Music Lessons

I had a long talk with a man in the music business I greatly respect yesterday.  Well, I ate fajitas and listened while he did a lot of talking about the past, present and future of the music business.

Here’s some of what I took away, in my own words, not his.

  • We develop our musical DNA, our preferences, from ages 18-25.  And it’s set.  So, if you were 19 in the late seventies and early eighties when songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel mattered, they still matter to you.  But you have to realize that they don’t matter to most people because most people built their DNA on songs, not artists.
  • For most of modern pop music’s lifetime, artists haven’t matter.  Songs have.  Most of music business history has been built on songs, not artists.  In the fifties only one artist mattered more than his songs: Elvis.  In the sixties only the Stone and the Beatles mattered more than their songs.  In the seventies things changed a bit but by the eighties we were back to a marketplace that cared more about the hit song than loyalty to the artist.  The artist always thinks he should matter but in reality he doesn’t.  His hits do.
  • Retail doesn’t matter anymore.  In two years there’ll be almost no physical music product sold.  Christian bookstores will eliminate music in the next few years.  It doesn’t draw customers anymore and it costs labels too much time and money to get retailers to carry and care about their artists.
  • Touring companies like Live Nation are the new labels.  Having agreements with venues across the country already, they’ll broker deals with artists next, buying up portions or all of their merchandising, record sales, and publishing.  Artists will agree to these deals because they are guaranteed income and guaranteed bookings.
  • Radio matters less now than it ever has.  Radio is finally acting on what it knows – artists don’t matter – by never telling listeners who they’re hearing and promoting artist events based upon the artist’s song, not the artist’s name.  Radio play does not generate record sales like it once did in the Christian market.  A number one song barely moves sales upward today, a phenomenon this guy can’t explain, but it’s undeniably happening.  Radio lost it’s usefulness to labels when it stopped making them money.
  • Labels are watching independent artists (even buying them fajitas) to find out what they’re doing that works.  Labels are morphing into one-stop management/merchandising, publishing, touring, promotions companies.
  • The artist who succeeds in this new marketplace is hands on and entrepreneurial. It’s not enough anymore to write and sing and play well.  You have to market and sell too.
  • Singers are plentiful.  Artists are rare.  Artists wake up scratching to make music or they fear they’ll die.  They can’t do anything else. Artists are the ones, more than retailers, labels and radio stations, pushing the industry forward.  They’re the only ones desperate enough to try anything to stay in the game.  Everyone else (who says the artist doesn’t matter) is learning from the desperate artist.