed MP3s. There are thousands of bands with a state of the art integrated social media dashboard where the bottom line reads zero. The rules are still the same: be fantastic, get heard, make excellent contacts. Be persistent and don’t expect stardom. There’s no reason any musician or entertainer should be rich. The web won’t eliminate big business or the mass market but multi-media technology has made audio-only products a cheap commodity.
It won’t. There will be more access and space for indie and DIY artists but one way or another the corporate dinosaurs are here to stay. Big vested interests are very good at staying as big as possible and fully vested. Note that the new download chart just happened to arrive after iTunes provided enough Major label sales (there had been indie downloads online for a decade without an “official download chart”). Next, watch as P2P is rehabilitated when Major label music services start to use it. Corporate money will always hog access to the market. Traditional broadcasting reflects the influence of big labels rather than public demand or the breadth of available content. The web offers independent spirits a diverse world but the mass market will always want its entertainment on a plate in the proper pigeonhole. The armchair nation is not clamouring for surprises.
Marillion, Radiohead, Trent Reznor, or if you want an example that wasn’t launched on a major label: Imogen Heap, Jonathan Coulton, Arctic Monkeys. I could go on. The popular record industry moan “you can’t compete with free” is rarely heard in its full form: “you can’t compete with free if nobody wants what you’ve got.” If it was even partly true, how did the record industry turnover billions of dollars again last year? Everything is available free and yet people still buy. It’s just they don’t buy CDs with filler tracks dreamed up by a marketing team in an office any more.
It is harder to sell music today, and next to impossible to sell audio on its own. But the competition isn’t free stuff, it’s computer games, DVDs, apps and all the other stuff people spend money on.
This is just one example from about a hundred quack remedies that plague my browser every day. There’s a handy trick I learned sitting through dull corporate presentations by self-important bores who had just read a book. Every supposed momentous insight can be tested for mumbo-jumbo by reversing it. If the opposite is blindingly obvious the original is clearly not worth saying. So, how about: “you don’t have to engage your fans”? Nonsense? Of course it is. Did Gilbert and Sullivan set out to provoke indifference? Beethoven? Mozart? Bach? Pat Boone? I think not. Who on Earth thinks these platitudes are worth repeating? Or even writing down in the first place? For thousands of years the point of entertainment has been… entertainment. That is page one, line one. It is not new. If it’s too deep for you please leave the music business now before you find yourself attending a seminar called “The Seven Profound Lessons Of Social Media Networks Every Viral Artist Must Know.” You’ll thank me for this warning. But if you really can’t see my point there’s a promising career for you in corporate communications. Either way, you win.
If people are indifferent to your act you can’t solve the problem by “engaging your fans”. Fans are fans. You either have them or you don’t. If you want more fans do better stuff, get it to new places that are relevant to what you’re doing. As Yoda might say “there is no engage”.
Swapping downloads for email addresses, getting the audience to tag themselves in photos, making viral videos, using the latest social networks, exchanging plugs with other bands, blogging your everyday life, etc. Sometimes these things are fine. More often they make you appear the same as every other wannabe with some tracks and a computer. Worse, they look like needy spam. You should know what your audience wants and how to reach them, although that might take a bit of thought, some time and research. You’ll never stand out by doing what everybody else is doing. You can’t stake your place in the mainstream by making more noise. Everybody else is trying that. Think about what made you a fan of the bands you love. It probably wasn’t a free wristband or an email newsletter. Racking up a massive mailing list is no different to counting your Likes on Facebook or your Followers on Twitter. Everything you do should have value. Your mailing list needs to be a list of fans not just people who downloaded a free track or followed you because they like a band you know. Who loved your gig? Who loved your music? Who loved your lyrics? That’s what matters.