Wendy Day | Helping you succeed in the music business…
My name is and I am a workaholic in the urban music industry. In 1992, I started a not-for-profit artists advocacy organization to protect, educate, support, and unify hip hop artists. Our focus is on ownership, control, and fair deals. It is time for Hip Hop artists to take back control of their own art form.
With streaming revenues rising and live performance incomes soaring these are good times for the music industry.
Unfortunately, those that write the music and words are not necessarily singing a happy tune. For example, when a major artist’s recent tour grossed $79 million, the writer of one of the songs was paid an average of just $147 for each performance. That is the harsh reality faced by the authors of some of today’s biggest hits.
It seems that songwriters can’t catch a break, and media companies are even appealing a proposed 44% royalty rate increase by the Copyright Royalty Board. But when it comes to live performance royalties, writers are really getting taken for a ride.
As has always been the case, many of the songs on the Billboard Top 100 were written through collaboration with songwriters. When those artists tour, there could be from one to dozens of songwriters who are due royalties.
Songwriters are paid for the performance of their songs. This happens via an agreement between a performance rights organization (PRO), such as BMI/ASCAP, and the associations that represent concert promoters, such as the North American Concert Promoters Association (NACPA).
Members of NACPA include entertainment monoliths AEG and Live Nation, who, along with their affiliates, control over 70% of the live concert box office in the US. While it’s understandably in their business interest to try and keep royalty rates down, this discounts the fact that the entire music industry is built upon intellectual property created by songwriters.
Under current agreements, NACPA members are only required to pay 0.8% – 0.15% of ticket sales to songwriters.
Last year, BMI sought to increase this to 1.15% of revenue. This would mean not only an increase in the rate, but also an expansion of the pool of revenue from which royalties are deducted. Proposed additions include ticket fee surcharges, secondary market ticket sales, sponsorship, advertising, box seats, VIP packages and concessions.
Unfortunately, BMI and NACPA are now tied up in court.
The plight of songwriters is cast in stark relief by the gulf between the 0.8% – 0.15% royalty in the US and compensation in other major markets. For example, in Canada the royalty is 3%, the UK pays 4.2%, France pays 8.36% and Germany pays up to 6.40%, a rate set to increase to 10% by 2020.
If that doesn’t look grim enough, let’s take the very real $147 per song example cited above and use it to paint a picture of a performance by a hypothetical a-list artist in a 20,000 capacity venue, at a $108 average ticket price.
By that math, this one performance would gross $2,160,000. Where does the money go? According to industry sources, this hypothetical artist and their management would earn nearly 30% and the venue would get the same. Once sundry interests get their piece of the cash haul, chump change is left over for the songwriter(s) of the entire set list, who would end up with just 0.15% of the gross.
Meanwhile, entertainment monoliths like those represented by NACPA would potentially share in upwards of one million dollars with an interest in booking fees, promoter, venue and management income. In our example, the entertainment monolith has shares in revenue from management, booking fees, venue and promoter costs. Their piece of the pie could in reality be as much as 55% when all is accounted for.
Let’s look at how more than $2 million – for just one stop on a tour – would get divided:
$108 ticket price x 20,000 = $2,160,000 gross revenue
Taxes 5% ($108,000)
Booking fees 10% ($216,000)
Venue/Fixed costs* 29.9% ($644,760)
Promoter 8.3% ($178,200)
Artist fee 29.9% ($631,800)
Artist manager 7% ($151,200)
Tour support** 10.5% ($226,800)
Songwriter(s) 0.15% ($3,240)
*Venue rental, venue staff, electricians, scaffolding, stage hands, insurance, etc.
**Musicians, dancers, lighting, catering, tour manager, sound engineers, roadies, hotels, transportation, etc.
The artist performing the songs is taking home a significant amount, and rightly so, but there is an astonishing disparity with what the writers are paid.
With a fee of $631,800, spread over a 22 song setlist, the artist reaps $28,681 per song. The songwriter(s) net a measly $147 per song.
Compare that with what the per-song rate would be in Canada ($2,306), the UK ($3,710), France ($6,608), and Germany ($4,962).
Considering how crucial songwriters are to the entire music industry, there is an alarming and irrational flow of monies in the live concert business. Hopefully BMI and NACPA will correct this disparity.
