music business

Shortcuts To Success

My favourite and only hobby, squash, brings to London next week the world’s top professional players to compete in the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, an annual pilgrimage for the capital’s squash nuts. Incidentally, The Animal Farm sponsors the teams at Blackheath Squash Club where I play. My squad just won promotion to Division One in Kent. It’s the highest level of squash available in our county. Cool, huh?

Squash is the new rock’nroll. Fact.

“Backstage” at a big professional squash tournament, a keen junior was “trying out” in front of the main managers and coaches in UK squash. The kid got advice on what he should work on to get to the next level in his chosen field. I listened carefully and took notes.

In my day gig young musicians ask me how to get to the next level in their field. I can’t but feel that far too often advice isn’t really on their mind. Instead, in their erroneous belief that the music business is a walled garden into which access via a secret door is controlled by “people with contacts”, they are looking for shortcuts to success.

I would have thought that it’s easy to understand how in sport it’s clear that a manager or coach can’t give a young player a shortcut to success. All they can do is to tell him what he needs to do differently and better to affect change in the way he plays the game, so he can start beating guys who are better than him.

Yeah? Just knowing Arsene Wenger isn’t going to get a Sunday league player picked for the Gunners next weekend. My mates in pro squash won’t ask me to chip in. I know and they know that at their level I’d be useless.

Explain to me like I’m a five year old why it’s so hard to transfer that same thought process to pertain to the careers of budding musicians.

Time after time it’s a very similar story: a band has taken it as far as it will go. The numbers are low, they’re not getting anywhere. They’re desperate for help. From the point of view of the person who might be able to help, the problems also are all too similar time after time.

Lack of great songs

If a band’s songs aren’t getting the people closest to them excited, people in the business will be even less impressed and punters far away won’t give a toss. The solution: write better songs. They are hard to come by and the only way to come up with any is to write lots. It’s arguable that talented writers are born, but in developing any skill improvement is incremental and takes time.

Lack of great recordings

If the band’s demos have been recorded by a mate as a project for his music production diploma, they will never ever compete with records made by professional people using professional equipment and years of professional experience. The solution: make better records with someone who knows how to make them.

Lack of a great live show

If friends and family attending the band’s pub gigs don’t go apeshit with excitement and spread the word about the next one, gigs in bigger venues won’t be “better gigs”. They will just highlight the band’s inexperience and lack of ability in front of an audience whose starting position is one of indifference. Solution: do lots of pub gigs to get great. The time to switch to a bigger venue is when the small ones sell out.

Lack of a great image and story

If nobody is reacting to a band and its product locally, more promotion and exposure will only further expose their shortcomings, highlighting them to more people. It’s the equivalent of shouting louder to get the message across. Solution: work, evolve, change, create, build, develop.

The two hurdles

There are two mistakes a band can make. One, they don’t start doing the above properly, with the help and guidance of people who know what they’re doing and care about how they do it. Bizarrely, most fall at this hurdle. Maybe they don’t believe in their own artistry enough to really commit to it, so that they people who are able to help would want to get involved. It’s far easier to play at being in a band than to actually work for it.

Those who make it over the first hurdle have in front of them a long and arduous ride. Many quit too soon. That’s the second mistake a band can make.

Over the eight or so years that I’ve been fanatically obsessed with squash, I have won our club tournament, reached finals in wider tournaments and got to represent my county. I’ve taken coaching, attended clinics and sweated buckets. I’ve spent loads of money in the process.

You might say that it’s not much of a result for eight years of playing and training 4-5 times a week. I wouldn’t disagree! ;-)

However, it’s taught me, a music man way past his prime sporting years, a lot about learning and dedication and the “cost” of doing something you really love. Much more so than when I was a young musician trying to make it in music. I didn’t think there was anything odd about my exclusively obsessive interest in music. To me it was normal to want to live and breathe it. Often, it was the only nourishment available to a broke ass musician, anyway.

To the aspiring musician reading this blog and wondering how the hell to break through to the next level, I would say that nothing should be too much, too expensive or too difficult. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way to do it.

Kurt Vonnegut has some fine words about the path.

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How Bands Earn Their Stripes

I’ve been reading Jazz Summers’ autobiography. For those who don’t know, Jazz is an artist manager with a long history that dates back to the 60s. In his book, he writes of Old Kent Road, just across the tracks from our studios, where in the 60s and 70s there were pubs on every corner and a live band playing in each one.

Musicians learned their trade playing Top 40 in pubs. People went to pubs to be entertained by bands playing familiar songs. If the band were really good, they could throw in the occasional original. Even The Beatles did it when they started out.

This entertainment scene was popular because little else existed. You certainly couldn’t while away the hours at home watching funny stuff on YouTube. Seeing a band play live was a relatively new and exciting thing back then.

My brother showed me this clip of Chickenfoot, the American supergroup featuring Chad Smith of RHCP, Sammy Hagar, Mike Anthony of Van Halen and Joe Satriani, the guitar virtuoso, covering Deep Purple’s song Highway Star.

