There’s a little tiny mushroom industry of music marketers growing. A lot of them offer digital services to help “promote” you. Bands are falling for it. Musicians want to believe that, with enough clever marketing on this magical thing called “the Internet,” they’ll still become rockstars.
The fundamental problem with this belief is that people don’t pay for music anymore. Sure, you might get 10,000 Facebook likes. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be making any money. Literally… any… money.
Now, it’s not like every band was making millions before the Internet. However, almost all of them could at least depend on one thing for sure: album purchases from fans. Maybe the fans liked everything on an album, maybe they liked two or three songs.
Either way, there was no other way for fans to consistently listen to your music other than buying your album.
Today, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of ways for fans to simply not give you any money and listen to your music. Digital music has been unchained from the chain of commerce. And bands have become the missing link. This isn’t debatable: album sales have consistently hit new lows almost every quarter.
Digital marketing and digital music have become a music lover’s paradise… except any band that doesn’t have the popular support of millions of people is going to be left behind, leaving us with boring, predictable, faux-controversial, vanilla music that is as accessible as possible.
Streaming platforms – via Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube – have created a culture where “listening to music” is as easy as turning on the faucet. Just like water, music has become a utility. But if we’re being taught that music is interchangeable, on tap and always available, how do bands make money?
The Experience Game
There’s some common wisdom floating around now that says bands shouldn’t expect to make any money from their music. Instead, they need to use free music as a way to build awareness and get people to buy the over-priced tickets (thanks to Ticketmaster’s quiet monopolozation of the market) to shows.
If you’re a band that has a fan base that could potentially fill mid-level venues.
Except that doesn’t work, either. According to a self-proclaimed member of a “mid-level” band that frequently tours, gas, food, lodging, venue, and managing fees, once all calculated, each show on a tour earns $13.12 in profit for each band member.
So it’s hard to break even on tours. What about going really local?
Good Vs. Neighborhood
Local music scenes depend on dense populations of people willing to go out on week nights. Oh, and they need to have $10 or $15 to risk on an unknown band when it’s just as easy to experience live, unlimited music on YouTube. For free.
Local shows are broken.
I recently saw a great UK band, Thumpers, and a Maryland-based band, The Sunclub. They’re practiced, they have an engaging stage presence, the music is pop-friendly and not as alienating as some of the weird instrumental stuff that seems to flourish in the dark crevices of Brighton and Allston.
Ten people came. Why?
I heard about the “Thumpers” show by getting an email about shows in the Boston area. That’s great, I signed up at some point. Or they mined my information when I bought a ticket from The Middle East’s tangled “TicketWeb” ticketing service site.
It wasn’t a “See this great band with a great debut CD!” email. It was a badly formatted, abrasively colored email with a Super Mario Brothers level of text and blocks. My eyes literally had to jump from band name to band name.
To sort through the email, I judged which bands might be good by their name. Then, I went to their respective Bandcamps / Soundclouds / YouTubes / Facebooks.
Thumpers sounded good. I bought tickets.
Capitalism is for Squares
TicketMaster has a chokehold on the ticketing market, controlling more than 80 percent of ticket sales at major venues. Sure, the company provides a fine(-ish) user experience and emails you with helpful dates about huge venues. .
But it’s weird that not many smaller venues have tried to sell tickets directly online. There are a million solutions for local bars and clubs and arenas to build their own eCommerce solutions. They could keep more of ticket sales and (fingers crossed) lower the offensive ticket prices for concerts. That increases foot traffic, by the way.
Meanwhile, you have bands that are determined to sell CDs to a generation of people that will soon barely recognize what a CD is. A lot of laptops don’t even have CD players anymore and a lot of people depend on streaming for almost all of their music consumption. If they like your music at a show, like – like like it – enough to push aside the assured-hits they’re listening to already, they’ll look you up online.
Maybe they’ll buy something from iTunes. More likely, they’ll listen to the “album” on YouTube for a while and then forget you ever existed.
Bands need to make money when they’re at the venue and a fan’s fandom is likely at an all-time high. Forget CDs. Build a brand of great artwork, goofy logos, and memorable memorabilia. Merchandising sites let you imprint custom stuff onto coozies, shirts, posters, mugs, almost whatever you want that can be mass-produced in China.
