music business

An Idea For A Dissertation

From time to time university students on music business management courses contact me to ask questions about their dissertations. Most of them deal with the changing landscape of music, new consumption models, monetisation, new paradigm, blahblahblah.

I would love to suggest an idea for a dissertation.

Why Do Musicians Who Aren’t Any Good Think They Will Get A Career In Music?

Comedians will only make it if they’re very funny. They know they are funny when people laugh. Sportsmen only make it if they’re better than the other players. They know that to be the case when they win.

What is the psychological trick that makes most of us think that as soon as we’ve learned to strum a twanger we’re on par with or better than every band at Glastonbury?

Mind you, at this year’s Glasto the band with the most career hours ruined the theory that practice makes perfect. ;-)

In all seriousness, it would be interesting to find out about the psychology involved in self deception and what feeds it.

I’m a parent. At school concerts doting parents lavishly praise their kids’ talent. It’s more important to reward people for hard work than it is to praise people for their “talent”. The former leads to people wanting to work hard, the latter makes a guy lazy, because he believes he’s got what it takes already.

In reality, when someone has, over the course of a couple of afternoons, managed to just about memorise the tune, but not all the words, I don’t see how it qualifies as hard work.

In two decades of making music for a living I’ve concluded that everything I’ve ever had any kind of modest success with was really hard to come by. Success is impossible to attain on your spare time, winging it, kinda… “Yeah, cool man, where’s my prize for showing up?”

A university course in music that demands 2-3 days of work a week is woefully inadequate. Kids shouldn’t be encouraged to spend ten grand on an inadequate degree that doesn’t qualify them for a job that doesn’t exist. The system is not joined up in its thinking, except that it makes good money for the schools. That bit has been figured out really well. The system always wins.

Other questions integral to our hypothesis are:

Why Won’t People Learn To Play?

Not being able to play in time and in tune is not rock’n'roll, man. Indeed, the cats who invented rock’n'roll, man, were the baddest, meanest players of their generation. Those who followed in their footsteps also moved culture forward with their skill, musicianship and artistic integrity and innovation.

Why Is It That People Can’t Hear How Rubbish Their Songs Are?

I make a modest income from writing songs. 99 out of 100 of them are no good. It’s the one that makes all the dough. If you study the careers of extremely successful artists, you can sum most of them up with less than a handful of career making songs. The Beatles and Abba are the exceptions to the rule.

Why Is It That People Can’t Hear How Awful Their Recordings Sound?

We are used to hearing great sounding records. These days there is just no excuse for a bad sounding recording. It has no place in the public domain.

Quality costs money. It takes time to develop it. It is very difficult to get there.

When you go on stage you have to deceive yourself into thinking that you’re baddest cat alive. But when you get off, you must accept the opposite, grab the bull by the horns and get better.

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Value Added Talent

The great American author Jack London wrote that it was an important moment for him as a young writer to realise that his passion and desire to be a writer wasn’t enough. He had to learn to write something that other people would love.

Eventually Jack London became one of the first writers to get seriously rich from writing. His career coincided with big technological advances in printing, the growth of the magazine business, which became a big source of income and fame for writers.

Technology plays a big part in the music business, too.

Meanwhile Back In The Jungle…

Many demos we receive are decent recordings performed to a more or less technically acceptable standard. Technology has made it possible for everyone.

When you discuss options to move forward a band will usually insist that if only someone would give them a chance for more exposure and bigger gigs, everything would change, because they have the talent, desire, passion and belief to succeed.

Talent, desire, passion and belief (TDPB) don’t matter as long as you don’t have the skill to make something that is more than technically acceptable, something that other people love.

Value Added Talent

TDPB will hopefully drive you to excel in the art of making music, attracting others to help you in your quest.

Jack London, too, got help from others. He would have had input from editors, who, as the name suggests, edit a writer’s work. You could call that guy a producer in music biz terms. He also bought plot ideas from other writers. You could call it co-writing.

People get involved in other people’s careers in a value chain that creates, for lack of a better word, the magic.

The end result is something that other people love. Then we get the better and bigger gigs and the exposure and all that shit. At that point, we may order the Porsches.

Make mine red, please.


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Gigs For The Boys

When was the last time you thought about whether or not you should do a gig you were offered? Is it really worth doing? Will there be people there? The cost of petrol alone… we might not cover our costs.

