Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Cover or Art

August 12th, 2010

This is the headline of a regional newspaper’s article today. Its diplomatic conclusion is that a cover band makes art in its own right by picking a song and making it theirs. And it might not surprise you that I don’t agree.

Here’s why: By design, a cover band exists to play songs that have been made and performed by others. It’s quite arguable if the songs themselves are to be considered art, but that’s a different (yet related) topic. The purpose of a cover band is to resemble the feeling of a song when they play it, only that it’s on stage and not at home, so you can have a good time with your friends. Musicians who play in cover bands do so because they love playing their instrument (sometimes to perfection), not because they feel the urge to create art. Because if they did, they’d spend their time creating and not mimicking.

That said, there is a huge difference between a Mariachi band covering Heavy Metal songs and a Rock/Pop ensemble (2 guitars, bass, drums, keys, brass trio, vocalists) covering songs arranged for this kind of ensemble. It’s remarkable versus predictable.

Funny enough, the article quoted the singer of the band that “it is one side of the coin to make it in today’s music market, but even harder to be accepted by endorsers and sponsors”. That’s quite obvious when you try to be everything to everyone. The marketer’s dilemma. And because there are marketers on the other side of the table too, it’s no safe bet for anyone. It makes sense for an instrument manufacturer to endorse an extreme performer because that gets them noticed, but maybe by fewer people. A middle of the road performer may find a larger audience, but they won’t give a lot about music gear. An artist doesn’t worry about this, because he has embraced that art does not depend on endorsements or sponsorships and she would never sacrifice this art for a little more comfort (only for a lot, that’s just how the lizard brain works).

A little aside: There’s an internet radio called NewcomerRadio, that says its mission is to promote newcomer bands to broadcast radio and other internet stream radio stations. Yet their stream sounds like any other radio station, because their rotation is the same. And so they pick their newcomers to fit into this rotation, and -presto!- nothing happens, because nothing stands out. Different artists that sound all the same. Wasted.

Doing the opposite would have a totally different effect. There’s thousands of bands out there, and I’d rather go to the edges instead of what used to be the centre. Brazilian Polka bands and Indian Viking Folk singers are just way cooler than yet another High School Punk band. It’s all there — if you dare. Yes, chances are you will lose your old listeners. The ones you will find instead will not only listen but also do the promotion themselves. Now that’d be helping your mission, wouldn’t it?

Industry indeed

July 29th, 2010

A friend responded to my post yesterday that he couldn’t imagine a star being made without an industry. I agree. Today, they need each other more than ever.

In the pre-industrial age, fame used to be directly related to merit. Think Michelangelo. Sometimes fame would follow merit with years of delay. Think Mozart, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Robert Johnson. But some people actually used fame to promote. Benjamin Franklin, in his role as ambassador to France, and his fellow Founding Fathers believed that the fact of Franklin’s image appearing on fashion items, fans and perfume bottles would help to attract interest in and spread the ideas of the new born nation. The first man who combined people’s fame with industrial goods was Josiah Wedgwood, who came up with the idea of making collectible portrait medaillons of “Illustrious Moderns” like Voltaire and Rousseau. (Interesting read: Star Crazy, section 2)

What all the people have in common is that they were only known to a comparably small circle of people. Entertainment was only for those who could afford it.

Then came the invention of free time. This might sound a little crazy, but before the industrialization, there was no free time as such. And it made perfect sense, because people needed time to spend the money they earned in the factory. Which allowed more industries to spawn. And so forth.

Next step: cinema. And this changed everything. Within a few years, film producers figured that people were not only into films, but also into actors starring the movies. Hence a perfect cycle could be set up: People go to the movies, papers print news about the stars, people notice and tell their friends, more people go to the movies. Easy as pie. All you needed to do was printed your actor’s name on the poster promoting the next movie. And the second best thing was that everybody could afford it.

The best thing about all this was that it educated people into a reverse logic: Publicity equals merit. You don’t get in the paper for nothing, do you? And so whatever you wanted to promote, all you needed to do was to make it appear it on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, radio and finally TV. And entire industries could sell their products riding on the back of the celebrities.

Now, what happens if you want to sell more products? You need more stars. This is the race we’re still running today. There are ever more celebrities because there is ever more stuff to be sold, and the diversion of interests and markets produced space that needed to be filled with more faces to put ads next to.

