The music business as we knew it is dead. It’s over and it’s never coming back. And that is great news. As musicians we tend to focus on the death of the recording industry. We talk about how record sales have declined dramatically and how people are no longer buying music. I’m guilty of this myself. It’s hard to not focus on these statistics and changes when thinking about the music business. But I’m here to tell you a different side of this story. We are living in perhaps the most exciting time EVER for musicians, artists, comedians and so on. We are living in what author and speaker Dan Carlin has described as a “creativity revolution”.
There is more art and music being made and distributed to more people than any other time in history. Just a few years ago, to get your music and art in front of a massive audience you had to work within a complex and hard to penetrate bureaucracy. Whether it was distributing your music via a record label, or getting your comedy on television, you were forced to compete within an extremely hard to penetrate system. These days, anyone can make music videos, comedy, films and at least potentially reach millions of people. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, you don’t have to convince a bunch of guys in suits with shitty taste in music, you don’t really even need that much money, you can just do it. You can do it from virtually anywhere. You could be some kid in Nebraska in your parents basement and potentially reach more people than a cable network. It’s possible and it’s being done by thousands of people on Youtube and other outlets online.
Even though the internet is relatively new, we sort of take it for granted. It’s probably not that astonishing to think about some teenager uploading videos to youtube and getting millions of hits. For the first time in history, virtually ANYONE can make art and get it out to the world on a mass scale. Think about that. As recently as forty years ago, there were three television networks. Just three. Today there are hundreds of television networks, Youtube channels, blogs, magazines, twitter and on and on. There is a massive amount of media and art being created and distributed and almost anyone can get involved.
In 1993, producer Steve Albini published an essay called “The Problem With Music” in which he outlined why he thought the business of recording and selling music was inefficient and broken. Just last year, over twenty years later, Albini gave the keynote address at Melbourne’s “Face The Music” conference in which he celebrated that the internet had dismantled the inequalities of the music business. Steve’s speech is perhaps the most concise and articulate breakdown of the ways in which the music business has changed in the last twenty years that I’ve ever seen. The following is an excerpt of Steve’s speech that summarizes his position:
“Through the internet, which more than anything else creates access to things, limitless music eventually became available for free. The big record companies didn’t see how to make money from online distribution so they effectively ignored it, leaving it to the hackers and the audience to populate a new landscape of downloading. People who prefer the convenience of CDs over LPs naturally prefer downloaded music even more. You could download it or stream it or listen from YouTube or have your friends on message boards or acquaintances send you zip files. In the blink of an eye music went from being rare, expensive and only available through physical media in controlled outlets to being ubiquitous and free worldwide. What a fantastic development.
There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit and we’ll deal with that in a minute. But for a minute I want you to look at the experience of music from a fan’s perspective, post-internet. Music that is hard to find was now easy to find. Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board. In response I had more access to music than I had ever imagined. Curated by other enthusiasts, keen to turn me on to the good stuff; people, like me, who want other people to hear the best music ever.
This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are specialty labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.
Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane specialty sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.
And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL”. Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.
I cannot overstate how important a development that is. Previously, in the top-down paradigm allowed local industry to dictate what music was available in isolated or remote markets, markets isolated by location or language. It was inconceivable that a smaller or independent band could have market penetration into, say, Greece or Turkey, Japan or China, South America, Africa or the Balkans. Who would you ask to handle your music? How would you find him? And how would you justify the business and currency complications required to send four or five copies of a record there?
Fans can find the music they like and develop direct relationships with the bands
Now those places are as well-served as New York and London. Fans can find the music they like and develop direct relationships with the bands. It is absolutely possible – I’m sure it happens every day – that a kid in one of these far-flung places can find a new favorite band, send that band a message, and that singer of that band will read it and personally reply to it from his cell phone half a world away. How much better is that? I’ll tell you, it’s infinitely better than having a relationship to a band limited to reading it on the back of the record jacket. If such a thing were possible when I was a teenager I’m certain I would have become a right nuisance to the Ramones.”
Now, of course, as great as all this sounds, the challenge is actually being heard amongst the barrage of art and media available. There’s a lot of content being created and it can be difficult to find an audience. I’ll be the first to admit that reaching a large audience on a platform like Youtube isn’t easy. Hard work is the one part of the equation that hasn’t changed. You still need to work hard to make it in the new music business paradigm. But what’s exciting, is that if you’re willing to work hard (and smart) you can find your audience. The difference though, is that before you had to work hard to convince other people to give you a chance, or give you a break. Now, you just have to work hard at creating great art and getting consumers to like it. The power truly is in your hands in a way that it never has been before. The only one’s permission you have to get to be successful these days are consumers.
