I get asked this question in one form another a few times a week. Every kid that takes guitar or piano lessons wants to be rich and famous. No young kid starts out, thinking the want to play just to amuse themselves. Their goal is to be a star. At least they want to be a BMOC. Unfortunately there a minute number of people on this planet that have true talent. There are roughly 750 major league baseball players. There are only about 350 professional basketball players in the US and there are less than 2000 professional football players in the world. So of all the musicians in the world, how many are truly talented. Probably less than a half a percent…maybe a tenth of a percentage point.
But these are the ones we care about. They are amazing artists and they enrich our lives with their skill. For 40 out of the last 50 years there has been a relatively clear cut path to success in the music business. Provided you are an extraordinary talent. You make a demo tape. Find a manager with vision and connections and a lawyer that can assist your manager in making a deal. There would be a series of showcases and if you caught the interest of the record label you would have a major label deal. The money was significant. A decent deal involved a signing advance of a few hundred thousand dollars. There would be a good deal of money in the budget for the album. If you ran over a little, no big deal. If you were lucky enough to be a priority on a major label there would be a publishing advance well into six figures. If there were four players in the band, there would probably be enough money to live on for several years. If you were a solo act…a little longer.
If you were a “priority” for a major label, it would not be unusual for the label to spend several hundred thousand dollars or more to promote and market the album. This involved underwriting your tours, imaging your act and making sure they did their best to get it played on the radio and on MTV. If you had talent and sometimes if you didn’t, it was enough to launch your career. Many of the current acts touring, no longer have record deals, but they are surviving on the momentum they gained when they were on a major label. When they had behind them pulling the right strings and spending money on their behalf.
With the exception of Pop or Urban acts, it is totally different. This part of the music business has not changed nearly as much as music that, for lack of a better term is called “Rock”. Major labels sign hardly any “Rock” acts, unless they have been successful in other territories. There are always exceptions. The Avett Brothers is one such exception. These guys made several independent records before any major labels paid attention. Columbia signed them, hooked them up with the legendary Rick Rubin and they had an extremely successful record. This is an anomaly and these guys are great and have paid their dues.
For the most part, if you are a “Rock” act you are looking at a deal on an independent label, or self-releasing your record. I frequently hear it said that the digital age makes it easier for artists. They can get their music directly to their fans without any gatekeepers. This is a romantic notion. You can put out a record, but if people don’t know it is out, it won’t matter.
It has been suggested by many that the music business is in a death spiral. It has been there before. In the late 70’s and early 80’s record sales were slowing down. Radio stations, which were the driving force of the industry at that time limited their playlists. There was less new music on the air. It was getting more difficult to get exposure as a new artist. I guess it could be said there was a shortage of great talent. There was no new musical trend. The punk rock era was winding down and nothing had come along to take its place yet. Then along came MTV. MTV coupled with the birth of the CD, changed everything. Everyone was dumping their vinyl and buying CDs of their favorite albums, because they were supposed to sound better. Catalog sales were a huge part of every labels profits. Especially for labels such as Columbia, Atlantic and Warner, who had deep catalogs. These profits covered-up a lot of mistakes.
Kids were watching MTV constantly. Even bands without faces like AHA became huge stars for a while, because they made one great video. Imaging suddenly became more important than anything. You couldn’t just be a great singer, you had to be good looking too. Sales for new artists were going through the roof. Why? Because there were no old video clips. All MTV played was new music. The public was fed a steady diet of new music and they ate it up.
