Rock stars are now essentially CEOs of their own small (and big businesses). Learn how to harness patrons, sponsorship and the digital revolution, and you could soon be selling out, without selling out.
The word “industry” is used less in entertainment than it was five years ago. The music biz has entered a pre-Industrial Age where artisans are weaving their wares in smaller surroundings and supplying smaller merchants. The CD revolution that benefited big record labels in the 1980s taught the majors laziness and the next revolution caught them napping. The web has destroyed the ancien régime. Perhaps it’s destroyed the era of the superstar. While many have toasted the demise of the major label’s gravy train, the carriages were comfy for those that rode on it. And it’s not just execs’ expense accounts that have suffered; many artists feel vulnerable without the bosom of a big business behind them. But opportunities knock. It’s time for the independents to rock’n’roll.
If being a band really were like running a small business, you’d be advised to sell something interesting and to love what you do, or don’t bother doing it at all. The perils of small business abound. In this spirit, Monocle spoke to a roster of musical minds to hatch a plan for future-proofing the next big thing.
- Get your sound
How do you make sense of your wildest flights of fancy, process all the best records you’ve heard throughout your young life and turn them into your own sound? Focus, kid, that’s how. Flatter, don’t copy. Originality is key; many a petrol station is being manned by “the new Bowie”. Practise like mad and fight your shyness. At the end of this decade, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have to be a slickly styled, toothsome chick with a drum machine and a synthesiser turned up to 11 (see La Roux, Little Boots, Lady Gaga etc) but heartfelt loopiness from Florence and the Machine and Bat for Lashes is even better. Be mad, bad and dangerous to know or just be blue; but be true. And remember, most of the best tunes make you want to dance. In a sense, of course, you can’t get your sound; it gets you.
- Build your online profile
People would have you believe that it’s not enough to be all-singing, all-dancing anymore – you have to be all-Twittering, MySpacing and “nanging”, too. “The key to online is keep it simple,” says Mitchell Shymansky, digital strategy manager for Universal Music International. “It’s a mistake to think that creating buzz is all about new technology; it’s about how you use that technology.” Keeping control of what’s done on your behalf is essential for any artist, and it doesn’t matter how good your digital team is, music fans will sniff out the inauthentic. “Give your fans the feeling of privileged access, have a coherent message and always stay well clear of a corporate feel or a token use of technology.”
- Get good; get on the road
Now you’ve got your sound, use it. The rough cuts that might soon be flying to appreciative earphones via MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are balm to your vanity. But you have no vanity yet, you’re not allowed any until you damn well get up there and perform. “Playing in small venues really helped me as a performer,” says Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, “sometimes my guitarist wouldn’t turn up and I’d do it a cappella.” Road-testing tracks live is invaluable, too – are people dancing, filming your moves on their mobiles or heading to the bar? Perhaps most importantly for your longevity, you’re up on stage building a community, the like of which can never be recreated online. Dress up, look sharp and put to good use those James Brown moves you practised in front of the mirror.
- Get a manager
If there was a time when a manager was the lead singer’s mate from school who couldn’t sing, play the guitar or hit things to a rhythm, those days are long gone. Modern managers need to be multi-tasking hubs of connections with a sophisticated understanding of the changing business, and the relationships in place to maximise diverse revenue streams. “Artists are increasingly having to take on the business side of things themselves, and managers almost become the managing director of their company,” explains Brian Message, manager of Radiohead. “There are few set rules now, and it just comes down to good people improvising to take advantage of new opportunities.” This means that traditional roles such as manager, A&R man or music lawyer are blurring into a new breed of pan-industry professional.
- Get a record deal
Don’t be afraid to haggle before signing on the dotted line. “Record companies no longer sit supreme at the centre of the industry, and they’ll need to become more service-oriented,” says professor Simon Frith, chair of the Mercury Music Prize. Instead of accepting an off-the-rack contract, artists are beginning to ask for mixed salads of record deals – choosing the ingredients that can achieve their personal goals. “Music is now more about grabbing people’s attention than selling them records – once you have their attention you can work out new ways to make money around it,” says Frith. Short-term record deals are also the way forward because, although investment at the start-up stage is invaluable, it’s increasingly unclear how much help a record company can be once you’ve built a healthy fan base.
- Get your entourage
Liggers, shady characters and hangers-on can wait. For now, you need a professional entourage of operatives across the important new disciplines. Agents to organise road managers, stylists who let you be you (but better), business managers to ensure merchandising of T-shirts and limited-run album art is part of the live experience as well as road-testing designers for album covers, posters and band branding duties. An online guru will ensure the main artery to your musical heart – the web – is busy, healthy and starting to make you wealthy. “Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are your hybrid promotional ecosystem,” says Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, an entertainment agency in South Korea. These are your team, choose them well. Groupies come later.
