Posted on | December 7, 2008 | No CommentsBefore we move on to talking more about you and what you want, let’s take a little closer look at the landscape you’ll be operating in. I’m going to start with some pretty obvious stuff here, so pardon me if you already know it. I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page.
At some level, there are really two relatively separate but interrelated music business worlds: (1) the so called “Indie” or “Independent” world and (2) the major label, corporate funded world. What’s the big difference between these two? Well, to me “indie” means that a venture is not funded by a multi-national entertainment conglomerate. So it means independently capitalized. Often, it also means independently distributed too (but not always).
What is an independent capital source? It could be the $2000 your band saved from gigs to record and release a record. It could also be $2,000,000 invested by a dot.com billionaire to fund an on-line distribution company. It’s pretty wide open.
The relationship between these two worlds is also pretty wide open and fluctuates over time.
Sometimes both the indie and major label worlds are strong. Sometimes neither one is strong. Sometimes it seems like the indie world is nothing but a farm system for the major label world and everything the indie world does is aimed at pleasing major label folks. Sometimes it seems like the major label world is nothing but a really bad co-opted and compromised version of the indie world. And sometimes the major label world funds indie looking ventures in an effort obtain so called “indie street credibility.”
Clear as mud? That’s life in the fog.
As I write this, the corporate major label sector has been in a protracted downturn. Due to a variety of pressures, this sector has been consolidating, which means there are fewer players. Those that remain are very scared and focused on the bottom line. So presently, a narrower and narrower range of music is represented in this sector, because the focus is on immediate results and big selling blockbusters. The same is true of commercial radio. And that doesn’t help to stimulate diversity either.
The indie sector is also a little bit of a muddle. The Internet is the big wild card here. Everyone is trying to figure that out. There’s been some big money pumped into Internet music ventures. A little bit has trickled to the artist. But most of these companies are slowly going out of business or being consolidated into bigger corporate parents as the venture capital runs out.
Because the major label sector is so narrow right now, there seems to be less incentive for indie labels to focus on being farm teams to major labels. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that this function will ever go away completely. And it’s an important function to understand. Indeed, a lot of the information in this series is aimed at people who have some hope that a well-capitalized player might one day want to work with them.
Why is this? Well, as I explain in more detail later in this series, most people playing music have a hard time making a living doing it, especially those that are trying to perform original material. And while it is certainly possible to make a living from music without being signed to a big label, big labels do generally have the most money, which is a big part of why the major label deal remains alluring. For even if you get signed to a big label and then dropped, with the right perspective on it, the experience can still help you get closer to making a living from music.
This remains true even in the face of all the talk about the so-called “Long Tail,” the idea that the internet will lead to more sales of non-blockbuster artists. While there is a decent argument to made that this is true, there’s still not a lot of tangible data to demonstrate just how it will turn out to be true. Moreover, even if it is true, it’s by no means clear how the artist will really benefit from it. It’s great that the internet allows Amazon.com to sell 5 copies of every artist’s CD and that collectively these sales can equal a nice profit for the company. But to have a sustainable career, you need to sell more than 5 CDs. Whether the “Long Tail” helps an artist do that is by no means certain.
The important thing is to remain clear about what’s going on and what world you are in, because even when the two worlds overlap, the rules of survival in each world are somewhat different. And if you fail to learn these different rules, you may suffer unnecessarily. So look at the landscape carefully as you try to figure out where your goals fit into it.
Now let’s take a quick look at these two worlds.
The World of the Majors: The major label scenario is often a much more top down model. It can be like trying to get venture capital funding for your dot.com start-up. It’s about shopping tapes, taking meetings, playing showcases, and spending time in places like L.A., NYC, or Nashville, trying to show the power brokers that you already have what it takes to be a salable commodity. An unknown person trying to penetrate this system is a lot like someone off the street trying to step up to the plate and hit a home run off of major league pitching. It’s not impossible to imagine it happening, but it’s not very likely either.
There’s also not a lot of artist development going on in the major label world anymore. It’s more about trying to grab something that is already showing signs of being popular and trying to magnify that. These labels aren’t signing potential. If a band like Fall Out Boy is becoming really popular, the major labels are likely to want to sign some other bands like Fall Out Boy too. So if you are in a band that sounds like Fall out Boy, has a really slick, coherent look, and has no real interest in being anything but that, it might make sense to try and shop your thing straight to the majors. But understand that your odds of success are going to be even lower doing this than they would be trying to build something from the grass roots.
The World of Indie: The indie scenario is typically more grass roots. It’s more like borrowing a bit of money from a buddy and trying to bootstrap something in your garage. The audition isn’t with just one big investor. Instead, you are auditioning with every person you meet.
It’s not about trying to hit major league pitching right out of the shoot. It’s about trying to to get a base hit off of one of your friends in a neighborhood pick-up game. If your friend is a good pitcher, you may still strike out. But your odds of getting a hit are a lot better. And if you keep playing against that sort of pitching for awhile, there’s a good chance you’ll get to the point where you can hit it more consistently. By that time, you may be ready to hit some better pitchers too. But if you strike out, it’s not that big of deal, because there’s almost always a game going on somewhere, and while there might not be a huge crowd in the stands, you can still get into that game and keep working on getting better.
The Moral of the Story: Probably, I’ve painted these two worlds as being a bit more mutually exclusive than they really are. There isn’t one straight line path. Some people make their way through the indie world and eventually cross over into the world of the majors. Some people manage to hit that home run right out of the gate and start on a major, but at some point they move into the indie world. But I don’t think it’s completely unfair to state that one world (the majors) has become increasingly all or nothing, while the other world (indie) remains more about one day at a time.
I won’t even try to hide it. I do have an indie bias, at least when it comes to where I think most people starting out should put their energy. In my experience, interesting and innovative stuff doesn’t typically get developed in an all or nothing environment. It needs to happen one day at a time, because that’s where the learning and growth usually happens. If you’re not already a pretty good hitter when you go up and strike out against the major league pitching, you probably won’t learn very much from the experience, except that it is fast and you aren’t good enough to hit it. Even if the pitcher himself wanted to try and help you get better, they probably wouldn’t be able to offer you much useful feedback, because you probably don’t even understand your fundamentals enough to process whatever feedback they might give.
So the moral of the story is that you need to be honest about what dues you have already paid. If you are a relatively new artist who has accomplished little or nothing in the indie world, think twice before investing a lot of time and money in trying to shop your project in the word of the Majors. You can burn up a lot of time and money doing that with very little benefit from the standpoint of learning and developing your fundamentals. As often as not, it mostly ends up being an exercise in learning how to be more like what is popular now, rather than trying to figure out who your are and then working to sell that to a fan base (the actual process by which most cool and popular stuff ends up happening).