music business

Reeperbahn Follow Up

Reeperbahn Festival

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.

Other Thoughts

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:

Be Unique
Have Great Product
Keep Doing It
Say Yes
Be Unique

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Been Around The Block v New Kid On The Block

AIM Startups is a programme designed to help budding music biz entrepreneurs off the ground. I’m chuffed that they asked me to be a mentor. Here’s the blurb. It’s an exciting new thing to get to do.

*****

One of the advantages of having been around for a while is that you know people from many walks of life, who’ve also been around a bit. On my summer holidays I met a high school buddy of mine and heard about his work teaching design to his design students at various universities. At the start of term he usually conducts an informal poll, which more or less “confirms” that everyone’s destined to work for cool global advertising companies and cool global brands. He then asks everyone in class to take a good look around and realise that everyone in the room is in direct competition with one another for that one job opportunity.

The ensuing discussion about why a company would hire a new designer is not too dissimilar to the one in my racket where for every umpteen bands looking for a career there are umpteen more around the corner. Most just insist that they’re great and the world had better pay attention. Their kind are usually gone by high summer, rarely even realising that they never had the talent to get to first base.

Some are talented and they are prepared to give it a shot if the right opportunity comes along. They last a bit longer, but not long enough, because there isn’t much in this world that is more difficult to come by than the privilege to make music for a living. Rather than being an opportunity that just comes along, it’s a privilege that needs to be fought for in places that are impossibly hard to reach and even tougher to get out of.

The few that do the hard yards that every successful artist ever has had to do, must, in addition to the work ethic, share these attributes: have great songs, great records, be great live, look cool and have interesting stories. These things come first. Only then is a manager able to convince everyone else in the food chain to part with their time, money and resources so that his artist can become successful and give up their day jobs.

Advice that doesn’t directly address the five areas vital to success – the quality of songs, recordings, live show, image and story – is not worth listening to, because whoever is doing the talking doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

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Hendrix v Nutini

I watched two music shows on TV. One was a documentary about Jimi Hendrix and in the other Paolo Nutini performed at T In The Park. Paolo Nutini, I was surprised to hear, is a very good singer, even if his music isn’t my cuppa. But it struck me like bolt of lighting just how original, groundbreaking and remarkable Jimi must have been in his day. He was so unique that his work blows people out of the water 50 years later.

I had a conversation with a young band about why so little of modern music breaks new ground, a supposition with which they agreed. The unwillingness of record labels to take risks is often mentioned in this context. Meh…. labels don’t make music. Musicians do.

Besides, there are many like us in the business who actively look to work with weird and wonderful new music. So it’s just not true to say that there are no channels for new music to blossom.

This young band, all recent graduates of music schools, said the schools foster a culture of “being professional” that equates to playing it safe, not rocking the boat, being accessible, malleable. With their emphasis on “the business”, these schools may well feel they are manufacturing astute musical entrepreneurs, except that:

 

Notice that bit about taking risks. If you’re unwilling to rock the boat, why would kids wanna rock?

I dropped out/was expelled from my music college for refusing to sing Lionel Richie’s Hello the way they wanted it sung. My small act of personal rebellion aside, the important thing I remember from those days is that there was, among my peers, a big drive to find something new. We’d purposefully attempt to do whatever everyone else wasn’t doing.

It’s baffling to hear so little of this desire in new bands’ demos. It’s as if the competition is to create something that “the market wants”. A lot of them actually ask about it, as if anyone had a clue as to what it wants.

Some say that it’s hard to do anything new and original because everything has already been done. Did you know that in the late 1800s people in the science community declared that science had come as far as it would go?

 

In addition to musical risks, there must be a willingness to take “life risks”, i.e. do things the inevitable outcome of which is that you’ll be broke: something lower than a cockroach on the Richter scale of social status in a world devoted to affluence.

Many a wannabe is able to spend a few hundred quid on a holiday, while not wanting to do a gig that costs them £30 in petrol.

I often hear: “if given the opportunity, we’d quit our jobs and focus on the band”. Not one of the victorious German football team got the opportunity to drop everything so they could focus on kicking a ball. All of them had been kicking a ball for a very long time, playing on shitty pitches fighting against tough people who didn’t want them to get one bit of their meal ticket – all this LONG before they got good enough to be able to compete at “the next level”. It cost a lot of money, time and effort to get there, without any guarantee that it would happen. The life risk was huge.

For those unwilling to take such risks, there are some good news: there is a seat reserved for you at your local where you can pass judgement on guys like Paolo Nutini and anyone else who has made it. Fellow experts on how the music business conspires against true talent will strongly agree with you.

