This interview was originally posted in June, 2013.
I am often interviewing people on MusicianCoaching.com, but it is very rare that someone asks to interview me. The following is Part 1 of an interview that a client and friend Ivan David Amaya conducted in order to support research for his dissertation on the topic of entrepreneurial careers in the music industry. Ivan is a musician and recently got his MBA at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, University of Wales.
In this part of the interview, we discussed how the climate of the music industry has changed in the Digital Age, particularly for aspiring and emerging artists. We also talked about how musicians can be more diligent about taking responsibility for the many aspects of managing their careers.
How has the music industry changed, especially for new acts coming to the market?
This is a very stock answer and one you probably realize yourself: Technology has made recording much cheaper, and it has made digital distribution completely inexpensive. There were only six major labels that you could go to previously, and there was a certain curating process that those labels went through and invested in. And that was really the only way to have a career of any kind.
What you find now is that people are able to put their music out for next to nothing, so a lot of people are doing just that and flooding the market. Therefore, the discovery process for your average consumer has become a real chore. We’re so inundated with music that it becomes hard to stand out – to the point where the words “Oh, hey I’m in a band” make people cringe.
15-20 years ago and even before that, if you had a record out, that really meant something. It meant you had found an investor (most likely a record label), passed through a taste-making process, gone on tour, etc. There used to be all these prerequisites you had to satisfy before you could put out music. Now, for relatively little money people can just press up a demo or a full album and put it out to the world.
Of course, the ease of putting out music has made being a developing act easier in some ways: You have a better shot at making a living. On the other hand, it makes what people classically thought of as “success” much more difficult. At one time, Michael Jackson was the ultimate pop star in great part because there were three major television stations and he was on two of them at any given time. I’m not saying someone won’t come around who is that talented. But the media is no longer set up in a way that you can possibly dominate all the airwaves. There are just too many different avenues. You have a million different television channels and complete awareness of any time an artist comes into your town, so it’s not like you missed it because you weren’t paying attention; there are email alerts, YouTube, social media and everything’s on demand.
On the other hand, it’s become possible for many more people to make a living. And we’re being constantly sold this idea that success looks a certain way. In my opinion, being a successful musician means making a living at playing music. I think people have it in their heads that it’s supposed to look a certain way, and you’re supposed to get a record deal, because they watch VH1 behind the Music. I wrote an article about this phenomenon called “Everything You Need to Forget about the Industry.” It’s about why a lot of people fail because they have a very dated and unrealistic viewpoint of what success is. Today, it’s easier to make a living, it’s harder to become an icon, and the challenges you face are much different. Building a viable business has become the artist’s and sometimes management’s responsibility.
Record companies aren’t what they used to be, and many artists do not have a record label’s budget or resources at their disposal. Therefore, it becomes harder for all of us to make money in the traditional way. Music supervisors and music placement provide one gateway (albeit a difficult one), but really the best avenue that artists have today are touring and merchandise. And if these artists become more widely known, what brings in the most revenue is endorsements. But the bread and butter of your average band or solo performer is going to be touring and merch, because a lot of people are just not the type of bands that get their music placed in commercials. And touring is not the same as it used to be either. It used to be just something else to do along with getting local press to write a story about you, but now both those things are much more challenging.
Now that musicians must be in charge of the different aspects of their career, how can they demonstrate greater entrepreneurship and take responsibility for their success?
I can speak a little bit about entrepreneurship in general. The most important thing artists can do, of course, is take responsibility, which a lot of them don’t. I hear the words “I just want to be the artist” all the time, and that just doesn’t fly in today’s climate.
If, as the owner of a marketing services business, I sat there and said, “Well, I just want to market my existing clients. I don’t want to chase new clients, and I don’t want to prepare my documents with my bookkeeper to do my taxes,” my business would fail. The same rules apply to those running the business of being musicians. Being an artist no different from running any other type of business, and people forget that.
Part of the reason people forget that being a musician is a real business is because music is so sexy. There are stories of people who spend their entire lives in banking who want to sleep with supermodels or something, so they invest in musicians to get closer to rock & roll. You might laugh, but there is always some guy out there who has done nothing but chase money his whole life, hits forty or fifty and thinks, “Maybe if I’m in the music business I’ll get a younger girlfriend or the respect of my peers or I will finally be cool.”
I think the first thing that musicians should do that many of them don’t is take an honest self-assessment. I also think everyone should start as a one-person company. There are a lot of people that run out and say, “I need a manager. I need an agent. I need a…” What people don’t understand is, when you’re starting from zero with one album, there’s no business; there’s nothing to manage and no reason for a nationwide tour. It seems that most artists think, Well, I recorded an album. I have spent all this money, and now I’m going to be big.” People don’t realize that there is a lot involved between making an album and establishing a real career.
The people who I’ve seen that are successful as both musicians and entrepreneurs are people who start off keeping their overheads very low. They don’t spend major label budgets (or the budgets major labels used to have) on recording. They really invest. They say, “You know what? I’m going to make sure I continue doing this over a long period of time.”
I’ve often watched artists spend $30,000 on their first album and max out all their credit cards. They go deep into debt, because they believe that they will be big, and will be able to recoup what they spent. I’m not saying this isn’t possible but the odds of recouping a $30,000 expenditure on a first album (especially without a touring base) are about the same as getting hit by lightning. I believe all musicians should start out trying to run everything themselves. I think it is best to start a career thinking, “I’m going to be the person that books my shows and handle all of the business aspects of my career so I at least know what this job is that I will eventually hire someone to do”. This might mean you have to learn how to do some of these things on the fly and by trial and error.
