Misconception

This is gonna be a long one. Just so you don’t say I didn’t tell you in the first place.

Last week the online issue of the renowned German magazine “Der Spiegel” released an article titled “The Internet – a poorhouse for musicians” based on this original blog post. Did I say based on? I meant it’s a translation, sorry. A poor one too. As I pointed out before, this article too suffers from the very same disease — it looks like its author spent more time finding an edgy headline rather than substantial information to underline the points made by the original author — or to counter them. What for? After all, he’s a journalist, and if he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, how could anyone else? But that’s not my point today. I want to talk about what’s mentioned in the original article.

As self-pitiful as this article sounds, it does contain correct information. It’s just a matter of how you interpret it, i.e. what actions you deem necessary as a result. The majority of musicians have correctly concluded that trying to make your living exclusively as a recording artist doesn’t work anymore. And quite correctly, the new ways of distribution are not as profitable as the old ones used to be. By the way, colourful as the chart looks, it’s set up the wrong way. The intention is to show that you have to sell more units of your music when you go digital or streaming to achieve the minimum US income, but the author forgot that the common notion with pleasant colours is, as far as I go, “bigger is better”. In fact, the chart should be upside down, displaying the CD as the medium with the best (i.e. biggest) margin, and streaming the least — or use a warning colour and leave it as it is. Just a sidebar, in case should you be preparing a presentation on a similar issue.

The conclusion was that it’s close to impossible for a non-famous artist to sell a number of downloads or streams that comes even close to these figures. I agree. But my second conclusion from this is different: If the profit is that small, there’s no point in charging a fee anyway. Quite the opposite: A fee is the only reason for someone getting in touch with new stuff for the first time not to try it. After all, there’s enough other artists out there who are good enough, so why stick with those who charge for a product that is free with others?

The intellectual problem for most self-dependent musicians is that they’re being confronted with a real market. This market has 3 simple basic rules:

  • Premium products will sell for premium prices.
  • Average products will only sell for below-average prices.
  • The product life cycle has been drastically shortened.

It’s the Long Tail in action. This is because the conditions to enter the market have been zeroed out. Way back you needed to take extreme effort to get your music to the market, but all the gatekeepers and bottlenecks have been bypassed. You don’t have to please an A&R to be permitted to make a record that will be played on the radio and shipped to stores worldwide any more. Today there are no more physical shops (yes there are, but their number has dramatically decreased), but an infinite number of shops online, most of them selling non-physical goods, that is downloads, and tons of services who want to help you to get you stuff to the market.

Musicians have to get used to the fact that there is no centre anymore. No sure shot. Joe Average has ceased to exist. But what is there is a tiny fraction of people willing to pay a premium for something they are passionate about. This may not seem profitable at first glance, but it is. Mass production and selling a lot for cheap is over. What’s the difference between selling 10,000 records with a $1 margin and 400 records with a $25 margin? The ones who buy it. They are more valueable customers. They care. Which in return burdens the artist to care about them. That’s another thing that scares quite a number of artists. When you decide not to target consumers but (yet to become) fans, it’s not a single transaction any more, it’s the beginning of a relationship. It’s not an anonymous mob you’re dealing with, but real people, individuals who want to be treated with respect and dignity. Which is quite easy, because that’s just the way you want to be treated, innit?

This is why an attitude like “All I wanna do is make and sell records” is a dead end. Because it’s just about you. It appeals only to people who care about a piece of work, not the person behind it. But these people are no fans, they’re materialists. So we run into a conundrum: What do people love first — artist or art? Legend has it that the Beatles were the prototypes of successful recording artists, but as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, before they became that they had to become experts in writing and performing music to a live audience. In Hamburg they learned everything they needed to succeed worldwide, because they (were forced to) put in the effort. This was as much a key ingredient as their talent and their ambition. Let’s check on these three one at a time.

Ambition: Today it makes no difference if you want to be a superstar or just aiming to make a living as a recording musician. In both careers, you have to be a person people care about, who they become a fan of, so they invest time and money in you. In return you have to give them something that exceeds their expectations, so success requires a permanent imbalance to create another transaction. If there ever is a balance, the dynamics come to a halt. Which requires one side to push or pull again, but maybe by then the fire’s gone out and the artist better reinvents himself.

