Artist Versus Entrepreneur: Who Gets What?

AKA SOME ARTISTS CAN’T PROMOTE THEIR WORK

Last year, I was struck by two wildly different links I came across on the same day.

Link 1:

oxbow

Via US noise-rock band Oxbow’s Facebook profile I was directed to an opinion piece by writer (and former musician) Alina Simone. Titled ‘The End of Quiet Music’ this was a nicely rendered argument for re-considering contemporary music as Art. Simone illustrates this with anecdotal evidence from her own music career: whilst making music, Simone always felt uncomfortable promoting it. After some dalliances with the new ‘realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business’ she packed music in and became a writer of essays and novels.

As Simone sums it up, we need to consider people like her:

“We’ve placed the entire onus of changing-with-the-times on musicians, but why can’t the educational, cultural and governmental institutions that support the arts adapt as well, extending the same opportunities to those whose music provides the soundtrack to our lives? If they don’t, Darwinism will probably ensure that only the musical entrepreneurs survive.”

It’s a good argument.

There are a tonne of reasons why contemporary music should be thought of as part of the arts:

(1) Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some people are terrible entrepreneurs and the world would be better off if they did something else. A significant number of musicians fit this profile. Wouldn’t you rather hear less from some desperate band?

(2) There are concrete barriers and market failures that confront some musicians. It can cost an Australian band $10,000 to $20,000 more than an American band to tour America, due to geography and visa restrictions.

(3) And the big one: It’s already happening in places like Australia. It’s here. Contemporary music is treated like part of the arts here. To a much lesser degree, yes, but it does gets funded by the same people who fund poetry and painting.

Here is a list of bands who have received Australia Council for the Arts funding in the last year or so:

Ball Park Music  $20,000

Dead Letter Circus $15,000

The Smith Street Band $13,240 / $13,000

Adalita $15,400

San Cisco $20,000

Sarah Blasko $20,000

Art Vs Science $20,000

Augie March $20,000

More than half of these acts are affiliated with major labels.

The music ‘industry’ is already partially under umbrella of the arts in Australia.

(Look for yourself)

In Australia, contemporary music is art. All we’re really arguing about (if we’re arguing at all) is about capitalising that ‘a’ in ‘Art’ like it always is in opera and experimental music.

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Link 2:

the-weeknd-4ee6928ad3a11

The second piece I saw last year (I wrote some of this ages ago) reached me through Buzzsonic. It was this flashy piece by Billboard Magazine on The Weeknd: How The Weeknd Went From Internet Mystery to Billboard 200 No. 2 by Reggie Ugwu.

On the surface, this piece tells a VERY different story to Simone’s. This article is about how a musician made it ‘big’ by doing virtually nothing:

 What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd — the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye — sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album “Kiss Land” last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan — enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. “Kiss Land” trailed Urban’s “Fuse” for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview — with Complex magazine in July — in support of the project.

In short, Tesfaye made music and let the internet and buzz do the heavy lifting. When he’d cemented in what he was doing (via free mixtapes) he went with Republic and they promoted ‘Kissland’ via ‘word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.’ They didn’t throw endless amounts of cash at it. The artist didn’t take to social media every waking moment. Every individual step looks pretty savvy to me.

It’s all been built to scale up fairly organically, based on whether it should.

(That last word seems important)

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THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?

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So where’s the middle ground between these two pieces?

It looks pretty clear to me:

The consumer market.

 You can’t mess with this formula: Sell people what they want to buy.

This is often a difficult proposition for musicians because – in short – their product line is somewhat fixed. Most musicians can only sing, play, perform, write and entertain in a few specific ways. Most musicians can only make a fixed number and type of product. If you play guitar, you can’t release an album of violin jams, for example.

(Same goes for many other creative people, including writers. I couldn’t write romance fiction if my life depended on it. My idea of romance is this: my girlfriend and I eat pizza together, fully clothed, in a well lit room.)

This is not a problem Tresfaye has because people want music he makes. He doesn’t need to change anything up at the moment. He’s riding over ground opened up by EDM’s rise and rise, helped along by Drake. He has, despite this, maintained a cache of mystery. So he’s got everything on his side at the right time.