Regardless of how this plays out, songwriters will go begging while the money pie keeps growing: Pollstar predicts the live concert industry will be worth in excess of $31 billion by 2022. The lion’s share of that will be in the United States.
These are good times for the music industry, and it’s only fair that the writers who make it all happen get to join in the celebration.
The following op/ed comes from Los Angeles-based Chris Dampier, Head of Publishing at TuneCore, where he oversees both publishing and sync for the company. Dampier (pictured, inset) previously worked at BMI, where he was Director, Creative: Film, TV and Visual Media. He has also held positions as head of licensing at CMH Records, Inc, and Universal Music Group.
Miles Weiss ::April 2, 2019, 6:00 AM EDT :: Bloomberg News
Stephen Marley comes from music royalty. Sean Garrett has written and produced smash hits for Beyoncé, Usher and Ciara.
Even so, when they and hundreds of lesser-known names in the world of hip-hop and rap needed cash, one Wall Street figure emerged as an unlikely source behind the financing: hedge-fund titan Jamie Dinan.
Photographer: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg
In a few short years, Sound Royalties, a West Palm Beach firm started within a unit of Dinan’s York Capital Management, has become ubiquitous in the music industry. Proudly billing itself as “artist friendly,” it offers cash advances to musicians, who often have to tide themselves over between royalty checks that can take months to arrive. A big selling point is that unlike a loan, it’s quick and easy. No credit checks or hassling with banks. Just your money, fast.
There’s just one catch. While Sound Royalties doesn’t disclose how much it earns from cash advances, its fees are usually far higher than the “industry-leading” 4 percent rate it advertises online, according to court filings and interviews with ex-employees and industry insiders. Those who have reviewed the contracts say they’re hard for non-financial types to understand, and some artists can end up paying rates of 30 percent or more. And because they’re structured as advances instead of loans, state usury laws don’t apply.
Not a Loan
“That’s why they call it a fee,” says Charles Koppelman, a former financial adviser to the late Michael Jackson. He now heads C.A.K. Entertainment, which counts Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj as clients. “What they are taking is more than the law would allow if it were treated as a loan.”
It’s not hard to see why demand for royalty financing has jumped. With the possible exception of bona fide superstars, people in the music world regularly live paycheck-to-paycheck for months at a time. Many face trading away their rights to fund their careers.
And Wall Street’s interest is part of a growing trend, says Diane Standaert, director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. More and more, hedge funds and private equity firms are looking to consumer finance to reap big profits, whether it’s by charging sky-high rates, lobbying to roll back regulations or exploiting a hodgepodge of state laws.
“We certainly haven’t seen them changing the predatory nature of these practices,” Standaert says.
Granted, consumer finance by all accounts contributes just a fraction of the profits for these Wall Street firms. Nevertheless, outfits like Sound Royalties are primed for growth. After starting a $10 million pilot program in 2016, according to Billboard, Sound Royalties said in February 2017 that it would extend at least $100 million of cash advances over the next 24 months. That’s helped bring royalty financing from the fringes into the mainstream.
A spokesman for York and Dinan, who also co-owns the Milwaukee Bucks, declined to comment. Pamela Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Sound Royalties, says the firm fills a need. Its service lets artists get paid without having to cede ownership of their work, which has historically been the case.
“Traditional bank financing is largely unavailable to the creative community,” Armstrong said in a statement. “Sound Royalties proudly provides valuable access to a broad spectrum of customized funding solutions which ensure that creatives retain their copyrights.”
The music industry lends itself to such non-traditional financing. Typically, performers must wait up to nine months to receive royalties. Organizations collecting money on their behalf pay out quarterly.
The type of financing offered by Sound Royalties is a “close-to-last-resort” option for artists often struggling to make ends meet, says Derek Crownover, a Nashville entertainment lawyer who reviewed one contract. Crownover says the terms certainly aren’t the worst he’s seen in his 25 years in the music industry, but they’re emblematic of how tough the business can be. And the high rates can be partly explained by the risk an artist declares bankruptcy.
“This could be ‘artist friendly’ in our world,” he says. “That’s the irony.”
