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Do You Love Music Enough to Marry It?

September 21, 2011

Here’s something we can all agree on: trying to make a living off of music is not easy. I’m not talking rock-star wealth & fame…just earning enough to eat & pay rent, and maybe get decent health insurance. So why do it? Why struggle so hard, work like a dog and push yourself beyond your limits — just to “get by”?

Because if you’re like me, you love music. Way down at your core, it has an unshakable hold on you, and tapping into that love is the greatest feeling on earth. Whether you play it, listen to it, dance to it, or talk about it, you don’t just “like” music — you LOVE music. More than most people. More than almost anything in the world. So, do you love it enough to marry it?

Here’s what I mean: if you truly fall in love with a person, you must eventually ask yourself whether you can love them for the rest of your life. If you’re doing it right, you think about the future & you recognize that it’s not always gonna be easy. That a lifelong relationship is challenging; it takes hard work and constant growth. But the upside of all that work is a lifetime full of deep, abiding, satisfying love. The kind of emotional force that resonates from deep inside you. If the love is real, then it’s worth the work. And in your darkest moments, at your lowest point, you & your partner will rely on that love to get you through.

Is the decision to build a career in music similar? I kinda think so. You’ve gotta go in with eyes wide open, knowing that the road ahead is long and bumpy, but never forgetting why you chose it. Holding on to those transcendent moments of bliss, and remembering them when you’re in the doldrums of hard work, staying up til 4am recording overdubs, or playing to an indifferent crowd in a dead-end dive bar, or writing endless blogs and Tweets and posts to engage your fans. I think about artists like Sharon Jones, Fitz & the Tantrums, and Charles Bradley…folks who struggled before they hit their stride. They kept making music all through their life, they found a way to make a living, they kept pushing as hard as they could, because they loved music.

That passion is what will drive our generation of music professionals forward. Other industries will always be more lucrative, more reliable, and generally easier. But nothing can scratch that emotional itch quite like music does. So push on, friends. Work hard, stay committed, and when things get tough, never forget why you fell in love.

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Work, Luck and Humility

August 16, 2011

This week, Music Think Tank published an interview with Ian Rogers where Ian delineated different “classes” of artists – Emerging, Middle-class, Mainstream, and Legacy – and talked about how it takes a long time to move up the chain of success. He’s absolutely right, but “a long time” is a pretty nebulous period. Soul singer Charles Bradley had to plod along as an Emerging artist for almost 40 years, while Mumford & Sons toiled for less than five. Yes, success takes time, but it also takes work – and different levels of success require different types of work.

To go from Emerging to Middle-class, you’ve gotta put in good old-fashioned Work with a capital W. Pound the pavement, play ceaselessly, and promote yourself mercilessly. Go for the snowball effect. Build your audience one fan at a time and give people good reasons to pay attention to your music. This might take one year or ten years, but if you work hard and smart, if you build a solid team, and if your music is high quality, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to build a sustainable business on it. When you can quit your day job and live off your life as an artist, you’ve reached Middle-class.

Moving to the Mainstream level requires a different type of work. When you’re squarely entrenched in the Middle-class, you should be searching for opportunities to catch a big break. Some might call these breaks pure luck, but I see it differently. Yes, there’s some elements of uncontrollable fate involved, but “luck” is simply what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Be prepared to capture lightning in a bottle when it strikes. Have a plan for capitalizing the mass exposure that can come from a viral video, a major TV performance, or an unexpected hit single. This type of effort is different than the long hard slog it took to get to Middle-class, but it’s still work. The timing is often unpredictable, but if you are ready for it, you’ll have the best shot at making the leap.

After you break into Mainstream territory, your work becomes less about your business, and more about you as an artist & a human being. Once you achieve this admittedly rare level of success, dangerous pitfalls will appear. It’s easy to lose touch with your core fans and get caught up in the spiral of fame and the rush for more explosive growth. Others will try to leech off your success or steer you towards bad decisions that aren’t in your best interest. You must work to stay humble and maintain a clear sense of where you want to go. Success can change your world drastically. It’s important to keep some perspective and humility. Trust your gut, your fans, and listen to the people who know you best. This is a different type of work then pounding pavement – it’s more psychological than it is labor-intensive or strategic. But it’s important for your long-term, sustainable growth. Fans can tell when an artist is shallow and dishonest, and they respond with backlash. Likewise, they sense it when a musician retains his humanity, and they will respect you & remain loyal to you if you do.

Nielsen: Teens, Media, and Mobile

August 5, 2011

This article that Nielsen published last month paints an interesting picture of how youngsters (I believe they prefer “millenials” or maybe just “those damn kids”) consume media and engage with the internet. Taken together, these bullet points illustrate a generation with the mobile Web at the absolute epicenter of their media experience. Teens view almost twice as much mobile video as the general population, while they watch less traditional TV than any other age group. Not only are they text-message addicts, they’re also less likely to make voice-calls than most other cellphone owners. They’re highly engaged in social networks – it’s safe to assume this engagement is happening on phones – and they’re also more suceptible to mobile ads.

