PRODUCER TIP: How to succeed (or fail) in the music industry…

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“Oh god, not another one of those How To Succeed things that never gives any real information” I hear you yelp!! But fear not… Perhaps a little controversial, but hey…
Having been quite firmly rooted in the dance music industry for over a decade now, I see and hear a lot of people complaining how it “isn’t like it used to be”. This may be true, but moaning isn’t going to get us moving forward. It may well be true that an artist used to be able to make a fair amount more money from a single/album, and yes it’s also true that this is becoming an almost impossible task in todays industry.
So rather than just moaning and making pointless observations, I’d like to propose a possible solution. It’s not a “quick-fix” solution, and it never will be, because it was perhaps “quick-fix solutions” that got us here in the first place.
So let’s take a look at what the issues are here, and perhaps how they became issues. I know most of these have been covered time and time again in various other blogs, so I’m not going to be going in to too much detail.

Art Vs Business.
Now I know some people are going to read this and say “hey, it’s not just about making money you know, music is art”. Sure, I understand that, but if that’s truly the case then why do bookshops sell novels, and why do art galleries sell the art on their walls? We all dream of getting paid to do something we love.

The Pirates.
Secondly, I think I need to cover the “hot topic” (*sigh*) of piracy. As much as I disagree with it morally, I’m actually a firm believer that piracy has very little effect on the music industry as it is today. When I was a kid, I used to have a blank cassette in the radio-cassette player ready in the pause-record position, and as soon as a good track came on the radio I’d start recording, slowly making my own compilation tapes. Piracy has been around for decades, and very little will change that. The only difference now is that in a digital age it’s far easier to pirate music, but at the same time there is far more music to pirate, so I don’t think it’s particularly out of ratio to 20 years ago. Swings and roundabouts.

The Digital Age.
Of course the digital age from around 1999 onwards has revolutionised the way we consume, that’s a given. And for every advantage that it offers, there is an equally large disadvantage. When record stores went digital, 90% of the overheads and costs involved in releasing a song were removed. Great! This of course was welcomed with open arms by record labels and producers alike, but this also eventually led to a situation where anyone (talented or not) could release and sell their music to the unsuspecting public. A knock-on effect of this was that the online stores became swamped with people setting up their own record labels and releasing anything they could muster up on their home computer, which eventually led to the consumer market being completely saturated to the point where it became almost impossible to shop for new music without first needing plenty of guidance in where to look for the “good” ones. This made it increasingly difficult for new and upcoming artists to get noticed, making it harder for the public to actually find fresh talent, not easier.

Then around 2006 onwards, it appeared as though the majority of artists saw releasing music as nothing more than a promotional tool to gain tour dates where the “real” money was being made, which in turn began to saturate the live venue market, and that could only lead one way (as explained in the previous paragraph). More competition, more saturation, lowering standards, etc, as above. Now we’re at a stage where new upcoming artists are expected to release new music for very little if any return, and then also to perform live in venues for almost no money, just so that they can try to get noticed by playing alongside the bigger names who can still command huge sums.
I realise that this isn’t a million miles away from how things were 20 years ago, but the main difference is that back then there was light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a potential major record deal, a tour, or at least getting spotted by a talent scout and being offered an advance of some sort to get further recordings done etc.

The “Crap-Filter”.
So let’s look at the old-school way of releasing a record. From the producers perspective, in the days of analogue rule, they would have needed a studio engineer to create the sounds, and access to a basic studio to be able to record the song in draft form. Chances are, if they were able to organise all of this to get a demo together, then their song was at a certain level of standard. Then in comes the record label: from the labels perspective, they would need to have enough faith in that song to be able to offer an advance to the artist that was large enough for them to hire a studio to record the finished product, and they would also be willing to risk a large sum of money on getting the record pressed (even just to promotional acetate or white-labels), and posting them out to key industry people. Then, assuming that all got the green light, they would then need to invest even more money in getting the records mastered (separately for CD and vinyl), pressed and printed (in both CD and vinyl format), and distributed to stores, whilst also investing in press and PR campaigns to get media attention and product placement in-store (people would pay good money to have their song on the top shelf, or end-of-aisle etc). All of this would often total well in excess of £10,000.