While Sound Royalties has gotten a lot of buzz in the music industry of late, the firm’s Wall Street ties aren’t widely known.
York’s involvement with the niche business of royalty financing can be traced to 2015, when its private equity arm brought in Alex Heiche to help run its structured-settlements firm called Novation Ventures, according to people familiar with its dealings, who asked not to be named because the details aren’t public. Structured settlements, a frequent target of consumer advocates and regulators, offer lump-sum payouts at steep discounts to lottery winners, disability recipients and annuity holders, in return for their ongoing payments.
Heiche, formerly an executive at a rival firm, came up with the idea to start Sound Royalties. With York’s backing, Sound Royalties became a line of business within Novation, the people say. When Novation was sold off in June, Sound Royalties was separated from the unit and wasn’t offered to SuttonPark Capital, which bought Novation, according to a person with knowledge of the sale. York and Sound Royalties declined to discuss their ties or whether Sound Royalties is still backed by York’s private equity arm. Heiche also declined to comment, according to Sound Royalties.
Photographer: Leon Bennett/Getty Images
Heiche, the public face of Sound Royalties, is described on the firm’s website as a “strong and outspoken” advocate for those in the creative world who want to be “fairly compensated for their work.” The firm’s website advertises rates starting at 4 percent on advances up to one year.
In practice, however, the firm aggressively pushed clients to take longer deals, at rates far higher than the norm, two of the people say. (Estimates vary, but they range from 5 percent on bank loans for top musicians to 10 to 20 percent for Sound Royalties’ competitors.)
Many say it’s no coincidence. Unlike most rivals, Sound Royalties adopted the structured-settlements model and its complex financing terms. The firm set up its marketing specifically to push five-year contracts, the people say, which are much more costly than industry-standard terms of 12 to 18 months.
The contracts were customized, but it generally worked like this. Sound Royalties projects how much money an artist will make over a set period, say three to seven years. It advances a percentage of that, minus an upfront fee that typically equals 10 percent. She pays back the projected amount over the life of the contract with her royalties, which bypass the artist and are sent directly to Sound Royalties.
If her royalties exceed that amount before the term expires, Sound Royalties pays her back. But if the artist falls short, she could incur additional interest until it’s repaid. The overall cost is rarely spelled out in a way that’s easy to understand. Often times, clients aren’t aware of how expensive it can be.
“They have some complicated deal structures,” says Parviz Omidvar, head of Royalty Advance Funding, a rival firm based in Beverly Hills. “Financial people and hedge fund people might be used to” such terms, he said, “but people in the music world may not be.”
Sound Royalties’ advances, ranging from $5,000 to $10 million, have nevertheless proven to be popular. Backed by York’s deep pockets and, at least until the recent sale, Novation’s large telemarketing team, over 300 people have signed up since mid-2015, state records show. One of them is Aaron Lockhart, a musician who lives in Riviera Beach, Florida, and heard about the firm through a friend. He was matter-of-fact about his high rates and didn’t take issue with Sound Royalties’ terms.
“As a musician, you have bills,” he says. My royalty checks “only get paid quarterly, so sometimes that money runs out.”
Initially, Sound Royalties sought deals tied to pop, rock and country, the most durable genres for producing royalty income, and bigger names, according to three people familiar with the firm. Clients like Larry Weiss, who wrote Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Stephen Marley, a Grammy award-winner and son of Bob Marley, UCC financing statements filed with state regulators show. Now, a large number of clients are in rap and hip-hop, like Ace Hood and Bizzy Crook, the UCC filings show.
Photographer: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Marley, Ace Hood and Bizzy Crook — whose real names are Antoine McColister and Lazaro Camejo — didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Weiss says he was “a little careless” in not reviewing the contracts more closely. After taking multiple cash advances, Sound Royalties was soon collecting all his royalty income. Weiss also wound up getting hit with a bigger tax bill than he anticipated.
The firm “didn’t really go into how the structure worked” verbally, he says, referring to how much the financing would actually cost.
Another example shows how costly it can be. Sean Garrett, whose real name is Garrett Hamler, produced and wrote a number of chart-topping hits in the 2000s. Last August, Sound Royalties agreed to advance him $44,852, minus a 10 percent fee, a copy of the contract the firm filed as part of a lawsuit against him showed. It would collect $74,174 over three years, its estimate of what Hamler would earn, with repayment front-loaded into the first year.
