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What does it mean to be a 'professional' musician.

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the discussions around the future of the music industry is how often it’s taken for granted that

  • a) all musicians are trying to become celebrities and
  • b) behaving ‘like a rock star’ is an acceptable reason for famous musicians not bothering to interact with fans.

I had a conversation the other day with a bloke who works in new media for a large independent label (I say ‘conversation’; he actually shouted at me at a party for 20 minutes, but I’m told he’s rather nice when he’s not drunk). While talking about musicians and social networking, he shot down the idea that musicians should be part of their own online strategy by basically saying that it’s ‘too hard’ to get them to do it and they ‘don’t understand it’.

The problem with this line of thought is that it’s predicated on a myth about musicians playing pop stars. It’s based on the notion that their unwillingness to provide the necessary online material to make their web presence worth having is excusable because hey, they’re a rock star, you can’t expect them to help out.

Bollocks. If record labels are to survive as anything other than karaoke vendors, peddling Simon Cowell’s latest selection of mediocre also-rans, they need to start expecting artists to hold up their end of the promotional bargain. It’s the great unspoken reality of the media that ‘most’ advertising campaigns that rely on expensive print and TV campaigns cost more than they generate. The Cost Benefit Analysis is almost always negative.

It makes MUCH more sense for the artists themselves to reach out to their audience, to post video content, to tweet, to blog, to host web-chats, to answer questions… Providing some media-training for musicians to do this is a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for an ad campaign, and really ought to be part of the contract. I know if I was signing anyone to a deal, it would include a specific list of requirements from them in terms of what they are expected to do, and any shortfall would be costed out in terms of having to pay someone else to do it.

What gets lost somewhere in the conversation between artist and label is that being a full-time musician is a job. There are very few jobs anywhere in the world where you can conceivably use the fact that you’re far too busy going to parties and getting drunk as an excuse for not doing what you’re supposed to do. That record labels play the role of enabler in feeding the crass teenage rock star fantasies of the artists they sign is both astonishing and tragic.

I learned the hard way what it meant to be ‘at work’ while touring… Back when I toured playing bass for Howard Jones in ‘99, I had a couple of nights early on in the tour when I got very drunk after the show, and on one occasion had to be helped back onto the tour bus by one of the sound guys. He very helpfully told me the next day to ‘remember, on tour you’re at work 24/7’ - I’d forgotten that I was an employee, and regardless of the ‘rock ‘n’ rollness’ of what we were doing, I was still in danger of screwing it up by getting hammered and making a fool of myself.

Even back then I was keeping an online diary of the tour - before the term ‘blogging’ was invented. Why? Because I knew that every event needs to be maximised. The value in touring like that was not only in the actual gigs, physical audience and wages, it was a chance to build a reputation, to tell my story. And the cache I built up as a session musician back then, before I’d ever done a solo gig, really helped provide the momentum for the launching of my solo career. There are still a significant number of people who first heard of me back then who still buy my CDs and come to my gigs when I play near them.

The entire record industry is panicking about not making enough money to survive. Meanwhile, they are wasting money on promotional costs that could be cut to 1/10th of their current budget if only the artist would see it as part of their JOB.

I’ve worked with a number of independent artists on this area, as a consultant, and know of quite a few others who use the advice that I’ve shared on my blog as something of a blueprint for social media interaction with an audience. It’s an area that is only going to grow as more people realise that record labels paying for ads in Q and Mojo magazine while the band get wasted is not a viable financial model for promoting an album or tour.

It’s another area where the DIY ethic is leading the field, and the old school labels are struggling to keep up. It’ll be interesting to see where it all goes from here…

Reader Comments (21)

I do find it funny how the perception and reality of being a professional musician are quite disparate.

Although I'm not a 'full-time' professional I still class myself as professional as I do (every-now-and-then) get paid for sessions and gigs.

Gigs with my own bands I tend to let myself go a bit and enjoy the drink but when hired to perform sessions then I'm in a definite 'work mode' as someone is paying and expecting a level of expertise from me.

