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« 5 Psychological Principles To Help You Sell More Music | Main | Chaos We Can Stand: Attitudes Toward Technology and Their Impact on the New Digital Ecology »
Thursday
Apr072011

Shift Happens: A Lesson in Coping with Music Industry Change

Here’s a quick story about change that might surprise you …

Leo and Harry knew firsthand that new technology has the power it turn the status quo on its head.

They were part of an economic boom in the music industry that allowed songs to spread faster and more efficiently to more people than ever before.

The movement they were part of had the additional effect of encouraging amateur musicians to participate in music in ways they had never been able to in prior years. The wave Leo and Harry helped create affected the entire music industry.

However, within a short period of time, an even newer technology came along that disrupted everything. The stable business model these two men built and profited from began to crumble.

But an unexpected benefit came from the new developments. A number of artists and bands that previously operated in obscurity were suddenly becoming popular on a nationwide and sometimes worldwide scale.

Sound familiar?

This story is about Leo Feist and Harry Von Tilzer, two men who were influential in the sheet music business a hundred years ago.

The promotion and widespread sales of printed sheet music spawned a whole new industry in the late 1800s. It was a very profitable business model for many companies, as more and more music hobbyists yearned to play popular songs of the day.

Back then a lot of musicians were gainfully employed as “song pluggers” who made their living demonstrating songs to promote the sale of sheet music. Most music stores had song pluggers on staff. Other pluggers were employed by the sheet music publishers to travel and familiarize the public with their new offerings.

Then, in the early 1900s, the phonograph and radio came along and changed everything. Eventually, many people once employed by sheet music companies or as song pluggers found themselves out of work. At the same time, new opportunities opened up for forward thinking entrepreneurs who embraced the new technologies of radio broadcasting and recorded music.

What’s the point of this story?

To illustrate that shift happens, and at times the change can be monumental. Humans went through the shift when the era of sheet music boomed, and they went through it again with the advent of radio and records.

And … we’re going through it again now.

After my post The Realities of Making a Living with Music in 2011 was published, a number of musicians here and in other forums cried foul and said I was full of it. They cited many examples regarding ways they used to make money that aren’t available to them anymore. So how could I possibly make the claim that there are more opportunities now than before?

So let me clarify …

I don’t deny that many income-producing aspects of the music business have changed. A lot of great players who once worked as touring musicians or had steady club gigs are hurting now. Good people are experiencing some very real pain and frustration over how they once operated in the music world.

I get that. And if that’s your reality, my heart goes out to you.

At the same time, though, other musicians are prospering. It may be hard to see and admit that when you’re in the midst of struggling to feed your family and getting caught up on bills. But there really are smart artists riding the new wave and doing well.

It’s all part of the latest shift in the way that music is created, spread, and enjoyed.

It happened in the 1800s. It happened a hundred years ago. And it’s happening again in a big way right now.

My ultimate goal in pointing this out to you: To get you to open your mind and embrace the shift instead of fighting it. To encourage you to look for creative solutions instead of just being angry. To inspire you to look for new ways to express your passion, make a few dollars from it, and enjoy the process.

Change isn’t easy. But the quicker you acknowledge it and accept it, the quicker you’ll be able to move on and prosper once again.



Bob Baker is the author of several books and marketing resources for DIY artists, his latest being Guerrilla Music Marketing Online.

Reader Comments (19)

I get your point, but I think you are overplaying your hand.

The story you bring up shows the displacement of one business model by another. We could say the same applies now, but...

The big but here is that there is no new model forthcoming at the moment. The problem isn't that there's no demand for recorded music. There's tons of demand for recorded music. People want recorded music.

They just don't want to pay for it and can get away with it.

Same applies to most supposedly "new" and "Innovative" music services. They want to build their value proposition around music, but aren't prepared to pay a lot for it (partly because their customers - the music fans - aren't prepared to pay a lot for their services).

When a society isn't prepared to pay for what you do - because they can obtain it without paying - there's nothing in the way of "embracing change" you can do to change this.

Talk of changing with the times might have made sense eight years ago or so, but at present comes of as being completely detached from reality - we've been embracing change for years and all that has happened is we've gone downhill.

I'd love to hear about all those other artists that are prospering, because I'm pretty sure I know all of them. There will always be exceptions going against the trend, but the general trend is depressing and there's no guarantee that any artist that's bucking the trend at the moment, will still be doing so after a couple of years.

In short: there is no new paradigm to be embraced. If there was, we'd be seeing its effects by now.

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterFaza

So...we are going "back" to the days before phonograph records (where sound was captured on a physical disk and you needed to purchase that disk if you wanted the sound).

It seems like the vast wealth for a select few musicians came from the corporate selling of these disks.