When has this ever not worked?

So here’s my problem: If I had to choose which one of these two artists (Alina Simone or Abel Tresfaye) is making ‘Art’, I’m going with The Weeknd.

I just am. Simone’s work is not art because she couldn’t promote it.

I don’t think the relationship between art and entrepreneurship is linear at all.

‘Entreprenurship’ is not about being a pest on social media. That’s a mistake proponents for and against make repeatedly. Tesfaye has been far more entrepreneurial than most, while keeping a fairly low profile.

‘Art’ is not about being an extrovert either. There are probably more photos of Alina online than Tresfaye.

Entreprenurship, innovation, creativity, all those buzzwords are all about the same thing when it comes to music or any other creative endeavour: it’s the art of telling your audience a new story about why they might like your stuff…

And then getting lucky with the rest of it aka having the right product-fit for the right moment.

It’s a brutal fucking business. Really crushing. But if you can tell the right story at the right time, the game is yours no matter how you choose to play it.

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The Rest Is Banal Instruction

AKA THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH ADVICE

Forget good songs. Forget savvy business strategy. Forget the internet and all other media. Forget your training and your practise. Forget anthems and hard wrung passion. Forget your heart. Forget your enemies, lovers and memories. But remember this: what the best music does is deliver us from the mundanity of everyday life. That’s what music is. It’s boundary work. It’s the testing of our limits, always pushing at something. Music that doesn’t push at something doesn’t deliver us from the boring repetition of our lives. Music that doesn’t deliver us from that  pit is just sound. It’s not even noise. It’s no different from the chime of an elevator, only infinitely less useful. It’s garbage.

This avenue to escape ourselves is the sustenance that music can give us. We all need this sustenance and some of us can only find it in music. Everything beyond and around that sustenance is a condiment, that’s all. You can forget all the rest of it and still save a person with music. You can forget all the rest of it and still save yourself.

And that’s it.

The rest is banal instruction.

‘Just do it for the love of it, maaaan.’

‘Just do it because it’s your calling, maaaan.’

‘Never give up, maaaan.’

Fuck all of it.

You don’t need instruction. None of us do. Not if we all keep in mind how and why music works. Not if we always steer ourselves to those unknown places that music opens up. Not if we strive – always, to the point of exhaustion – to find the edges of our lives. And when we’re there we get the one golden reward there is in music: company. And we learn the most comforting lesson there is: you are not alone.

So my advice is to honour this over all of music’s condiments and distractions. As such you don’t need to be a professional or a celebrity to change the world around you. You only need to do as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested, to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Who would want anything more beautiful out of life than that?

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Originally published in ‘The 360 Deal’ edited by Andrew Dubber. 

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This Is Why I Talk About Options Instead Of Answers

I think most of the blah-blahing about MP3s versus records (or printed books vs. e-books) is a mix of honest-to-God personal preference and sheer sentimentalism. I think we all need to shut up about this, because nothing anyone writes or says is going to change any minds. Most of the drum-beating amounts to snobbery for being part of a grand tradition or arrogance for being an early adopter. Both are equally foolish things to be prideful about. Find what works for you, and be happy with it. Music is fun and nourishing. Let it be. – Frank Chimero

You Are Never Just A Musician

AKA I WANNA BE DIVERSIFIED

The successful pop star has her hand in a half dozen different media and a half dozen different genres. Take Chrisina, she sings, dances, co-writes. She does philanthropic work, acts in film, endorses brands. She is a public face for hire and designs jewellery. She is not equally gifted at all these things but she gets by and she moves with the times. She rides the trends.

The successful indie band has its hand in half a dozen different media and half a dozen different sub-genres. Take Sonic Youth, the big kahuna. They sing and flop around onstage. They write songs, appear in film (documentaries, Last Days), endorse guitars and coffee. They maintain music labels and fashion labels, solo careers and various curation projects. They experiment. They move with the times. From no-wave to classic rock to grunge to classical / experimental to reissuing everything.

The successful local band has its hand in a few media and usually one genre. Pick any band you know personally. They sing, they perform, they write songs, appear on Youtube, self-release their albums (or have a friend do it) and maintain their often unrelated, increasingly professional day jobs, for money. The good ones do more than that: they book shows, books tours, take photos, blog, write, record, document, broadcast, inspire and encourage. They don’t – as rule – change with the times. Instead, they break-up and reappear as a new band.

