The Tears of a Clown

Dec 12 2010

If the record business were a movie, the ad line would read:

Laugh till you cry. Cry till you laugh.

This comic tragedy reached a new peak this past week with a particularly unusual bit of December madness– the move by Barry Weiss, the chairman and chief excecutive of Jive/RCA Records within the Sony Music family to Universal Music, and even crazier, the rumors of Doug Morris, the aging and soon to be departing king of Universal, taking over the leadership of Sony Music.

http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/barry-weiss-joins-universal-music-group/

As if it weren’t enough to lose the one genuine record guy in the entire company, and the only executive who has been able to consistently deliver profits year after year even through the downturn, Sony is now contemplating elevating Rob Stringer, who has been the author of several disastrous decisions, and entrusting the whole enterprise to a 72 year old man who as far back as 2007 was happily revealing himself to Wired magazine as a complete technological Luddite. If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny, and vice versa.

The truth is, while the travails of EMI have been grabbing all the headlines over the past two years, Sony Music has actually been delivering an equally poor, or maybe even worse, performance of its own. Obviously, Guy Hands made an extremely imprudent purchase– paid way too much, took on far too much debt, and bought a company in worse shape than he ever anticipated. Clearly his management decisions have been ill-fated, with more turn-over than a washing machine, and a decision-making structure that makes the European Union look streamlined. But to his credit, EMI has created a few genuine stars, like Katy Perry, revitalized a few older ones, like Kylie Minogue, and is making a pretty impressive show on the UK charts at the moment.

Sony on the other hand has reeled from debacle to debacle– including the hiring and firing of Amanda Ghost as Epic’s president and the installation of uber-producer Rick Rubin as co-head of Columbia– while achieving next to nothing on an artist development level. When Amanda Ghost left the company, the list of her signings during the two years she was at the company was dumbfounding. “During her time at Epic, she (Amanda Ghost) signed artist’s like Denmark’s Oh Land, British born Thai artist Hugo Chakra, and the German and Nigerian artist known as Nneka” the press release stated. Rob Stringer called her “an important creative force”. Wow. Meanwhile, Rick Rubin’s biggest success at Columbia has been an album for Neil Diamond– not exactly a ground-breaking new discovery.

At this point, Sony survives on product with which they have almost no actual involvement, like “Glee” soundtracks, Susan Boyle records and American Idol releases. Labels like Phonogenic have supplied them with The Script and Natasha Bedingfield. But the only real artist broken out of 550 Madison has been Keisha, which was Barry Weiss’s project. Now he’s leaving. Hope he turns the lights out when he goes.

If you want to know more about how a disaster like this is perpetrated, check out a very insightful blog posting by Wayne Rosso:

http://www.waynerosso.com/2010/12/08/rob-stringer-rick-rubin-and-the-real-story-at-columbia-records/

With EMI awaiting its day on the chopping block and Sony’s future cloudier than the haze of pot smoke in Amanda Ghost’s office, that leaves Warner and Universal as the two islands of stability in the churning major label seas. Unfortunately, things haven’t been too rosy at The Bunny either. Warner recently threw out its under-performing A&R leader Tom Whalley and went back to the drawing board with Rob Cavallo, as Edgar Bronfman Jr. continues his on-the-job training program, about a decade in the making now, in how to lead a major music company. Certainly, it would have been cheaper to send Junior to Clive Davis’s school at New York University. But not nearly as entertaining. For an inside look at Bronfman’s already heartbreakingly funny career, check out the aptly titled “Fortune’s Fool” by Fred Goodman.

So that leaves one. While it’s been common knowledge that the record industry was almost inevitably going to consolidate down to 3 major labels by the end of 2011, it’s starting to look like we might be going down to a lot fewer than that. At this point, Universal has an A&R line-up that dwarfs the other major companies, with the undisputed king, Jimmy Iovine leading Interscope, David Massey rising at Mercury/Def Jam and now Barry Weiss moving over in the spring, and a batting order of artists that includes most of the heavy hitters in the industry. As virtually everyone in the industry acknowledges, Universal is the preferred home for any artist, and the first call for every manager, lawyer, and talent scout.

Given the players in question, there’s not much interest in how the ongoing horror story that is the record industry in the Internet Age is going to turn out. The real mystery here is why the larger corporations that own these music companies continue to indulge the madness. As the triumph of competent managers like Barry Weiss prove– this isn’t rocket science. You just have to do sensible things in sensible ways and execute effectively. Sure, it’s not as much fun, but it might actually keep everyone in a job. When it comes to turning the major label music business around, here’s a couple of obvious suggestions worth trying:

1. Make the Chairman someone with a technology background.
I don’t like it, and neither do most other old music guys, but the reality is that music and technology are now inextricably linked. We don’t just need someone running the show who knows where technology is at now. We need someone who understands where it’s going, and has his or her own network within the tech community.

2. Make the label president someone who understands the nature of a hit song.
The labels that consistently win are those with a “song guy” at the top: Syco with Simon Cowell, Phonogenic with Steve Kipner, and Interscope with Jimmy Iovine. Today, it’s all about hit singles. We need A&R leaders who can recognize a hit song.

3. Put someone in power who can do arithmetic.
Despite the ever-dwindling sales of the past five years, the spending levels at the major labels remain in the stratosphere. The obvious problems, like the midtown Manhattan office spaces and the contractual payouts to departed execs, are only the tip of the iceberg. The perks that go into the care and feeding of executive “talent” (dubious as that moniker may be) are even more problematic for being less visible. Here’s a reasonable observation: if a record label president needs to relocate the company offices, completely re-decorate the interiors, maintain a private jet or fly his or her colleagues out to LA or New York simply to have a meeting, he or she is probably not the leader we need for the music business in the 21st century. It’s not that business anymore.

A week ago, I had lunch with a great young A&R guy, who had recently been hired by one of the major labels to head up a new imprint. This kid was exactly what record label presidents look for: ambitious, personable, aggressive, and clearly possessing a great ear for new talent. Over our lunch he recounted to me how he arrived at the major label for his new position, worked his butt off…and then promptly left, less than six months later– giving up in frustration, without having signed or released a single thing. As he explained, not only could he not manage to get the Business Affairs department to finish any of the deals he put forward, he couldn’t even manage to track down the lawyer who was supposed to be doing the work. The system was so dysfunctional that he couldn’t even manage to put out reissues of product the company already owned. Expressing his frustration to the label president on the way out, he was promptly rehired– as a consultant.

Funny? Kind of. Sad? Only because the careers of artists, songwriters, producers, engineers and yes, talented A&R people, are involved. In the words of songwriter/artist Duncan Sheik, who wisely left the record world to strike it big in the theater business:

Who needs to join the circus
C’mon just look around
We are surrounded
By a bunch of f… clowns.

*”Good Morning” (Duncan Sheik)

By this time, most of you are probably trying to figure out how a 14 pound turkey is supposed to fit into that tiny little browning bag, or you’re stuck in an airport somewhere trying to reunite with a family that will be driving you crazy within about twenty minutes, if you ever do manage to arrive. If so, then the point of Thanksgiving may already be starting to grow a little hazy.

Having spent the last several Thanksgivings in Italy, on a single-minded mission to educate the unknowing locals about the pleasures of this peculiarly American holiday, I know that it can be difficult to explain what this event is all about, especially in times like the present. As one Italian friend asked, “Thanksgiving, yes… I see. But for what? “

With blessings few and far between in the music industry these days, one could be forgiven for focusing solely on football and food on Thursday. Still, particularly in the hard times, one should always be mindful that even the worst of times have their mitigating factors that allow us to survive and fight another day. Well, at least most of us will survive, unless we’re Guy Hands and EMI.

In the spirit of gratitude for past acts of kindness and hope for the future, here are five things for which we songwriters and publishers can thank our lucky stars. Feel free to make your own list, or offer up suggestions—we need all the help we can get.

