The New Music Industry: Same Formula, Different Variables

Why will a fan download an album and forego purchasing it on iTunes – an album that costs $9.99 – yet that same fan will spend $50, $100, even $200 for a close up seat to see their favorite musician live? Many will argue that the availability and convenience of a free copy of an album, what many like to call piracy, is the major contributor to declining sales across the board. Some will go as far as saying the music being made today is inferior to music of yesteryear. I have a very different take. I believe that the creators of music and those concerned with the business of it are missing the point that the formula is the same as it has always been, it’s the variables that have changed. The landscape of fans is changing – they digest music differently – and it is time musicians recognize this and provide the content potential fans are willing to pay for.

It’s Not About The Money, It’s About The Perceived Value

How much do you really value an MP3? Do you protect it like you did a CD that you purchased? If it’s an album that you REALLY love, would you let those MP3s out of your sight? Now think back to the 90s if you’re that old, or even the early 2000s, and tell me if you’d let your favorite CD out of your sight unless it’s to someone you really trust. The answer is probably no and there’s a simple explanation for that:

To several generations of fans, music in a physical format is tangible, MP3s are not.

A whole generation that used to enjoy music in a tangible format is now being forced to appreciate digital music and it’s just not happening at a rate those in the business of selling music would like. As a DJ, I have many fans that ask me to burn them copies of mixes I make. There are people who have shown me old CDs I’ve burned for them with hand-written¬†labeling, but they still had a certain connection to those CDs and hold on to them over the years because it’s simply tangible. I’m not saying that folks can’t get used to MP3s; there are artists thriving in the new music industry. You will notice, though, that the artists more likely to do well and sell well digitally have a younger target audience; essentially folks that grew up in the iPod era – folks that are digesting music in the most popular way they’ve known, which is to search for a song on iTunes, Amazon or some other digital outlet and hit that purchase button. I won’t ever knock Steve Jobs for turning the music industry upside down because change was not something welcomed by dinosaur labels, it was something that had to be forced on them.

There Are Way More Outlets For Music Now Than Ever Before

This is common knowledge, but what’s not common knowledge to folks still clinging to the old way of doing things is that there is no single “best” outlet for music. There are now several outlets that contribute to reaching as wide an audience as you can afford to, and it’s time to embrace that traditional Radio and TV are not the only juggernauts. Honestly, YouTube is probably the most effective outlet, but it isn’t the only effective one. Justin Beiber got discovered from YouTube; Meek Mill got his first introduction to the “Boss” of his current label home, MMG, on twitter. Moral of the story is….

You never know what medium will be the one that will catapult you to stardom; it’s remiss of you not to capitalize on all of them.

I’ll go further and say that musicians today need to take advantage of the many streaming services out there. They may not be a significant revenue stream, but you can leverage the exposure you get from them ¬†to grown your fanbase and monetize your efforts better. 10,000 people streaming your music on spotify, pandora, last.fm, etc are 10,000 more fans talking about you or sharing what they listen to on their other social media profiles such as Facebook or Twitter. Those fans are also your potential audience at one of your live shows. It is time folks understand that human currency is sometimes more valuable than the almighty $. Don’t shun the scraps you earn from the various streaming outlets. So what if they profit off you? That’s not reason enough to neglect the fact that they put you in position to make a profit in other ways that you couldn’t have 5 or 10 years ago, unless, of course, you had major label backing that provided an astronomical radio budget and marketing campaign.

Visibility Is Everything: The “Album” Cycle Is Getting Shorter And Shorter

There was a time when artists would drop an album, go on tour, take a break, rinse, repeat. In today’s music industry, taking a break means risking being a forgotten memory. Yes, many from the “old” music industry will argue that over-saturation is bad, but in today’s music industry, the risk of rendering yourself irrelevant is greater than that of over-saturation. Also, it is cheaper to make music today than ever before, so providing new content on a more frequent basis is just something you have to sign up to do if you want to enjoy sustained success. This brings me to my next point.

Separating Yourself From The Pack Is Paramount In This Era Of Over-Saturation

Music is cheaper to make – fact. Music is more expensive to promote – fiction….at least, if you’re smart, you’ll find creative inexpensive ways to promote your music and disprove this claim. We need to look no further than the Political campaign of 2012, where Obama ran a less expensive, more targeted and curtailed campaign than Romney did. I won’t burden you with talk of politics, but with more information about fans than ever before, it behooves you to determine the best way to reach fans in order to promote your music to a more targeted audience. This attention to detail is what scares many an artist today. They just don’t know where to begin to understand their audience or finding the most effective ways to reach them. The artists and camps that have had remarkable success are the ones that have found the most effective ways to grow an audience today. Look no further than Mac Miller and Macklemore for example of DIY/Independent artists that have led the charge to top the charts on their album debut week in this, the New Music Industry. If they can do it, so can you! But rest assured, thinking that your music is “better” than an artist more successful than you is flogging a dead horse. It takes way more than talent or “dope” music to make it today, and waiting or hoping to be discovered is like thinking you’ll win the lottery; the odds are against you.

There Are More Revenue Streams Now Than Ever Before

So what if music sales have plummeted, though recent evidence supports the contrary? Is that the only way you know to make money from music? I hope not, or you too will be a starving musician. There’s still music sales; there also are opportunities for you to sell merchandize, license your music to various platforms (tv, video games..etc), live shows, and the list goes on. Could you have made DIY T-Shirts, rags, buttons, limited ed. collectors items, etc 15 years ago at the cost you can today? Could you have promoted your own live shows years ago and had favorable turnouts in markets you didn’t even know you had fans? There are more ways to make money than selling music. Stop lamenting about declining sales and find more ways to break even and make a profit. You can profit off your popularity, but first you must seek to grow it, preferably in an organic, social and strategic way.

What Where The Variables And What Are They Now?

Some of you may skip to this section of my post, but I implore you to go back and read the rest. Below is my non-comprehensive attempt to explain the old and new formula for success in the music industry.

OLD Formula: make great music (maximize your creativity) + get discovered by major label (the gatekeepers) + have the label handle your affairs (business, promo, distribution) = success.

The variables in this formula worked well because the gatekeepers determined who the fans are allowed to like or not like. Once you’re in the gate, you’re allowed to try, succeed, fail, and try again numerous times, because it was safer to keep working with a familiar face than with someone knew. Also, fans’ appetite for new music wasn’t as insatiable as it is now.

NEW Formula: make great music (entirely subjective, ofcourse) + create a team that contributes to growing your fanbase (gatekeepers are a thing of the past) + be involved in all aspects of your career with your team (a firm grasp of the BUSINESS & CREATIVE side of music is a must) = success.

You MUST have a good understanding of the BUSINESS of music to survive in the new music industry. No longer are you allowed to be naive – naive musicians today are starving musicians.

If I were to sum this entire post up in a sentence or two, I’d say that, before, the music industry was very compartmentalized and folks were only concerned with doing what they do best, be it the creating of music, the promoting of it, the legal aspects, the management, etc. Nowadays, though, musicians are forced to be way more savvy than ever before and it’s daunting, I know. However, if it’s the career path you choose, you’ll be more than willing to do what it takes to succeed in this, the New Music Industry. The formula is the same: make the best music your potential fans want to hear and give them opportunities to pay you to partake in the experience that is your brand.

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