Perfectly legit.

Consider the alternative: if you don’t go you won’t play to anyone new, not one new person. How is that helpful to you? If you don’t go, you will spend money anyway. Mainly on drink and other kicks. You lose money (which is not to say that investing in booze and stuff isn’t a good idea!) without any benefit.

Not doing a gig is worse, every time.

You can point to a few bands who were discovered and got deals, the right supports etc. They didn’t do the shit gigs.

Or you can point to many more such bands who were dropped immediately thereafter when the general public went: nah, it’s shit.

By not doing the groundwork you’re only postponing the problem. Trouble is that the public aren’t too keen on paying money to see you learn.

Not doing a gig is worse, every time.

Put the hours in. It’s not supposed to be easy or instantly gratifying. On the contrary, it’s supposed to be hard and very frustrating. That’s how you separate the men from the boys.




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Music Connected

Last week The Animal Farm digital marketing crew attended Music Connected, the annual one day conference on the state of digital services in music. Put together by AIM, the umbrella organisation of indie labels of which we are members, it rounds up anything that’s new and/or important in the business of marketing music in the digital sphere and connects those involved.

Present were many companies with impeccably grand mission statements about multiplatformusergenerateddirecttofanmonetisation. How on earth did we manage to enjoy music before the internet? Was it even possible? Was it just a dream?

One thing is for sure.

If I was in a band today I would relish the available opportunities to make and market my music. With no one stopping anyone from doing anything, I would feel liberated and excited about the avenues open to me.

Sure, it’s still just as hard, or even harder, to impress people with music as it ever was. But the thing to understand is that there are no barriers left between your music and a potential fan. If you’re not making many fans, it’s because the record stinks. But that’s another story.

Ironically for an indie conference, the first three artists mentioned by panelists were indie darlings Metallica, Paul McCartney and Radiohead. Their digital campaigns had us secretly wishing we had a tenth, a hundreth of their money to work with.

Looking For A Patron Of The Arts

In conferences like these there is always a lot of rhetoric about supporting artists. I find that kind of language ever so slightly misleading and hypocritical. An emperor or a church may have been rich enough to be a patron of the arts. A government has that kind of money. But a wee little label has to make money in order to survive. Forget obscene profits, most of us struggle to make enough money to cover the overhead.

Don’t forget that emperors and churches exacted a heavy price for their money: the art they commissioned had to glorify the money man. If your patron is the public, as it often is, then they have to like what you do, if you want to survive.

Metallica and Paul McCartney, people really like what they do.

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Looking For Management

I made an important discovery today. Readers of this blog may know about my unrelenting passion for the racket sport of squash. So great is my enthusiasm that a few years back I took the official course to become a qualified squash coach. One of the guys I coach said to me today that as a result of the things I’ve told him he’s now beating people he used to lose to. He’s taken what I’ve said on board and worked on it over many games, practice sessions and lessons. The results are, if not career making, very rewarding on a personal amateur level nonetheless.

In my day job of running an artist management company I often speak with artists looking for management. If I like the band, I end up offering advice, guidance and suggestions as to what to do next. A lot of it centres around writing better songs, making better records and playing more small gigs. Granted, the message is decidedly unglamorous and positively work ethic oriented.

Incidentally, so is squash. At a tournament in which I played last year there were also proper athletes in the main draw competing for professional ranking points. They slept on the floor of the squash court over the three day tournament, because they couldn’t afford a hotel. It’s a little bit like a band touring on the toilet circuit.

Anyway, I digress. Giving management advice is a little bit like giving coaching advice. A coach or a manager can only say what the other fellow should do, he can advise on the process of how to affect change. In order for progress to take place, it’s up to the other the fellow to actually do it. He has to do things differently to how he’s done things before, so that he starts getting what he hasn’t been getting.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

How surprised would you be if I told you that many artists who approach us don’t actually want to do anything like write better songs, make better records and play lots of small shows? They will say: “We understand what you’re saying and we basically agree, but we’re not looking for that. What we’re really looking for is management. Could we just have a bit of that, please. Without the other stuff.”

I would understand it if it was coming from a successful artist with a career to manage. But when it comes from a struggling band who approached us to get a career happening, I wonder what they think management is. Magic? Sorcery? The ability to make people like music by sheer force of will?