This year, let’s be thankful for:

1. Our Friends
No one survives in this business on his or her own. Not only do we have our own personal networks of contacts, cronies, and colleagues, we are fortunate enough to have dozens of organizations both large and small that support the efforts of songwriters and music publishers. Some go out and get our money for us. Some offer career advice. Some recognize outstanding achievement. Some fight for our rights at a government and industry level. Here’s to the whole lot of helpers: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, NARAS, NARIP, RIAA, Songwriters Hall of Fame, Songwriters Guild, NMPA, AIMP, etc. If you don’t know what those acronyms stand for, it’s time you do some research. You may be missing out on a valuable ally.

2. Little Girls and Old People.
Never thought I’d see this happen, but the truth is that music is no longer a crucial element of youth culture. That spot has been handed over to a whole collection of pastimes from social networking to electronic games. The people keeping us in business these days are adults and their 10-13 year old daughters. Don’t believe me? Go ask Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Michael Buble, Susan Boyle, and every top touring act of 2010, almost all of whom are old enough to be Justin Bieber’s grandparent.

3. Hipsters, trend-chasers and buzz-mongers.
There’s certainly enough of these people out there. If you haven’t seen ‘em, just go and spend a few days at SXSW, or MusExpo, or check out any edition of Music Week. No matter how many times these characters chase the new trend that never quite catches on, or fork up massive advances to buzz bands that never make it out of Williamsburg, or fill up endless amounts of blog-space waxing on about an act so obscure that it will never be more than a flea on the industry long-tail, they’ll always have a home in a business endlessly devoted to the next big thing.

For small independent publishers looking for opportunities, that’s a great thing. Because while the hype-sters and the cooler than thou types are drawing everyone’s attention in one direction, a smart, savvy, and yes, conservative publisher can take his or her pick from dozens of proven, steady income-earners to go in business with. They might be songwriters whose catalogs survive on oldies stations, or heritage acts that sell year after year to their core audience, or jazz, classical and world music acts that barely register on the industry radar screen. They’re not too cool or sexy, and they won’t get you any mentions in the A&R Worldwide newsletter. But they will make you money, and they’re being all but ignored by the A&R staffs of most major music companies. For that, I say thank you.

4. Sub-publishing, if not sub-publishers.
Those of you who follow this blog know that several recent postings have dealt with the opportunities and challenges related to sub-publishing. Like most blessings, this one can also be a bit of a curse. For those looking to spread their business to other foreign territories, the subject of sub-publishing is primarily focused on finding partners in other territories where your music might be effective. That’s an opportunity that often winds up being more of a source for frustration than real income.

The problem is that most sub-publishers are simply not very good. Most companies are simply offering lip-service to foreign publishers—promising to promote their music in the local territory, but rarely doing anything but the most basic collection functions, and sometimes not even that. If you’re counting on your sub-publishers to create a global presence for you, you’re likely to be disappointed.

In fact, the bigger opportunity in regards to sub-publishing is often to become a sub-publisher for other companies. By offering to represent viable catalogs in your local territory, you create a whole new set of business relationships, build your roster without having to make a major financial investment yourself, diversify your song catalog, and improve your cashflow—and that’s not even mentioning the 15-20% that you can often take as your percentage. For a small publisher, picking up other catalogs to sub-publish in your local territory is one of the easiest and most cost-effective business strategies you can hope to find.

5. The suits
And finally, a good word for the lawyers. That’s unusual. However, the truth is that the biggest growth area in the music publishing business for the next 10 years will likely be lawsuits—particularly the large-scale, class action kind. Having already seen distributions from YouTube and Napster cases, and in anticipation of receiving payouts from the late payment fund set up by NMPA as part of the recent negotiations over digital payments from record labels, music publishers are anticipating a windfall. Sooner or later, dozens of major internet media and music businesses will be forced to settle up for music that they’ve been using without a license for the last 5-10 years. It won’t be easy or quick, and it won’t happen without a fight. But given that the copyright laws are clearly on our side, we are likely to eventually walk away with some money, with a little help from our trade organizations, and of course, the lawyers.

I know—it’s not the most uplifting list. Anytime you’re actually thankful for lawyers, lawsuits, trade groups, Justin Bieber and heritage rock acts, you know that it’s been a tough year. Nevertheless, we’re still fortunate to be in a business where we are able to spend our days working with music and songwriters. There are a lot worse ways to make a living.

Most of all, I’m thankful for the indomitable spirit of the Music Business Weasel that lives in all of us. Sure, it’s a business that is often short-sighted, ridiculously speculative, and maybe a little bit sleazy. At the same time, it’s a business of survivors. The people I work with each day are clever, full of ambition, endlessly determined, and always sure that tomorrow will bring the big hit that makes it all worthwhile. That’s the kind of weaseling I most admire, and it’s what assures us that there will always be a music business, in some shape or form, for us to profit from and complain about in the future.

Have a great holiday and thank YOU for your support of the blog over the past 12 months. See you in December!

Don't Get The Drift

Oct 01 2010

None of us enjoy going under the knife, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will make you better.

One of the publishing companies I used to work for had a dreaded bi-annual event called “blue book”, which for most of the creative department at the company was about as enticing as a root canal and lasted twice as long. At the “blue book” meeting, all the heads of the various offices (Nashville, LA, New York, London) and their creative staffs would convene in front of the company owner and president to review the overall financial results for the past six months, and make some predictions for the upcoming period. That was the easy part.

The ordeal would then proceed to a songwriter by songwriter review of the entire roster, examining not only the current activity of each composer, but also the financial realities. How much had the writer been advanced? How much had been recouped? How much was out there to be collected? When was the next advance due? What were the chances of ever moving the deal from red ink to black?

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, the truth of almost every large publishing company is that most of the bills are being paid either by back catalog (songs controlled by the company for many years, but written by writers who have long since moved on) or by a tiny handful of current writers, perhaps 10% of the whole roster, who bring in 90% of the income. Ironically, those super-successful writers are usually self-contained business entities, who need little support from the creative staff at the publishing company, and often have very little contact with their publishers beyond cashing the royalty checks. From a “blue-book” standpoint, that means it’s pretty hard for the Creative Director to claim much credit for the success of the top ten percent. Instead, you’re left squirming in your chair, trying to explain to the owner of the company what happened to the other 90%. It focuses the mind, that’s for sure.

And that’s the point. The danger of making a career out of songwriting is not outright failure. In fact, that’s almost impossible. After all, songwriting is not actually a business–it’s just something you do. No one can force you to stop. No one can fire you. The danger of a profession like songwriting is:

The drift.

Years go by. Opportunities arise, but never quite pan out. More songs are written. A few contacts are made, but people move on, change positions, you lose touch. There are a few good breaks, but the timing is wrong and the chance to follow up on them is lost. More years go by.

“Blue-book” was bad. But drift is worse. That’s why music publishing is an essential element in making a career out of songwriting. Because music publishing is indeed a business. It has rules, and the process of keeping score is very clear. If you’re making money– at least more than you’re spending– then you’re winning. If you’re not, then you better beware of drift.

It’s the end of September, and as most songwriters and artists who have publishing deals or record deals will recognize, that means royalty statements for the past six months are starting to arrive in the mailbox. Like it or not, that’s the scorecard. If you want to make writing or publishing music your career, at some point you have to start to do the math. Of course, if you have a DIY model for your company, you don’t have to wait for a twice-yearly royalty statement– you can do the numbers month by month. Either way, this is a good time to put on your publisher hat and do your own “blue-book” review. It’s not something most of us look forward to. But it’s the only way to stop the drift.

Ask yourself:

Is your music generating enough money upon which to build a profitable business?
Does the money you make with your music cover the expense of making it?
Is your music doing what you want it to do, and reaching your audience?
Are you seeing consistent, measurable growth?