It was a limited supply. That means big dollars for the supplier. But no more.

Because now there is unlimited supply of "good enough" music, made by millions of musicians with amazing, easy-to-use music-making software.

No way can the price stay high, given today's avalanche of music that the masses enjoy...flowing out from bedroom and dorm room "studios" across the planet.

And that goes for music behind films and TV as well as pop music. Supply and demand. Everyone has the tools now, and there was NEVER a shortage of talent. It was all about access to the tools, and to distribution to let others hear what music you made.

So, in pop music now, there will always be an extremely rare "lottery winner" who catches fire across the Internet this month. But they won't be on top of the charts for long. Maybe months. Then another will shoot up and flame out.

Like shooting stars.

That's the future, as it looks to me.

April 7 | Registered CommenterGlenn Galen

Music has always been about shooting stars - they used to be called one hit wonders. What happened to those one-hit wonders? They toured with their bands and opened for big names while they were on top, securing a much smaller niche fan-base and when they fizzled out, they continued to tour on the mid-market level and connecting with those niche fans intimately.

What to do now as a YouTube sensation? Master the art of physical and digital interaction. Use WAX as an example. He releases a new YouTube video almost every week, plays shows almost every weekend, and the fans enjoy him as a person and a musician.

Bluebrain is another trailblazer. They created an app that syncs up with your GPS location to play music that is their interpretation of The National Mall in DC.

So what's the future; what needs to happen? Musicians need to stop competing and start building each other up. Link to each others social networking. Get off MySpace, get your own website and create your own galaxy of fans. Give the music, or at least a large portion of any given song, away for free and offer digital sheet music, cool trinkets, tickets, prize packs, novelty items, merchandise, for sale. Every website made needs a separate mobile site to be accessible anywhere, and offer the APP. Selling the APP is the greatest new and emerging tool any musician can embrace. Those that master its potential to deliver their music to any device or browser and have it as interactive as possible, hold the keys to the kingdom.

So, there are fewer superstars, but there is a lot more great music being made than ever before. It would be great if, those that are on top of the pop charts, embraced those that weren't, just because they dug a bands music that they heard on their streaming service of choice, that you didn't have to bid to open for a big name. Maybe the artists that have the means could adopt the role of "band developer" that labels used to have.

In conclusion, I think this new age or evolution of music is exciting and great to be a part of. Make sure to check out what DDEx is doing about consolidating all of the digital and physical sales of music. Rock on.

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterSteve B

I definitely see changes coming, but I don't understand why there isn't more talk about the democratization of music. Technology is reducing the need for the "professional" musician and the "professional" producer. Most discussions are still reassuring musicians that there are opportunities for them as full-time musicians. But what if there aren't? And what if society as a whole is better off if we enable everyone to make their own music? It's a far more revolutionary concept than counseling musicians on how to think of themselves as small business people.

What gets me excited are the music applications that put music creation into the hands of just about everyone. I like reading about Music Hack Days. Most of those projects will never make the creators any money, but people come together for a weekend to see how they can create new music-related technology.

That's why I am constantly posting to discussions like this to say, "You probably won't become a rock star. You probably won't even make a living a music. In fact, you may spend more money at making music than you generate from it. But making music for its own sake is a good thing."

It's far more realistic to tell everyone how they won't make a living at this than to tell millions of people they "might" make a living at this. Sure, there will be some who do. But it's like telling all the kids who play sports how to become pro athletes. It just isn't going to happen and having them read articles about how to do it won't actually give most of them additional opportunities at sports careers. It's like reading a bio of Bill Gates and thinking that if you just follow his model you'll end up in the same place.

Just because I took art classes all through my primary education, does not mean artists will become irrelevant. There will always be professionals, amateurs, and those who excel commercially. Just because anyone can make music, doesn't make it good. In fact, just the opposite. There's more bad music today than ever! And it's free--making the price too high. LoL. I'm not missing the point of the previous post, just commenting on one aspect of it!

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterWendy Day

To understand the future of the music business, perhaps we should simply look at how most musicians made a living in the 1800s, BEFORE music became a physical disk that could be sold to the masses and limited by gatekeepers.

Musicians were limited to performing locally; there was no mass media for sound.

Today there is the Internet; but it is infinitely crowded. Your MP3 is as discoverable as one name in the New York metropolitan area phone book. Open it at random...point your finger anywhere. Is that your name? No.

So people will still play for their "local town": i.e., the people who already are connected to them on the Internet.

And how many "music marketing consultants" were there in the 1800s?

I suspect the current crowd of music marketing consultants is a holdover from an earlier age. They will have to adapt as well.

