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Dear Rock Stars...

[This is a post I wrote on my own site, over at Bruce read it and asked me to cross-post it here. So here it is. Enjoy!]

Pete Waterman holds a press conference, yesterday

2010 is - rather tragically - shaping up to be the year when Rock Stars (and old-industry millionaires) complain about the state of music on behalf of ‘the little people’.

Here are three examples: Peter Waterman, in an interview with The Times, said that Spotify was a terrible thing. It, he says

“devalue[s] our artists, they damage this country economically, culturally and morally”

Why’s that then, Pete?

“The big stars are a tiny percentage; the rest are broke, including a lot of well-known faces. Who is developing new talent? Without money, new acts are strangled before they mature. We all suffer.”

This, from the man who made a multi-million pound career of writing and producing ‘hits’ for soap stars - his company were ‘The Hit Factory’, FFS. It was he who, in the land before autotune, realised that multitracking someone with a then-really-crappy voice like Kylie would make it passable, enough to sell mediocre music off the back of a TV career anyway… (notice how good she got when she stopped working with SAW?). Yup, he’s been a bastion of the process to find new talent. A fine supporter of grass-roots music. No double standard there.

And to answer his question, ‘Who is developing new talent?’ - the talented people are, you idiot! We don’t need ‘developing’, we can just get on with it, without you, and services like Spotify remove the gatekeepers and friction from people hearing us. It HELPS us. Stop speaking on our behalf.

Case-study #2, is DJ Shadow, who, in a rant on his website, suggests that the lack of perceived money in music has removed the incentive to create art (any of you who play music as amateurs, feel free to be MASSIVELY offended by this patronising bollocks now). As an example, he says

“how many young rap artists are grinding away these days in New York, trying to get a deal? Not too many, certainly compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s no allure, no pot at the end of the rainbow.”

Perhaps it’s because no-one needs to ‘grind away’ any more? You can make music at home, release it, find interesting places to play without the ‘grind’? What was the ‘grind’ for anyway? A record deal? Screw that. Gigs? Do them yourself. And has he actually looked at the relationship between the history of hip-hop and the political climate? It changes, it shifts. And post-bling, if rappers have become cash-obsessed, they’ve only themselves to blame. Long gone are the days when Hip-hop was ‘CNN for Black People’ as Chuck D called it, and it’s ain’t the fault of Bit Torrent.

Finally, Here’s Bono claiming that the world needs to learn from China about the joys of internet snooping, if Hollywood is to be saved the fate of Big Music. He says this, on the same day that it’s announced that Avatar is the ‘Fastest film to ever gross a billion dollars.’ Yup, Hollywood is REALLY hurting right now. Any INDUSTRY that grosses a billion dollars in 3 weeks is doing fine, let alone a SINGLE FILM. And what does he say has happened in music?

“A decade’s worth of music file-sharing and swiping has made clear that the people it hurts are the creators..”
  • Despite sales this year breaking records,
  • Despite Lady Gaga SELLING 20 million downloads,
  • Despite Lily Allen shifting 4 million albums in a career that started long after BitTorrent rounded the curve of its growth spurt,
  • Despite U2s’ own planet-raping biggest-tour-of-all-time selling out around the globe.

So, dear Rock Stars - the problem here is not with the internet. It’s not with how it ‘hurts’ the little people. WE LOVE IT! It’s you. You and your expectations of wealth-beyond-measure are screwed. And I don’t care.

Here’s a headline for you - in the 3 weeks since I made ‘Behind Every Word’ available for free download, I’ve sold more CDs and downloads that in any one month since 6 months after it first came out.

This a four year old album. I’ve done no gigs in that time, I’ve taken out no ads, I’ve not given away a single bit of physical anything that cost me money. I’ve just talked about it, and invited people to listen to it. And guess what? They listened, and those who really liked it THEN PAID. And they paid more for the ‘free’ download they they do on iTunes. I couldn’t possibly have done it without ‘free music’, without the internet, without sharing, without streaming. Nor could I have done it within the insanely restrictive copyright terms of a standard recording contract.