The motivations are different but the activity is comparable.

Everyone rocks a diverse deal these days.

And that’s why ‘diversify’ is such a buzzword in industry: It works.

The focused pure authentic musician who only plays music is something that dumb white guys made up. It’s a bogus history with no real foundation. Forget this history.

If you play music, the question isn’t whether to diversify.

The question is: How well are you already doing it?

Should My Band Be On Spotify? (Part 1)

AKA Good Question.

Photo: Sorosh (Flickr)

(Part 1 of 2)

If there’s one thing people in independent bands seem to love doing it’s getting on the internet and arguing about / reading about the ‘realities of the music business in 2012’.

Do you know how I know this?

Because people are writing about it everywhere, me included (kind of). We live in a time where rock ’n’ roll does have a manual and that manual is the internet. Also, we live in a time where a lot of people make music for leisure and as such they work for a living in offices, bored, online, reading/posting about the ‘realities of the music business in 2012’.

And so it goes.

But from this near-endless miasma of advice and opinion, I still can’t find the answer to this damn question: ‘Should my band be on Spotify?’

I can find plenty of opinions and ideas.

And I can summarise all these ideas into a single word: maybe.

But my band mates and I are seriously thinking about Spotify. I know it’s hard to imagine a band that calls its album ‘Real Pain Supernova’ doing anything seriously (especially thinking) but it is happening.

Opinions are mixed – and loosely held – but they roughly fall across these two lines of thinking:

#1 Should we ignore Spotify and embrace a form of Luddism?

#2 Should we embrace Spotify and ignore the fact that it might be the single biggest fraud ever perpetrated upon our working brother and sister musicians?

Hard to know what to do when the questions are this annoying.

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Dear Shitty Rock Band: On Guided By Voices, The Rock Canon and Everyday Life

AKA BANDS, YOU CAN BE ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY 

A couple of months ago I was getting prepared to review an album that just plained sucked. This happens all the time, more often than any casual reader could possibly imagine. We live in age where almost ANYONE in the first world can make a record cheaply and send it out for review electronically with even less expense incurred. I had been commissioned to write the review, so there was money in it for me to produce something. I decided ‘I’m going to make an example of this band, but as kindly as possible.’ It didn’t exactly work out. The finished review was way too snarky and mean, so I pulled it. But this is what I was going to submit, as a review, to a website that has over 250,000 page views a week and I’m quite sure it would have been published. I think if you’re in a band, that’s worth thinking about. What follows is fairly succinct I think, but even still it’s also a bit of a low water mark for my personality. Hey, you try writing record reviews. It does THIS to you. 

(Also publishing this here because by coincidence some of the comments on this thread articulated some of the same things I’m on about here. Dzzmzz even offered up my closing example.)

Dear Shitty Rock Band, 

I’m not going to gleefully dissect your album for you. In short, I don’t like the songs or the way the whole thing barely holds together and my reaction to it is not much more complex than that. In the scheme of things, it’s not a woeful disaster. It’s not an affront to culture or human dignity. It’s a mistake. It’s extremely human in this regard.

Normally I’d acknowledge all this by ‘filing’ your album without an unkind word. Yet every year these albums are made and arrive on my desk and this time – for no particular reason related to what you did – I think it might be a good idea to explain to bands like yours why their albums disappear forever.

Firstly, what does this album do? 

What is its function?

You like The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones? Good for you. That’s a type of rock music that virtually every single person you’ve ever met in the Western world has heard before. The best music distracts us from the mundanity of everyday life, that’s exactly why it’s entertaining. That’s how it’s entertaining. As such, good music is not something that reminds us of The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and The Rolling Stones (or REM, U2, The Beach Boys or The Sex Pistols), unless it has some sort of significant new inflection or half buried nuance. Presenting entirely derivative music to the marketplace (aka your take on the classics) is a little bit like asking people to go to the office on the weekend.

Do you like going to the office on the weekend? 

Also worth considering is this surprisingly difficult question:

What have you actually done? 

