If The Music Business Dies

The management company that represented icons Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant for ages just folded.

Chuck Finney, the guy who almost single-handedly revolutionized the way Christian radio stations operate a few years back, is “no longer with” powerhouse Salem Communications.

CCM Magazine is only a website now, with a shadow of their 1990’s audience and zero pull with today’s publicists.

The Gospel Music Association is letting people go.

Their Gospel Music Week was a ghost town this April, with major artists no longer taking a break from touring to participate in it. 

Speaking of tours – they’re losing money – big money – which means production companies are going down too.

Some say technology will save the day.  Lots of artists are going on-line to blogs, twitter, facebook, etc because of this optimism. But this new technology is not the magic bullet some claim it to be.  The bullet that works best hasn’t changed – it’s just changed hands.

The music business is about relationship. And now it’s the artist’s turn to have one.

Success in the music business once hinged on only a handful of relationships: a publicist and a magazine, a salesman and a bookstore, a radio promoter and a radio station, a booking guy and a promoter, an artist and a manager, a writer and a publisher.  If all these relationships were working, if all parties’ interests were respected and pursued, if no personalities collided to the point of impeding progress, then the project or artist they were tied to would succeed (from a business standpoint.)

Relationship is still king.

Starting a blog, hopping on Twitter, launching a Facebook fan page – these are not cure-alls because they aren’t a relationship any more than buying a basketball is spending quality time with my son.

These technologies can foster relationships.  But not without a lot of personal investment and intentionality from an artist.

This is a big shift in thinking for artists, especially at the top levels of this industry.  Artists aren’t accustomed to being so accessible, accountable and out of control.  Artists are accustomed to being in front of audiences that care about what they do, audiences they know are fans and they keep in the seats for a couple hours by charging a ticket price.  But on-line, where spending time with an artist is free, anybody can wander into the crowd, boo, change the subject, or walk out.  And they will.

Also, artists are used to hiring people to handle their relationships for them.  That’s at least 90% of what a manager does.  Labels congratulate and critique through a manager, for instance, who adds his own diplomatic spin to every word so the artist’s feelings aren’t hurt and the relationship is preserved. Not so on-line.  Someone can be hired to hit the “publish” button on a blog post that gets e-mailed over, invite people to a Facebook event and even write to people for an artist and signed their name (it happens), but no one can convincingly be the artist every day in post after post or interact with commenters regularly.  Artists can’t hire anyone to be them 24/7 and the internet demands those kind of hours.

Lastly, labels are used to creating and maintaining the image of an artist: focussing and filtering, controlling who can and can’t have access, and how much, when and where. There’s one official bio and one fact sheet carefully crafted in a record company office and then parroted by every media outlet.  That’s not possible on-line.  And that’s distressing, fatal even, if an artist has nothing to say or, worse, has lots to say about things that don’t matter to anyone but them.  Hair products, high priced jeans and guitar pedals aren’t all that interesting to folks with real jobs. The public is now discovering through an artist’s blog what publicists have known for quite some time and expertly covered up: This guy’s just a singer.  And that’s no basis for a relationship.

If the music industry dies it won’t be because everything changed.  It will be because artists didn’t.  Artists today have to – no, we get to – do what the rest of the industry and human race has been doing for eons: We get to be real human beings spending time with other real human beings.  There’s no shortcut for that.

The Man was afraid to tell us artists this before: It was never about our music.  And it’s not about new technology now. It’s always been about people.  All that matters is.