These are tough questions, and for most of us, the answers are not all positive. As I pointed out earlier, you’re not alone in that. For any Creative Director in a large publisher, there are always more challenges than success stories. The point is not the analysis of the current situation, but what you’re going to do next. When your boss asks you to explain how you’re going to recoup a six-figure advance to a singer-songwriter who’s just been dropped by her record label, you either have a coughing fit, or you get creative very quickly. Advocating “perseverance and more of the same” does not go over well. The role of the publisher is to come up with strategies for success.

I can’t give you the specific formula to change the trajectory of your songwriting career, or the career of one of the writers whom you publish. In fact, any strategy you employ will be changing all the time, like a GPS that keeps re-adjusting for every wrong turn or missed exit.

But I can give you a framework that should direct your thinking, focus your approach and inspire your creativity about how to end the drift and restore some forward motion to what’s happening with your music. Like any good battle plan, you start with a knowledge of the terrain and the challenges you’ll face, and then figure out how to adapt to the situation. Here are 8 Strategies for Success, to get you started:

1. Know Your Market and See What’s Working.
If you’re a dance music producer, you generally need to either be a DJ or work with one. If you’re a rapper, you need to be part of a local crew of similar artists. Most rock bands start with a live following. There are paths out there, and you need to try to get on them.

2. Know Your Audience and Give Them What They Want.
Most songwriters never figure out what they’re aiming at. Understand who buys the kind of music you make, why they buy it, how they listen to it, and what they do when they listen to it. Then give it to them the way they like it. If you understand the nature of the audience for Ke$ha, Rihanna, Toby Keith, or Drake, it’s not hard to understand their success. Successful songs and artists are mirrors, reflecting to their audience an idealized picture of who the audience wishes they could be.

3. Know What’s Missing and Provide It.
Every market has gaps in it, in which a segment of the audience isn’t finding what they want. The smart songwriters and artists don’t go where everyone else already is– they find the gap and fill it. Say what you want, but Justin Bieber filled a gap. So did Lady Gaga. So did Taylor Swift.

4. Know What You Do Best and Do It.
The modern music industry is a business of specialists, not generalists. As a songwriter, you are being brought in because you are a specialist in a particular market, genre, or style. There are very few examples of people who are specialists in three or four different musical areas. By diversifying and trying to write in four or five genres at once, you are not increasing your chances of success. You are exposing yourself as a generalist. There are songwriters who earn a fortune solely for programming drum beats, coming up with guitar riffs, or blurting out lyric concepts. That’s because they do that one thing better than anyone else in the world.

5. Know Your Weakness and Fix It.
If you know what you do best, it should be easy to acknowledge that there are places where you fall short. It only matters if you choose not to fix it. If your lyrics are weak, then collaborate. If your demo production is dull, then find a producer or engineer and put him or her on the team. If you can’t sing, don’t. There are people that do these things. Hire them.

6. Know What’s Changing and Change With It.
Nothing stays the same. That’s true not only of audience tastes, but of marketing strategies, the structure of the industry, and the role of music in society. If you’re a hip-hop artist still talking about “Crips and Bloods”, you missed the game change. Ditto for the songwriters still writing big “Disney” ballads for the Celine Dion types. Time marches on.

7. Know Where The Money Is and Go There.
Just because a style of music is out of fashion in one place doesn’t mean it’s out of fashion everywhere. A good friend of mine, a legendary songwriter from LA with a boatload of pop hits from the mid-1980′s, recently did a deal in Japan, to re-record some of his best known songs. It seems there’s a market for smooth, West Coast 80′s American pop in Asia. If you do something well, there’s usually a land of opportunity somewhere. You just have to find it.

8. Know Who You Need To Know and Get To Know Them.
Meeting people is a random accident. Networking is a business strategy. You build a network by identifying who you need on your team, figuring out ways to meet them, and then, most importantly, thinking strategically about how those contacts fit together.

Not only do most songwriters fail to think strategically, a large number of them actually refuse. They are determined to write what they feel, ignore the distinctions between one genre and another, insist that their audience can and should include everyone from teenyboppers to grandparents, and make the market come to them. For a very select few, it occasionally works. But if after your careful “blue-book” career reassessment, it’s clear that what you’re doing isn’t working, you might need to consider a change. Especially if you want to make your music not just a hobby, but a career. You can’t just let it drift.

A strategic approach to songwriting is what my upcoming workshop, “The Hit Factory: Making Your Music Make Money ” is all about. It’s a one-day, 6 hour workshop that includes song review and discussion, all aimed at developing an effective business around your songwriting. I’ll be doing the workshop in partnership with New York’s Songhall, on:

Saturday, November 6th, 10am-4:30pm at Shetler Studios in Manhattan.

I had the opportunity to lead this workshop last year, and it was a sell-out, so contact the SongHall now if you want to reserve a spot. Hope to see you there!

http://www.songhall.org/news/entry/1057

End of the Innocence

Aug 27 2010

Here’s a moderately happy ending to a story that we first started following in the blog “Welcome To the Hotel California”, back in May. That posting recounted the story of Don Henley’s decision to pursue legal action against Chuck Devore, former GOP candidate for California’s US Senate seat. This would-be champion of the American people (a group which would presumably include songwriters and music publishers, at least in California) had opted for the questionable campaign strategy of using Henley’s songs, “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” (Henley’s co-writers, Danny Kortchmar and Mike Campbell joined him in the lawsuit) as a means to ridicule DeVore’s political opponents, Senator Barbara Boxer (Dem-California) and President Barak Obama.

As you might remember, DeVore and his co-defendant Justin Hart, the campaign’s Internet director, had re-written the lyrics to both songs, re-recorded the vocals with the new lyrics, and then posted their new creations on YouTube. Truly, it seems everyone in California, even a conservative Republican state Assemblyman, wants to be in show business.

Interestingly, the whole case hinged on the difference between “parody”, which is allowed under the principle of “fair use”, and “satire”, which requires the permission of the copyright owner. The court rejected DeVore’s argument that the new lyrics parodied the original song, and concluded that the new lyrics were indeed “satire”, directed at the candidate’s political opposition. Here’s the distinction:

Parodies are re-written versions of a song which poke fun primarily at the original song. Most of Weird Al’s work falls in this category, as do the things you hear on morning radio shows. The principle of fair use provides that once you put your work into the public realm, people can re-record it, re-arrange it, or make fun of it without your direct permission. It’s called free speech.

On the other hand, satire is a different animal. A satirical use takes the song and employs it in order to make fun of someone or something else, outside of the song or the songwriter. That function requires the permission of the copyright holder, as one is now altering and using the song to say something the songwriter never intended. Despite DeVore’s legal arguments, it’s pretty clear that the uses of Henley’s songs were satirical, because they didn’t so much ridicule the songs themselves or Henley as an artist, but rather political figures never mentioned in the original lyrics.

Incredibly, DeVore and Hart would seem to have made another miscalculation when they chose to put their creations on YouTube, presumably in synchronization with a visual image. As Music Publishing 101 students will recognize, this requires a synchronization license, which must be negotiated with all of the parties who control the copyright. And DeVore calls himself a “law-maker”? Maybe he should try reading some of them.

He probably will now, as he’s seen firsthand the consequences of copyright infringement. Not only was the case settled for payment of an undisclosed sum, DeVore had to issue an apology to the songwriters, which must have really rankled.

“We apologize for using the musical works of Don Henley, Mike Campbell, and Danny Kortchmar without respect for their rights under copyright law. The court’s ruling in this case confirms that political candidates, regardless of affiliation, should seek appropriate license authority before they use copyrighted works”, they admitted. Oh and by the way, despite his display of songwriting genius, DeVore lost the primary election to Carly Fiorina. Talk about so much wasted time.

