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The Indie Band Survival Guide
THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE A MUSICIAN
Less than ten years ago the "Holy Grail" for artists was to get a record or publishing deal. Today, many artists avoid these deals (especially record ones) at all costs.
--"The Record Biz Today: On Which End of the Food Chain?" NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF RECORD INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS (June 5, 2007)
THERE HAS never been a better time to be a musician.
The tools at your fingertips today were barely even dreams just ten years ago. Global digital distribution for music is simple to achieve, and with it you can sell millions of copies of your album from one physical copy. More opportunities than ever before exist to get your music played, and they are no longer exclusive to the major labels. The Web can get you a worldwide fanbase. And you can record your music at home with technologies and capabilities better than a professional recording studio could do a mere decade ago. The system, which used to be closed off, is now wide open for anyone who wants to participate. The traditional players in the music industry were like tollbooth operators, and the price of admission was your music. Now, you don't have to ask anyone's permission, and the cost is minimal.
We've entered a world where the musicians are in charge. The numerous middlemen who separated the musicians from their fans are falling away. Infact, musicians can stop wasting their time trying to appeal to the mainstream-minded music executives and focus on the people who really matter: the fans.
Unfortunately, the best techniques for taking your music into your own hands are scattered all over the Web, or in books and courses oriented toward audio and computer professionals. Even more answers have existed only in the heads of musicians who have solved these problems from scratch, but haven't yet shared how.
That is, until now.
You are holding a book written by two indie musicians who ran into those problems and who, by necessity, navigated and deciphered the confusing worlds of music copyright and licensing, CD replication, publicity, music-video production, and booking, to name a few. This is the guide that we wish that we had when we started our own band over a decade ago.
With this book, you'll learn how to win fans worldwide, achieve global digital distribution and sales, get your music heard on radio and the Internet, launch publicity campaigns, and get yourself and your music noticed throughout the world.
In short, you now have everything you need to do it yourself.
THE DEATH OF THE HIT-DRIVEN MUSIC INDUSTRY
THE LONG TAIL
The music industry has long focused on the hits. From the Billboard Top 100 charts to the focus on gold and platinum albums, success for music was marked by the number of units sold. This industry is obsessed with popularity and sales numbers. This isn't surprising, since most of the sales for the industry came only from those hits. Why bother with any other music?
But that was in the days when music could only be sold as pieces of acetate or plastic, and the only way to hear new music was to listen to the handful of radio stations in your town. At the heart of the titanic changes to the music industry is a concept called the Long Tail, a theory created by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, author of the book The Long Tail, and, incidentally, a musician.
His theory about what changed is simple: there has never been roomfor items that might sell just one or two units a week. But, with computers and the Internet, there is no end of shelf space. For example, if we look at music sales, it would resemble the graph below. Most of the music industry focused on the Head of the graph, which represents hit albums. But the gray part, the Long Tail, extends way beyond what even the graph can show.
Here's the surprising part: the combined sales of the Long Tail are greater than the combined sales of the Head (the "hits"). The reason is simple: so much more makes up the tail than can ever make up the head. And because people aren't limited to just buying their music from the head, they are traveling down the tail and buying what they want to hear, rather than what the industry has made available to them.
Are all of these so-called Long Tail songs, well, good? Naturally, not. But the amazing thing is that every single one of these tracks, good, bad, and ugly, usually sells. This key paragraph from The Long Tail explains it best:
... for online retailers like Rhapsody the market is seemingly never-ending. Not only is every single one of Rhapsody's top 60,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, but the same is true for its top 100,000, top 200,000, and top 400,000, even its top 600,000, top 900,000 and beyond. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it's just a handful of people every month, somewhere in the world.
This means that there's a market for all music thanks to high-speed Internet connections and dirt cheap hard-drive storage. The implications for your own music should be obvious: there's room for you in the pool. Hop in.
In the recent past there were only so many radio stations, TV channels, and shelf spaces. Audiences' choices were limited. But today, choices are unlimited.
This changes everything.
And not all of it is good for the traditional media, the media that most musicians target to get their music played. A multitude of new entertainment options such as YouTube, podcasts, video games, and the Internet have diluted their audience. According to The Long Tail, if you were to drop a television share sheet for today's top network television show on the desk of a television executive from one of the three networks of the 1970s, he would immediately cancel the show due to poor ratings. And with even more choices being offered to audiences, these numbers will probably drop even further.