What’s critical now is to estimate whether this will go on, because people are so much int the reactive mode of consuming that they won’t take the time to ask themselves what they care about, what matters to them, and start following their passion. I don’t believe that people are passionate about consuming. They just keep telling themselves they don’t know what to do other than that. What gives me hope that this can change is the fact that it took almost a century to educate people to behave that way, so obviously it’s not part of our nature. The cavemen didn’t have to keep up with the Joneses, neither did a pre-industrial person.

What I wanted to point out 2 days ago was that you don’t need an industry to make a living by making your art. If you want fame as in “as seen on TV”, you still need the industry, as of today. And you need to sacrifice your art, round off the edges in favour of being more average. Not totally average, but to a certain degree. The reason why Cannibal Corpse were not featured as being outrageous on German TV, but Berlin rapper Sido was, is simply because he’s more average in terms of language: my grandmother can understand his swearing, but not Chris Barnes’s or George Fisher’s. That’s media business. An industry indeed.

No more bottleneck

July 27th, 2010

An industry is one or more organizations turning a unique thing into a mass product. The magic happens when they succeed in transferring the real value of the original to a perceived value of the copy. Which is exactly what the music industry did.

From the first LPs over 100 years ago to the CDs in the 90s, the music business was able to pull that trick because of several reasons: Everybody loves music. Music is an expression of self. Music is fashion. Being a fan of something is great. They could serve all these needs at once. And they had control over the whole system. Music corporations were not only making the discs, but also handling the licenses of the music itself. And they decided who would become the next big thing and who wouldn’t. They were the bottleneck with a built-in valve to both artists and audience.

Of course this has changed. The bottleneck has been bypassed with millions of tubes. There’s no more need for any musician to wait for an A&R’s consent so they can make an album. They make an album and give it away for free. Of course the industry doesn’t like this, because they can no more justify the prices they used to charge. It’s understandable they still blame illegal downloading, but this isn’t the real problem. Since the introduction of tape recordings, people shared their music. On the web, they can only do it on a larger scale, which means the permeation time is reduced. Illegal downloading itself is out of fashion for years.

Here’s why: People have not been re-educated. What they were educated to do was to wait for the next big thing to be announced via print or in-store ads, radio DJs or TV commercials and go buy it. Listen and repeat. A tradition they could easily pass to their children because it was all passive.

Now imagine going to somebody and saying: “There’s 10 million artists out there on the web, find one you like, become a fan and help them become superstars. You can do it. If you don’t do it, nobody will.” People still think upside down. Someone will tell them who is a star so they know what to buy and like. Same problem with radio. They too don’t know where to go. Now we get to know that they’re no experts at music at all, they only eat what they’re being served. And because great fresh produce on the music biz menu is sparse they resort to canned stuff.

What people have learned quickly is that the likelihood of excistence of a ‘more value for money’ or ‘same value for less money’ alternative is 10,000 times bigger thanks to the web. But they have no clue how to find it. This sounds like a big opportunity. Imagine having a site that allows to search for…stop.

Actually, this is what musicians promoting themselves need to do, similar to approaches Derek Sivers posted years ago. So if you are “U2 with hard guitar riffs and Shakira on drugs singing”, don’t be afraid to use that term all over your promo activities. Chances are people will (slowly) learn to search for phrases exactly like this on the web. Maybe there’s a staging post like a site with a set of modules that give users a rough idea what to look for and ultimately make sophisticated use of Google’s search to deliver to the user’s doorstep. In the long run, the new culture of finding music will have worked its way to the people who you want to be found by. One way or the other. And if they happen to be brought by their friends, you’d welcome them too, I guess. Just remember you can’t force anyone to find you.

