Meeting people who work in the business of music is hard work, especially when it happens at conferences like Reeperbahn Festival, from where we’ve just come back. We had back to back 30 minute meetings from breakfast until early evening for three days running. That’s a lot of talk, lots of flesh pressed, lots of banter, bullshit and bragging.
This woman came up to me on the third day saying that she’d been following me out of the corner of her eye and wondered who this gentleman was who “seems to know everybody and to whom everybody comes to talk”.
My moment of stardom was brief and bemusing.
Speaking with one’s peers about the business confirms that no one is alone with their problems. It doesn’t make the problems any easier to solve, but one thing is clear: there is no conspiracy.
No one has the keys to the walled garden that is the music business. The garden just doesn’t exist. There is a network of people, however, where everyone knows everyone and we’d all love to do stuff together.
But when we walk into a conference like Reeperbahn, the sheer quantity of acts overwhelms you. With scores of bands playing in just as many venues across the city at the same time, who do you go see? With even more bands being championed by flocks of managers from all corners of the world, who do you pick?
If bands could be flies on the wall at conferences like these they’d understand what they need to do to have even the smallest chance to make it.
1. Be Unique
Stand out from the crowd. Whatever it is you do, make sure that you are remarkable – worth remarking on. This will get you noticed.
2. Have Great Product
Once you get noticed it doesn’t matter one fucking bit what some manager says about you if the material and the record isn’t great. Honestly, spend ALL your time, money and resources on making great product. Without it your manager is a wanker. With it he’s a genius.
3. Keep Doing It
When your great product is being noticed by people, please understand and accept that they have their existing projects at the forefront of their minds. Your time will come. It may take time until the train stops in front of you. Make sure you are still there so you can hop on.
4. Say Yes
Whoever makes you an offer does so for a reason: they like what you do and they want to create something bigger and better out of it than what you’re capable of doing on your own. It’s called adding value. If you don’t add value to what you’re doing, you will always just appeal to the people you are appealing to right now. They won’t stick around forever, because they will tire of what you do. You won’t get many opportunities to add value to what you do. Say yes when you get the chance.
5. Be Unique
This is so important that it has to be mentioned twice.
My cousin is a business angel and a business consultant. He advises new companies and sometimes invests in them. I met him for a drink recently and he told me the five questions he asks of any new business venture.
1. What do you do?
2. What do you sell?
3. How do you make money with it?
4. What’s the process by which you do what you do?
5. Who are the people in charge of the process?
Apparently, if a business can’t answer these it won’t survive. Only an idiot will invest in it.
At Reeperbahn and other music conferences there are always people with very innovative ideas for new businesses that offer solutions to problems I don’t have. You meet them in the bar in the wee hours and they bore you to death with their ideas.
You can jovially extend the above five points to apply to a band.
The first one is easy. We make music. There’s a bit more to it, of course. We provide the soundtrack to growing up, to getting laid, to rebelling at school etc. We provide a code for behaviour, dressing up, shoes and haircuts. We are part of the cultural glue that binds people together and makes them feel awesome.
Many at Reeperbahn were, at best, nice clones of what already is. Far too many weren’t even that. Either way, I struggle to see why they would make kids wanna fuck ass, as the erudite NY a&r man said once about his preferred reaction to any record he put out.
The second: we sell physical product like vinyl and CDs, we sell downloads, streams etc. We sell concert tickets. Merch. Syncs. Plays on radio.
Each one of these is sold as a transaction from us to an end user with many people in between taking their cut in return for the work they do to connect what we sell with the people willing to buy it from us.
Making money with it is hard. If we only sell let’s say 20 concert tickets, no proper promoter will want to know about us. We are stuck with not so nice venues. Our sales being that low we won’t be of interest to anyone in the food chain of music. Of course, if we add a couple of zeros to our sales, we will be of interest to a whole bunch of people. Even one more zero will make a huge difference.
There’s a certain element of chicken and egg at play here, but let’s not focus on that. Let’s just agree that making money out of what we sell is directly proportionate to how many people are willing to buy it from us, which, in turn, is directly proportionate to how well we do what it is we do.
In other words, we have to be culturally awesome and exciting.
The process that makes all this happen begins in our bedrooms where we crank out some killer ideas.
Then we take it to a rehearsal room and share it with our band mates. >From there to a demo studio or a home setup. Then a producer steps in with his ideas on how to add value to it. A manager or an a&r may have some further ideas on the music. The product managers, graphic designers, sales reps and buyers all have their parts to play. Promoters plan tours with our agent. They’re in touch with bookers at venues. Pluggers and PRs present the product to radio producers who instruct DJs to play them. We upload our video to YouTube.
Then some kid in their bedroom watches it and goes: nah, I like this other band much more.
At this point the people in charge of the process are in a vital position because they are faced with a dilemma. Being back at square one, they can either give up or try again.
All of which neatly ties up with what I said earlier:
Have Great Product
Keep Doing It