In the meantime, a hungry bunch of crazy weirdos are creating something crazy and weird in a rehearsal room that stinks of beer and sweat. I hope they find me. They won’t if I find them first.

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Big Announcements on Facebook

If you recognise your band from this video, stop what you’re doing and terminate your membership of that stupid club.

Once you’ve ripped up your membership card and you wonder what you should do next, try this: for the next month sit down every day to write new songs. You have to come up with a handful of ideas every day. Develop songs out of the ideas that seem to want to progress. Some ideas won’t want to. Ignore them.

Take the songs into rehearsals and develop them further.

At the end of the month, you should have one very good new song. Bin the rest.

Repeat this process for twelve months. In a year you will have a strong setlist.

If in the meantime anyone talks to you about exposure and marketing, better/bigger shows, some PR or whatever else of that nature, ignore them. The world is full of good bands with good songs and they’re all making big announcements on Facebook about something cool about to happen.

And it never does.

Why?

Because their songs are only good and the world demands great.

Spend your time wisely.

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Seinfeld’s Productivity Chain

I was engaged in a conversation with some friends of mine, who are all in proper jobs, about how to be more productive and get stuff done. Someone mentioned the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity chain. It works like this: if you want to be truly great at something you have to do it every day.

Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page. Put it somewhere you can’t ignore it. Every day work on the one thing you want to be great at. When you’ve put the time in, you get to draw a red cross over that day. You do it for days on end and a chain develops. You don’t want to break the chain. If nothing else, the chain looks nicer without gaps in it.

That’s how you could, for instance, become a good songwriter, should you feel that becoming one will be of use to you in your chosen field.

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In Utero

In his letter to Nirvana producer Steve Albini makes a few good points about making records.

In our daily business we, too, talk about making records with artists. In Utero often gets mentioned as the kind of non-polished, gritty record bands aspire to make, usually in response to a discussion about budget, I guess, in the expectation that polish costs (which is undesirable) and grit is cheap (very desirable).

In his letter Mr Albini speaks a lot about understanding the band and the kind of record they want, about letting the band’s personality shine through, about the overriding importance of vibe over control, of playing over tweaking, of the band’s sound over stock sounds.

They are great things to aspire to, as most people can wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone can pull off making music the “old school” way. The band has to be very good, the producer very experienced and the equipment very good. Mr Albini had done hundreds of records, Nirvana many tours prior to entering the studio to record In Utero. Both parties were very good at doing the thing they were in the room to do. They had the best tools of the trade at their disposal. That is why In Utero feels and sounds amazing.

A band who would agree 100% with everything Mr Albini says in his letter may, with a straight face, suggest working in a cheap little demo studio so it “doesn’t sound too polished”. They’re right about that, for sure. It won’t sound polished.

The following applies to project management:

It’s quite a suspension of belief to arrive at the conclusion that an inexperienced band working with an enthusiastic amateur in a badly equipped, often run down studio will come up with anything even remotely comparable to a major milestone in rock history. The most likely outcome is that the record ends up a turd. Which, as everyone knows, you can’t polish. Mission accomplished. ;-)

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3 Things That Every Artist Needs To Hear

Someone who used to work as an a&r in one of the major labels told me about his new job in music. It was unsurprising to hear him say that he enjoys being free of the relatively small confines of what he used to do for a living. That visible part of the music business, the one most readers of this blog, I would guess, aspire to, is one where a bunch of mates get plucked out of obscurity, land a record deal and become rock stars.

The likelihood of it ever happening to anyone like that is very small. Those involved in the food chain know it and they have few illusions about how hard it is to find success in that world.

The dream of success is irresistible to those desperate to make it. They will believe anything, as long as it supports their unified grand theory of how the music business works. It’s all about who you know and those in the know can push crap music down people’s gullets. It conspires against “true talent” (theirs) by signing shit bands (others). And so on. Fill in your favourite gripe.

In this scenario the victim is always the band. The villain is always the faceless corporate dude doing his evil corporate thing in the impenetrable corporation building.

Knowing both sides of the argument gives me the confidence to say that both parties are closer to one another than they think. Both are chasing an improbably small chance of success in a setting where numerous variables can and usually will go wrong.

Most people in bands don’t seem to actually like being in them. I mean, they don’t spend nearly enough time doing the thing that they’re meant to do. A band is meant to create music, practice, play gigs, make records and look cool.

