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Was 90%. Now 10%.

It used to be that, as a musician, only 10% of your career was up to you. “Getting discovered” was about all you could do. A few gatekeepers controlled ALL outlets. You had to impress one of these magic few people to be allowed to present your music to the world. (Even then, they assigned you a manager, stylist, producer, band, etc.)

As of the last few years, now 90% of your career is up to you. You have all the tools to make it happen.

Record labels aren’t guessing anymore. They’re only signing artists that have made a success on their own. As Alan Elliott says, “A record label used to be able to look at a tree and say, ‘That would make a great table.’ Now all they can do is take a finished table and sell it at Wal-Mart.”

You have to make a great recording, a great show, a great image. You have to come up with a plan and make it happen, too. You have to make thousands of people want your music so much they pay good money for it. You have to make things happen on your own. Even if a record label puts it in the stores for you, it’s still up to your own hard work to go make people buy it.

The only thing stopping you from great success is yourself. This is both scary and exciting. At least you’re in control.


Can't try it? Won't buy it.

When Trent Reznor expressed disappointment over Saul Williams’ sales data last January, bloggers and journalists offered many reasons why, when fans were given the option to download the NiggyTardust album for free or for $5, only 1 out of 5 downloaders chose to pay the $5. Some argued that there should have been an option to pay something less than $5. Others suggested that Williams wasn’t a big enough act to pull something like this off, and that Reznor may not have been the right man to endorse and market Williams’ style of music. And of course there was talk about sorry state of the recorded music business.

But I think there was a more fundamental problem with the payment option for NiggyTardust that was not emphasized enough in the analysis following Reznor’s annoucement: Fans were being asked to pay for music BEFORE hearing it. No previews, no 30-second clips, no nothing. Getting people to pay for music before hearing a single note is, as others have explained, a very tough thing to do. I have to imagine that some portion of the downloaders who chose free would have been willing to pay if they actually knew what they were getting beforehand.

(Now don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to download an album like this for free. And given the tremendous promotional fallout from the NiggyTardust experiment, I personally don’t consider the release an economic disappointment at all. But I do believe that many fans want to support their favorite musicians when possible, and selling downloads isn’t dead yet. So for artists and labels, it’s worth thinking about how to incentivize fans to pay for digital music even when free is an option too).

I wonder what the percentages of free and paid downloads would have been if streaming audio clips of NiggyTardust had been made available on the website? My purely speculative guess is that some of the free downloaders would have chosen to pay (because they know they’ll love it), some would have chosen not to download at all (because they know they’ll hate it), and most would have still chosen free (because they’re not sure how they like it or they simply don’t want to pay). So they probably would have gotten a little more revenue this way, and still delivered the music to a lot of hard drives and iPods of potential long-term fans.

Going one step further, I wonder what would have happened if Reznor and Williams had emailed the free downloaders a couple weeks later and said something like, “Hey there, we hope you’re enjoying NiggyTardust. If you’ve decided you like the album, consider clicking the link below where, for only $5, you can download higher-quality audio files and help support Saul Williams.” Could a significant number of listeners be persuaded to pay after the fact? I guess someone’s just going to have to try it…


Welcome to the Think Tank

Music Think Tank is a brand new group blog, featuring some of my favourite thinkers in the online music world. The site’s so new, it barely has any words in it - but it’s already picking up interest as the new source of the best conversations about music online.

I’m looking forward to growing the site and developing some new and exciting features (keep an eye out for the Friday Clinic - coming soon), as well as introducing you to my friends who are - without exception - talented, witty, knowledgeable, intelligent, insightful and passionate people, who are all totally committed to music, musicians and the (new) music business.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, and if you’d like to get in touch, there’s a link on the sidebar for just that purpose. Don’t forget to subscribe to the RSS feed and stay up to date with all that’s going on in the Music Think Tank.

Thanks for stopping by! 


Aiming to please a few big clients versus aiming to please lots of little clients

Thinking about the difference between aiming to please a few big clients versus aiming to please lots of little clients.

From a business point of view:

Many small entrepreneurs think, “If we could just land Apple, Google, or the government as a client, we’ll be all set!”

Software companies often do this. They hope to make some technology that a huge company will want to build into every product, or install at every employee’s desk.

But there are many problems with this:

  • you have to custom-tailor your product to please very few specific people
  • those people may change their mind or leave the company
  • who are you really working for? are you self-employed or are they your boss?
  • if you do land the big client, they practically own you
  • by trying so hard to please the big client, you lose touch with what the rest of the world wants

Instead, imagine if you designed your business to have NO big clients - just lots of little clients.

  • you don’t need to change what you do to please one client - only the majority (or yourself)
  • if one client needs to leave, it’s OK, you can sincerely wish them well
  • because no one client can demand you do what they say, you are your own boss (as long as you keep clients happy in general)
  • you hear hundreds of people’s opinions, and stay in touch with what the majority of people want

Now, let’s think of this from a music point of view:

Some musicians think, “If I could just land a deal with Interscope or Warner, I’ll be all set!”

But look at the above lists again. It all applies.

The dangerous thing about the record deal mentality is you start changing what you do to please the one or two people at companies who have shown an interest in your music.

It not only hurts your music, but puts you on shaky ground when (not if) that person leaves the company.

By making a plan to only please your fans, labels be damned, then not only do you stay in touch with what people love, but it puts your career on much steadier ground.


People are like sheep. To market music, the appearance of celebrity momentum matters.


“It’s on the radio, it has to be good.”  Of course you don’t agree with that statement, but the average person thinks it, says it and acts like every artist in heavy rotation is the second coming of Christ.  Moreover, once an artist is on the radio, the time it takes to go from lame to fame is shorter than a London summer.  

Song quality is not the major determining factor here.  Radio, among other methods, has the ability to demonstrate the appearance of celebrity momentum.  People are like sheep, or perhaps I should have said people are like primates.  

According to researchers at the Center For Cognitive Science at Duke University, “primates will perform a variety of behaviors, including pressing levers or moving their heads into a viewing channel, to gain visual access to other [powerful and attractive] individuals.  Moreover, primates will sometimes forego food rewards to view videos of [these] other individuals”.

I don’t think it matters if we are talking about oceans of fans or puddles.  If the people in your puddle think you are on your way to becoming a celebrity they press levers, move their heads and forego food to help you.        

What else generates the appearance of celebrity momentum?

  • Does having studio-quality recordings give off the appearance of celebrity momentum?
  • Does the use of a famous or legendary studio give off the appearance of celebrity momentum?
  • How about your selection of a producer?
  • What about being featured on numerous film or television soundtracks?
  • Opening up for an a-list act gives of the appearance of celebrity momentum, doesn’t it?

It seems to me, that it doesn’t matter how good your songs are.  If your celebrity momentum starts to diminish, fans go back to eating again.  What do you think?

Thanks to Jake Halpern (WSJ, Oct. 4th, 2007) for pointing out the Duke research.


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