Although becoming a viral internet sensation isn’t the easiest thing in the world, the good news is, you don’t need to go viral to make it in new media. You just a need a big enough audience in whatever niche you’re in to sustain you. That’s it. It would be great if we all became internet stars, but it’s not necessary to support yourself. I’m the perfect example of that. I make a living through a combination of making and performing music, blogging, licensing music, selling music courses, consulting and so on. Virtually everything I do can be done online, from anywhere, with the exception of my live performances. If someone stumbled upon my websites they would probably have no idea that I make a good full time living doing this. But, I’ve been supporting myself this way for seven years. I still pinch myself that I don’t have to answer to a boss or a corporation. I just wake up every day and do what I do. I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. I just do it.
Around 40% of the world population has an internet connection today. In 1995, it was less than 1%.The number of internet users has increased tenfold from 1999 to 2013.The first billion was reached in 2005. The second billion in 2010. The third billion in 2014. I would argue that the internet is a more historically significant invention than either the printing press or television. Think about it, almost half of the entire world is connected to the same media outlet... and we can create and distribute the content, for free, with the click of a mouse.
For female artists from Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry, to pop stars like Justin Bieber, YouTube has been a great avenue for new artists to self-promote their music. Artists like Gotye, Bon Iver and Karmin, generated so many views on the video sharing site that they were signed to record deals as a result, made songs for movies, and in the case of Bon Iver and Gotye even won Grammy awards.
What About Money?
You can make money directly on sites like Youtube, but it takes a LOT of views to add up to substantial money. According to my research, a video that generates a millions views will generate between 800 and eight thousand dollars, depending on the ads shown on the videos. Youtube shares over half their ad revenue with content creators. It takes a lot of views to make substantial money on youtube. The more exciting potential for me is using sites like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook as a way to drive traffic to other sites that can be monetized in a variety of ways. For example, I have a Youtube channel for How To License Your Music.com that drives traffic to my site every day. I don’t make much money at all directly from my Youtube Channel, but I’m able to generate new subscribers and leads for my website every day from videos that I’ve already created. I’m doing the same thing in terms of promoting my music, by driving traffic directly to my website where I promote my shows, videos, blog and of course, my music.
Although I've had a Youtube channel for several years, I'm really just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible when it comes to promoting my own music online. Although it’s a slow process, I’m starting to see consistent growth in my numbers. Promoting your music online takes work and effort, just like it does offline. The big difference though is that when you promote yourself offline, for a show for example, in most cases you’re lucky if you get an extra twenty or thirty people. My youtube channel got over 2,000 views last month, which is nothing compared to many other musicians and Youtubers online. But think about it, my videos are sitting online and getting over 2,000 eyes and ears a month while I’m working on other projects, playing shows, getting coffee and so on. Compare that to running around town hanging up flyers in the hopes of getting an extra 20 people to come to your live show. The potential online is exponentially greater than offline. Of course, you can’t replicate the experience of a live performance online, but in terms of the potential to promote your music, shows and overall brand, there’s nothing better than the internet.
I’m currently focusing on how to crack the code with Youtube and reach a much wider audience. I’m just getting started and have a long way to go, but I will figure it out and when I do I’ll come back here and show you how I did it. In the meantime, feel free to subscribe to my channel and check out some of my music. I have some really innovative things planned for the next few months designed to get more views and grow my channel and look forward on expanding the content I offer related to this subject.
If you’re interested in following my promotional strategy, subscribe to my channel here:
Let’s face the music (pun intended), the music business has permanently changed. It’s never going to be like it was before. This is simultaneously exciting and scary. It’s both a challenge and an incredible opportunity. We have the ability to both make and distribute music in a cost effective way that we couldn’t have dreamed of doing twenty years ago. The barrier to entry for starting a band and making albums has never been lower. The challenge, of course, is creating a financially sustainable system that will allow bands to thrive and flourish in the new paradigm we find ourselves in. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m optimistic that a path will emerge that is mutually beneficial to artists and audiences alike. I’ll leave you with Steve Albini’s thoughts, which pretty much mirror my beliefs:
“The music industry has shrunk. In shrinking it has rung out the middle, leaving the bands and the audiences to work out their relationship from the ends. I see this as both healthy and exciting. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years it’s that left to its own devices bands and their audiences can get along fine: the bands can figure out how to get their music out in front of an audience and the audience will figure out how to reward them.”
You can read Albini’s entire keynote address about the state of the music business here:
Also, be sure to check out these videos for more great inspiration on how to make it in the digital age:
The New Media's Coming Of Age - Dan Carlin
Amanda Palmer - The Art Of Asking
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.