For musicians, the old way of thinking ‘how you make it’ was more attractive because the story was one of a single effort, very hard but only once and you’d be done — like buying a lottery ticket. If you won, you’d just have to do what you like and what you’re good at — making music. Today’s story is one of continuous effort, doing what you don’t like because more often than not you’re not good at it — marketing, selling, taking care of stuff — and if you’re lucky, you can spend an hour a day making music, because the rest of your day is consumed by a job you need to have to pay your bills.
The old dream was that you had to get out of your comfort zone just once, get that record deal, and you’re good to go. The new nightmare is that you have been banned from your comfort zone permanently. Meet people. Talk to people. Get people to help you. Realize that selling music is – like selling whatever – about people. This is scary, especially for introverts.
Another problem musicians might be facing is what to tell to their (yet to become) fans. Having a blog is a sensible thing, but of course no one expects an artist to write a cat blog. Artists should be telling stories about how great the exclusive night club party was or how they totally wrecked the hotel room $50,000-a-night-suite. Or if they want to be on the safe side, what the latest charity event was like (and who they ended up in hotel with and totally wrecked…you get the idea). After all, they’re stars, aren’t they? So we want them to act like stars. People don’t want to read about how hard your day was before you picked up the guitar to write a new song. Booooorrrrinnng! Or how you tried to do whatever. Nobody cares, as long as it’s not in their particular field of interest. And 95% of the time, it’s not. Don’t bother me with details. Somehow an audience is the worst boss you’ll ever have, as long as you have to prove yourself. When you’re successful, this takes care of itself. Of course it doesn’t, but it’s easy compared to being the unknown artist, isn’t it?

Where’s the extra?

May 6th, 2010

The night I wrote about the Axis of Awesome phenomenon, I also purchased the ‘Kids’ cover by The Ooks of Hazzard because I liked the video on YouTube and I thought 99 cents was not too much of an expense.

It turns out that the single you pay for is the same recording as on the video you get for free. Once more I have to admit that my personal standards do not resemble the zeitgeist in terms of music releases, as it seems. The crucial point is that when making the purchase I expected an extra, the Free Prize inside. Otherwise I would have downloaded the audio part from the video for free.

That’s how you keep the interaction going. Not only by trading something for money, but by putting in a remarkable extra that motivates your customers to tell their friends. It doesn’t have to be expensive but worth talking about. This also applies for transactions that are not about money. By reading this blog you trade time and attention for information and entertainment. But does it contain the extra you expect so you go and tell a friend? Your feedback is most welcome.


May 4th, 2010

When someone noticed you had a Mac computer…

… 15 years back, they knew you had to be graphics designer.

… 10 years back, they knew you were graphics designer or musician.

… 5 years back, they knew you were someone working in the media biz.

A device that replaced your business card. A caste mark.

Today, you’re someone who can afford the lifestyle. Apple has finally made the transition from a company making products for freaks to everybody’s lifestyle supplier. Time to cash in. That’s what you’re dreaming of when you go into business. Appealing to everybody without pleasing them.

The losers in this game are the freaks, of course, because they’ve lost one of their trademarks. Which is just one example. All over the place, what has worked previously is about to stop working tomorrow. Whatever special tools helped you define yourself in business or as a person will have become commodities or obsolete at all tomorrow.

The challenge for Apple is to remain special and not to become yet another provider of electronics accessories. The challenge for the freaks is to define themselves not by peripheral attributes but by what they do. It makes no more sense to rely on what you have. If you strip away all that stuff, what remains? This is what needs to be worked on.


April 27th, 2010

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.

Magic, not managed

March 23rd, 2010

If you’re into music you might have heard of CD Baby and know about their story — if not, you should pay them a visit.

A few days days ago, CD Baby founder Derek Sivers posted two tweets:

Definitions of “founder”: (1) a person who founds or establishes some instituion (2) stumble and nearly fall: “the horse foundered”

Oh I definitely stumbled and fell bad. I was a horrible manager. That’s why I sold the company: personal failure, not success.

Having listened to some interviews with him, Derek seems a modest person to me, but very clear and determined about what he wants to achieve with what he’s doing. I didn’t know that when I gave my former band’s first album to CD Baby back in 2004 — but because I had a good feeling about the company. Today I know that Derek himself put a lot of effort in to make it work and keep it going, spending long hours on programming, maintaining and improving the system. And somehow you noticed.

Maybe I’m romancing here, but you think different about something when you have an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. What the public didn’t know back then was that Derek wasn’t good at managing (if you want to know in detail, most of his interviews are still available). But it wasn’t important. Maybe this caused some occasional damage, but I’m pretty certain that his vision and his passion were enough to create a tribe and make people come to work every day at CD Baby, as well as it attracted musicians who would have CD Baby distribute their music, and millions of people spending millions of dollars to discover new music by original artists.