Cost of Financing
The overall cost of the financing, in percentage terms, appears nowhere in the 11-page document. Based on a basic interest rate calculator, it comes out to about 28 percent per year. However, the effective APR rises as high as 34 percent because the bulk of the repayment occurs early in the contract term. Depending on how it’s calculated, the cost could be upwards of 50 percent, one industry insider says. (The contract was subsequently amended after it was signed.) Hamler’s attorney, Frederick Dawkins, says his client didn’t want to comment and that Sound Royalties voluntarily dropped its complaint.
These contracts allow “songwriters or artists to get some cash when virtually no one else will give it you,” Crownover says. However, “the negatives are that the rates in some states could be usury if you do the math on it.”
While I hear many artists, musicians, and rappers complain about the low pay out for streaming, I have seen many smaller regional artists make $20,000+ in streaming income (but it takes marketing and promotions money plus hard work). They are doing the independent artist grind.
One of the reasons I’m such a fierce advocate for artists staying independent is because when they are signed to a label, they often only get 12-18% of this already low streaming income AFTER they recoup (and recoupment comes out of the artist’s share, not off the top of all income). Most artists never recoup.
Having said that, if an artist has enough music that is streaming in the marketplace, and is marketed and promoted properly, they can also get show money (performance income) and income from merchandise. This is an industry where volume matters, so the artists with the biggest fan bases can ultimately survive. The others need to supplement their income in other ways.
The real kick in the pants for most artists is finding the $150k to $500k that it often takes to market and promote themselves successfully to get to the point of making a living.
Almost all of my clients are eventually able to support themselves but it takes money, marketable music (and image), and a lot of work. In fact, they have to outwork the competition. If an artist loves making music to the point of not wanting to do anything else, there isn’t much choice. They have to succeed. Those are the ones who usually do succeed. But at what cost…
No one is as big as they used to be in the pre-internet era. No one reaches everybody, no one is known by everybody, never have individual stars meant less. Platforms are the stars, from Spotify to Facebook to Amazon.
You can be famous and broke.
If you’re not polishing your star 24/7, it’s fading. Fans can never get enough of you, the only people complaining that you’re publishing too much are those who are jealous, not fans, and want to bring you down.
You build your own star. Sure, intermediaries help, but you record on a laptop and can distribute at no cost and the means of disseminating your message are at your fingertips. If you’re waiting for someone else to do it, you’re gonna be left behind.
Charts don’t count. They’re for insiders and looky-loos.
The money is on the road, so why are you spending so much time in the studio? Every time you hit a town media explodes, both traditional and online/social network, when your album comes out you’re lucky to get a local review, and after release date, you’re in the rearview mirror.
Hits mean less than ever. Lady Gaga toured for years without one. Then again, her ability to sell tickets was based on her previous hits.
Mystery is history. If you’re not airing your dirty laundry, no one can bond to you. Yes, they want to know what you ate for breakfast. Yes, they want to know if your significant other refused sex last night. The twenty first century is a digital age wherein the humans provide humanity, one thing a chip cannot do, let your freak flag fly.
TV works for old audiences. Same deal with print/magazine/major publications. If you do not appeal to oldsters, save your time and money.
True stars can say no. Most stars cannot.
Hate goes with the territory, don’t react. Unless getting into online battles is your thing, but then you become a brand, not a musician, and brands fade faster than music.
You know what’s going on in your own silo, but not anybody else’s.
Cash is king and don’t expect your handlers to say no and forgo their percentage, that’s your job.
Don’t listen to the stories of social media stars. Their fame and income does not last, they are of the moment, their acts do not translate to other media, they are fads. And what we know online is fads eventually fade away and do not radiate. Anybody e-mail you a joke recently?
The audience is online native, connected all the time, you should be too.
Ignore anti-tech screeds. Your career is based on tech.
Major labels are a smaller slice of the pie than ever. They control a lot of hits, but almost none of the penumbra, and the penumbra is where the action is, all the genres that don’t rain down immediate cash with brain-dead youngsters.
Data is everything. It tells you who and where your fans are. You should be able to reach all of them with an e-mail or a tweet or an Instagram post.