In the past, because the channels were so expensive, the gatekeepers focused on hit music or shows that maximized their audience share. Generations of people internalized this hits-only economic model and began to assume that there was "a mainstream" that everyone liked. Anything that didn't make it past the gatekeepers had no value. So how much of this was because mainstream entertainment was the only entertainment available?
"Music is an industry grossly underserved by the blockbuster model," Chris Anderson told us in an interview. "People don't realize how much music is out there. The vast majority of bands don't get signed to a major label and don't get sold in major record stores. Music is an example of the richness of culture and the violence that traditional distribution does to that variety."
But as he explained in his book, the traditional distribution model is now being swept away. And this trend is good for indies. Plus, because the means of production and distribution are in the hands of people like you and me, more people are making music themselves. They have realizedthat they can find an audience on the Internet, even a big one. And the irony is that the average person is not only spending less time consuming traditional mainstream media, he or she is actually competing against it.
With these trends dividing the attentions of the audience, the established players must change their business models. They are still focused on hits, with most of their income streams based entirely on the number of people watching and listening to their shows. As their audience continues to drop, the advertising money supporting film, TV-show, and major-label-album production is flowing elsewhere. The hit-driven producers of music--the major labels--are especially impacted.
The limited number of channels of the past has exploded into a universe of niches. People can easily find others that share their interests no matter what that interest is, and no matter where in the world those people are. But this doesn't mean niches are small. For example, there are millions of tennis fans.
Music works the same way. No matter what genre of music you play, fans of that style can find you and hear your music. All you need to do is reach out to them. You need only go to CD Baby (CDBaby.com), the world's largest independent music store, to find that the top sellers appeal to particular niches. Derek Sivers, the president and founder of CD Baby, shared his observations about this trend:
Imagine an archery range with a target one hundred feet away that you're shooting at with your bow and arrow. For the last few decades that target has been two inches wide. And the only way you could hit it was aiming dead at the middle. If you had perfect aim, you could have a big hit. Otherwise, you'd have nothing at all. Now it's like that target is one hundred feet across, and it's easy to hit, except somebody did a little trick and cut out the middle. It's like a big giant doughnut. It's easy to hit, but if you're still aiming at the middle, there's nothing there.
This trend is good for indies. There are people who want to hear your music. And, the goal of the rest of the Guide is to tell you how to effectively find your niches.
How the Long Tail Affects Your Music
Here's what it means to you:
* There is room for every artist.
* You no longer need to go through gatekeepers to get your music to an audience.
* Traditional mainstream media such as television and radio are no longer the only ways to get heard. There are more ways to win fans using a broad array of other media that don't have the same barriers to entry.
* Music hits are never going to be as big as they were in the past, because people aren't forced to select their music from a small set of options. Astronomical hits were an artificial by-product of limited choices.
* Because of the number of options that the audience has, you must compete for your audience's attention, but there are countless niches for your music.
* The distinction between being signed and being indie will not matter to fans. Instead talent, quality, publicity, and genre will be all that matters.
* Your band is a niche.
MYTHS AND REALITIES
Most people's conception of how the music industry works seems to be derived from movies and television. The movie That Thing You Do!, a film directed by Tom Hanks, is a perfect example. It tells the story of a fictional band called the Wonders in the early 1960s. They write a couple of songs and, after performing live, decide to record an album. After sending their record to a radio station, something wonderful happens--it gets played. The Wonders are a hit! The music labels come knocking, and in no time at all the band members are thrust into riches, fame, and fortune.
Unfortunately, although this type of story gets repeated over and over, it's just not true. While this might be shocking to some, the music industry doesn't quite work the way Hollywood portrays it.
THE MYTHS AND REALITIES OF COMMERCIAL RADIO
Possibly the most common goal that bands have for their music is to get it played on the radio. Unfortunately, commercial radio is mostly inaccessible to independent musicians. There's a reason why you rarely hear of indie bands getting discovered due to commercial radio (except in movies). You can certainly do it, but it will probably cost you a minimum of $20,000, and that's no guarantee. You're better off with a budget in the low six figures. If this goes counter to your beliefs that "payola" was made illegal, it will help to know a little bit of history before starting your commercial-radio campaign.