And then Derek sold the company, for reasons I can understand in a certain way. And I believe this was when the game changed as an inevitable matter of course. Though he’d been releasing newsletters announcing CD Baby had sold 5 million albums and more, generating tens of millions of dollars of profit paid to the musicians, people were not really aware that this had been a multi million dollar company. It didn’t look like it. It didn’t feel like it either. But selling your company for $22 million changes everything, especially when you sell it to another company. Had he sold it to an individual, it might not have changed that much — but that’s speculation.

A company as new owner shone a different light on the company you thought you knew. Besides, they made one of the top mistakes: a site design overhaul. That’s IMO the worst, because most egocentric, first official action you can commit. Good news was, the first new president wasn’t in charge for long. Then came a new one, and he screwed up completely by deciding the whole system (including the visual design, once again) needed to be rebuilt. The rest is (sad) history. I’ve rarely seen such an outrage persisting over months on the one hand, and on the other such an unmatched foolishness (Statements like “Good news! We’ve set up a new system and we haven’t tested it beforehand. It’s not fully functional as of now, but it will be in no time! Stay tuned! CD Baby loves you!” No time turned out to be about 5 months. Not only was the site not working, but artists were not having access to their accounts, money was getting lost, the no-works).

Not only doesn’t it feel right any more, but millions of people have been let down by a company they used to love. Here’s the real mistake. The magic is gone. Now management is in charge. People did forgive mistakes back then because they didn’t expect flawless results as long as they were certain someone was doing everything they could becaused they loved their work. With management in charge, people get the notion that now they’re doing serious business. Serious as in unforgiving, no kidding, meet my lawyer. Doesn’t sound like musicians helping musicians, does it?

Allies and foes

March 20th, 2010

Business organizations can be treacherous (this includes everything from worker unions to copyright associations. Not to forget insurance.). They team up with organizations you don’t want to team up with. They will take measures you don’t agree with to achieve goals that are not yours, like lobbying politically to rewind the system back to a better ten years ago instead of envisioning a better tomorrow. It might be a good idea to really look into their activities before joining them, just because “common sense recommends”, before people you thought to be your allies will turn out to be your foes.

Ten years earlier

March 17th, 2010

Everyone (including myself) feels a little stuck now and then, and sometimes, a (despaired) thought springs to mind: “If I were born ten years earlier, I’d have a better standing in my industry today.” The range of years may vary because every industry and organization seems to have their own, say, rhythm or evolution periods.

The point is, ten years earlier, it was much harder to get where you are now. What gets you here today didn’t get you anywhere 10 years ago. Good news: In ten years’ time, the stakes for the ones to follow will be even higher. For example: If you wanted to be a great Compositing Artist to work on Lord of the Rings ten years ago, you would have had to get started doing compositing in the early 90s. Back then, it was close to impossible to find a company that would even do this on a computer workstation, because NLE hadn’t even entered the mass market (and workstations that could do these kinds of effects cost as much as a spaceship. Well, almost.). Or in marketing, ten years ago direct mail, cold calls and door to door sales were king. Anybody want to try them today? Same with music. What used to be extreme and edgy ten years ago won’t impress as much today.

Back then it was the freaks, the people who were really passionate about their ideas, who would lean into it and do whatever it would take to turn vision into reality. This hasn’t changed. The only difference is they were pioneers, today there’s a field you have to surpass. It has become harder (but not impossible) to be pioneer from the very beginning. Most boundaries that used to be on your doorstep ten years ago are now somewhere out there. But they haven’t gone away. Now you have to find them before you can push them. That’s why expertise matters, and the only way to build your own expertise is to do what you’re passionate about.

Art vs. Craft

March 3rd, 2010

Art is going out and doing something you’re passionate about, creating something that causes change.

Craft is knowing how to shape your art in order exceed (or meet) standards and expectations.

A lack of craft can prevent your art from being recognised as what it is.
When we admire artists, it’s not only about what they have done, but also how. Picasso was only admired when people realized how hard it was to paint like he did. What sets a “pro” artist apart from an “amateur” is that she has mastered her skills and never stops challenging herself, never settles. Every other explanation is an excuse, because it’s not the tools. Today every tool and material is cheaper than ever (except the ones available on the black market, but that’s another issue), so everybody could start doing whatever they like.

The challenge of doing art has not gone away, it has merely changed. Not only must you have a great idea, the tools and the skills, but also the perseverance to make it real. If you don’t, it’s easy to ask for help.