On the heels of his legal victory, Henley gave an exclusive interview with the website, Copyrights and Campaigns (www.copyrights and campaigns.blogspot.com), a great website, full of information about current developments in copyright law. The most interesting thing about the interview was not Henley’s acknowledgement of his big win, which he called “a moral victory, and a victory for every copyright holder in the United States”. What struck me about Henley’s interview was the almost valedictory tone of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds, as he tried to make a case that songs were works of art that deserved at least some fundamental respect, just as one doesn’t generally paint mustaches on the Mona Lisa or sing along at the opera. As Don confessed, he’s running against the winds of change on this issue:

Henley blasted all unauthorized uses of his music, whether by politicians or just amateurs making remixes, mash-ups, and similar unlicensed uses on sites like YouTube. “I don’t condone it,” he said of such practices. “I’m vehemently opposed to it. People in my age group generally don’t like it. Songs are difficult to write; some of them take years to write. To have them used as toys and playthings is frustrating”. Henley noted that he does not license his songs for commercials and only rarely does so for uses in films and television. (Copyrightsandcampaigns.com)

In fact, the concerns that Henley raises allude to a much bigger, deeper and more relevant issue than any dispute on the distinction between parodies and satire. The truth is that the few growth opportunities that exist in music publishing are exactly in the areas that Henley is complaining about. Lyrics on t-shirts? Mash-ups on the internet? Music as background for games, toys or greeting cards? Music to sell products, music with funny homemade videos, music as ringtones, music for karaoke games or music as fashion accessory? These are the things fueling what little growth exists in the music industry. But Henley is right—they don’t sit very comfortably with a generation that once thought music held the potential for political or social change, or that at least popular music could aim for an artistic value beyond Top 40 charts and novelties.

This larger issue holds a number of important implications for music publishers. The most obvious concern is that music publishers need to understand their rights under their various writer-publisher contracts, as well as the rights of their songwriters. Who has the final approval on licensing opportunities like advertisements, synchronization placements or even satires? In most instances, the publisher, as the owner of the copyright, has the power to license, but many contracts will allow the songwriters to specify specific uses which require the writers’ permission. Some contracts may exclude particular exploitations entirely. And of course, administration deals will frequently give the publisher less control than a full or co-publishing agreement.

More importantly, publishers need to get a sense from their songwriters where each composer falls on the subject that Henley raises. Some will be more than happy to embrace any new opportunity you can dig up. Others will be appalled that you even considered putting their “baby” in a game or on a mobile phone. It’s in the long-term interests of all parties to understand each other’s point of view before requests come in, rather than after .

Especially for younger songwriters and publishers, it might be worth considering whether there’s some real insight in Henley’s comments. Back in March, my dispatch from SXSW in Austin noted that music seemed to increasingly exist solely as a marketing tool—not to sell the music itself, but to sell other products or shows. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Perhaps it explains why we have a society in which, as it’s so often noted, music is more present than ever, yet less and less valued.

There’s no question that the generation that made Don Henley a star continues to care more deeply about music, purchase more of it, attend more concerts, and support its artists longer and more unwaveringly than the generations that followed. Maybe that’s because the people who made the music took it seriously, believed it meant something, and refused to compromise on how it could be presented. It bothered them to see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. Henley wrote the line as satire. The modern audience see it as just one more ironic ingredient in the pop cultural stew.

I know it’s summer and everything, but let’s face it– I’m a New Yorker. I’m not much for gardening or working in the yard. Nevertheless, I recently found myself battling the forces of nature in preparation for an upcoming outdoor barbecue, trying to singlehandedly turn an overgrown, out of control patch of jungle into own of those tame, manicured, Hampton-like lawns. With all the sweating and cursing, the endless labor and the distinct lack of progress, it felt about like a day in the music business, during what has to be the deadest, most uninspired period I’ve ever seen during 25 years in this industry.

In a summer that has seen continued dismal record sales, falling publishing incomes, the crash of the touring business, and worst of all, the tragedy at Love Parade in Germany, the whole music biz seems stuck in the kind of dreary, gray blanket of stale air that has hung over NYC for most of the summer. It’s hot, uncomfortable and nothing’s moving.

Even Billboard seems to be struggling to come up with anything to fill the pages. Last week they ran an article about a consortium of European banks who are partnering with Universal Music, to offer a discount subscription for music downloads with the opening of every new bank account or charge card. Out of 200 participating banks in Germany, 6,000 people have signed up. That’s 30 people per bank. Jeez. 30 people? And they wrote an article about it? Must’ve been a slow news day.

Staring out at a wild, unruly, tangled mess of a field, it’s not easy to leave the lawn chair and get out the weed-whacker, but we’re quickly nearing the point of no return. It’s August, and the fourth quarter is about to kick in. Somehow, the industry has to find a way to start at least laying the groundwork for better times ahead. Undeniably, it’s been a bad year in the fields. Still, we have to start doing the obvious work to get something growing again:

Step One: Take Control

Nature abhors a void. Even when it looks like nothing is happening, something is going on. Right now, even as the music industry stands still, other more dynamic businesses, from social networking companies to Apple to mobile networks to investment companies are expanding their influence, grabbing our audience, choking off some of our own opportunities and redefining the entertainment landscape on their terms, not ours.

It’s incredible that even after losing control of the music industry to MTV way back in the 1980s, then losing it again to illegal file-sharing in the first part of this decade, and yet again to Apple and iTunes in the second half of the decade, the record companies and music publishing companies have still not offered up anything to even attempt to control the playing field in their own industry. Streaming didn’t originate with record labels or publishers. Neither did the iPad or YouTube. Given the extent to which they’ve benefited from it, why did a music publisher not come up with a TV-show like “Glee” years ago?

If we don’t want to think beyond making music, then we can rest assured that someone else will. Then they, not us, will decide how our product is marketed, distributed, and sold, as well as what price it will sell for.
Don’t believe it? Notice how 80 years later we’re still going hat in hand to the radio industry, begging them to play our records (and in the case of the record industry, wishing they would actually pay us something to do it). Why does every new initiative in the music business seem to revolve around piggy-backing on someone else’s innovation, like making a channel on YouTube or taking an ownership share in Spotify? If you don’t control your turf, someone controls it for you.

Step Two: Clear out the dead.

You can’t hope for much new growth until you get out the wheelbarrow and start cleaning up the mess. This is actually one huge advantage for new, small companies entering the business. At least they’re starting fresh. The great burden being carried by all of the major music corporations is the fact that they have little choice but to manage the slow death of the CD, and the whole traditional business model that surrounds it. Everyone knows that it’s on it’s way out. If they could, they’d kill it off entirely. But the truth is that it’s still the primary source of income. No one can afford to abandon it. Consequently, too many resources go into keeping the dead man walking, while the infant survives on whatever is left.

For those who are still forming their overall business strategy, this is an opportunity to embrace a new model, free of the ties to the past that are strangling the industry’s major players. Take advantage of it. You don’t have to build your business around manufacturing CDs, or getting radio airplay, or trying to place songs on million-selling albums, or focusing on your own home territory simply because that’s what everyone has always done. Those old branches of the tree quit growing years ago. Anyone trying to hang onto them is going to be hearing a distinct cracking sound in the next five years.

Of course, abandoning the old ways of doing business means you’ll have to come up with new ones. That’s never easy. But it’s easier to create something new and alive if you’re not spending 80 percent of your time trying to resuscitate something dead.

Step Three: Look at what grows naturally.

None of us are completely in control of our own fate. Sometimes you decide what will grow in your garden, and other times, no matter how hard you try, the garden decides what will grow. We all have to adapt to our environment, and the faster we do it, the easier our life will be.

Part of the reason the music business continues to struggle is that it’s been determined to force results out of a market that simply doesn’t want what it’s offering. People don’t buy albums. Fine. Sell them something else. The audience is constantly shifting and losing interest. It’s frustrating, but it’s nature. Give them a constant stream of new songs, rather than ten new ones every two years.

In most cases, the marketing strategies that have worked recently, from mixtapes to YouTube videos to mashups to blogs, have grown up naturally out of their environment. Meanwhile, the field is littered with millions of marketing gimmicks, from “enhanced” CDs to special “fan club” subscriptions, that emanated from corporate planning sessions, only to dry up and wither when they ran into a skeptical and disinterested fanbase. If it’s not happening at a grass-roots level, then the grass won’t grow. Work with the forces of nature, not against them.