Headline number 2 - Indie Cellist is so successful, the mainstream industry don’t believe her when she tells them:

On Twitter yesterday I was chatting to Zoe Keating - awesome cellist, composer, looper, and massive indie success. So successful that ‘the industry’ don’t believe her when she says how successful she is! They only believe their own statistics - so only report her sales figures as measured by Soundscan. They don’t like that Zoe has done it all without them, so aren’t interested in developing newer more flexible ways of measuring success. But as I pointed out to Zoe, who has 1.3 MILLION twitter followers, she has a bigger audience than Billboard Magazine.

So screw them and their outdated measurements, just do your music cos you love it, and bypass the nonsense of pre-millenial bullshit notions of success. (I also wonder just how influential people like Zoe can be in promoting other indie artists - using their platform as a discovery source… we’ll see, in time, I guess :) )

So, Rock Stars - stop it, let go. Your half a century in the sun is done. Pete, Bono, Joshua, you’ve got more than enough to live on for the rest of your lives. If you’re struggling, downsize. Maybe you’d get something out of reading the greatest blog post of 2009 about the music industry, by Danny Barnes.

Move over, and let those of us who value sustainability, artistic freedom and a conversational relationship with our audience over fame, celebrity and selling-millions-of-records-while-still-losing-money get on with what we do, using the tools that make it possible.

And if any of you three want a copy of Behind Every Word, please, download it for free, here - I promise I won’t spam the email address you have to give me in order to get the free version. Alternatively, pay what you can for it. If you’re strapped for cash, just drop in a tenner like you would for one of your much lamented CDs. ;)

<a href="">Blue Planet by Steve Lawson</a>

Reader Comments (21)

how many young rap artists are grinding away these days in New York, trying to get a deal? Not too many, certainly compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s no allure, no pot at the end of the rainbow.

Wow. I honestly didn't believe you when I read this so I went and looked that up myself. How can he be so stupid? If anything there's twice as many up-and-coming rappers in NYC trying to make it -- and a lot of them are. I'm just thunderstruck that he could be so out of touch about his own genre....all he's gotta do is fucking ask someone from NYC.

Or, it.

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Here's one more, Krist Novoselich in response to the Bono thing:

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterSteve H

Idunno... I see that, yes, there's a ton a great new music out there... and yes, it's largely because it is so easy to make and distribute it... and these are good things!


I also see bands coming and going at a (seemingly) faster rate than ever before. Why? And, more importantly, is that good or bad?

I used to be 100% on board with all the "tech will free us!" flag waving... but now I'm starting to wonder if we got something wrong.

Is it easier or harder for musicians to make a living today? Are musicians "careers" longer, shorter, or about the same length as before the internet age?

Can we really defy the law of supply and demand?

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever

I agree on your article all the way. Funny thing is that I went to your website and purchased your CD cause I fell in love with "Blue Planet". I'm an impulse buyer I know :)
And lately I bought several CD's from bands that offered their music for free.


January 13 | Registered CommenterHarry D

@Bobby Fever

The "law of supply and demand" is window dressing economics -- a myth for the proles to believe in. Supply is infinite and demand is created via marketing. The internet makes marketing easier. Happily ever after. The end.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I think comparing Twitter followers to magazine readers is very misleading at best.

How many of those 1.3M followers are real people?
How many of those real people are actually following (reading the messages)?
How many of those who see the messages are actually engaged (interested)?

Perhaps you should also mention how much $$$ did Lady Gaga make through Spotify...

It's very easy to be mislead with all that "start promoting yourself online today and be a rock star" stuff. How many success stories are you actually aware of? I mean REAL success stories - going mainstream (not just making enough money to pay the rent). You're speaking on behalf of the English speaking world yet there are only very few success stories out there which get repeated time after time again. Think about it.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterEnn

i just say that i am with Bono, Lily Allen and Krist Novoselich on this matter. Internet is great. but without labels and everyone on their own the survivals will hardly be the most talented ones. that's for sure.
so you love Twitter. and you have your way with WordPress. but that does not mean that any talented musician or songwriter has the ability to become their own marketing department.

there must be some filters. the old filters of record labels may be not the perfect system to get the most talented to the top. but it did succeed enough times in the past.

