As a generation Xer, I grew up in a time when the music business was dramatically different than the music business of 2022. When I was a teenager in the 80s and 90s, there was still a “record business” that consisted of record labels, radio stations, record label advances, tour support, etc..
The music business was never considered an easy business to break into or a “practical” business. But there was a system and a process in place “back in the day” that seemed to work, in many ways, better than the music business we have today. It was highly competitive of course and cut-throat, but the music business of the past produced an enormous number of iconic musicians for a span of forty years or so.
Here's Gene Simmons of Kiss describing why he thinks, in his words, the modern-day music business is “chaos” and describing how the “old school” music business model worked better:
As someone who grew up during part of the era Gene Simmons is describing and then transitioning into adulthood when the music business really started to change (which in my estimation, contrary to Gene’s date of 1988, I think is more around the year 2000), a part of me really resonated with Gene’s take on the music business of today. In fact, I think Gene, sadly, is more or less on target with his summation of the current music business. The modern-day music business is sort of chaotic, with no clearly defined path to success laid out for aspiring musicians.
But the more I reflected on the video with Gene Simmons, the more I realized he’s sort of looking at things the wrong way. Let me explain…
When I started my business teaching music licensing way back in 2008, my plan was to simply supplement my income while I worked towards “making it” in the music business. To make a long story short, that never really happened the way I had hoped and anticipated. Yes, I was able to license a lot of my music over the years, and yes, I was able to sustain myself working in the “music business”, but I never quite reached the level of success I had hoped to when I started out on this journey many years ago.
Over the last couple years, as I find myself, well, not getting any younger, I’ve been really reflecting on where things went wrong, so to speak, if anything even went wrong at all, or if I simply ended up where I’ve ended up due to circumstances largely out of my control. I’m certainly not responsible for the internet or the death of the music industry after all, and we all know talent alone doesn’t guarantee success and that music is subjective. Breaking into the music business was never exactly easy.
In other words, if I didn’t become more successful due to circumstances outside of my control, I’m ok with that. I can accept that. However, if I failed to go further because I didn’t accurately assess the situation, that's a little harder for me to accept and at the very least I want to learn from where I went wrong. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20.
The Music Business Will Never Go Back To What It Used To Be
It's hard to be objective about ourselves and our own lives and careers. We all have “blind spots” and things we can’t see about ourselves. As the late philosopher Alan Watts used to say, “It’s hard to see the spot you’re standing on”. I’ve been working really hard this year to be more objective about myself and my own strengths and shortcomings, and what I could have done better or differently in terms of my own career, so that I can do better going forward. After all, I can’t change the past, but I can certainly learn from it.
One thing I’ve realized upon reflection, is that over time I’ve become quite cynical about the music business. Not about music per se, but the music business. I’ve realized that I’ve sort of been waiting for the music business to go back to what it used to be or to somehow magically improve and all the while bemoaning the fact that the music business is in the state it is. Although I’ve embraced things like sync licensing as alternative forms of earning money from music, the fact is I never got into music to sell my songs to tv shows. Licensing my music has been a great boost to my confidence and it’s something I will continue to pursue, but there’s more to the music business than just sync licensing.
One of the things I’ve realized is that while I’ve been sort of inadvertently sitting on the sidelines, waiting for some sort of path to emerge or some sort of semblance of a music business that I can wrap my head around to emerge, is that there have been many musicians quietly paving the way and showing us the future of the music business all along. And how wonderfully ironic it is that they’re using the internet, the very technology that arguably killed the traditional music business, to create a new one.
The New Music Business Paradigm
I plan to do a follow up piece to this article, where I dive deeper into specific artists that are forging the way in the new music business paradigm and how they’re doing it. I’m going to give you just one example today, so this piece doesn’t go too long, but trust me there are many artists out there paving the way, that you may or may not have even heard of.
The band that I’m talking about today is called Polyphia, and in my mind they are a perfect example of both a band that have embraced the modern-day music business paradigm and they’re also a great example of the challenges that this new music business paradigm present.
You see, Polyphia has actually been on my radar for several years. I came across the video for their song 40 oz a few years ago online, and I remember really liking it at the time, but I quickly forgot about them and the song to be honest. Like many artists that I discover online, I appreciated their music when I initially heard it, but without a constant reminder that they exist, they simply faded from my memory.
Radio used to function as a great way to constantly remind us of current artists and their music. It generally takes repeated exposure to a song or artist before it really “clicks”, and you really start paying attention. When radio was more popular, you would hear the same songs over and over and eventually, if there was a band or song you really resonated with, you would go buy their album or CD and perhaps even see them live. Of course, there were flaws with this model, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a very effective means of promoting the bands and artists that were lucky enough to get on the radio.
The problem, as I see it, with the new music business paradigm is that things have become so fragmented, and there are so many artists, that it’s all too easy for a band like Polyphia to get lost in the sea of music and content out there. However, greatness does have a way of rising to the surface and Polyphia are back on my radar in a huge way. I don’t remember exactly how I re-discovered them, I think Youtube suggested their song “Playing God” to me a couple months ago and since then I’ve gone down the Polyphia rabbit hole and can’t seem to stop listening to this band. Honestly, their style of music isn’t even my favorite, but they’re just so good at what they do and I find their music so compelling that I keep going back to it. It reminds me of a lot of the guitar-oriented music that got me into playing guitar in the first place, yet it’s modern, fresh and different at the same time, which is why I think they’re music is resonating with so many people.
Check out their latest single, “Ego Death”, a collaboration with Steve Vai!
This year has been a great year for me musically in the sense that I’ve been forcing myself to step up my own game musically. Both in terms of my own understanding of the current business and in terms of my own musicianship and guitar playing. I’ve practiced guitar more this year than I have in perhaps over a decade and have been actively promoting myself on Youtube, slowly learning how to get more views and followers, which has been a humbling yet rewarding process. Check out my latest guitar piece to see an example:
There’s a great quote I heard a few years ago, which I will paraphrase as I don’t remember it exactly, but it was something along the lines of “often times in life, we’re so busy looking for our path, that we fail to see we’re already on it”. Well, I think the same could be said about the music business. Many of us, myself included, have been waiting for some sort of new music business paradigm to emerge, but have perhaps failed to realize, it’s already here and it’s been here for quite some time. It’s certainly not perfect yet, but it’s here and it’s happening now.