- Get sponsored
“More than ever, music is now an experience not a product, and there are imaginative ways that you can sell things around this experience,” says Simon Frith. Music advertising and sponsorship have remained robust, with corporate spend in the UK worth £89m (€97.5m) last year. This was topped by TV sponsorship, which racked up £25m (and 28 per cent of the total corporate spend on UK music in 2008), while online and mobile sponsorship grew by almost 20 per cent. “Rather than touring at a loss to sell records, people are starting to give away records to sell tours,” says Will Page, chief economist at the Performing Rights Society for Music. Syncing a song for a TV show can be very profitable, too “but beware,” says Jason Bentley, director of music at KCRW radio in Los Angeles, “that song becomes part of a different brand and you may never want to play it live again.”
- Tour more
The money’s not in CDs anymore, it’s in you. The songs are there, the fans are singing your choruses back to you and you own the stage. Good job, too, if you’re earning a middle-ranking €40,000 to strut your stuff for one night, that’s paydirt – imagine how many 10 cent downloads it would take to make that much. A corporate sponsor will cover plenty of your overheads and, well chosen, won’t make you look like sell-outs. While you’re focusing on nailing your harmonies up front, your agent will be running a stand with your limited edition T-shirts, luxury CD packaging and a bag designed by you and your bandmates. These will ensure bragging rights among the fans and your community will grow stronger. Merchandising can count for more than 40 per cent of profits from a gig. Just don’t think about it when you’re on your guitar solo.
- Release your debut album
The humble CD may no longer cut it, and bands are thinking of new ways to bring their record to market. Nielsen’s SoundScan music industry tracking for 2008 showed that while physical album sales fell by 20 per cent to 362.6million worldwide, digital grew 32 per cent to a record 65.8million units. This may be 300 million or so shy of physical CD sales, but it’s not the whole picture either – vinyl has also been booming with more albums shifted than in any other year since SoundScan began in 1991. There’s a polarisation taking place where punters are willing to pay a little for the functional (digital albums) and a lot for sentimental (records or special editions), leaving the bog-standard, mid-range CD high and dry. The solution seems to be to use your digital album to get heard, and put a whole-lot extra into your special editions to get paid.
- Enjoy the acclaim
What? You woke up in a suite in the George V in Paris with a couple of new friends and the butler apologised for putting the champagne and scrambled eggs down silently beside you? You’ve made it. Your songs have sold online, on mobiles and attracted collectors back to vinyl while getting married to just the right sort of sex scene in a slick-shot TV series. Your fans obsess – in a Radiohead rather than a Britney way – about your upcoming releases and live shows across a number of interconnected networking sites, as well as in the bar at the gig before roaring you on stage. Your tricky self-invention has become a force of nature, so after the concert your savvy agent will have had three of the best clubs in town vying to host an after-party, at which you will be lauded and for which you will be paid. Enjoy, because it’s soon time to start on that tricky second album. Rock on!
- #Pro tip 01 - Jason Bentley
Don’t try to do it all yourself, and don’t expect to skip any steps. Find people that offer different skills, on business and creative fronts. Don’t expect to be a star overnight. The reality is that it takes talent and commitment over a period of time to really show results, but it can happen.
- #Pro tip 02 - Florence Welch
It’s hard for me to give advice to a new band because I did everything wrong really, it’s amazing I’ve made it this far. It’s the best job in the world, but it’s relentless and takes up your whole life. You have to really love it to do it. Also, inspiration can come from very strange places so be open.
- #Pro tip 03 - Mitchell Shymansky
Success online is about creating a tribe, and tribal leaders have to provide a rallying point. Decide what you’re about, make sure it stands out and find ways to communicate it. Don’t be afraid of a love or hate scenario, as long as people have an opinion.
- #Pro tip 04 - Bernie Cho
iPhone apps are an artist’s new A&R ally. Internet radio services, such as Spotify, are available as apps and reward artists with a new “Pay2Play” business. Apps such as Shazam make music discovery easy. And for artists wishing to connect directly with fans, app development costs are dropping because it’s hot.
- #Pro tip 05 - Brian Message
Trust your instincts. It’s 100 per cent critical to stay true to what you’re about and if you let anything get in the way of that then you’re in danger of losing the magic that people get off on and fans connect with.