January 14 | Unregistered Commenteratmoravi

Supply is infinite and demand is created via marketing. The internet makes marketing easier.

Sure, fine... and since it's so much easier more people can do it and... whoops!.. now there's even more noise to cut through and the bar goes up and up and up.

The "law of supply and demand" is window dressing economics

Uh... that hissing sound you hear is your credibility evaporating.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever

I think comparing Twitter followers to magazine readers is very misleading at best.

Amen... and to bolster that observation with some data... please see:

Nobody Has A Million Twitter Followers

so you love Twitter. and you have your way with WordPress. but that does not mean that any talented musician or songwriter has the ability to become their own marketing department.

...and, jeeze, why should they have to? Personally, I'm sick of hearing about all these super-media-savvy musicians grabbing the brass ring... but I realize this is just the reality of the biz.

The bigger question in my mind is whether or not the illusion of the big payout (getting signed for a milli, blowing up on the MTV, etc) actually drove more risk taking / experimentation.

After all, Royal Trux got signed for $1mil... and they literally made noise. (good noise, but still)

How many heard that one and thought "oh fuckit then, I can do this"?

Would lottery ticket sales go up or down if the top prize was capped at $100? $1,000? or even $10,000?

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever

I'm with Bono.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterFebreze


The illusion of a big payout also becomes the reality of a big payout for bands, rappers, producers, managers...every year, it happens again and again. All of those people tend to have one thing in common: they believed in themselves and they believed in "the illusion of a big payout." Artists create their own reality, it's kinda What They Do.

As for economics, the real science is price and volume, and my credibility was shot way before 9/11 changed everything.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

One of the major problems with the music industry today is that most labels and musicians still expect to make most of their money from album sales.

If you look back at the history of music, artists did not originally make their money from a physical product; they made their money through touring. When technology changed, the business philosophy changed with it and artists were able to make money from album sales. Now technology is forcing the industry to re-strategize once again and it is those who were displaced from their comfort zone of earnings who want nothing to do with it. They are the ones who need to change.

There are "real" success stories but you don't necessarily hear about it because they don't need major press or tv exposure to live comfortably within their means. Becoming a "rock star" who makes millions is not necessarily what what every musician wants, but every musician wants people to hear their music and love it.

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

there must be some filters. the old filters of record labels may be not the perfect system to get the most talented to the top. but it did succeed enough times in the past.

Perhaps it only appeared to succeed because it was all we knew. How many great artists were simply never given the chance to show us what they could do? And for that matter, did it really succeed at all, even on the basis of the stuff we were aware of? There seemed to be plenty of dross in every decade. As you say, though, we need filters. Luckily, we all have them stuck to the sides of our heads ;-)

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian

I see this as part of the larger debate going on around content in the digital age. See:

NYT: Should You Pay To Read This?

NYT: The Madness of Crowds and an Internet Delusion

You Are Not A Gadget

etc, etc...

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever

Interesting post/discussion. I agree with Steve's headline rhetoric: the big rock stars 'boo hoo' (most especially Lily Allen) about the devaluation of music cuts no slack: there are plenty of independents out there benefiting from direct relationships with fans.

I recently did an extensive study of independent music practitioners and how they are working in the online economy: it was about half and half: half were benefiting and growing audiences, half were struggling, and many felt the 'noise' online and 'devaluation' of music were major factors in reducing their involvement away from professional, or aspiring professional.

Taking away the top goal trickles down the pyramid. Musicians aren't greedy, but if we no there are great gains to be had, it sustains people through the starving years.

Here's the research, I welcome comments on the articles:

January 14 | Unregistered CommenterSusi O'Neill

Blimey, a lot of comments assuming a whole lot that isn't in the article... ho-hum.

