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Realities for the Independent Artist
Contemporary Concerns for a New-age Music Industry
by Larry Cox
Just because major artists like Madonna or Nine Inch Nails are dumping their record labels for independent distribution deals, or are offering direct-to-the-public music sales, don’t think for a minute that your self-promotion campaign as an Indie artist will, in and of itself, catapult you to stardom. However, you can make a substantial impact on opening the doors to success within the halls of your music career if you avoid certain pitfalls and make good decisions.
Don’t Be Fooled By Media Hype
First, let me administer a little dose of big reality to those of you salivating at the idea of following in famous artist’s footsteps that have dumped their record labels, and are still making millions of dollars selling their music. This won’t happen for you. Well, not until you become a huge success yourself. And how do you become a huge success? Well, either you, or someone else, will have to have plenty of connections, and have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to pump into making you a household name. Oh yea, and then there’s that whole talent and great-music-that-appeals-to-millions-of-listeners scenario.
That being said let me caution you from all of the hype going on in the media (television, print, Internet, also your know-it-all co-worker, etc.) regarding the fall of the music business as we once knew it, aka the demise of the record companies. I hate to burst your do-it-yourself stardom bubble, but record companies aren’t going to go away folks, be they major or Indie labels. While artists will continue to become smarter and more business savvy, and record companies will modify their “business as usual” routines, no independent hoping-to-make-it-big artist has built an I-can-do-it-better-myself record business mousetrap.
Making Good Business Decisions Is Good Business
Now don’t get me wrong folks. I certainly am not a proponent of getting screwed by a record label. Many bands and artists over the decades have in fact been financially raped by their record companies. However, they were raped because they let themselves be raped. They were so overwhelmed by the empty promises of the proverbial record deal pie in the sky that they signed their lives away. However, for every one of those stories that you see on music documentaries, there are hundreds more who made sound business decisions and became extremely wealthy.
The bottom line is that you have to start somewhere, and making good business decisions is paramount to your level of success. Before you can pull a Madonna, you need relationships with entities that can get you to that level. You can’t expect record companies, management agencies, promoters, music attorneys, or others on the business end of the industry to take a chance on you without recouping their investment as well as reaping some of the rewards of your ultimate success. That would be like the bank giving you a home mortgage at zero percent interest. Yet, that doesn’t mean that you need to sell your soul. That’s why you don’t just sign a record deal, you negotiate it. Signing just binds the terms of your negotiation.
Beware of Record Company Wolves in Independent Music Seller Sheep’s Clothing
So you have no doubt heard the stories about artists making five cents or less per album sold with a big record label, but trust me, those are the minority horror stories. Most deals were much more lucrative. However, let’s take that worst case scenario, and say that the album sold two million copies at five cents per unit going to the artist. That would put $100,000.00 in the artist’s pocket from album sales alone.
Then you have to figure that an artist selling that amount of records will also be raking in money from a variety of other avenues (merchandising, licensing, ticket sales, endorsements, personal appearances, royalties, etc.). So, while it may not make them a millionaire, what you have is an artist with a crappy record deal that is making a damn comfortable living for doing something that they love, while the majority of the world is busting their ass for a median annual income of around $48,000.00.
Now let’s take a look at the independent artists that are saying “to hell with the record companies.” They make their own CD (most of which suck by industry standards) and sell them on a web site like CD Baby (, which has been hailed as the “new frontier” in the music business (I’m gagging to even have to repeat that).
So the artists put their music on CD Baby, and are lucky if they sell fifty copies of the CD and a couple dozen digital download songs. But wait, CD Baby only keeps $4.00 per CD sold and 9% of digital downloads! That’s much better than a conventional record deal isn’t it? Why . . . on a $12.00 CD the artist would make $400.00. Oh but wait . . . they have to join CD Baby for $35.00. And if you want to get a UPC Bar Code for your CD from them it’s another $20.00 (I won’t go into the whole UPC Bar Code scenario right now, but trust me, CD Baby is making bank on that deal. How do I know? Because my publishing company is a member of the organization that issues UPC Bar Code prefixes to companies).
CD Baby is nothing more that the e-Bay of CD selling. They provide you space to host your CD, and a few other services that also do nothing to make you a bona fide recording artist. As a matter of fact, they could care less about you as an artist — other than the fact that the sheer volume of artists selling measly amounts of their CD’s adds up to millions of dollars for CD Baby. All they care about is making money, and they make a ton of it. I can’t say that I blame them, it’s a great idea. I wish I would have thought of it.