How Commercial Radio Really Works
Think back to when rock and roll was starting to make a splash in the 1950s. The powers that be were against that "sinful" music. They believed it was corrupting the youth. Whether it was good or bad for our children, rock and roll was certainly big money. By the late 1950s, record labels were routinely sending record albums with piles of money--and even drugs--to DJs to get their songs played on the radio. This practice came into sharp public focus when the legendary rock-and-roll DJ Alan Freed was convicted in 1962 of accepting bribes to play music. Shortly after, payola laws were passed.
These payola laws have been on the books since then, but there is still payola. Today, it's just done through intermediaries. While it isn't permitted for a record label to pay a radio station to play its music, it is permitted for them to pay a third party to help get their music played. And thus, the independent promoter was born.
These promoters aren't allowed to pay money to the radio stations either, but they find other incentives, such as providing vacation packages to radio programmers, giveaways for the stations' listening audiences, and even payments to cover miscellaneous expenses. As Eric Boehlert wrote in an exposé for Salon.com, the techniques "indies" (independent promoters, not bands) use to get around the restrictions vary:
Indies form alliances with a station's general managers (or the corporate owners) and cut deals, typically guaranteeing a station in a medium-sizedmarket $75,000 to $100,000 annually in what is termed "promotional support" to buy a station van, T-shirts, billboard ads, etc.
The annual promotional payment secures the indie as the station's exclusive point man, the only one (or at least the first one) its programmers will talk to about playing a new single--an "add," in industry parlance. The indie becomes a high-priced toll collector. Once that indie has claimed a station, he (it's almost always a he) sends out a notice to record companies, letting them know he will invoice them, on average $1,000, every time the station adds a new song to its playlist. If indies don't get paid, the songs don't get played.
So, contrary to popular belief, none of the music on commercial radio is chosen by DJs from submissions made by artists. Nor is it made a hit by radio programmers "discovering great music" that's out there.
Commercial Radio and Independent Bands
With this kind of money being thrown at radio stations to play major-label music, it should be clear why you can't get commercial radio play. Few of us indies have the kind of money needed to get played.
Added to this, due to new FCC rules allowing corporations to own even larger percentages of stations in a single market, there are fewer owners of radio stations in general. Smaller stations have been absorbed into large corporations such as Clear Channel Communications. This means less diversity, and fewer truly different places to get played in commercial radio. How likely is it that a corporate radio giant is going to play your music when you have no advertising dollars to offer them in return?
Fortunately, radio is no longer the only method to introduce your music to new fans. And, as we stated above, they're losing listenership anyway. Today, plenty of other distribution channels are available to indie musicians, such as college radio, podcasts, and music blogs, to get their music heard by music fans. We'll tell you how to get your music into these channels later in this Guide.
THE MYTHS AND REALITIES OF MAJOR LABELS
Back when studio time was expensive and distribution and promotional channels were limited, musicians needed labels to record, distribute, andpromote their music. But this has changed. And yet, some musicians dream of getting signed to a major label. This is no longer good business sense and there are a variety of reasons why:
* The money's not there. As record producer Steve Albini revealed in a well-known essay called "The Problem with Music," musicians in a moderately successful major-label band with a $250,000 advance (which is owed back to the label) can make as little as $4,000 per year. In the end, most albums never earn out their advance--the only money most musicians see.
* You give up creative control. Labels wield a great deal of control over your creative work, and worse, they can go through the entire recording process with you before deciding to withdraw their support. In many documented cases, a label coming under new management has canceled the release of a finished album before it goes out. For examples, see The Ultimate Survival Guide to the New Music Industry: Handbook for Hell by Justin Goldberg.
* You give up your rights. The label keeps rights to the recording master of your album forever. Even if the album goes gold, and the band pays back all of the money owed to the label, that recording will still be owned by the label. A quote from Courtney Love said it best: "The band owns none of its work ... they can pay the mortgage forever but they'll never own the house."
To get more insight into major labels, we suggest Confessions of a Record Producer by Moses Avalon and All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman.
