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.
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.
Have you ever wondered how an artist’s content has been performing on Pandora but couldn’t find the data you were looking for? Up until recently, Pandora data was only visible to an artist and their manager and label. In an industry where stream counts are an important measure of an artist’s success, the inaccessibility of this data publicly has meant that Pandora’s important role in many artists’ career trajectories has gone unnoticed.
We’re excited to announce that today marks the final wave of Pandora data being publicly unveiled in Next Big Sound. Now, the Releases, Reach, and Engagement sections of the profile will show Pandora metrics like Radio Spins, Interactive Plays, Thumbs Up, and Station Adds for every artist on Pandora and each of their tracks. Those same metrics are available to all Next Big Sound users in their email notifications and Weekly Report emails for artists that they follow.
Let’s look at an example of how the availability of Pandora data can change the game for an emerging artist, or for anyone who wants to work with one. Take Atlanta rapper Lil Donald, who’s been around since 2014, but is quietly having a breakout year. If you’ve been following our Predictions Chart, you’ve known about him since he debuted there back in April. And maybe you saw him graduate from Predictions to Trendsetters chart in August.
From there, you might have looked him up on Spotify and seen he’s got about 250,000 Monthly Listeners. His latest single “Suicide” has a little over 100,000 plays there, plus a million views on Youtube and another 80,000 Soundcloud streams. But how’s he doing on Pandora? Now you can go to his Next Big Sound profile to find out.
At the very top of the profile we can see that Lil Donald’s got 2 million Unique Listeners on Pandora for the last 28 days.
A great way to put the high-level Unique Listener and Stream counts into context is to scroll down to Weekly Performance section. We know Lil Donald is on the Trendsetters chart, so it’s no surprise to see he’s on fire this week, massively outperforming the expected number of Thumbs Up per Radio Spin.
So which songs are driving all this success, anyway? We can learn about how the streams break down by scrolling further down to the Releases section.
A quick look shows us that Lil Donald’s streams are entirely driven by his new singles. “Do Better”, released in July, has a whopping 11 million streams, enough to debut on Top Spins September 7. Many of those are Radio Spins, so we can click the metric dropdown and choose Pandora Interactive Plays to hone in on that metric specifically. The numbers are still impressive: “Suicide” has 50,000 total Interactive Plays.
What if all those Radio Spins are just passive listening? A great Pandora metric we can use to see how closely an audience is engaged with what they’re hearing is Station Adds — fans who add an Artist’s station are setting up a whole listening experience modeled around that artist’s sound. In the Reach section, we find that Lil Donald’s had about 3,000 people add his Artist Station or one of his Track Stations this week. And last week too. Overall, he’s got over 60,000 Station Owners — and his growth rate is in the 99th percentile.
Curious how you might be able to stay in the loop with how Lil Donald or other emerging artists are doing? By clicking the Follow button in the top left corner of an artist profile, you can get updates on that artist’s performance on Pandora in our Weekly Report. You’ll even receive Notifications when we identify notable spikes for that artist on Pandora and the other social sources connected.
Now that Pandora data is available to anyone with a Next Big Sound account (for those of you not already signed up, it’s free!), we think there are going to be a lot more cases like Lil Donald on the industry’s radar. So start digging around Next Big Sound to see who’s blowing up on Pandora. We’re excited to see what you find!
I am asked all the time why some of my projects do better than artists with more experience, or more talent, or more money invested. I’m not sure why, but here’s what we do for every release whether it’s a song, video, or whole project. Of course the things we choose to do change depending on the target market, type of music, budget, region, time of year, etc, but this gives you a general overview of how my clients drop music.
Before dropping a single, we do some set up for the release and we build the artists social media numbers, legitimately with real followers. We find a prominent blog or website to exclusively premiere the song (XXL, WorldStar, Hot New HipHop, etc). We usually do this a week or two ahead because once the song is released, we can not get a premiere. We determine in our negotiation with the site how far in advance of everyone else they get it—for example, it might be exclusive to them for an hour, it might be a day. We do this with music AND videos whenever we decide to release something.
We make certain the metadata and artwork are complete for clean and dirty versions (wav file and mp3). The metadata is super important for the DJs and the DSPs (Digital Service Providers, which are Spotify, Apple, Tidal, etc) so when someone searches for the song, anywhere (even on Google) it comes up fast and at the top of the search. We upload the song to the distributor as far in advance as possible, ideally 4-5 weeks or so (more about this later).