Step Four: Plant a seed.

A few years ago, I decided to plant some trees. Being the impatient city boy that I am, I decided the bigger the better. I bought trees that were already at least half grown, planted them, then looked around and admired my efforts. Within a few days, I had a garden that looked as if it had been growing for years. Within three months, I had a garden full of big, dead trees.

Later, an Englishman (and hence, a genetically gifted gardener) suggested that instead I should buy some tiny little saplings. The theory was that if they died, I’d hardly notice. At the same time, being very young, they were more likely to adapt to the soil and eventually start to grow. So far anyway, it seems to be working.

Much of the reason that the music industry has failed to discover new technologies on its own, or clear out the old failing business models, or even jump on trends that have taken root at street-level, is that the large corporations that dominate the field want things to be too big, too fast. Faced with the pressure of producing quarterly results, they can’t wait for a new idea to grow. Just as they can’t afford to nurture artists through a three or four album development, neither can they nurture new business strategies or marketing initiatives that could take years to pay off.

Again, those just now staking their claim to a tiny spot on the music business landscape have a real edge here. If you keep your overheads low and your expectations reasonable, you can afford to let nature take its course. Try your new idea in an inexpensive, low-risk way. Take a deep breath or two. If it doesn’t take, it’s no great loss. But if you see it growing, you can patiently nurture it along, until it suddenly has a life of its own.

Last weekend at the barbecue, I spoke with a friend in the garment business, who has a clothing company in New York. He explained to me that even fifteen years ago, there were dozens of manufacturers, tailoring shops, pattern-makers and fabric factories throughout the country who created garments for a wide variety of clothing lines. Today, there are virtually none. Trade policies, wage pressures from developing countries, outdated union rules, organized crime, and short-sighted management policies combined to essentially eliminate the industry. We’re not talking about a tough business cycle. The dress-makers, weavers, tailors and other specialists have left the country or found other work. The machines have been sold off. It’s not coming back.

Industries do die. It’s not enough to reassure ourselves that “music will always exist”. Sure. But will the music industry? It didn’t exist much before the 1900s. It doesn’t have any guarantees for the future. Another six months has come and gone, and nothing is happening. Sooner, rather than later, we better get out the shovel and start digging our way out of this mess.

A couple of years ago, a family member gave me a book called You Will Make Money In Your Sleep. I think it was intended to encourage me to get more than four or five hours a night—a carry-over from my days as a musician and record-producer. That haggard, post-all-nighter look starts to get a little scary when you reach my age bracket. Unfortunately, the generous gift-giver apparently hadn’t given the text much of a look, as You Will Make Money in your Sleep turned out not to be a brilliant get-rich quick scheme or a story of the salutary effects of slumber, but rather an expose of “the financier to the stars”, Dana Ghiaccetto. Ghiacetto was a high-profile investment advisor in the Nineties, who managed to swindle people like Toby Maguire, Michael Ovitz and Phish with that tempting come-on line.

So I admit to a little trepidation when I found out that I would be a panelist at “Music Publishing– Making Money In Your Sleep” at South By Southwest this week:

Music Publishing- Making Money In Your Sleep
Thursday, March 18
3:30pm
http://my.sxsw.com/events/event/606

Thankfully, I’m not providing any investment advice. Or at least, not exactly. Instead, we’ll be looking at ways to try to make your music work for you. That’s a good topic, especially for the singer-songwriters and indie bands that throng to SXSW each year.

As many of you have probably noticed, the downside to the grass-roots, indie approach to making it in the music business is that so much of the work requires the direct involvement of you, the artist and/or songwriter. In this new 21st century business model, you can only succeed by getting out and building your fanbase person by person, show by show, and that means a lot of hands-on work for the musicians. Now, not only do you have to gig continuously, with all the drive-time, set-up and tear-down effort that is an inevitable part of rock ‘n’ roll touring, you also have to book the gigs, sell your merch, coordinate your own publicity campaign in each town, and spend at least a couple of hours on your social networking site, making sure your fans feel connected. And don’t forget to Twitter while you’re at it.

Not only do you need something that will help make you money in your sleep– you need to find the time to sleep. Probably, you are not in the mood to hear that you now need to become a music publisher as well.

But you do. In fact, as I’ve said so many times, you already are a music publisher– you have been since you wrote your first song. You are not only the author and composer of your song, you’re also the music publisher. The problem is that most songwriters haven’t learned to be effective music publishers. Of course, that’s what my book, Making Music Make Money, is all about. My course, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic, goes even further, and provides a week by week guide to setting up your own music publishing company.

Unfortunately, I can’t promise that having your own music publishing company comes without effort. You have to gather the knowledge you’ll need to be effective. You will need to set up the structure and systems necessary to operate the business, administer copyrights, and issue licenses. You’ll have to strategize about the opportunities that exist for your music, and then make the calls to get your music out there. Maybe you can find an intern or a colleague to help you with the day to day operation of the company. Perhaps you can even partner with a larger, already established music publisher, who can take on most of the responsibility for pitching, licensing and administration. Still, there’s no use kidding yourself that this is a small undertaking. At any level, music publishing is a big, complex job.

Nevertheless, here’s my investment advice for the day (and most certainly, the ONLY investment advice you should ever take from me):

Do it. Stop treating your songs as something more than simply the material you perform or record– start seeing them as the primary assets of your business. Stop viewing your songwriting as inherently intertwined with your performing career. Your songs, and your songwriting talent, can generate income on their own. That’s what music publishing is all about. Here are just a few opportunities that an investment in music publishing could yield:

Place your songs with other recording artists. Let them do the touring and the twittering, while you earn money.

Place your songs in films and television shows. Not only does it publicize you as an artist—it generates sync fees and performance income.

Place your songs in video games or other products. The licensing rates are pretty low, but the exposure is ridiculously high. And you don’t have to travel in a van, tear-down or set-up.

Place your songs in advertisements. It’s not only about grabbing that Apple iPod spot. There are national, local and international advertising opportunities that could fund your band’s next road-trip.

Create new music for film/TV libraries, which license “needle-drop” music to a wide variety of media. The sync fees are virtually non-existent, but because these are non-exclusive licenses, the same piece can be used again and again, generating significant performance money.

Write new songs for projects not tied to you as a performer. Of course, your artist career or your band’s development are the priority. But you’re also a songwriter, and not every song has to be for you to sing. There are artists around the country, and especially outside the US that are looking for songs. Why not spend a few weeks a year taking aim at those?

This last strategy was one that our company, Shapiro Bernstein & Co, Inc., and our partner, Tosha Music, recently employed with one of our top songwriters, Marti Dodson, from the Ohio-based band, Saving Jane. When Saving Jane’s first single “Girl Next Door” (Dodson/Buzzard/Goodman/Martin/Misevski) became a Top Forty pop hit, showed up on NOW (That’s What I Call Music) 22, and was covered by country artist Julie Roberts, we knew that Marti had the potential to be an important pop songwriter, and not only for Saving Jane. We suggested that she spend two weeks traveling to Stockholm, which is the pop-song factory for all of Europe and much of America, and the home of many of the industry’s best production and writing teams. Marti’s first trip yielded Saving Jane’s subsequent hit single, “Supergirl” (written with Mats Valentin from Sweden), which was later covered by Suzie McNeil in Canada, who took the song Top Ten in that territory. The song was used as a theme song by superstar auto racer Danica Patrick, gymnast Nastia Lukin, and showed up once again at the recent Winter Olympics.

Through the investment of a couple of writing trips to Sweden, Marti has now had songs cut by artists from South Africa to Germany (where she recently had the theme song to the German Popstars television show). When your songs are being played on TV in Europe, you’re literally making money in your sleep. That’s the goal. And that’s what music publishing is all about.