It’s unfair to compare young dudes playing their first gigs in Camden to musicians of the highest calibre, like Chickenfoot, let alone The Beatles, but the point is that if you’re into rock music you will appreciate a performance like Chickenfoot’s. If you like a good song, you’ll like what The Beatles do.

What do you have to be into to appreciate the cacophony of bollocks happening across Camden on most nights? It’s out of time and out of tune, badly written and poorly played. The audience, a gathering of workmates, friends and family, dutifully whoop and holler in the right places, offering the worst advice ever: “You should be playing bigger and better venues.”

Read this, for good advice on getting out there.

Or this, about the state of the toilet circuit from the point of view of a venue owner and artist manager.

The Manic Shine have been building it, in countless small venues across the land. Next they’re off to Germany. It really does work, this artist development thing, you know?

Paying your dues. Earning your stripes. Such old fashioned values, are they? Answers on postcards, please, unless you’re busy watching funny stuff on YouTube.

This one is actually worth watching.

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Stand Out

The fact that there are no barriers between artists and music lovers anymore doesn’t make it any easier to forge a career in music. Making recordings and putting them into stores is dead easy, granted, but that’s not where the bar is anymore, if it ever was there.

The hardest and most important thing has always been to stand out. Doubly so in this day and age when everyone has nearly every form of entertainment ever created available to them at any given time of day for free on their mobile device.

Listen to this BBC R4 programme about the music business.

Check out the guy from the label saying that it takes a lot to be noticed; for people to want to get to know you is even harder; for them to be engaged enough to want to buy something from you takes even longer and is even harder than that and so on.

You won’t stand a chance with ok songs recorded passably. Everyone has seen that photo of the band against a brick wall. Or that video in an industrial type building.

I refer you to this video about asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen.

Stand out. What’s the worst that could happen? You might get somewhere.

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Advice On Writing Songs

New artists approach us for management advice every day of the week. It’s great to be in demand, even if it becomes a bit tedious to hear “we want bigger gigs, some festivals this summer, exposure, publicity and a bit of direction” time after time.

In most cases, the best possible advice one can give is this: come back in a month’s time with ten new song ideas. We’ll listen to them and pick the best one. We’ll work on the lyrics, melodies, riffs, chords, arrangements etc. We’ll ditch the other ideas for not being that great.

Then you go away for another month to work on that one song and to write another ten ideas. We’ll pick one, work on it and ditch the rest. This will go on for a year.

At the end of the year you will have ten good songs. Then we’ll pick a handful of them and go in the studio to work on your sound, get some vibes happening, find an agenda, an ethos, a sonic manifesto for what your music is all about.

When my brother and I were starting out, we spent all our money on studios, demoing song after song after song. We kept sending them to a producer who worked with our management. He dismissed most of them. It was a very frustrating time which went on for more than a year.

However, as a direct consequence of this activity we got the publishing deal that launched our professional careers in the UK.

I’m sure that if the internet had existed back then, we would have got impatient with our perceived lack of progress and we would have trawled the net for opportunities to wow complete strangers with the songs that didn’t wow the one guy who was interested in listening. Geddit? How charmingly stupid is that? I’m sure we would have been woop wooping on Facebook about our “big announcements” all day, like so many are doing today.

I’m no technophobe, nor do I think the good ol’ days were that special. I love technology and utilising the newest and best in it makes making a living in music a bit easier than in the old days. But the business of music, as it pertains to the artistic process, is not rocket science based on the latest technology. It’s based on great songs. If you have them, you may get a career. If you don’t, get someone else to write them for you! ;-)

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The Sound Of Your Favourite New Band

A band asked me whether or not I had contacts to people in the business who would like their music. The question itself is a hypothetical question, because there is no way of knowing how a person, even someone you know very well, will react to a piece of art. They might like it. Equally, it might leave them completely cold. Or, sort of luke warm.

The strange thing in this particular case was that the music had not yet been written or recorded.

Imagine if someone asked you to pass judgement on a song like that: one that didn’t exist. Imagine if they then asked you to imagine what others might think of it.

Crazy, huh?

Ah, but there is a reason why someone would think to ask that question. Music made according to a preconceived idea is the thinking behind the question. See, if we have these kinds of riffs and those kind of shoes, that drum sound and this haircut, this ethereal female vocalist over that chopped up beat… and we’ll get something that could be “viable”.

The dictionary definition of “viable” is “capable of working successfully”, with synonyms like “practicable”, “applicable” and “usable”.

Who the hell would want their favourite new band to sound like that?

As a long time practitioner of the art of making a living on one’s instinct, which is what the music business is all about, I urge any young artist reading this to forget their preconceptions, get out of their comfort zone, find their connection to the Universe and just let rip.

The best stuff will come out of that process, which is, in fact, an anti-process.

See “process” is defined as “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end”.

We don’t want a particular end. We want something that kicks ass, stirs the soul and feeds the spirit.

You with me?

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3 Reasons Why You’re Not Making Money With Your Music

Arguments about Spotify are all the rage with artists howling in protest about the pitiful payouts they get. Seems like every day Facebook has an open letter from a disgruntled artist who’s been asked by yet another platform to give their music away for free.