I could deal with them one by one, but it'd be easier of you get some context for where this post came from by reading:

Indepependent Music Manifesto
Transformative Vs Incremental Change
Spotify: Are They The Bad Guys?
If Spotify Is The New Radio, The Artists Are Winning

Those might give you some idea why this isn't remotely about the alternative to multi-millionaires pretending to care about the little people being everyone going it alone. That's how it was BEFORE the internet! Now, you can build whatever infrastructure around you that you want, that you need, get the things done that you can't do yourself, but not give away everything by dropping your whole career on one number on a roulette wheel...

Oh, and re: the point about Zoe's twitter follower count - have a read of some of the information available on magazine distribution, readership, reading habits, the ways that publishing houses game their reader figures in order to be able to charge more for advertising... There's no way that Zoe is talking to 1.3 million people, but her 'audience' isn't here being compared to being the cover story on Billboard every month, it's relative to the times they've written about her, and misrepresented her. The orders of magnitude in terms of the value of the interaction and the number of people that are taking notice between her ongoing conversation with her audience on twitter and the tiny percentage of Billboard 'readers' who will have read that article and clocked what it was about definitely suggest that Zoe's interaction with her fans trumps whatever bogus effect her being misrepresented by the morons in a magazine might do...

Even the biggest cover stars in Bilboard are only going to be written about once every so many years, unless they die in the interim. That can't even begin to compete with daily, hourly two way communication with the people who care about what you do. That's why the less savvy end of the publishing world is shitting itself about what to do in response to the rise of social media. But that's a whole other blog post...

January 16 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

Good conversation!

In related news:
Study Suggest That You Need Label Help To Cross Music's "Obscurity Line"

Oh wait, it's all about touring now anyway... right?

I recently did an extensive study of independent music practitioners and how they are working in the online economy
Thanks Susi - I'll give it a read shortly!

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever


Did you miss that post here?


January 19 | Registered CommenterMusic Think Tank

Ah... yes I did!

So, how does this jive with your critique of DJ Shadow's post?

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Fever

The whole notion of an 'obscurity line' is so bogus as to hardly be worth responding to.

Look, if the figure here is that only 1500 sold more than 10,000 albums, the REAL story is that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of bands who make awesome music and are able to keep making awesome music without selling that many records. That it's quite possible to have a sustainable, successful, fulfilling, enjoyable, liberated, creative career in music without selling 10K 'albums' a year.

Obscurity is an utterly meaningless word in this context - obscure to who? Where? Obscure meaning unheard of? There are a lot of artists in the world who are known to millions but couldn't sell 10K copies of a new album if they released one. Not obscure, but certainly not 'current'. And there are others who are selling hundreds of thousands of records, and feel like abject failures because their label promised them more and spent as though they were going to sell millions.

All that statistic proves is that some people still equate success with 'gross' figures rather than 'net' figures. Gimme a 300 grand marketing budget and I could sell 20K albums in a year. The problem would be that that would only gross, at best, 200 grand. Net would be a lot lower. So I'd be selling WAY more records than I am now, would no longer be 'obscure' (ha!) but I'd be a failure in every other sense because I'd be a hundred grand in debt, and my self esteem would be shot. Or if someone else paid for it, I'd be beholden to them for what happens next to try and get that 100K back.

Forget obscurity metrics and think about what matters - making the music you love, finding the people who share that passion, and not killing yourself with unrealistic expectations of how much money it's going to make you.

Here's a suggestion - 10,000 listeners is a much more creatively inspiring target than 10,000 sales. How would you get 10K listeners without spending a penny, OR worrying about earning anything. Cos 10,000 listeners and no money is a really great problem to have to try and solve...

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Lawson

Well, the article wanders a bit. One thing worth knowing is the deep financing crisis the film industry is entering. And here's some news (not): Avatar is not a reflection of what it's like to try and get funding these days. Check how many British or European movies are on show locally right now.

September 23 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

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