You can’t be everywhere at once and you can’t do everything all the time. If your business plan is predicated solely on your performance schedule, you will eventually reach the end of your earning potential, because you can only play so many gigs in a week. But if you have an effective music publishing operation, your songs can indeed be everywhere at once, earning money all the time. Of course, it’s not easy getting your music out there or locating the right opportunities. Yet it’s the best investment you can make, as there’s no limit to the ultimate pay-off. Do it right, and you might even be able to get some shut-eye once or twice a week.

If you’re going to SXSW, be sure to catch this panel. Afterward I’ll be at the South By Bookstore, selling some books:

Thursday, March 18 at 4:45pm
http://my.sxsw.com/events/event/8614

Stop by and say hello! See you in Austin…

After an upbeat pep talk to begin the year, it seems appropriate now to acknowledge what we all know:

Things do not always go as planned.

Have you noticed that? If you’ve tried any of the previously given tips on how to get your music out there, I’m pretty sure you’ve definitely noticed that as good as the ideas look on paper, they don’t always play out as well in real life. The truth is that the work of putting your music out into the industry is every bit as difficult as the creative work of writing songs and making records. And that’s pretty hard.

Unfortunately, most of us bring a lot more tenacity and determination to making the music than we do to selling it. It’s always interesting to watch musicians, who have spent countless lonely, isolated hours honing and refining their ability to play a musical instrument or to sing, then devote all of twenty minutes to researching potential contacts. Producers who will miss deadlines or blow out their budget to fix tiny flaws in a recording (which are probably noticeable only to them), will balk at spending money to attend a conference, or will choose to send out mass emails to A&R contacts, rather than personalized ones, in order to save a few minutes worth of work. Songwriters will work and rework one simple line in a hundred variations, but give up in despair when their first phone call attempt to an A&R person goes unreturned.

Be forewarned: no matter how strategically you approach it, getting your music out there will always be challenging. You will run into closed doors everywhere you turn. Everyone does. But somehow, each year, a handful of people do break through. We know then that it can be done. It’s simply a case of trying every possible avenue until you find the one that works. So, to conclude a series of blogs on “How To Get Your Music Heard”, here’s three ideas of how to trouble-shoot when your sales approach isn’t working. Most importantly, don’t panic and don’t get discouraged. This problem is no harder than learning to play an instrument, finding the perfect title, or figuring out why your Protools isn’t working. When your first approach fails…

1. Check your connections.

The most common response you’ll hear when trying to get someone in the industry to listen to your music is this:

Our company does not allow us to accept unsolicited material at this time.

Welcome to the dead zone, from which most songwriters and publishers never return. Indeed, that’s part of the reason for such a policy. By its nature it will eliminate at least 50% of the people trying to call the company. Most will just give up.

Don’t give up. At the same time, don’t get mad– as irritating as it obviously is. The person who is telling you this is telling you the truth. Almost every major music company has an official policy, drafted by the corporate lawyers, that no A&R person is ALLOWED to accept material that is “unsolicited”, which is to say, from someone the A&R person doesn’t know. This is to protect companies from the very real threat of lawsuits, launched by amateur songwriters who are sure that their song was stolen by a superstar act. An A&R person who violates the policy and suddenly finds himself or herself at the center of a lawsuit could very likely lose their job.

The best way around this obstacle is to get out of the category of “someone the A&R person doesn’t know”. You need a connection. If you can drop the name of a lawyer, your ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC writer rep, another songwriter or producer who the A&R person has worked with, a friend in a different department of the company, or an established manager, booking agent, or radio programmer who is recommending you, you are now no longer “unsolicited”. This is the cover that the A&R person needs to be in compliance with company policy. It’s also the test you need to pass in order to make the person on the other end of the phone believe that it’s worth his or her time to speak with you.

If you’re getting the “unsolicited” line, then it’s time to go back and figure out who on your team (lawyer, manager, writer rep, songwriting buddies, studio engineer or owner, gear salesman, friends, etc.) might know the person you’re calling and be willing to refer you. If no one on your team can help, see if they know a friend of a friend of the person you’re calling. If you’re still unconnected, then you need to expand your team. Figure out who might be able to get to the music weasel you’re after, and go after that new person, starting the whole process over again.

I didn’t say it was easy.

2. Check your levels.

The second most common issue, after the “no unsolicited material” roadblock, is “nothing”. That is, total silence. Unreturned phone calls. Unanswered emails. The big freeze-out. You’re trying to get your music out there, and it seems there’s no “there” there.

Again, don’t get mad. Remember– just because you want someone to hear your music does not lay an obligation on the other person to take your call or listen to what you send. The person on the other end of the phone is being given priorities and duties by his or her boss, and they probably don’t include speaking with you. This is especially true as you move up the corporate ladder, and start trying to reach out to the higher-ranking executives on the A&R staff.

Most major record labels do have people that are searching for the next “developing” star– the hot, unknown songwriter or the undiscovered artist. But they are junior A&R people– not Sr. Vice-Presidents. The more elevated executives are supposed to be devoting their time to the superstars that are already signed and paying the bills. The same is true in major publishing companies and management firms. If you don’t yet have a track record or the calling card of a current “hit”, you will probably not have much luck reaching the Big Weasel. But that’s not who you need anyway, nor is that the person that needs you. You want to speak to the hungry, ambitious, excited, 22 year old kid that works for the Big Weasel and who wants more than anything to discover the talent that no one else knows about yet. This is how the kid will eventually become the Big Weasel. It is also how you will eventually get a returned phone call.

If you’re hitting a wall, it may be that you’re aiming too high. Adjust your aim one or two levels down the corporate pecking order, and you might find an open door.

3. Check your sound.

I know it will come as a shock, but some people may simply not like what you do. They have that right. In fact, if what you do is reasonably stylized, quirky, or clever, you can be sure that most people in the industry will not quite get it. Sony dropped Alicia Keys. Jive dropped Kid Rock. Lady Gaga is already on her second record deal. The fact that some people don’t like what you do might mean that there’s a problem with your music– you’ll have to determine how to address that. But it also might mean that you simply don’t have the right match between your sound and the person listening. There’s no accounting for taste–and you don’t have to. All you have to do is find the person whose taste is suited to your music.

As a veteran of the music industry, one of the few advantages that I enjoy is that I have begun to understand the likes and dislikes of the people to whom I’m pitching music. This means that a huge part of my job is simply knowing how to match a particular song, a new artist, or a producer with the people in the industry who will “get it”, whatever that “it” is. If I hear a great Swedish style pop song, I know to send it to Jive Records or Syco, and not to Island/Def Jam. If I’ve discovered a new female singer/songwriter or a Triple A band, it’s going to fit better for Chop Shop than Activision. Much of song-pitching is not how you send it out, but who you send it to. If you’re not getting results, it may simply be that you haven’t matched your sound with the correct listener.

4. Check your options.

Every office has multiple entrances. There is always an alternate way into any project. Persistence is vital, but persistently beating on a closed door will not make it open. The good kind of persistence is the kind that knocks on a door once, twice, maybe a third time… and then circles around the back, and goes in the side entrance. If an A&R person refuses your “unsolicited material”, try the artist manager. Many managers are one or two person companies, and thus have far fewer corporate “policies” that have to be respected. If the manager won’t respond, try the producer. If that proves to be a dead end, just keep searching– try the artist directly on MySpace or Facebook, or a friend of the artist, or the recording engineer, or the fashion stylist. Whatever crazy idea you have, I promise you, someone has tried something stranger. Not quitting doesn’t mean picking one person and torturing them until they listen to your song. It means searching for every possible person to torture. Just joking. But it does mean that you never stop looking for another way to approach the project that you’re targeting.

I hope the little series we’ve done on “Getting Your Music Out” has been helpful. I know in the opening paragraph of this blog, I compared the challenge of selling your music to making it– and in many ways the two things are quite similar. But in a few important ways, they’re as different as night and day. You know that rush you feel when you play a great guitar solo, or come up with the perfect hook line for a song? You’ll probably never get that feeling when you’re pitching music. It just doesn’t have that kind of reward. Instead, you get rejection followed by rejection followed by a slight glimmer of hope.