Talent: The overrated ingredient. Talent is only valueable if it’s unique so it prevails. Thanks to the Internet we tend to get the notion that we’ve already seen everything that can be considered as talent, but who knows? It’s only for sure that YouTube and MySpace continuously raise the bar for the talent criterion, so it’s not sensible to rely on this only because it’s not a guarantee for future success, and the next big things are already in the queue.

Effort: The underrated ingredient, because we tend to think success is a direct product of talent, which isn’t true. But we keep telling ourselves this story so we have an excuse to procrastinate. Otherwise we would have to push ourselves every day because there is a reasonable chance that we too could be successful. Scary, huh? The truth about the Long Tail is that it becomes shorter the more effort you put in. The more you connect, the more you give, the more you show passion, the closer you get to the head.

So today all you need is these 3 attributes and some recording gear to get started. Recording gear is affordable, software is available for free as well as tutorials on every aspect of music production, which spares you a pricey studio, and you can sell your stuff through the web. The error here is the assumption of this being sufficient. It might be sufficient to enter the market, but it’s not sufficient to stand out. In order to make the rest of your odyssey as comfy as possible, you should prefer the studio, even if it’s more expensive. The spend has the free bonus of pressure so you have to focus and deliver your very best, it reminds you that this is serious.

Now it’s time to do the important work of getting the word out through the Web. There’s a notion that the few who became successful through the Internet are the exception to the rule. In fact, it’s the other way round. The exceptions have become the rules of how you can market your art over the web successfully as of today and yesterday. The takeaway is, as usual, that this is no guarantee for future success. As stated above, it’s getting harder day by day to amaze people with talent only because there is so much of it out there, and an infinite amount of semi-talent, which accounts for most of the clutter. The latter doesn’t stand a chance by itself, but once again, talent is not the crucial point, effort is. Which is why it is possible to compensate for talent by effort. It just takes more time.

Speaking of time, the upside of the Internet is that the time it takes for news to spread is basically zero. One person alone can publish her news on hundreds of channels, and if it’s picked up by a powerful sneezer it spreads like wildfire. In the days before everyone’s Internet, the artist always had an excuse by saying “It just takes more time until people notice. I’ll have to wait for more reviews in magazines, till I get played on college radio etc.” This is over. If you’re not catching on after 2 days, you better try a different approach to be recognised. So get over the disappointment, you are not a failure, you just picked the wrong method at this particular point of time. Move on.

So now the question becomes: What makes people buy music? Or stuff? Is music any different from stuff? Musicians would prefer if it were, but it isn’t. People never buy anything because it exists, so a CD sitting on a shelf will not be bought for that reason. Andy McKee used to play remarkable music back in 1999, but he was just sitting ot the shelf, until some 5 years later the YouTube hype kicked in. People buy stuff that is subject of the conversation so they can join. People buy stuff that supports the image they want to have. People buy stuff they love. People buy stuff they need to survive. If you can’t serve any of these four, you’re lost. Of course the only occasion you can take advantage of to promote your stuff is either joining or starting a conversation. The other 3 develop over time. It’s better to have people buy your stuff for image reasons than just for short term attention, its even better when people buy your stuff because they love it, and when they need it to survive, well…

Most products never exceed stage 2. This is because they don’t have a story that allows buyers to emotionally connect to, which makes being a recording artist is a … cul de sac. You’re not quite real when you don’t show up in person. Being on 2 more social networks or having 10 more videos online doesn’t compensate for not showing up. After all I know, people become really passionate fans when they’ve seen an artist perform live. Of most of the bands I got to know by going to a concert I bought a record afterwards. Funny thing is though, after a while you start telling yourself the story the other way round, the souvenir becomes the hinge and you belive you had the record first and then went to the show.

By the way, I don’t understand why some artists don’t want to perform on stage. If your art is something you love, you’d be more than happy to share it, wouldn’t you? For real. With instant feedback.

So be a person with a story people can connect to. Embrace exposure. Be different. Stand out. Put in the effort. Doesn’t work? Get more advice. Try another tactic. Repeat.

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