Having made a living out of making music all my life I feel rock hard solidarity with my fellow creators of art. Music is cool and its fate is not up to tech geeks and VCs out for a quick exit. It’s up to us, the creators of good vibes.

However, there’s a tangent in much of the commentary surrounding this debate I dislike. It’s that every tomdickandharry who’s ever picked up a guitar seemingly feels entitled to make money from their music. Furthermore, many are convinced that the machine is there to rip them off, that it shuns real artists for manufactured pop shit.

Contrary to popular belief, there is an army of well meaning people out here wanting to help artists achieve their dreams. Far from wanting to rip off people whose work we admire, we want to add value to it, we want to get an emotional lift from working with it.

Every single artist manager, label manager, agent, promoter etc. I know earns little more than cool vibes and good karma from their roster of emerging artists. Artist development works that way and we accept it.

Similarly, musicians who’ve been in a band for a year or three simply should not expect to make money from their music. It’s as simple as that. Most people in music never make a lot of money. Any amounts earned were, are and continue to be, unsurprisingly, proportionate to the number of stripes earned, which, in turn, are commensurate with the amount of hours put in.

The three reasons promised in the title?

1. You ain’t done it long enough.

2. Which means you ain’t doing it well enough.

3. Which means not enough people like it enough.

The cure is to work very hard for a very long time. Spend less on fags and booze. Spend more on your band. Don’t take holidays. Put money into your band. Get off Facebook. Play a scale. Don’t tag your mates in that stupid photo of the dog licking its butt. Write a song. Do every show you can get. Don’t look for opportunities to gain exposure. Look for opportunities to get better. Be nice to people. Thank them. Be positive and look to share ideas. Here’s a good idea: start now.

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Different Proclivities, Similar Outcomes

I spent a few days in Manchester at the World Squash Championship. One of the players on the professional tour organised a pass for me so I got to see my “heroes” close up in action. The routines of professional sportsmen are not entirely unlike those of professional musicians on tour.

After breakfast they all get together at the venue for some light training, to get the body working again after the previous night’s brutal physical exertions. In my world, musicians, if they make breakfast at all, tend to get rid of their hangovers – to get the body working after the previous night’s shenanigans.

Different proclivities, similar outcomes.

Working For A Living

Thereafter the day of a squash player consists mainly of waiting around. Similarly, why does the bassplayer not look out of the tour bus window in the morning? Because then there’d be nothing to do in the afternoon. Life on tour, any tour, is for the most part a tedious game of passing time.

An hour before showtime a squash player will start getting ready to play. A lot of them seem to walk around with their headphones on, in seclusion from what’s around them. Their warm up routines are extensive compared to what we do on the amateur squash circuit, where a warm up consists of a few hits of the ball and a bit of banter.

Likewise, you can spot the difference between an amateur local band and those who are serious by the thoroughness with which they treat their soundcheck and pre-show warm up. Amateurs faff around endlessly on stage and go through the alcohol on the rider. The working guys do everything methodically to make sure everything is ready for the show.

Knowledge – Listening – Application

I spoke with three of the world’s leading squash coaches about what it takes to get someone into a position to “make it” as a professional athlete. I’m interested because coaching is not entirely unlike managing or producing an artist.

The coach or manager/producer has knowledge. The player or musician has to be willing to listen. The player or musician needs to apply that advice to their work.

I sat next to a coach who was observing his player get butchered on court. When a squash player is on court getting his ass kicked, panic sets in. You know you are losing and it feels like there is nothing you can do about it. Between games the coach told his player to do X,Y and Z to change the momentum of the game. The player did exactly what he was told and won.

Meanwhile Back At The ‘Farm

Damn if it was that easy in music. Most musicians who get in touch to find answers to their problems listen very well, most agree with what you have to say, but it’s rare to find people willing to change what they do to affect the outcome of what they’re achieving. With alarmingly many it’s as if it’s everyone else’s fault and/or problem that nobody likes the records they make.

Of course, the time perspective is important. The 32 best squash players in the world at the World Championship have already trained from an early age, they have played countless of junior tournaments before graduating to “toilet circuit” pro tournaments to earn enough ranking points to make it to the big tournaments where the big boys play.

At that point they are technically and emotionally able to make changes.

In music you get to that point by “paying your dues”. It means practicing hard for years, writing countless songs, playing lots of shows, watching and learning.

Most musicians who get in touch with us think they’ve paid their dues when they’ve written a setful of songs, made a demo and played a handful of shows. When someone who has Knowledge, tells them to do more, do differently, do better, they refuse to listen or fail to apply.

I’m sure there are many young athletes who drive their coaches mad with a similar mindset. They never make it, just as the bands who have that attitude never will.

It’s All A Ride

A painful flashback came to me when I saw the disappointment on my mate’s face when he lost. I was reminded of a gig my band did at the Dublin Castle in the beginning of our career. We had put our hearts and souls into it. People in the business had come to see us and they really weren’t bothered in the slightest. The tube ride to South London was disheartening.

Learning to get up after having been rejected or having lost is hard. I maintain that there are far fewer failures of talent than there are failures of character.

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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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