Musicians are about content. Posting on social media without it makes you two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world. You’re selling story. A picture needs an explanation. Your whole life is a narrative, surrounding around your music.
Be yourself, don’t worry about offending those who do not care. Most likely the ones with opposite political viewpoints just want to inhibit your creativity and shut you down.
For the second year in a row, overall music consumption growth was up double digits. 2018’s total music consumption showed a 16.2% increase over 2017, which was a 12.8% growth over 2016. On-demand streaming fueled the growth in both years.
In 2018, hip hop dominated streaming by accounting for a quarter of all streams, and on the two biggest platforms (Spotify and Apple) it accounted for almost 27% of all streams. To put this in perspective, last year hip hop accounted for 22% of streamed music (in 2017), according to Buzz Angle research.
Hip Hop also dominated in video streams over at YouTube, with 22.8% of all streams. This means that out of every 100 streams at Youtube, almost 23 of them were hip hop.
Pop came in second at the audio streaming platforms with 18.5% of all streams but at YouTube, Latin music came in second with 21.8% while pop only accounted for 16.6% of Youtube streams. It would seem that fans of Latin music consume music more from the free Youtube platform than the free or paid streaming platforms currently, although Latin music is growing in popularity on the streaming platforms.
It’s no secret physical sales are declining. Best Buy has even removed CDs for sale from their stores. This is especially true with hip hop where only 3.2% of sales were in the CD format. The fans that purchased the bulk of CDs in 2018 were pop fans who accounted for 27.5% of the CD sales, while rock came in at 24.5%, and country at 16.6% of CD sales.
There were 534.62 billion on-demand audio streams in the US last year, which was up 41.8% from 2017. Music video streams were up 24.3% over 2017 with a total of 274.88 billion streams in 2018. The music business is looking healthy and on an incline again. Overall, CD sales are non-existent in hip hop (3.2% of total sales) in the US, streaming is king, and singles are way more popular than albums.
Half of all music and videos streamed, both album and single songs were 3+ years old or older. It appears people enjoy listening to music they feel is classic in all genres. The music industry calls this music (older than 156 weeks) “Deep Catalog.”
You can be ahead of the curve or behind it. It’s your choice. There’s more than enough research out here to help you make smart financial decisions regarding your music career.
All research from Buzz Angle Music “2018 Year End Report.”
This is what the internet has wrought, people flock to the popular. In a sea of chaos, you migrate to what is anointed. Therefore, Drake rules and your rock band is unknown.
For those not rich it’s important to do an attitudinal reset. Try not to get rich, try not to be a household name, focus on your fanbase, extract cash from it and depend upon these fans to spread the word and grow your audience and career. Don’t e-mail unsolicited songs to “tastemakers” and “gatekeepers,” it’s a complete waste of time. Don’t hire a publicity person. Don’t do anything but make music and post it online. And if you want to throw in some social media efforts to fan the flame of fandom, that’s good too. Bond with your audience, know who your fans are, not only with an e-mail list, but saying hi at shows. Fans will be there and do anything for you, don’t be afraid to ask. But don’t be tempted into thinking you’re just a step away from stardom, you’re not. But there’s plenty of money to be made. Instead of bitching about streaming payments, be thrilled that everybody can hear your music for free if they choose to. Chances are in the old, pre-internet era, you wouldn’t have a career at all. Play live. This is where the money is made and the fan relationship is cemented. You can make a ton of money being a semi-known. And if trends turn, there’s a chance it could be your turn for stardom, but don’t count on it.
THE MONEY IS ON THE ROAD
You can make and distribute a record without Universal, but you can’t tour without a promoter, most notably Live Nation and AEG. Michael Rapino and Jay Marciano are much more important than Lucian Grainge it’s just that the media has not caught up with this fact. The story has been about the loss of recording revenue and the recent rebound as a result of streaming, meanwhile live has been burgeoning for decades. Furthermore, live is a one of a kind experience in a digitally replicated world, it’s the difference between having sex with a significant other and masturbating to porn online. And, once you’ve made it, the promoter gives you all of the gate, whereas the label owns your recording, pays a low royalty and screws you on the payment thereof. Expect continued disruption in the recorded music space. The majors’ power is in radio and TV and newspapers, all of which mean less than ever before and will continue to shrink in power. You do need a bank, you do need a team, but not necessarily the Big Three.