It’s hard writing great songs. You have to write so many bad ones to get anywhere near a good one that most just go: aww… can’t we just make do with these ones? C’mon, man, we’ve got nine songs already. We need to make an album. Now.

Looking cool is, of course, subjective, but man boobs on a twenty something bassist is not it. If nothing else, try not to look past your peak. Am I fattist and superficial? Don’t care. As Steve Tyler from Aerosmith said: nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.

Doing gigs is really hard work. Night in night out. Same nine songs. Same audience. Month after month, year after year. Only… most bands seem to think that doing a handful of poorly attended shows qualifies them to join the super elite of professional musicians, who make a living because there are enough people willing to buy tickets to their shows for it to be a profitable endeavour to an entire value chain of band, manager, promoter, venue and fan.

How is it profitable to the fan? They get a fulfilling experience for their buck. Why does that happen? Because the band do the thing that they’re meant to do really well.

Become that band. Seriously. A big announcement on Facebook won’t address the root of the problem. A badly spelled email with shit grammar and hyperbole about insignificant achievements won’t either. Hiring a PR guy won’t. Nor will doing the “right gigs”.

A manager might be able to help, especially if he tells it to you like it is.

I read a cool quote recently. It went something like: before you open your mouth, check that what you’re about to say passes three tests. The first, is it true? Second, is it necessary? Third, is it kind?

This is true: the main reason your band is not successful is because your music doesn’t connect with anyone. People don’t like it. It’s not exciting enough, doesn’t sound good enough, it’s not unique enough, catchy enough, weird enough. Any of the above.

This is necessary: you need to be told, because if you don’t know, you will never start working the problem. Most bands who hear this advice ignore it, because it’s uncomfortable and it doesn’t fit their belief system. You can be the exception. Start now. You will reap the rewards in a year or two.

This is kind: the pleasure you get from making music is reward enough. Go back to the reason why you started making music. You did because you loved the sound of music. You may even have loved the musical by the same name… ;-) Either way, you thought at some point, while listening to your favourite record, that it would be so cool to make something that moves others just as much as this moves me.

Somewhere along the way your mind got corrupted by bullshit you heard from people who shouldn’t have opened their mouths. You didn’t get into music to do the right shows, work with PR companies, managers, labels or waste time on social media.

Your focus on those things is the main reason you’re unable to give your muse the attention it deserves. Which is the main reason your music doesn’t connect with people. Which is the reason why the gigs, managers etc. elude you.

It brings us back to the start, to the relatively small confines of the record business. It’s very hard to find artists whose music, personas and work ethic make you believe that success, as improbable as it always is, may happen.

In stark contrast we, the creators of music and good vibes, live in a world that is mind bogglingly exciting and full of opportunity to explore coolness. Here’s the first step:

And then write a song.

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The Great Escape – 5 Things To Make Things Even Better

Last Thursday, walking into the foyer at the Dome in Brighton where the music business convention takes place during The Great Escape, the realisation that I belong to the community of people who make up the music business in this country almost startled me. Even after twenty odd years of working in music I feel that at best it’s a cool lark. But when people we’ve employed, whose first jobs in the business they got from us, come up to say hi, as do strangers asking for advice, it is, without a doubt, a nice feeling.

The best kept secret ingredient of success in music? Refusing to give up.

This year’s TGE was, as ever, very enjoyable. And…

Five Things To Make Things Even Better

1. Music could be more fun. Far too much of it is up its own arse, made and promoted by mind numbingly tedious and pretentious twerps.

2. Music could be angrier. Far too much of it is just jolly nice. It’s not as if we don’t have a lot to be angry about. Take a look around your neighbourhood. Posh boys from posh neighbourhoods are excused.

3. Music could push boundaries. I understand the fascination with lumberjack shirts and banjos, but really, that shit is regressive. The opposite of progressive. Those in the electronic corner can’t get too smug, either. Those bleeps are about as new as Tetris. And that little dance you do while you’re looking down at your drum pad is not cool. Really, it isn’t.

4. We could go for stuff just for the hell of it, especially if we don’t understand it. We should encourage stuff we don’t get. How could anyone know that “the market wants”? Why should anybody care about what’s going on in “the A&R village”? No one truly knows what the hell they’re doing, anyway, and the sooner everyone admits to it, the sooner things will get even better. We’re here to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

5. Everyone could remember that it’s far less about the “right team” than it is about how a record connects with a person.

Everyone could think about points 1-5 and accept that not enough music really connects with anyone. Agreed, much of it is well liked and some of it sorta sells, but, as the erudite New York A&R executive said: “It doesn’t make kids wanna fuck ass.”

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