The more artists take on and the more honest they are with themselves about what their strengths and weaknesses are, the more valuable lessons they can learn from the process. I think people should look at their first album as series of learning experiences and not much else. If I were an artist just starting out, I might say, “You know what? I’m going to buy some basic recording equipment, because I am really interested in developing a set of skills. I’m going to try to record some demos and to book my own shows.” And after I do these things to the best of my ability, I might realize I am failing miserably at certain aspects.
I can actually point to my own marketing business as an example, because I have run it a lot like a musician’s business. I found myself trying to do my own taxes and really messed them up. I had to say, “I don’t have the money, but I have to find it so I can hire a bookkeeper and an accountant,” because I just couldn’t do it myself. And I noticed that I kept putting off sending out my newsletter. I started out saying, “I’m going to put it out twelve times a year.” And six months would go by without me sending one out. I realized I was never going to be able to do it myself, so I had to hire someone else.
I realize that not everybody has the funds or the flexibility to do exactly what I did. But musicians have to realize that somehow they have to find people to complement them. And sometimes this can be very simple and affordable. As an example, I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of sex appeal attached to the music industry. And there are music business students all over who just need a reason to speak to people in the music industry, or what I call “conversation currency.” They want to develop their skills as music business executives, so they pick up their projects just to meet people and get school credit. And if you are an artist, they would often be happy to help you out as part of their own development process. There are a lot people that you can find if you’re diligent who will support your efforts simply because they want to better their career. I tell people who want to work in the business side of the industry, whether they want to do A&R, be a publisher or work in some other capacity that they need to find the best band they can, manage them and try to get them opportunities.
Going back to the topic of entrepreneurship, what musicians often don’t realize is that it is much easier to get an existing company additional funding than it is to run around with a blueprint of a business and say, “This is going to be great.” You can have the best idea in the world and still not get funded unless you prove your concept to a potential investor. That’s just common sense. If you look at guys who invest in companies – venture capitalists or bankers – they’re going to go down to the balance sheets and say, “Okay, this company is making this much money and spending this much money to do so” Nothing predicts future success like existing success. For years, record companies would hear of an indie artist being spun on radio, call retail and say, “There’s an independent artist spinning in Los Angeles, and we were wondering if anybody was requesting their album”. Everyone wants to be a part of project that seems to be gathering momentum on its own.
Today the process of getting attention in the music industry is more complicated than it once was, but it still comes down to the same thing: As an artist, you have to use the biggest bullet point on your resume, work on that and then make it grow into the next big bullet point. So, you might have a friend of a friend that is a producer and willing to do a track on your album for a small amount of money. You’re not necessarily paying because you think the song is going to be so much better than the rest of the songs on the album; you’re paying because it makes it possible for you to attach to a name brand: “I worked with X producer.” Then, when you go to take another meeting with an executive and that person asks, “Why should I care?” you can say, “Because I have been working with this well-known producer.”
So, musicians need to become multi-skilled. Is only focusing on the music ever a good idea in today’s environment?
The music always has to come first because without great music everything else will fail but I’ve been seeing people spending a lot of time marketing inferior products. It is as if the thought process was, “I’m going to skimp on the artistic side so I can rush this out.” The artist will have only played five shows and suddenly feel a real need for a release as if there were legions of fans waiting for a new product. I don’t recommend that.
But once you have the music together (and the live show) then yes, you’ve got to give the business side a shot. It sounds so obvious but I get so many people coming to me as if the only way to make any headway in the business is with professional guidance. It is as if the concept of trial and error never occurred to them. I’m not suggesting that musicians have to do everything themselves forever, but I do recommend that they try everything so they at least know their strengths and weaknesses. This includes playing shows at a variety of venues, promoting their own shows, doing their own work on social media, working in the studio with different people etc. You have to act as if there is no help coming, because if you sit around waiting for help, you will likely be waiting for a very long time.
I know this is a bit of a tangent to your question but there is no shortcut for hard work. You can find a million people out there who will point to an overnight success story. But then you will look at the story more closely and see that it was not actually an overnight success. So, if somebody wrote songs for ten years and then one hit, that person did not just suddenly get lucky.
I think people like to believe it is possible to miraculously get “discovered” without putting in the work. There’s a popular cultural myth that tells aspiring artists, “You can be very lucky, and somebody is going to take you from obscurity to superstardom.” It tells them that success can happen without hard work. This mentality comes up again and again, and I battle against it daily because of what I do for a living. But even someone like Justin Bieber may have been lucky at the beginning, but then he put a lot of hard work behind it after the fact to stay at that level.
You’re saying you cannot avoid hard work and have to pay your dues.
Most artists do, yes. There are some musicians who don’t have to do as much as others. But when people hear that one success story that looks like it happened due to pure luck, they want to believe that it can happen to them, too. And maybe it can, but just think about the Boy Scout motto: “Luck favors the well prepared.” If you want to be lucky in the industry, you still need go out and make sure you are working hard and being seen. It’s the same thing if you want to be struck by lightning: Make sure you build a big metal wand and wave it around on a rainy day.
You can check out Ivan David Amaya’s music at the Opensight official website. And stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, coming soon.