STREAMING IS HERE TO STAY
If you hear anybody bitching about Spotify, stop listening to them.
THE CHARTS ARE BROKEN
The only meaningful chart is the streaming one. The Nielsen chart in “Billboard” is a complete joke, factoring in sales, streams and album equivalents and… Future players will look at it like the incomprehensible Rosetta Stone. Then again, this ridiculous chart that counts ticket bundles serves the players, anybody can be number one for a week. But it’s like winning a Grammy, people instantly forget, if they even know. We will go to a pure streaming chart, but not soon enough.
What is it? A collection of songs? Up until the internet, the length of an album was determined by technology, it was limited. Now albums can be forever! Don’t tell me about needing an LP for reviews, reviews are meaningless, across the board, in music, television and movies, even politics! It’s about word of mouth. You want to satisfy two masters, yourself and your audience. You want to create enough to satisfy yourself and put out enough material to satisfy your audience. Fans want more material. Don’t think about satiating potential fans, satiate the ones you’ve got. Keep in constant contact so they know when you’ve got a new release. Do live stuff on YouTube, Matt Nathanson put out an EP of Def Leppard covers. You may not know, you may not care, but his fans do. Take risks. But don’t get locked into the old syndrome of ten tracks every other year.
It dominates, but it won’t forever, it’s just a matter of when. Hip-hop embraced streaming when rock rejected it. Hip-hop gave it away for free when rock was bitching it could not get paid. Hip-hop is today, rock is yesterday, but what is tomorrow? Know that melody and changes and a good voice never go out of style, NEVER! That’s your easiest route to success if you’re not a rapper. Do what you want to, what you feel inside, don’t follow trends, that’s for amateurs.
THIS BEAT IS KILLING COUNTRY MUSIC
Watch this video, all ten plus minutes of it. This evidences how lowest common denominator sounds are killing popular music. Grady Smith calls it “snaps.” I call it an electronic sound that debuted in the eighties and was quickly superseded, kinda like synth solos, which Elton Johnand Keith Emerson employed and then abandoned, or maybe synth drums! This is what makes experienced listeners lament the quality of today’s music.
The music business should be much bigger than it is. But the old guard running on fumes is running on self-interest and there’s no vision. Usually we rely on artists for vision, but as a result of income inequality the best an the brightest don’t go into music and the “artists” we do have are brands, the penumbra is more important than the essence. The clothing brand, the fortified water, if you can make a buck, they say yes. Which is kind of interesting, because that’s how we got into this snit, because it used to be you could make big bucks in the music industry, whereas today you can’t. Sure, you can make millions, but techies and bankers make much more. Then again, they tend to be skilled. The great thing about music is there is no barrier to entry, but that does not mean we need lowest common denominator.
1. The Charts
It’s ridiculous. The labels utilize them for bragging rights, it’s an insiders’ game, but the public is exposed to the chart every week in the media. This is not the pure dollar chart of film, that’s the streaming numbers. Rather this is a manipulated chart of streams and sales, but it’s even worse, now you get to number one by add-ons, tickets, merch, to the point where the chart is completely meaningless. Truly. It’s a disservice to our business, because for many people that’s the touchpoint they experience.
2. Streaming Top 50
If streaming is the new radio, isn’t there a responsibility to expose the public to new artists?
Oh, they call that the playlist. Where you have to wade through excrement to get to the good stuff.
We need a new chart that will illuminate that which is happening even if it’s not streaming tonnage. Don’t tell me about the viral chart, the backwaters, I’m talking front page. The streaming service has a responsibility to break artists.
3. Streaming Top 50-2
It’s all hip-hop, and fifty percent of the public hates hip-hop. So they’re left out?
4. Tour numbers
This is what the public should be seeing. But they don’t. Except for year-end totals. If you see something is happening in Denver or across our country, you’re inclined to check it out.
5. Tower of Babel
People want to belong, they want to converse about music. But with so many niche acts, however large, this cannot happen.