April 7 | Registered CommenterGlenn Galen

Actually, Glenn, my take is that the current glut of music industry "consultants" is a feature of the times we live in. In the old days, you didn't need consultants - you needed managers, lawyers, producers - you know: the people who could help you create a marketable product and then sell it.

The rise of the music biz consultancy comes from the fact that nobody really knows how to make money from music these days (at least, not from their own music), so they're prepared to pay someone who claims they know to tell them. There's money to be made right now in selling your own brand of music biz snake oil, so folks are making hay while the sun shines. They may be genuinely convinced of the efficacy of their solutions.

On a different note: Suzanne, I don't really buy that whole "democratisation of music" line, simply because historically it doesn't hold water. This very post takes us back to the day when people were mostly making their own music - playing from published scores. We later had the Sixties, when everyone and their dog took up guitar, later still the punks of the Seventies, who found you didn't actually have to know how to play your instrument and then the synthesisers and sequencers of the Eighties. People have been toying with individual music making at all points in history and today it isn't any different.

So you have an app that allows you to press a few buttons and produce something that sounds "just like music" - so what. The keyboards of the 80s let you do just that. We have to understand that these are toys that some folks will goof around on for a while, until the next toy comes along. Granted, a few people will make amazing sounds with these toys and others will take them to avant guarde heights (just as the electro folks have done with C64s and budget synthesisers long after much better "serious" tools became available), but that won't change their fundamental nature.

There's always going to be room for professional musicians, just like home cooking doesn't put restaurants out of business. The two exist in completely different social spheres. Back in Poland, almost every boy is out kicking a football around with his mates (that's soccer ball to all you Americans), but that doesn't mean that there's no demand for professional footballers - quite the opposite.

The demand is there. Extracting payment is the only problem. Economic term for the day: excludability.

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterFaza (TCM)

Faza,

Excellent points. I see what you are saying about today's glut of music marketing "consultants". Indeed, they are a feature of the last few years. But already I see the number of excited comments about selling your music to "all your fans" plummeting on forums and blogs like this one.

People have believed the hype, gone boldly forth, and 99% end up broke and frustrated.

Sure, the marketing consultants are loudly pointing to the rare few who become famous and do extremely well. But as Suzanne says, it's much like professional sports or making it in the Olympics: some always will do it, but it's never likely to be *us*, no matter how hard we train or how badly we want it. Just not enough slots. Terrible odds. Nothing you can plan on as a career.

Because, big time success is pretty much luck and out of your control.

April 7 | Registered CommenterGlenn Galen

Sure there will always be professional musicians, but music applications and music technology are coming out so fast that the dynamics of music making are profoundly changing. People with iPhones and iPads have the tools to make music. And it doesn't take a lot of skill to make music that they are happy to share with their friends. So what if they start spending more time on their own stuff than going to shows and buying music created by others? And given that many people are having to cut back on spending just to be able to put gas in their cars, anything that reduces costs elsewhere is helpful to them. So if they learn that it is as much fun to hang out with friends and make music rather than go to a bar, club, or venue to buy a ticket, then the potential paying market has just shrunk.

Let me put it this way: There are mini-experiments happening every day that might change the music landscape as much as the invention of MP3 or Napster. Collectively they will. And there are techies committed to changing music just as much as those tools did.

I think musicians who have invested in their careers underestimate how many other people want to do what they are doing and are being given the tools to do it. There really is a revolution going on in creativity (not just in music) and lots of people are discovering the joys of making their own stuff.

Musicians are certainly welcome to strive for making a living in music. But millions of others are trying to do it as well. And as the Rebecca Black story has shown, there isn't always a discernible link between quality and fame. However, in her defense, I've seen some of the Funny or Die videos she's made and she's as good at acting as some of the kids on Nick and Disney.

Sure there will always be professional musicians, but music applications and music technology are coming out so fast that the dynamics of music making are profoundly changing. People with iPhones and iPads have the tools to make music. And it doesn't take a lot of skill to make music that they are happy to share with their friends. So what if they start spending more time on their own stuff than going to shows and buying music created by others? And given that many people are having to cut back on spending just to be able to put gas in their cars, anything that reduces costs elsewhere is helpful to them. So if they learn that it is as much fun to hang out with friends and make music rather than go to a bar, club, or venue to buy a ticket, then the potential paying market has just shrunk.

Let me put it this way: There are mini-experiments happening every day that might change the music landscape as much as the invention of MP3 or Napster. Collectively they will. And there are techies committed to changing music just as much as those tools did.

I think musicians who have invested in their careers underestimate how many other people want to do what they are doing and are being given the tools to do it. There really is a revolution going on in creativity (not just in music) and lots of people are discovering the joys of making their own stuff.