I know it’s incredibly difficult to balance the making of something that strives to push out from everyday life with self-criticism and cautiousness. But as in most things in life, you subconsciously know when you’re shitting in life’s punchbowl. You always have your suspicions.

Maybe someone casually suggested this to you? 

Maybe a reviewer completely unknown to you has suggested this to you? (hint, hint)

Maybe no one under the age of thirty-five attends your shows? 

Maybe no significant taste-maker of any description has ever taken a liking to your work? Not ever?

My advice is to act on these suspicions in some capacity. I can’t really advise you further on this other than to suggest that you not hire a publicist to promote your suspected turd in these situations. Also: don’t have said publicist send your album out to a website known for its bitchy and snarky commentary. That’s just a series of bad ideas, one after the other.

Lastly, why did you spend all that money on recording?

Get a grip.

You don’t need the polish of a studio unless you’re aiming to get played on the radio.

(Confused about radio? As a rule of thumb: If you suspect your album is a bit shit and you’re primarily influenced by The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and/or The Rolling Stones and you’re not already on the radio then you’re not getting on the radio. No amount of polish will change this.)

Do something else.

What type of something else?

There is an ideal model for rock musicians of your ilk: Guided By Voices. They were Dayton Ohio yahoos who recorded an album called ‘Bee Thousand’ album for the cost of batteries and beer. They liked The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones (and REM as well) and they spent years making those influences into something almost entirely their own. During this time of development, they hardly ever played live or sent out promotional copies of their early albums. Why? Because they had enough common sense to know that timidly ripping off rock’s canon was not good music. It was leisure and then, later, it was research.

I’m not saying don’t play in a rock band and I’m not saying don’t pay your dues to the classics. I’m saying you should think about what contribution you’re making to the history of music before making a contribution to the history of music. Where is your voice? It doesn’t have to be a slick or practiced voice and it doesn’t have to be completely original either. It just has to be partly original and partly unique. Until you’ve got those basics down, you’re not ready to be out in the world of music. Until you get the basics down there’s so, so much to be gained from hiding out, recording cheap and acting smart in the meantime.

Further to which, those early pre-reviews, pre-albums, pre-everything months can be some of the best there are in a band. My advice: make them last, for everyone’s sake, most of all yours.

A Tale Of Two Records: How To Mug Yourself Making An Album

AKA ON RECORDING BUDGETS

Console Monitor Keyboard

A friend of mine is standing there the other day and he says this:

‘People don’t give a fuck about sound quality. They just don’t. Musicians think they do, but people either like a song or they don’t and the production might help a little, maybe…but most people don’t hear a good song and imagine how a different type of production would have made it better. It’s just good or it’s bad. And it’s mostly good or bad because of the song itself.’

Is he right? He’s definitely right some of the time. The definitive original version of a song is always what you release. It can be covered and improved (maybe) but you are always first to market with how it is originally going to be heard. You get to decide. And maybe you need your songs to be gleaming diamonds on arrival. That’s the gut instinct option a lot of the time. But maybe the songs are good enough and maybe it won’t make much difference anyhow? Tricky territory.

So let me tell you about two decisions I’ve been privy to in the past.

A TALE OF TWO ALBUMS

Exhibit A

I made a record that cost $15,000 dollars once and it was cheap at that price. I put this album on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound tightly wound together, all the instrumentation sounds big, fun and accessible.

I don’t remember much about recording it. It took a month.

People liked it. It got a good write up in Rolling Stone magazine. Radio ignored it.

We had distribution, a small label, a limited promo budget. We toured. This all happened back when people still bought CDs so we sold a few, but not that many. Through retail sales, we probably covered the label’s manufacturing costs and the promo budget, if that.

The only money the band made back was a our cut of album sales at the merch desk. We probably made two thousand dollars, absolute maximum, on the record.

And our profile lifted a little so we got some better shows. About three years later, the band put out another EP and split up.

At the end, we were worse than broke. In the red. Owed money to someone’s sister, if memory serves.

Exhibit B

I made a record that cost $150 dollars once. I put it on the other day and it’s pretty effective: all the songs sound like someone grinding metal. All the instrumentation sounds big and loud.

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