I’m beginning to think that “independent” is becoming the most over-used and abused word in the music biz vocabulary.
What used to simply mean: anything other than one of the six, then five, now four and counting major music companies (EMI, Universal, Warner, Sony), now also describes a particular business approach, and even identifies a particular style of music (“indie pop” or “indie rock” as opposed, I suppose, to big, corporate pop or rock). No band is unsigned—they’re “independent”. No one is simply putting out the record themselves—it’s an “independent” release. Of course, I have my own part in all of this, as my book “Making Music Make Money” was aimed at encouraging songwriters to take control of their own publishing company. This means creating a new breed of “independent” publisher, which has a writer roster of one, a creative management team of one, an administration staff of one, and all the same one.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Especially as the major players in the industry either implode (like EMI), grow themselves into a beast that cannot be tamed (like BMG Rights ) or sink in their own swamp of political vitriol and incompetence (like Sony), there’s much to be said for bands, songwriters, management companies and others stepping into the void and creating some lean, mean machines with a willingness to fight for their own place in the market. I’m all for it.
But I’ve also been a songwriter and musician myself, and I know the dark side to the “independent” mindset. Too many hours in the formative years of our youth spent noodling around on our musical instrument of choice or searching for a lyric to express what we would never be able to actually say out loud can lead to an independent spirit that’s just a little too self-reliant. Running a record company and publishing entity out of your bedroom in a town with no music scene whatsoever, making music in which you write all the songs, play every instrument, sing, engineer, and mix,, and then distributing that music by yourself through the internet doesn’t necessarily make you “independent”. It makes you a recluse.
It’s worthwhile remembering that Howard Hughes struck it rich before he became a hermit, not after. And the truth is, despite all the wonders of technology and the internet, despite the fact that you can make music all on your own in your bedroom and sell it to invisible fans without ever having any actual human interaction, this kind of “hyper-independence” is not an effective business model. In fact, I’ll even go a little further. To those who dream of making it all on their own, with no help from anyone, no industry ties, no schmoozing and no compromises, I offer a prediction:
It will never work.
In twenty-plus years in the music business, I have never seen a single successful artist who didn’t have at least one major contact in the industry who opened doors and then brought in other allies and supporters to join the campaign. Even a quick glance at the Top Ten makes it obvious. Ke$sha has Dr. Luke; Luke had Max Martin; Max Martin had Swedish producer Denniz Pop. Rihanna had producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rodgers. Eminem had Dr. Dre. Some of these affiliations are obvious—of course, many artists and songwriters have much lower-profile supporters, whether it’s managers, lawyers, publishers, or other songwriters. Certainly, most successful artists and songwriters have not one, but dozens of key people who came on board at any given point to help move them from unknown, to buzzing, to the hot new thing, to superstar. There are virtually no examples of people who have done it alone.
I thought of this recently, as I had an opportunity to meet with several great young musicians who are using the “independent” model, but in a very “inter-dependent” way. At the company I work for, we have the good fortune to represent a fantastic Brooklyn, yes “indie” band called Savoir Adore, which features Paul Hammer and Deidre Muro. Paul and Deidre both attended NYU, where they became part of a diverse music community that has fostered a particularly “collective” approach to music-making. In addition to Savoir Adore, both Paul and Deidre are part of a variety of side projects, ranging from solo records, to writing, producing, or performing with other former NYU cohorts like singer/songwriter Ron Pope, The District, or the very buzzy electronica act French Horn Rebellion,. These are independent musicians, but not isolated ones. As a result, an upward move for any of the musicians within the circle only opens up more opportunities for everyone else.
In the same way, I had a meeting last week with a group of songwriters from Berklee College of Music, all of whom are determined to break into the writing & production world before—not after—they graduate. They’re drawing upon the wealth of talent around them to build a real independent publishing entity, with a roster of songwriters and producers who all interact with each other. They’ve even enlisted some music business majors who are able to pitch songs. The model is an independent one, but the spirit is “collective”. That makes all the difference.
Of course, no one has utilized this approach more effectively than the hip-hop community, in which the “collective” spirit is so strong that it’s almost impossible for a rapper to succeed without being part of a particular “clique”, based either on style and genre, or geographical region. Every successful hip-hop artist brings with him or her a group of young developing artists, producers, and executives who then in turn, begin to develop a circle of up and comers underneath them. There is no way for those working in isolation to compete effectively from the outside. In this world, you have to become an insider within a group of like-minded creative people. As far back as the Renaissance or Tin Pan Alley, it’s the way that careers in art have been made.
When I first moved to New York, I was very fortunate to become part of a circle of songwriters who would gather once a month for what we called “Song Party”. Alexandra Forbes, who went on to write hits for everyone from Alisha to Taylor Dayne to Joey Lawrence (with yours truly), was the catalyst, and she brought together a group of songwriters, as well as the occasional A&R person, artist, or producer to listen to new songs, critique each other’s work, make plans to collaborate in various combinations, and trade industry tips and gossip. It was casual, completely unstructured, and always good fun.
It also worked. Within the core group of “Song Party” regulars was Alex, Jeff Franzel (who wrote the Taylor Dayne hit “Don’t Rush Me” with Alex, and has since written for everyone from *NSYNC to Shawn Colvin to Placido Domingo), Shelly Peiken (one of LA’s top writers, with hits like “What A Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera and “Bitch” for Meredith Brooks), Barbara Jordan (who later founded the television and film music company Heavy Hitters Music), Nina Ossoff (who just recently had a single with Daughtry) and myself.
If ten random songwriters moved to New York, the odds would clearly dictate that the chances for success, even if you define success as simply sustaining a career in music, would be remarkably low. To suppose that even three out of ten would somehow find a life-long profession in music would be a statistical stretch. But what the odds don’t take into account is the power of a collective approach. Because we were able to work together, and pool our talent, and share our experience through things like “Song Party”, six out of ten people managed to build a successful music career. The same will undoubtedly be true of the NYU crew from which Savoir Adore has emerged, as well as the group of aspiring writer-producers at Berklee.
These opportunities are all around. I see it happening among some of the writers that work with the Songwriters Hall of Fame, thanks in part to the leader of the SongHall’s education program, Peter Bliss. I see it among many of the top writer-producers, like Dr. Luke, who are putting together teams of songwriters within their organizations to help deal with the growing workload. When I was at Sony ATV Music in New York, I saw it among the crew of writers and artists that grew out of clubs like the Living Room—people like Jesse Harris, Norah Jones, Richard Julian and others all interacting, working on each other’s projects, forming side projects and finding new acts to develop together. Wherever it happens, sooner or later you always see a success story.
The fact is that this kind of interaction is not so much a matter of opportunity as it is a mindset. It’s a determination not to go it alone, but instead to build a community of people that can play a part in your career, and to whom you can also contribute something valuable. If you make that your goal, you’ll find places and chances to do it. Independence is over-rated. It takes a village to make a superstar.