Musicians are certainly welcome to strive for making a living in music. But millions of others are trying to do it as well. And as the Rebecca Black story has shown, there isn't always a discernible link between quality and fame. However, in her defense, I've seen some of the Funny or Die videos she's made and she's as good at acting as some of the kids on Nick and Disney.

Here's why I think people will be content with what they make themselves. Look at this video and then compare it to today's music where Auto-Tune is what is considered normal.

YouTube - Frank Sinatra-It Was A Very Good Year-1965 @ United Western Recorders

We live in a reality TV world now. People believe they can make music good as the "professionals" and often they can.

I'll beg to disagree, Suzanne, if only because I find it incredibly hard to believe that you can substitute a human with electronic tools.

But first, a human perspective: doing something actively and being a passive recipient are two different experiences. It might be fun to make something of your own, but doing so doesn't satisfy the same needs as getting something someone else has done. It's the difference between talking to people and talking to yourself.

I get what you're saying about hanging out with friends and sharing your work amongst each other, but I've seen what that looks like - some of the things one's friends do make Rebecca Black look slick. There may be one or two people in a group who are pretty good at making stuff and will be "in demand", but they only have so much time and can only be bothered so far. Not to mention the issue of: who's to make the stuff for them to enjoy (remembering that stuff you make yourself works on a different plane).

I'm not worried about changing activities shifting the demand for music - it'll come around in a couple of years, when people get bored with being creative. And I'll be frank that I am not a little contemptuous of techies claiming they'll "change the way we live". There have been quite a few such claims made over the past decade and have uniformly been a ton of marsh gas. No reason to believe it's gonna change in the near future.

(Clarification: The changes we've seen - if any - were quantitive rather than qualitive.)

That said, the size of the paying market will determine the number of professional artists it can sustain. My main concern is for the demand to be monetiseable by the artists.

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterFaza (TCM)

Faza,

In my earlier post, the important words were: "good enough". The masses of music listeners today are happy with the current avalanche of music that overall is pretty mediocre, but is "good enough" for them, and they really seem to enjoy it.

That sort of stuff is exactly what millions can easily create with Garageband and a thousand other software and video-creation programs through drag and dropping loops and letting the computer add the sparklie effects.

It goes to your point about the ultimate size of the "paying audience".

If the mass audience would only accept music that is much harder to make, and more rare, then there could be the hope of a paying market. Supply and demand.

April 8 | Registered CommenterGlenn Galen

Cool post. I like your previous one, too, but here's what surprises me: no one is talking about copyright. Personally, I think the number one reason music has been thrown into such a state of flux is that has become so easy to stea... er, share. I mean, back in the day, copying an album was a pain for two massive reasons, (1) it was real time (a minute of music took a minute to copy and (2) it was physical, in that you had to have the media in your sweaty little hands in order to copy it. What to do? I'm honestly not sure, but giving up on copyright and just accepting that no one will be able to prevent or dissuade others through legal means from taking his music without permission seems like a road to ruin.

April 8 | Registered CommenterJeff Shattuck

I do agree that there will always be music and I also agree that people will gather to be together. Many times that will likely involve music. But how that music is presented and who is presenting it will evolve. Karaoke is considered a music experience. Listening to DJs is considered a live music experience. Going to church isn't usually considered a live music experience and yet for many people that is where they are most likely to hear live music. The musician of the future may become more of a community facilitator than an expert at making music. The skills may involve bringing people together and making them feel good more than it involves pure musical skill. That's why a local bar band that has lots of local friends and plays covers may get better turnouts than someone who is very creative musically but plays music that doesn't get people moving and out of their seats.

It's interesting to see so many comments here about both music consultants and sports mixed together to make various points.

(Warning: sarcasm ahead ...)

I can't help but think about all those sports "coaches" out there at all levels of the game (from grade school to pro teams) who are selling their "snake oil" to players. They're just pumping up all those wannabe athletes with empty promises and praying on their dreams. It's shameful. There's no place in sports for these "consultant" coaches to teach people the fundamentals of the game.

What athletes really need are managers and lawyers to help them succeed -- like the good old days :-)

April 8 | Registered CommenterBob Baker

I'd equate most sports coaches to music teachers rather than music consultants.

I don't see much evidence of "mediocre" musicians making a successful living from music in today's world. The ones who have become successful - like John Taglieri, David Nevue, Jonathan Coulton, Matthew Ebel and many others I know of - are all good musicians and songwriters IMO.

April 10 | Unregistered CommenterSam

"I don't see much evidence of "mediocre" musicians making a successful living from music in today's world."

Sam,

Well, I was thinking of a number of bands...

April 18 | Registered CommenterGlenn Galen

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