At the same time, the largest radio consultant, Lee Abrams instructed his programmers to play 80% current music. That was a bold contrast the the 40% or 50% that they were previously playing. This fed the machine and new artist were popping like zits on the back of a steroid user. It was a great time to be a new artist. But MTV ran into problems. People were using MTV like a radio station and switching off when something they didn’t like was on the air. It was made easier with the increased penetration of cable TV and the fact that a remote control came with every cable box. People could change the channels without even getting up. The era of the soundbite was invented. It is not often discussed, but the arrival of a remote control in households changed our culture. MTV realized that they needed to change their programming from video clips to long-form shows in order to survive. Despite the fact that they revolutionized our culture, MTV had crumby ratings. It was time to talk about changing MTV. I was there at the time and was involved in MTV evolving from a “Music Channel” into a “Lifestyle Channel”. It took a minute, but it worked. Ratings improved and more importantly so did revenue. The biggest tool in marketing and breaking records disappeared.
Only superstars seem to get played on MTV now. Youtube is the main place where people see new videos. The catch is you need to get people to go to go to Youtube to find your video. It is hard to do. Chevelle’s “Face to the Floor” is the #1 track on Active Rock radio. Can you sing the song? Can you 20 year old son? Probably not. Because in 2 months only 353,000 have viewed the video. Despite the fact that it is a good song it has not penetrated the market as much as it would have 15 years ago. As a rule fans of rock music don’t spend a lot of time on Youtube. Justin Bieber fans do. But that is because they can’t drive and texting and surfing the net is a full-time job for them. This is the crowd that gave us Roberta Black. Not because she was so talented. Somehow her video achieved critical mass. Most of the kids that commented were making fun of the video. They loved to hate her and couldn’t figure out why the video was being viewed by so many people. I have to agree with them.
It is incredibly hard to get noticed if you are a rock-based act. Unless you have something truly unique, like Atomic Tom’s video shot on the subway using their IPhones, don’t expect too much. Videos aren’t the answer for you. You need to write amazing songs. Not good songs. AMAZING SONGS. The bar has been raised. Your music has to be terrific just to get traction.
If you haven’t carefully honed your performance skills, you have a major problem. Singing in front of your mirror using your hairbrush for a microphone doesn’t get it done. You need to play before live people as often as you can. Unless your are a great live act, it will be hard to get any traction at all.
You need to market yourself through the internet vigorously. You need to do it, because everyone else is. Even the folks without talent.
Talk to your audience. Let them know who you are. Too many acts write, something like “we’re in Phoenix tonight, come out and see us”. Really, unless you are a hardcore fan, who gives a hoot. Use Twitter to let people find out WHO YOU ARE. Not just what you are doing; but what you are thinking. Make sure you have a distinct image and know who you are.
Once you have great songs and a great live act and have worked your fingers to the bone and spent hundreds of hours on the internet you have to make sure you know your audience. You need to find out what they are doing. What sites do they visit? What other artists do they like? How do they spend their time? Are they gamers? Are they on Spotify, Pandora or another streaming service. Most importantly, how do they want to be talked to? You have to go to them. Don’t expect them to find you. It is hard work.
I have just noted some of the fundamentals. Most of all, it takes money. Make sure you find the right people to work with you. If you are a young act without a significant following, it will be very difficult to find someone who knows what they are doing to work with you. In the past, a manager could work for six months and start making money if they chose the right act. Now it takes years, regardless of how talented the act is. I don’t know any established managers who will work for free for two or three years. Find the money and find the right people to work with you. It will save you time and heartache. Hiring your friend, who seems to know what he is doing, hardly ever works. Find and hire a pro. It will pay off in the end.
Most of all, live in reality. Make sure you are really as good as you think you are. Don’t kid yourself. Don’t trust your friends who tell you that you are a rock star. Find people who know what they are doing to give you an objective opinion. Being honest with yourself. It can save your years of frustration and heartache and tons of money and relationships.
The main problem is that the bar has been raised so high that many of the best talent gets frustrated. Be prepared for what lies ahead. Don’t just say “I can take whatever is dished out”. Make sure you know what that means. Many years ago, when he was just 17, a friend of mine wrote a song for his debut album called “Only the Strong Survive Rock ‘n’ Roll”. It seemed like a cliche at the time. But it is more true now than ever before. Today, that guy is the front man for Lynyrd Skynyrd. He survived, so can you.