Consolidation, Cost Cutting, and Layoffs
The major labels are in turmoil. They are losing money, cutting costs, laying off employees, and consolidating to stay alive. As stated above, the music industry's business model is broken. They are still focused on hits and selling CDs. Each year, sales of CDs decline. Unsurprisingly, these sales declines are affecting those musicians who choose to sign with the labels:
* Artist development. Labels are spending less than ever on nurturing new musicians and bands. In an article entitled "Music Labels Might Still Be Shorts" (RealMoney.com), Cody Willard writes, "They can't just cut costs to boost cash flow forever. There's no fat left in those labels. They sure don't spend to develop talent over the years like they did back in days past."
* Turnover. To compensate for lower revenues, the labels lay off employees. Musicians who do get signed can't be sure that the people they are dealing with today will still be there tomorrow.
* Taking even more revenue streams. Major labels are trying to get at even more of the artists' revenue streams. While the labels used to be limited to album distribution and ownership of the master recordings, they are now taking a cut of music publishing, merchandise, live shows, and even sponsorship revenue in the guise of providing a one-stop holistic approach--something that a band can handle more profitably for themselves.
The Major Labels' Effect on Indie Musicians
The good news for indie musicians is that those people being laid off are experienced and talented music professionals, skilled personnel who are increasingly hiring themselves out to indies, charging by the hour or per project. When we decided to get the help of a publicist for our CD release, we found one who had worked at Sony BMG promoting major groups for years, deeply experienced with getting albums in front of lots of reviewers. And we didn't have to give up the rights to our music to take advantage of that experience.
Even veteran artists are catching on to these trends. The ones who are popular enough to get out on their own are doing so now. Many of them are bypassing the labels and going to banks and investors to raise the funds to record their albums. Artists who can show a steady income stream from prior releases have been able to raise serious money. The real question is, what role will the labels play now? According to Aaron O. Patrick in the Wall Street Journal:
Big record companies say they aren't threatened by the efforts to produce music without them. Bands "are not equipped with the necessaryspecialist skills to take care of business" such as hiring producers, designers, photographers and publicists, says Max Hole, an executive vice president at Universal Music Group International, the overseas arm of the world's largest music company by market share. "We are experts in providing these services and skills, which allows the artist to create and make music."
We find Mr. Hole's suggestion that a band can't find a photographer, publicist, and designer to help them put together their own albums absurd, especially in the age of the Internet. And they're not going to ask you for the copyright to your music in return for their services. Furthermore, some tools, such as a digital camera or a copy of Photoshop, are easily in your grasp. Whether the traditional players acknowledge it or not, we've entered a new era, one where musicians can do it themselves.
THE NEW ERA OF MUSIC
Today's music world has entirely new concepts and terms that drive it, with audiences that have a completely different view of music from what they have had in the past. You will need to take these changes into account to plunge forward into this world. We're going to talk about this new era below.
PRE-NET AND POST-NET
The heart of this new era for music is the Internet's capability to instantaneously transmit music among people all over the world. Other factors include better encoding for small music-file sizes, peer-to-peer file sharing, faster computers, and broadband connections.
In the pre-Net era, limited resources meant limited access for audiences. It meant few channels of distribution, with control concentrated among few players. These players decided what music would be distributed and where. It was a world of one-way communication--of broadcasting.
In the post-Net era, barriers between artists and their audiences have fallen away. Post-Net audiences are fickle, and they expect to get most of their information and entertainment for free. Trends come and go quickly in this world. It's easy for something to "go viral" becausepeople spread the music they enjoy to people they know. In the Internet world, this can mean millions of people taking an interest in a short time.
Perhaps the most interesting and relevant change in the post-Net world is the cynicism of the public regarding the traditional media, especially when it comes to the music business. Today's audiences crave authenticity, a fact that isn't lost on the major labels. For instance, singer-songwriter Marié Digby rose to "Internet phenomenon" simply by making homemade videos of herself playing cover versions of popular songs on YouTube. Views soon totaled 2.3 million. This led to her getting played regularly on radio and MTV and ultimately signed by a label--Walt Disney's Hollywood Records. Or did it? A Wall Street Journal article reveals the amount of work in making Digby appear to be authentic:
... a press release last week from Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records label declared: "Breakthrough YouTube Phenomenon Marié Digby Signs with Hollywood Records." What the release failed to mention is that Hollywood Records signed Ms. Digby in 2005, 18 months before she became a YouTube phenomenon. Hollywood Records helped devise her Internet strategy, consulted with her on the type of songs she chose to post, and distributed a high-quality studio recording of [her song] "Umbrella" to iTunes and radio stations.