Let’s take a look at some numbers shall we? Currently, CD Baby boasts to having helped over 150,000 artists sell over $65 million in music. Hmmm . . . so that’s at least 150,000 artists at $35 a pop to join CD Baby, which works out to $5,250,000 — not counting any $20.00 UPC Bar Codes. Then, if every artist only sold one CD each, with $4.00 going to CD Baby, that would work out to $600,000 — not counting digital downloads. However, we know that most of the artists sold more than one CD each (to the tune of the aforementioned $65 million in sales) which roughly works out to about $21,450,000 for CD Baby. Now add the membership fees and we’re talking around $27 million — not counting UPC Bar codes and other miscellaneous charges. And the average artist made what, somewhere between $400 and $1000? Well hell yeah, that’s way better than a conventional record deal isn’t it? Why . . . CD Baby is nothing like those nasty old record companies that have been ripping artists off for decades. And the best part is, still nobody even knows who the hell you are — well, except for the eight family members, forty friends, and two strangers who bought your CD.
MySpace Madness
MySpace is a great tool, but that’s all it is . . . a tool. And it’s only really an effective tool if you are a bona fide recording and touring artist that people want to follow. It’s a great one-stop location, all contained on one page, where fans can keep up on what’s going on with their favorite artists — when they don’t have time to navigate a full-blown web site. That’s not to say that you can’t effectively make use of MySpace networking, but you must be vigilant and realistic about its capabilities, as well as what you actually have to offer as an artist. Other than that, MySpace is nothing more than social networking, or better yet . . . fantasy land.
Statistics show that the average person, artist, or business on MySpace is only concerned with one thing, and that’s trying to accumulate as many friends as possible — trying to out-do one another. It’s like a hobby that turns into an obsession. Unfortunately, the average person only keeps track of their top friends, and once they have added someone as a friend outside of their top friends, there is a 98.6% chance they will never re-visit that friend’s MySpace page again. As a matter of fact, when you request a person to be your friend, there is almost a 60% chance that the person will accept your friend’s request without ever actually going to check out your page. Why? It’s because they only care about the total of their own number of friends growing larger.
So take a little test one night when you start feeling proud about your 15,000 friends — even though you don’t actually have a real CD yet, only demos on your music player, and you don’t really have anything going on except your self-proclaimed hype that you talk about on your page. Go through your friends list and navigate to their pages. Choose only those that are not in your top friends list. When you get to their page, see if you are listed in their top friends section. I’ll bet that you won’t find a handful of pages, if any, that have you listed in their top friends before you grow weary and stop your search. Do you know what that means? It means that 14,975 of your friends no longer have any idea that you even exist. Do yourself a favor . . . keep the whole MySpace thing in perspective.
Making the Industry Take Notice of You
On that note, let’s get back to the reality of finding success in the music business. Your best bet is securing a record deal with a legit record label — major, or Indie with a great distribution network. These companies have the dollars, clout, and connections to promote your band, get you mainstream airplay, and hook you up on a good tour. None of which the likes of a CD Baby can accomplish.
So how do you get them to notice you and take you seriously? Well, other than your uncle Paul being an A & R dude for Island Records, it takes some dollars of your own, some ingenuity, a good manager, an even better publicist, and a lot of time and hard work. Oh yeah . . . and some luck. Did I mention a LOT of time and hard work? Oh . . . and being in the right place at the right time. I did mention a LOT of time and hard work didn’t I?
First of all, you need sheer talent, great songwriting, and a great sound. That really goes without saying. However, judging from many aspiring artists that I have heard who truly believe they are going to “make it,” but who should really stick to any job other than music, I just thought I’d mention it.
The next key ingredient in making a record company stand up and take notice is to build a large fan base, and sell a boatload of CD’s, on your own. When a record label sees this, then they tend to speculate “Just think of what we could do with our money behind this.”
Building a large fan base and selling CD’s is all about promotion and accessibility. Touring, touring, touring! People have to have a reason to listen to your music. When they see you, and like you, then they tend to identify more with your music when they hear it, thus having a desire to buy your CD’s. You can then enlist these fans to help promote the band. There are many ways to do this. They can blog about the band online, go into chat rooms, hand out flyers, talk to people, and promote your upcoming shows, just to name a few. Be creative! Fans love to take an active roll in helping their favorite artists. You can also help keep their interest by rewarding them with free merchandise, such as CD’s, shirts, posters, etc. You have no doubt heard the term Street Teams. Well this is exactly what they do, and you can literally set them up all over the world through the use of the Internet.
Also, be sure to maintain an up-to-date web site, and have current press kits available for those who may request one. I also suggest a good publicist who can properly promote your legitimate efforts and accomplishments. A good publicist is worth their weight in gold. They can open many doors for you.
Wrapping Things Up
There is no substitute for hard work and time spent on the business aspects of your career. You can find many great resources on the web regarding promotion and marketing yourself as an artist. There are many talented artists out there who will never be known to the public, simply because they wait for opportunity to come knock on their doors. Take charge of your career and make your own opportunities!
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