6. The acts themselves.
No one is shooting for the moon, no one is saying no. I’ll say it another time, Adele is so big because she said no. At first she played small buildings, paperless. She turned down sponsorships. And she’s still white hot. Sam Smith played arenas on his first tour and suddenly he’s ice cold. It’s about building a fan base that will support you.
7. Acts 2
The business people run the business, not the acts. I know, I know, we keep paying fealty to the acts, but believe me, no one’s so hot that they can’t be replaced. Taylor Swift was big before she went pop. Then she lost the plot, she was suddenly me-too. Foo Fighters are working class at best. All the acts listen to their handlers. And the handlers want to get paid! So they tell the act to do things against their interest, the manager can always get another act, as for the act itself…good luck reinventing yourself.
So what we need is a handful of acts that have universal mindshare based on their music. Kanye has turned into a cartoon. It’s more about sneakers than tracks. The music needs to stand on its own legs. But we are not encouraging those acts, because we’re too involved in milking the past and brand extensions of those with any mindshare. So the music business thinks it’s winning, when the truth is it’s losing, it keeps edging further and further from top of mind. At best, the music is grease, background for a videogame. It used to be primary, but to be primary the track has to be exceptional and everybody has to get behind promoting it.
The Grammys are completely irrelevant. Because of the Balkanization of the business. No one is a fan of all these acts. Expect ratings to be horrific. The Grammy organization is on its way to cult status, especially after CBS fails to renew its TV contract. There are too many categories with too many awards. But a bright spot is Brandi Carlile. This is the future of the business. She’s been around for years, was on a major label and then not.
But then she recorded “The Joke.”
It only takes one track, but it’s really hard to write and record one. But somehow, despite being a non-player in the traditional infrastructure, the TV, the press, the stuff labels do that is ignored, Brandi succeeded via word of mouth, like Chris Stapleton before her. Meanwhile, everybody in Nashville keeps lauding Stapleton but on the coasts we’re into edgy crap that most people can’t relate to. But Brandi can sing and wrote a song with a message that she executed extremely well.
This used to be the formula. We were looking for home runs.
Now a bunt suffices. Most of the acts selling few tickets don’t deserve to sell more, the music isn’t good enough.
As for what we call home runs… It’s positively niche.
If Brandi wins, it’ll be like Bonnie Raittthirty years ago. People who had no interest will glom on to the music. But they’re not glomming on to most of what we’re purveying, ever wonder why?
We’re setting our sights too low.
No one is willing to sacrifice.
It’s still a street business in a tech era.
We need more acts that can appeal to more people. It’s just that simple. And when we’ve got them, the music business will matter once again. Right now it’s cruising along, raining down bucks, but it does not matter.
Not that anybody in the business will acknowledge that.
A hit is something you can’t get out of your head, that you have to play again and again. In the old days it meant twisting the radio dial till you could hear it, or running to the record store to buy it, now it involves going online to stream it. A hit may or may not be played on the radio. A hit may or may not be in the Spotify Top 50. But a hit engenders conversation, you tell everybody you know about it, you implore them to listen to it, to feel the joy, to become part of the club. Every musical act should strive to write a hit. You know it when you do it, after you have some experience that is. At first you believe everything you do is a hit. But as you acquire skill you realize hits are hard to come by. Sometimes a hit is in the song, sometimes a hit is in the recording. Or sometimes it’s both. True hits don’t sound like anything that came before, they might be a synthesis of what once was, or reference what once was, but the public is excited by the new and different, that will never change. A hit can be a an album cut. A hit can have no album. People know when they hear a hit, they smile, they become energized, sometimes they dance. The music envelops them, changes their view, the outside world disappears, although maybe the tune might make people think about an old love or an old experience from their life. You can play the radio game, but at this point in time terrestrial stations are lost in the past, like the CD. They don’t go on records unless you have a track record. They don’t play anything but that which sounds similar to what they’re already playing. Streaming focuses on hip-hop, you can follow the trend or go another way. If you go your own way you cannot bitch about people not playing your cut. The goal is to see whether listenership increases. That’s what’s so great about streaming, you can see it, in real time. If someone buys something, you can never know whether they played it or not. Even if a hit is a sleeper, if it’s not adopted by the audience right away, if you know a track is brilliant your audience will ultimately adopt it, even though that may take years. Today it’s best not to second-guess the market, in a world where consumers are in control. Promote the hit, not the song that is upbeat or what is like what middlemen are focusing on. Also, do not bitch if you cannot write a hit, it’s your fault, not the audience’s. The audience is never wrong, if they hear something great they eventually adopt it. And history is littered with cuts that were not chart hits, did not get much radio play, if any at all, and are still hits. People talk about Tesla because it creates hits, no one talks about the Chevy Cruze. You talk about “The Bodyguard,” not the shows the media tells you to pay attention to. And why should anybody in the media be an expert on music? The audience knows. Sure, if you’re cutting edge and different traction might take a while. And there are acts plying the boards making reasonable money who’ve never written a hit. But when you record a hit, your whole world changes, everybody wants a piece of you. Go for it.