Given what we know about pay-for-play on commercial radio, it should come to no surprise that a label was orchestrating Digby's rise to "phenom" status. The surprising lesson to take from this is what lengths a major label will go through to make their artists appear indie. According to the article, Digby's MySpace page had "None" listed under "Type of Label." After inquiries from the Journal, it was changed to "Major." It's clear that Hollywood Record's approach catered to post-Net expectations of authenticity.
Indies, on the other hand, don't need to manufacture it. They actually are authentic.
We will be using the terms pre-Net and post-Net to discuss differencesbetween these two eras. We'll be comparing them often because many commonly held pre-Net conceptions still need to go.
PRE-FILTERS AND POST-FILTERS
In the pre-Net world, there are two layers of filters.
Pre-filters are the gatekeepers who decide what music will go into distribution channels such as stores, TV, radio, and film. Examples of these are music executives, agents, and A&R representatives. In the pre-Net world, it was tough to break into this system, and only a minute percentage ever did.
Post-filters are the reviewers, newspapers, Web sites, and other sources that people trust to filter through the sea of information and find the gems that match their tastes.
While the pre-filters still exist in the post-Net era, they can be ignored if someone wants to post their work for the world to see. There are no pre-filters on YouTube, for example. Anyone can post any video he or she wants. But of that morass of videos, which ones are actually entertaining? That's where post-filters come in. Many people depend on sites such as Milk and Cookies (milkandcookies.com), which only posts links to videos that users in their community found amusing, to point out the good ones.
Also, even the role of post-filters has opened up. In the pre-Net era, only a few people were empowered to review new works for the public. In the post-Net world, anyone can blog his or her opinions or post a review on Amazon.com. The traditional reviewers, who were at times influenced by the major players, suddenly had unbiased, genuine competition from people who wanted nothing more than to share their opinions. This authenticity is the true currency of the Internet.
There are many types of post-filters:
* The traditional reviewer. An individual who gives his or her personal opinion as to what is worthwhile. Some examples are music writers and movie reviewers. In the post-Net era, it also includes bloggers and Web sites that post reviews.
* Community-based filters. Community-based filters are Web sites that let their own communities suggest and vote on what they consider to be thebest content. With a large enough community, this can be a powerful way to filter. Some examples of community-based filters are Digg.com and reddit. com, which we discuss in the "Your Web Presence" chapter.
* Editor-based submission filters. This combines elements of traditional reviewers with community-based filters. A Web site that has editor-based submission filters will accept submissions from anyone, but an editor will sift through these and post what he or she thinks is worthwhile. One example of this type of post-filter is Slashdot (slashdot.org).
* Aggregation filters. Since so many opinions are now to be found, some sites aggregate reviews to give a more accurate picture. For instance, Rotten Tomatoes (rottentomatoes.com) takes reviews from known movie reviewers and quantifies their opinions into a combined approval percentage for each film.
* Word of mouth. The most important kind of filter there is. One that becomes even more powerful online.
* Advertising and marketing. Although these are less effective than the other types of filters, advertising and marketing can have a powerful effect on what rises into people's consciousness.
Since pre-filters can now be avoided, the post-filters have become all-important. They are the primary way that people will find out about your band. As Jim DeRogatis, music editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and cohost of National Public Radio's Sound Opinions, says, "No matter how obscure a name I throw at you or you throw at me, the fact that we'll be able, in no time at all, to sample that band for ourselves is incredibly liberating. But you'd never know about [these groups] if I didn't mention it to you." As an indie musician, you will need to target these post-filters. We will talk about how to influence them to cover your music in upcoming chapters.
DO IT YOURSELF
As an indie, making your music successful is now your responsibility. Unfortunately, it's not enough to just post an MP3 on your MySpace page. Everything that a label would have done for you is now in your hands. Youneed to get yourself noticed, booked, distributed, played, seen, and publicized.
Luckily, you have outstanding tools, services, and resources at your fingertips to help you do it yourself. You have global distribution, unlimited promotional opportunities, and countless new ways to get your music to millions of people all over the world. Stop worrying about a music industry and start focusing on music fans. They're out there. You just need to win them over. That's what the Guide is all about. Read on to find out how.
THE INDIE BAND SURVIVAL GUIDE. Copyright © 2008 by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.