It’s no good pointing out that nothing is happening in their career because the songs are average, the recordings are poor and they’ve not done enough gigs to make them a great live act. The management advice of encouraging them to change these defects is ignored. Instead, they want… management.

It’s as if I went to squash coach saying that I want to become a better player, but I refused to work on my basic drives, drop shots and volleys. I suppose I could really really really wish hard to become a better player.

Incidentally, I spent a few days last summer training with one of the best coaches in the world. While I was practicing 101 stuff, he said one thing that changed the way think about how I play. He said not to hit the ball so violently. The word ‘ violently ‘ made me re-evaluate my game.

I wonder if there are any words that would make a young band re-evaluate their game. Got any?

Ah, but then again..

“I am not young enough to know everything.”
- Oscar Wilde

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Touring Makes Perfect

Two of our bands, iremembertapes. and Violet Bones, just spent a week touring in Germany. I joined them in Munich where the tour finished at Backstage, one of the city’s main rock venues. The place was packed and our guys did really well.

Both bands have toured most of the toilet circuit in the UK for a while now. Last September, following deals we’d got for their albums, we took the bands to Reeperbahn Festival to showcase them to German agencies. The bands blew the roof off and got multiple offers. As a direct result they did last week’s tour and will return to Germany in May for a longer stint.

Bands who’ve done a bit of gigging swear on the eyes of their (yet) unborn children that they are amazing live and all they need is to play in front of bigger crowds to make it. It’s just such bullshit. I don’t mind good bragging, but honestly, the difference between the level of live prowess of, say IRT and Violet Bones, and the level of live prowess of most “gig ready” bands is huge.

It’s incredibly hard to walk in front of a new crowd as an unknown band and make new fans. By working in loads of small venues playing to five men and a dog both IRT and Violet Bones have made the transition from being bands with potential to ones that are actually really good.

Of course, the road is long…. I remember seeing an acoustic solo show by Bruce Springsteen in 1996. He had all four thousand of us in the palm of his hand for two hours. It was an incredible ride.

Fast forward to SXSW 2012 where he said in his keynote speech that by the time he started touring nationally he’d been in a bar band for four years, playing 5 x 45 on five nights a week. He’d learned his craft so that by the time the tours came he was “an unstoppable hurricane”.

Indeed, we’ve a way to go yet, but it was such a pleasure to see our collective efforts bear fruit in Munich last weekend.

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Smokin’, Drinkin’ And Writin’ Tunes

Bands looking to get to the next level have an impressive array of marketing, social media and promotion tools with which to gain exposure. It rarely occurs to anyone that no matter how much effort you put into it, most marketing messages fail to penetrate people’s psychological buffer systems.

That’s because people aren’t that bothered about anything less than remarkable.

If anyone really cared for honest advice they would spend all their free time on writing songs and doing gigs.

Playing a gig every week for a year is 52 times better than any Facebook campaign. Playing one twice a week makes over a hundred shows a year and even if it’s like going to work only a couple of days a week, it will help make a band a remarkable live act. Being remarkable live is exciting.

A band who writes a song every week will write 52 songs in a year. If they really work at it, they will be able to write 2-3 songs a week. Chances are that in a catalogue of over 100 songs there will be 10 good ones and one or two that are remarkable. Remarkable songs are exciting.

What if rather than sit in front of a computer screen thinking about fan engagement, we all picked up our chosen instrument and engaged with our muse instead?

Heretical? Good.

Sure, promo is fun and important, but, hey… c’mon… surely it’s WAY MORE FUN playing guitar, smokin’, drinkin’ and writin’ tunes. Isn’t it?

It’s also way more important and far far far more likely to bring us success than any marketing strategy ever.

The Manic Shine are doing just that.

Go see them on this tour. They are amazing live.

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It’s Hard To Find Bands To Sign

Earlier today I had an interesting conference call with a bunch of people I’d met in Midem a couple of weeks ago. This was the second time during these past weeks that I heard people in the business speaking of the difficulty of finding bands to work with. Certainly, there is no shortage of bands. But there is a shortage of great stuff.

This video says it all.

If the audience isn’t growing, it’s because you stink.

Put that in your book.

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