So, sell that stuff. You will likely never see most of the people at a show ever again. And they won’t buy your album or listen to you again.
This is your life. This is their Tuesday night.
A Flat Rate
The Internet has opened up all sorts of opportunities for music, but it’s also allowed major media publishers to capture an enormous audience. It’s allowed EDM artists to rake in profit, because they’re just one guy and record labels long ago realized it’s easier to cater to one ego than five.
Because, let’s not get it confused. Middlemen aren’t the enemies. Sure, there are plenty of examples of sleazy record execs and manipulative contracts. But that’s because music always needed business to become a livable profession.
You were never supposed to sing and strum an instrument for a living. Record labels made it possible. Comics like this draw middlemen as the enemy:
But the fact is that to make a band a recognizable force in such an amazingly crowded market, you need a force behind you. You need people who can create networks, build brands, organize shows and all that good stuff.
But the problem remains the same: people aren’t buying the product musicians make. Namely, the music. Streaming stations are paying pitiful royalties, too.
Record labels, publishers, and all other other middlemen have been (somewhat) unfairly cast as evil dinosaurs by idealistic techno-optimists who have mistaken sitting at their computer at three in the morning as an act of rebellious innovation.
These people have one thing right: the Internet has turned a sleazy-yet-ordered world of deals and deal-making into a free-for-all. Who wins? The major pop stars with backing and sponsorships. Walking endorsements, talking icons, commercial, multimedia platforms that live and breathe and occasionally approach a microphone.
But, again, the unconscious consumer – you, me, everyone – are the biggest culprits. We’ve depended on a free online economy so much that we’re surprised when we glimpse the quivering foundation of sand and dreams holding it all up. Free movies? Free music? Free everything?
Wait, where are the jobs? Why can’t I be creative for a living?
There’s too much competition. And, even when you make an amazing impression, people aren’t willing to pay for something as commonplace as music.
A lot of the time, they’re not even willing to pay to go see it.
An Experience-Based Economy
Everything is trending toward an experience-based economy. In an ecosystem where everything is basically free, you can make money from two things: creating an experience and selling information. Social networks like Facebook, media providers like Google, have depended on the latter. Everyone else needs to use these environments to build the former.
Expression in an omniscient environment is like dancing naked. You need to be brave and reckless to do it. And not care about any consequences from overbearing Google searches that now act as Sauron’s Eye.
You can’t commoditize experience. You can sell books for free – and then everyone else sells them for free, too, and it’s impossible to create a culture where words cost something – you can create software for free, you can take pictures and publish and say anything for free. You can give away all your music for free… but it largely doesn’t help make you any money.
The real question is how you package those experiences. Tech companies know this. That’s why they’ve branded out of the box. People are buying brand now. Apple does the same thing as a bunch of other companies. But the brand gets people more excited than any others.
Bands, writers, everyone in any creative industries need to follow that model. Your art is a brand. You are a brand. It’s easy to build it. It’s harder to package.
To summarize: musicians don’t get paid for their music by modern-day distributors. They don’t get paid enough by digital music solutions like YouTube or Pandora or Spotify to have their music be anything but a hobby. And they don’t get paid by most fans.
They do get paid for the experience they provide at shows. Electronica bands already know this – that’s why they rely on insane visuals. But touring is exhaustive and, if you’re a mid or entry-level band, there are a lot of shows where very few tickets are sold. So you lose money.
The solution is to build a network of partnerships with bands, venues, nonprofits, and companies. The solution is to socially sell festivals and digitally promote them.
Because what do you really need? A residence in a place for a week. An event that isn’t just “music” but something else entirely. A residence at a dive bar for a weeklong festival of music, activities, and local sponsors cuts down on a band’s travel costs, the general wear and tear of flying all around the country in a beat-up van, and could build fan loyalty a lot better. It would also attract casual music fans who are interested in the “whole” experience.
A festival should ideally support a great nonprofit and get support from a company that’s good with digital marketing. Once you’ve build a network of partners who are going to be as equally invested in the show as you, then you’re going to get more people to come.
If you get more people to come, everyone has a great experience. And, if everyone has a great experience, you get paid to make music after all.
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