You’re now a musician. Ignore the hit parade. Spotify Top 50 is a miniscule cult. Yours might be even tinier but own it. If you believe you’re on the road to stardom, get out of the car right now, because that’s not how we play it these days. You can set yourself on fire and own the news cycle for half a day if you’re lucky, then again, most news outlets won’t cover it unless you’re already a star and then you’ll be dead, so what is it worth?
Practice. Get good at your craft. Keep your nose to the ground. Get better. Gain an audience. Try to grow it.
Dreams of private jets, models, debauchery, making it rain in nightclubs… That’s for athletes, not musicians. There are fewer athletes. And a whole bunch of them aren’t stars either. But there’s a whole slew of musicians. And the public is overwhelmed and distracted, people only see music as one option.
So don’t think about creating the hit. Ignore all the advice about having numerous hooks and grabbing the listener instantly, those are people trying to game an ungamable system.
It’s like in the old days. An album is evidence of your work. No one may buy it, few may stream it, one thing’s for sure, you’re not gonna make much money on it, it’s just one part of your portfolio. Think about your recorded work as your LinkedIn profile, a job resume. You’re seeking listeners, and trying to hold on to the ones you’ve got.
So you want a steady stream of product and innovative live shows… If you’re doing the same set every night, the joke is on you. You want people traveling to different cities to experience different shows. You want to engender curiosity. You want to be alive and breathing as opposed to dead. Eliminate the hard drives, truth is your friend, mistakes keep you honest, show that you’re still striving for excellence, and the public forgives errors, they want to get closer to a living, breathing person. Forget comping the vocals, making it perfect, that eliminates all the humanity, and slickness is history these days, that’s why events are so popular, they’re living and breathing and different with ups and downs. You can make it perfect, but they don’t want it perfect.
Sure, some people play the game and create perfumes and sell out to the corporations, but they are very few in number. And really, they’re little different from the Top Forty acts of yore, you always knew the rewards were with the other, if you’re not testing limits, people will avoid you. If you’re repeating yourself, you’re not growing. Don’t reside in a living hell, release yourself.
Your goal is to support yourself making music, nothing more.
And if you make it, it’s gonna take a really long time. Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch told me this, that it takes ten years for a rock act to make it, their band Foals just went into royalties after a decade. They also said that rock bands last when everything else does not.
Think about that, whether you create rock music or a different genre, the key is to last.
This is what the internet has wrought, this is what streaming has wrought, with everything available at your fingertips, nothing stands out, despite all the hoopla and hype. Come on, the newspaper prints the chart…BUT WHO READS THE NEWSPAPER? As for reviews…I hope your mother sees them, because that’s about all they’re good for.
You’re a musician first and foremost. See where it leads you.
And speak from your heart. Channel the gods. That’ll give you your best chance to make it to the middle.
Where most acts will reside, if not lower. The superstar game is for wusses. Just like back in ’68, all the action was in albums with no singles on FM. And then that sound took over.
I can’t tell you what sound will win. Actually, there’s room for all of ’em. Just know that inspiration is king. And don’t filter yourself. And have the skills which allow you to execute the sound in your head. And know that social media for promotion is overrated. You speak to your fans and then they grow your career. That’s all anybody trusts anymore, other people with no investment. This is what this decade of social media salesmanship has wrought, an entire populace that ignores it, despite those involved and reporting on it hyping it.
Ignore the hype. Get busy. We want to hear what you have to say.