So as this genration matures, how will their habits shape the media landscape? Obviously, the future will be driven by mobile. The positive side is that mobile ads seem to be effective at capturing attention, and as mobile shopping grows, these ads could drive sales (especially if coupled with real-world, real-time shopping & promotions). The downside is that mobile screens are small and less immersive, so viewer attention is harder to maintain. How will advertisers shift their tactics to make this new realm of mobile ads more effective and more valuable? Digital ads on desktop/laptop screens are still maturing, and the lessons learned in that world might not even apply to mobile. There’s no clear answer yet, but if I was an advertiser, I’d be investing heavily in mobile to try and figure it out fast.

A Piece of Advice for Aspiring Artists

June 12, 2011

If you want to make music, start a band. If you want to make money, start a business.

It’s that simple. Bands and businesses are two different entities with different objectives. If your goal is to play music, by all means, go ahead. But if you want to earn a living from your music, you should view that goal as a separate enterprise — one that takes careful planning and hard work. Any band can screenprint some t-shirts, set up a Bandcamp page, and start making a little money. That’s not a business. It’s the equivalent of a lemonade stand.

So, what’s the key to building a business with a band at its center? The audience. These people are the most valuable asset to both your band and your business. Fans who like your music will become customers who buy your products. And the nature of this relationship actually gives you a huge advantage over other businesses. Think about this: most companies that sell stuff must first convince people to buy their product, and then hope that if they like it, they’ll keep buying more. But fans of your music already like you, which makes it easier to convince them to buy your stuff — and far more likely that they’ll remain loyal customers.

The challenge is figuring out what products your audience wants to buy. Here’s where the band/business gap comes in. Your band makes music, but people won’t purchase music itself (or at best, they won’t spend very much money on it). So your business needs to offer things that fans value. Things like limited-edition packaging, hand-made artwork, and autographed posters. Or better yet, unique items & experiences like private concerts, personalized songs, or video chats with the band. The past five years of direct-to-fan campaigns have proven that if you offer value, people will pay money, some will pay lots, and many will pay repeatedly. It takes some trial & error, a bit of creativity, and a lot of smart work & patience. But just like any other entrepreneurial venture, slow steady growth and a top-quality product are the keys to success.

Your business drives the growth. Your band generates the quality product. If you can do both, you win.

My Head Is NOT In The Cloud

June 9, 2011

The Cloud is on everyone’s mind lately. In the past month, three huge companies have released different versions of the same concept: an online storage locker for your media. I haven’t tried any of them, so I’ll withhold judgment. Though I will say Google’s playlist capabilities are interesting. But in general, I don’t think any of them will be revolutionary or widely adopted by consumers. What’s the big deal? You free yourself from the “shackles” of a tiny, lightweight MP3 player, and in exchange, you get laggy playback and reduced audio quality. It’s essentially just offsite backup for your media collection. Yawn.

I am personally more interested in streaming radio and on demand listening. I’ve tried Grooveshark, Mog, and read a lot about Spotify. They all have their merits. But my favorite so far is Slacker Radio. I’ve been using its radio function for a few years on and off.  I’ve always appreciated the ability to build custom radio stations out of as few as 15 artists’ catalog, which I prefer to Pandora’s “grab bag” style. Also, I dig the option to fine-tune your stations to include more (or less) artist discovery, familiar or deeper tracks, and newer or older songs.

Last month, Slacker added an on-demand service that lets you stream specific tracks or full albums, so if I discover an artist I like, I can instantly listen to their whole record within three mouse clicks (or finger taps). Pretty neat, eh?  But here’s the kicker: their mobile app lets you cache stations & albums in your phone’s internal memory. Caching means never having to worry about being out of internet range or having my signal suddenly drop off. There’s never a lag between tracks. I can take my music into the deepest parking garage. when i refresh my stations, Slacker deletes the songs I’ve played and replaces them with new ones. I sound like they pay me to say this. They don’t. It’s just awesome.

And reasonably priced, too. On-demand streaming is available in Slacker Premium, which costs $10 a month. Basic radio is free with ads. I’m currently using a one-month free trial of Premium, but I’ll definitely pay for it after the trial is over. I use it all the time, everywhere, and I’ve listened to six full albums over the past few days, including brand-new stuff from Death Cab for Cutie and Fleet Foxes. I think that’s worth $10, don’t you?

Despite my love of Slacker, though, I don’t believe streaming for cloud based services will catch on with the mainstream for several more years.  It will take a while to mature from the world of music and technology nerds to the greater public. Pandora’s been around since 2000 and it’s just now making its way into cars. I don’t know if streaming music from the Internet (or the cloud) will ever gain adoption on the scale of regular broadcast radio. But as streaming matures, I hope to see a marriage of curated discovery and instant gratification.

Another blog? Oh no!

June 3, 2011

Oh yes.  I’ve been blogging for Topspin Media for a while now.  It’s about time I started blogging for myself. Expect a mixture of music industry pontification, links to interesting content, personal anecdotes, and shameless self-promotion.  Possibly pictures of cats.

To start: a bit of visual inspiration.  I found this back in college, and it’s always captivated me. It’s called “Keep Going Til You Die”:

"Keep Going Til You Die" from explodingdog.com