But here’s the thing: if you don’t do it, nothing happens. No stranger is going to find a song hiding on your hard drive and decide to put it on the radio. You’re going to have to make that happen. That’s the point of my book, “Making Music Make Money”. The only thing that can move your career ahead is if someone else hears your music and wants to buy it, sell it, perform it, or help you to do one of those three things. That won’t happen if the song never leaves your home studio.
If you haven’t made your New Year’s Resolution yet, here’s one: resolve to spend one hour pitching songs for every five hours writing or recording them. Get your music out there, and let’s see what happens…

Back To Basics

Dec 13 2009

I’ve had some interesting inquiries come to me recently on the blog site and it got me thinking… after all is said and done, the problems of most songwriters and music publishers are not really the complex issues of negotiated royalty rates, streaming on demand versus downloads, or flat rate licensing schemes. Those big, multi-faceted bones of contention certainly affect us as songwriters and music publishers. They may weigh on our minds, get us in a fighting mood, or, best case, bring in some unexpected money. But they are not what is front and center in our mind as we go through our daily career struggle.

What we think about almost all the time is a challenge that seems considerably more straightforward and simple, but is in fact, far harder to conquer:

What specifically can I do to get my music out into the world to start earning me money?

So I thought that in the time leading up to the holiday break, perhaps I would try to address that subject, from a variety of different angles. In the end, it’s what music publishing is all about. It’s how my first book, “Making Music Make Money” got its title. It’s the primary focus of my class, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic.com. And yet the questions keep on coming. And the challenges to actually getting our music into income-generating opportunities keep increasing. Let’s go back to basics one more time.

http://www.amazon.com/Making-Music-Make-Money-Publisher/dp/0876390076

But in order to do it, we’re going to start with three more questions, all of which usually follow the big question of “what do I do to make my music earn money?” If we can tackle these fundamental issues, then we’ll have a start on conquering the bigger question in the following weeks. Here are three selections from the “greatest hits” compilation of questions to ask the music business weasel:

Question #1: How do I get my songs considered by major, superstar artists?
Answer: You don’t. You also don’t get to pitch in the World Series with no professional baseball experience or become the president of a Fortune 500 company on the first day on the job. In songwriting, as in every other business, there is a concept of “working your way up the ladder”.

Songwriters who have yet to have even one successful single do not need to be spending their time trying to figure out how to get songs to Rihanna, or Taylor Swift, or Daughtry. The truth is, most major artists want to be directly involved with writing most of the songs they record, and the ones that they don’t write will largely come from the proven, successful hitmakers so sought after by the record companies. Trust me, if it were your multi-million dollar investment on the line, you’d probably take the same approach.

If you are a developing songwriter with no real track record, you need to concentrate on writing for the next Rihanna, or Taylor Swift, or Daughtry. That means working with artists who don’t yet have a record contract, and helping to write the song that clinches the deal. Or finding a lesser-known act still trying to break-through with that one big hit. Or meeting local developing artists or managers in your local community, and trying to write the song that will expose them to a larger audience. If you can do that successfully, then you’ll get approached to work on slightly bigger, more high-profile projects. Then slowly, but steadily, you’ll be building the contacts and the track record that can move you up the ladder.

Check out tipsheets like Songlink International or Myhitsonline.com. They are full of projects in various stages of development, all looking for songs. Or get active in your local community and find the potential talent you can work with there.

http://www.songlink.com

http://www.myhitonline.com

Certainly, most of these projects will amount to little. But if you can provide a key song, you will at the very least make a new set of contacts, who will go on to other projects after this one. This is how “networks” are built. If you can show up with a genuine hit, you might create a new star, and immediately put yourself in a different level of the industry.

Question #2: How do I cold-call A&R people, managers, and others who I want to listen to my music?
Answer: You don’t. In my Music Publishing 101 class at Berkleemusic.com, we don’t get to the subject of pitching music until halfway through the semester. Instead, the early weeks of Music Publishing 101 are devoted to laying the groundwork that will make the pitch effective. This means building a team of support around you– a music lawyer, a Writer Relations rep at ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, a network of friends and colleagues in your local community that could include everyone from a music journalist to a studio owner to a radio programmer.

Just as importantly, it means researching and studying your music genre and identifying the major and minor artists in that world, the key labels (both major and independent), the A&R decision-makers, the managers, the radio stations, and the clubs. It means identifying what business strategies are the most effective in your market. In the pop-rock or indie band world, advertising placements can be crucial stepping-stones. In the heavy metal biz, video games are key. You have to be an expert in whatever field of music you’re pitching songs. That’s what gives you the right to bother someone else, who is also an expert of sorts, in the middle of his or her workday.

Only when you’ve established your team and network of business contacts will you be in a position to change a cold-call into a referral. Once you’ve decided who you want to approach with your music, you can then try to figure out if there’s someone on your team, or in your network, who might be able to make an introduction, or at least allow you to use their name as a reference. Obviously, the bigger your circle of supporters, the fewer real “cold-calls” you’ll make.

In the same way, proper research and understanding of your musical genre will ensure that you’re approaching the right people, and saying the things that they want to hear. If you understand the nuances of the business environment in which you’re working, know the background of the person with whom you’re speaking, and can show how your music fills a need in that person’s world, you can speak with the A&R person, manager or producer as a colleague. That’s not cold-calling. That’s connecting.

Question #3: How do I find time to get my music out to people– music supervisors, A&R, artist managers– when I’m so busy actually making and recording the music?
Answer: You don’t. The one thing I can tell you without any doubt, having been a songwriter, producer and music publisher for more than twenty years, is that every single thing that happens to you everyday will conspire to prevent you from actually getting songs sent out to the people that need to hear them. You will always be needed in the studio, or have to pick up the kids, or be exhausted from last night’s gig, or be stressed from tonight’s gig, or in need of a new computer, or SOMETHING. And each night, you will vow that tomorrow you really will get those songs sent out…

You will never find the time. There are no spare hours lying under the bed somewhere. Trust me- I’ve looked. The only hope that you have is to make the time. You will have to change your schedule, cut back on certain things, try to find an intern to help out, or figure out a way to run your business on the road. But one way or another, you must make the time to get songs sent out to the people that need to hear them. Because…

Your business depends on it. Without that, nothing happens. There is no music publisher anywhere that has built a business solely by doing administration and collecting money. At least in the beginning, someone has to get the music out to people who will use it.

What would you think of a widget-making company that invested solely in production–building a factory, hiring workers, making widgets– but had no sales team or strategy in place to sell the product? Yet, that’s what so many songwriters and music publishers do– retreating to their comfort zone of writing music, recording music, acquiring music and listening to music, until there’s no time left in the day to sell any of it. Check the number of songs sitting on your hard-drive and compare them to the amount of songs that were sent out this week. It may be happening to you.

The point of these negative answers to oft-asked questions is not to be discouraging. I’m a publisher too. I know that none of us need more discouragement. The point is to give a reality-check, and to adapt realistic strategies to our businesses.

It is the nature of show business to sell dreams, and this is one of the most prevalent– the sudden opportunity that leads to instant glory. I’m not saying it never happens. Almost every career is built on a few such unexpected moments. But it’s not a day to day strategy for approaching your business.

I heard a great story recently of a hard-working musician laboring in relative obscurity, who was playing in a band that recorded several records for small labels, none of which found any great success. However, one of the records was picked up by a dance music DJ and producer in another country, and began to garner some underground buzz. When that buzz led to more calls for material from the DJ-producer, he turned back to our friend the musician, who after more than a decade of playing and touring, had virtually given up on his band and was looking for a new line of work. But the musician answered the call for more material and sent it off to the DJ-producer, who then added his own magic touch. One of those tracks was recently released as the first single off a recent Madonna album, and it became a world-wide hit.