Each and every step of this process, was what I would call the “Crap-Filter”… If a song could make it through every one of these stages, then chances are it was a “good” record, so each stage acted as a filter cutting out the crap records.
The key to the music industries success was risk and investment. Releasing a record took a lot of risk, and a large investment, but when the going was good, the return was worth it, and thanks to the “Crap-Filter” system, the risk was lowered, and the consumer was left blissfully unaware of the the missed musical opportunities.

OK, so those are really the key issues only, of course there are a lot more, but in my opinion, the biggest and most important change in the music industry of the last decade has been the removal of the “Crap-Filter”. I could quite easily put together a 7 minute piece of hissy drum beats, leave it unmastered, give it no PR or promotion, and still release it to over 150+ online stores within hours at no cost to myself; no risk, no investment, and I may or may not sell some units. No risk, no investment, no return. At this stage I’d also like to point out that I could also equally dedicate my life to writing a masterpiece of an album, release it to those same 150+ online stores, push it to as many magazines and online forums as I can, give previews to as many social networking sites as I can, and still, I may or may not sell some units… Why? Well, I’d like to think it would sell more units than a 7 minute hissing drum beat, but with the consumer side of the industry being so saturated, how could I possibly get my album to stand out amongst the 10,000+ other releases of that week?

In short, you can’t become an internet sensation from your own doings, so don’t! It’s the public en mass that unconsciously create an internet sensation, and you can’t stop that. This may sound harsh, but we really need the “Crap-Filter” system back in place, as producers and as consumers, and it’s for this reason that my advice to all young budding producers is “do NOT set up your own record label”. I personally stopped releasing my own music on my own record label last year, after 10 hard years of gradually making less and less return from it, and I have since gained more success as a producer. How?
I’ve seen homemade record labels hammering out 3 terrible singles per week, and offering up to and in excess of 10 mind-numbing remixes for each single, all in a ruthless bid to getting noticed. I assume the thought process is “well if we can’t get noticed by talent, then we’ll have to fill their entire computer screens with our name when they browse for new music online”… That’s 33 tracks that some poor consumer is going to have to sift through, each week, for just one record label, of thousands! About 12-15 years ago when I walked in to my local record shop to get my weekly fix, I would have sifted through 33 records in TOTAL, and probably bought 10 of them!! Now I can sift through 200+ tracks online and maybe buy 2 (on a good day).

So as a way of moving forward I’d like to propose that producers stick to producing. I personally have drawn up a list of 20-30 record labels that I consider successful at what they do, and as a producer, I only pitch my music to these labels. I’ll be honest, there have been a few tracks I’ve written recently that were turned down by every single one [who responded] in that list, to which I thought “OK, well that track obviously wasn’t as good as I thought it was… DELETE”. It might be harsh, and if I really really really believed in that one track that nobody else seemed to like, then I may deviate from my list and find a suitable home. But I don’t. So I won’t.
Labels used to spend a small fortune on Mastering, PR, Test-Presses, Artwork, Postage, Advertising, Pressing CDs and vinyl, Artist Advances, etc etc. Would you invest £10k on your next release? Do you think if you did invest £10k on your release you’d get your money back? With a profit? No? Then you need to stop and think “is this really working?… If no other record label I respect wants this track, then is it really as good as I thought it was?”.

I’m not saying give up, I’m saying try harder!

I know full well that 99.9% of people who read this blog will think they’re not a part of the problem, and will continue to relentlessly plunge their obscenities into the industries rear end, but it’s a topic I’m really passionate about, so if you have any better suggestions or comments, I’m all ears.

[EDITED] UPDATE @11am 20-AUG-2011

I think it’s difficult for someone to regulate their own materiel, as we all think our own stuff is the best stuff out there (otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it). I do however, think there needs to be some regulation, and this should perhaps be done at the online store. A physical store would have physical restrictions on the amount of CDs/records they could fit on their shelves, and would therefore select the ones that they felt were most appropriate to their customer. This should be no different in the digital world. Just because we have unlimited digital space, doesn’t mean we have to fill it with crap. 🙂


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