A publicist (or the artist if he or she has relationships with bloggers) sends the song to each writer and editor at blogs individually (no mass emails) to let them know the song or video is dropping. We usually have these prepared ahead of time and send them out after the “exclusive premiere” time has passed. Some blogs, where we have relationships, we will send the song ahead of time and tell them not to post before a certain day and time (after the exclusive premiere time has passed). This is based solely on trust and relationships. If someone jumps the premiere date/time it’s a HUGE problem, so we can’t give it to someone who might release it early. Hence, trust and relationships!
The audio version of the single gets uploaded to YouTube, SoundCloud, and all of the free mixtape platforms. A campaign is usually launched around the platforms consisting of count downs and front page banners and positioning. We often pay to keep the release on the front page for a few weeks to increase awareness of the new release.
For a video, we hire a video promo team about 2 weeks ahead to set up a premiere at BET. And then they service to all video outlets (Fuse, MTV Africa, Revolt, etc), all stores that show videos (FootLocker, Hot Topic, LA Fitness, etc) to play after the BET premiere date and time.
The blogs, DJs, streets, and clubs are serviced and the artist follows up with in-person visits to those DJs confirming they are a priority and the song is a priority. Everyone wants to feel special and appreciated by the artist and their team.
Usually, we roll out the single first to the DJs who were most supportive of the last single so they feel gratitude (or reciprocity) for them going hard the last time. Drops are usually serviced to them at this time so they don’t have to ask. In some cases, special versions of the song are made quoting the name of the DJ or the mixshow in the song, if the DJ has been super supportive.
The song is placed on any key mixtapes that still exist and key playlists. We usually ask the email blasters to blast out the single at the same time on the same day.
The goal is to do all of this as close to simultaneously as possible so no one feels left out (DJs can be very touchy about this) and so the launch feels bigger than life. The goal is to reach new people with the release as well as current fans. The planned and well-timed release makes it hit as many places at once, all at the same time. When people see/hear the repetitive message or consistency of the release, they associate the organized effort with “being larger than life.” The closer an indie artist can come to looking like he had a major label release, the bigger the artist appears to fans. This “larger than life” look often attracts fans who don’t support new/indie/unsigned artists and only pay attention to stars and big releases. The goal is to get as many eyes and ears on a new release as possible, as cheaply as possible. And it’s extra crucial when there’s no big budget behind a release so it spreads as fast as possible.
If there’s a big budget, we immediately flood the streets with flyers and posters so the song is inescapable. Sometimes it’s the big launch that sweeps the DJs in, even more than the music does. Sometimes if they assume there’s a big push behind a project they feel obligated to support it. You’ll often see Rappers trolling on social media or getting arrested for something stupid to bring more eyeballs to their movement. Some do events like pop up shops, charity events, listening parties, release parties, etc—whatever they can do to bring more attention to the release day/week.
And lastly, there’s almost always a digital campaign behind the release. Both an influencer campaign and some social media marketing (google, Facebook, and Instagram ads). We often run Twitter, SoundCloud, Facebook, and Instagram boosts, as well as ads, to bring new eyeballs to the excitement of a new release. We NEVER buy fake views, fake followers, or fake likes. Not ever. We want real people in the artist’s region to support the artist. Not bots from overseas.
The momentum of everything above is key. I can not stress timing enough. Ideally, we want this timed so everything hits at the same time. Once we submit the song or album to the distributor, it takes 4-5 weeks (to get it into their pitching system for playlists. My clients rarely have their music a month ahead, and the fastest we can ever get the song for sale is 3-5 days, but we always have the song available for sale and streaming before we drop the song/video to the public).
We almost always have the video shot and ready to release prior to dropping the song, so we can plan when to best release the video. We have the lyrics up on Genius and Apple Music before the song or video drops, and we usually have interviews at blogs set up for the week of release.
This doesn’t mean this is the only way to put out music, it just means this is why my clients’ projects tend to do better than most projects in the marketplace. Anyone can have success with one release, but can you do it repeatedly.
We stalk the data and dashboards (stats) to track the movement of the release to see how fans are reacting to it. We watch Pandora and Shazam, as well as SoundCloud, Apple Music, Spotify, and every social media platform. The distributor’s dashboard is often very helpful. This data often determines how much more money we invest into a project. If it’s growing legs, we feed it. If not, we regroup and drop another song. We let the fans tell us what’s hot and what’s not. And we make sure we are properly funded before starting. This is a very expensive industry. Dropping music without a marketing and promotional push is often useless and irresponsible.
I love what I do. After 26 years, staying relevant isn’t easy, but very necessary, since artists put their careers and livelihood in my hands. Things change very fast in this industry. So fast, in fact, that this article will be irrelevant in 6-9 months.