That’s the reality of the music business. Doing your work, getting the music out, meeting the right people and building on those contacts, as you slowly climb the ladder. Only then can you hope to finally get that lucky break that catapults you to the top.

Last question: When do you give up?
Answer: You dont. You just keep moving, one rung at a time.

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Town Hall Meeting

Sep 07 2009

Don’t worry– we’re not going to talk about Obama’s national health care program, or listen to angry senior citizens rail about the end of the world as we know it. But given that I’m on vacation this week, it seemed a good time to do something I’ve meant to do for some time now, and that is to make sure that those of you who frequent this blog have a chance to not only hear from me, but also to benefit from the insights of each other. One of the things I enjoy about this blog is to be a part of a music community, and to hear your opinions and insights into the various facets of the music industry of which we are all a part.

Some of your comments have raised very interesting questions, some have inspired subsequent blogs, and all have added to our discussion forum here– and I thank all of you who take the time to fire off a supportiing argument, a related question, or an angry diatribe (yes, there’ve been a few). I always look forward to hearing what you think. And I also feel that it’s worthwhile for all of you to check out some of the comments from each other, so I hope you’ll take a minute to do that this week.

There were a couple of very insightful comments on the recent “Too Close for Comfort”– check out Keith Monckton-Smith and CJ’s responses. Also, be sure to take a look at Ritch Esra’s comment on “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”. Ritch is responsible for the Music Business Registry, which is something I recommend to everyone. It’s my industry bible, and I wouldn’t survive a day without it– if you aren’t familiar with it, be sure to check out all of the different directories they offer. There were a lot of lively comments about “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”, which raised a question that originated with an interview that Lava Records President Jason Flom gave at the AIMP luncheon. Jason asked “Where have all the musical geniuses gone? Why has this generation produced so few, if any, musical geniuses, while the Sixties and Seventies for example, produced such a vast array of artists in that category, from the Beatles and Stones, to Dylan and Van Morrison, to Led Zeppelin and Sly Stone?” It was a good and interesting question, and solicited plenty of opinions from all corners.

The other blog that seemed to strike a nerve was “What’s So Strange About It”, which actually grew out of a comment made by Big-A, which first turned me on to Tech N9ne. Clearly, Tech has a lot of fans out there, both for his work as an artist as well as his indie business approach.

Finally, have to give a special shout out to Brandon Keeley– one of the most frequent contributors of comments in this space. I always enjoy hearing Brandon’s clever, insightful and well-written thoughts.

Thanks to all of you for checking out the blog regularly, and weighing in when you agree, disagree, or just want a little clarification on what was said. I always look forward to staying in touch. Hope you’ve all had a great summer. Enjoy the holiday!

I’ll admit it– being caught up in the NY music business game, it’s a little bit surprising to find out that the industry is being reinvented somewhere in Kansas City.

Luckily, I have those of you who regularly read this blog, one of whom was able to clue me into the Tech N9ne phenomenon, which frankly, I had completely missed. In a response to one of the blogs, Arthur Fischer had cited TechN9ne as an example of a massively successful independent artist who had escaped the need for radio play and expensive promotion. Interestingly, only a month or two later, I opened Billboard to find a full article about TechN9ne’s groundbreaking business model. It’s worthwhile reading for any independent musician in any style…

Check out the Billboard , July 4, 2009 issue.

The interesting thing is that there’s really nothing that groundbreaking at all in Tech N9ne’s operation. It’s Business 101. Only in the fantasy land that is the entertainment industry could the ideas of “every dollar invested needs to make two dollars” and “everything is driven from the fan’s point of view” be considered innovative. In fact, the beauty of TechN9ne’s operation is that it’s rooted in the basic ethos of hard work and common sense. And most importantly, they actually execute it.

In general, Strange Music, which is the company controlled by Tech N9ne and his business partner Travis O’Guin, is the model of a 360 entertainment venture, which is housed in a 18,000 square foot facility in Kansas City, and includes a label, publishing, merchandising, booking and touring business. All of it is built upon the music and touring that have made Tech N9ne one of the least exposed, but most profitable rappers. The Billboard article revealed that in 2008, Strange Music earned more than $11 million dollars.

How does he do it? Touring is certainly the cornerstone– he does more than 200 dates a year. Just the way the textbook outline says it should, the touring drives the record sales– which are significant, with over 1 million sold on 2008′s “Killer”. Then there’s the merch, the licensing, and the publishing on top of all that. Sure– it’s impressive. But not exactly something that’s never been done before. By now, most of the independent artists out there are probably asking themselves “What has he got that I don’t?” Here are four things that Tech N9ne has learned, that many artist/entrepreneurs have not:

1. Patience
This is not a fast road to success. The journey of a successful independent artist is a very long and winding one. Tech N9ne survived two major label deals, numerous failed independent ventures and abandoned business partners. Not many businesses get their plan right on the first try. You have to be willing to come back again and again, learn from failure, reinvent the model and keep moving forward. Tech N9ne is 37 years old, and just hitting the prime of his career. Pretty unusual for a rapper.

2. The Ability to Get Reactions
As a self-described “weird rock alternative warlock with crazy hair, a painted face, who raps backwards”, Tech N9ne makes a strong impression– and that’s something you can build a business on. You can not build an independent business on music, performances or artist identities that are passive– to which audiences have no great emotional reaction, either positive or negative. There are thousands of bands that play 200 anonymous dates a year, and have for twenty years. And every night, the audience applauds politely, and immediately forgets about them. The only way the indie model works is when the music and imaging are so dynamic, or at least so perfectly in tune with a very particular audience (“jam bands” being a good example), that they inspire a passionate response. If you’re playing 200 dates a year, but your myspace site has 200 friends and you’re selling 1000 records, you’re not reactive.

3. A Place To Call Home
Tech N9ne’s success is strongly rooted in his core market within the Midwest. Very wisely, he built his following in a place where the competition was less challenging, and where he could get a foothold in the larger marketplace. His strength in one part of the country allowed him to bring a success story to other, more difficult markets. Too many artists think that being outside of a major market means they need to relocate. In fact, that small local market may be the best asset they have, provided that they are able to build a strong core audience there. Likewise, too many major labels spend a fortune in promotion costs trying to take an unknown artist and break him or her nationally, in every territory at once. Find one region that works, and then spread it out slowly.

4. An Ability to Control Costs
The other advantage to basing a business in a place like Kansas City is that the costs are a fraction of what they would be in a major market. Eleven million dollars a year in earnings is very impressive, but it doesn’t pay for the Universal Music office in midtown Manhattan. One of the major problems of the music industry is not that lack of earnings, but the fact that the costs are outrageously, and unnecessarily high. There is no inherent need for major labels to be housed in the center of the most expensive cities in the world. But that’s where they are, and consequently, they find it almost impossible to make money.

In the same way, many independent artists are seduced by the idea of trying to give the impression of power and success, and wind up wasting alot of money on unnecessary offices, too many employees, or inflated production costs. Tech N9ne’s business runs on inexpensive office space, interns, street team promotion, and careful control of the finances. If the music is reactive and you’re building on a solid local following, there shouldn’t be a need for huge expenditures. All it takes is patience and follow-through.

The growing DYI approach to the music industry is not for everyone. Many artists try it, only to find that it’s more work than they ever thought or that they simply don’t have any of the skills they need to run their own business. Without a doubt, it is extremely labor intensive, challenging, slow and decidedly lacking in show biz glamor.

But it’s not a mystery. There’s no secret method that Tech N9ne used to build a successful business. It all comes down to making smart decisions instead of self-indulgent ones, caring for the customer rather than the corporation, and pulling in fans, one by one, show by show, every time you play. “We’re Wal-Mart”, Tech N9ne has been quoted as saying. “There’s no Warner Bros., Def Jam or Sony in the Midwest, so we had to build our own.” Good thing he did.