I have to agree that musicians/bands/groups need to take care of their own networking and updating as this is becoming the expected norm from the more tech-savvy fanbase - it's almost like if you don't have a webite, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Vidblog, etc you do not exist; which is fair enough - music should be fan-led to a certain degree and this, in my opinion, has been greatly ignored by the major labels and now they are the ones trying to catch up whilst the more grass-roots groups are once more leading the way.

The punk rock DIY road is still holding true.

Kinda went into a mini-rant where all I wanted to say was thanks for a great and inciteful article.


August 12 | Unregistered CommenterJay Garrett

Totally agree, Steve. The artist IS the label today, IMHO - would the artist drop 10,000 quid on a Q ad?

What my company's doing, as I see it, is filling in the gaps for an artist that a label would normally cover - some of our clients want online marketing, others booking assistance or licensing help. But we've always made clear that we're NOT a label and we'll only work with artists who're ALREADY handling some of these vital functions.

The designation of LABEL is tainted with just the kind of mis-conceptions you mention in the post, so we avoid it.

My question would be - what's the best way to communicate these concepts to an artist to assist in their development without overloading them with information? How do you strike a balance in helping artists in these areas while empowering them to help themselves?

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Nick -

how do we communicate it? A lot depends on the residual level of web savvyness of the person you're working with. Almost every band has a myspace page, so is already doing 'some' social media stuff, even if they're doing it in a broad-brush, broadcast kind of way.

The subtleties of how interaction with your audience 'scales' is a whole other area, but it really shouldn't be that hard to explain to any sentient being how to talk into a web-cam and post it to youtube - the record comany web-team can then aggregate that info. Same with using twitter... the stuff that can be 'one way' is the first port of call, but then getting them to start interacting via replies on twitter, or using a video conversation platform like Seesmic or Phreadz would be the next step I guess... and if it's an already-successful band, you use the interaction with the band as a 'reward' for promo work for the street-team...

I think given that it's part of their job, it shouldn't be a huge leap of logic to tell an artist what you require from them - if they need help, pay for a day's consultancy with a social media expert to get them moving. Write out a blogging/youtube/twitter schedule for them.

It's good to see artists getting into this - Imogen Heap posts regular youtube vids, and is now using twitter too, I imagine the tweets are going to the front page of her site too. She's not having any conversation on there, which is a shame, but it's definitely a move in the right way.

It'll all get a lot easier to do when more sites you open protocols to the information can cross-post. You can already update various things on facebook, and widgets on myspace, from a Reverb Nation account...


August 12 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

Has anyone ever read "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" by Kafka?

In a nut shell Josephine is a fragile musical artists among a race of worker creatures who are typically non-musical. Josephine is alone in her position that because of her talent she should be excused from her share of the communal work-load. Here is a quote from the story:

"Sometimes I have the impression that our people sees its relationship with Josephine rather like this: that she, this fragile, vulnerable, somehow distinguished creature, in her opinion distinguished by her song, has been entrusted to us and that we must look after her; the reason for this is not clear to anyone, only the fact seems to be established. But what has been entrusted to one's care one does not laugh at; to do so would be a breach of duty; the utmost spite that the most spiteful amongst us can vent on Josephine is when they sometimes say: 'When we see Josephine it is no laughing matter."[1]

I am not an expert on literature. The furthest thing from it actually. But I read this story a while ago and it made me think of the type of musician that Steve has described. With the ubiquity of talent, and the saturation of so many bands, why is it that so many musicians think they can ride their talent to the top. Rude awakening time was actually a few years ago...the fact that some are still floating in dream land is becoming a little sad.

Great point. We started a label, Broken Window Records, recently to help out the artists who record at our studio Euphonic Sound. The mantra at BWR is we work WITH the artists not FOR.
The anatomy of the modern musician must be more than talent alone. My only fear is that not enough musicians are reading blogs like this one.

Great post Steve

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterJames Pew


thanks for the Kafka analogy, very useful. I'll use that in the future, and credit you :)

August 12 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

Hear, hear.

The sooner bands start reading Steve Lawson, the better the world will be. At least for the early adopters. It will take time for most of the world to catch up to the social media stuff, but surely in this kind of industry it's always better to be embracing (or at least exploring) the new trends and technology rather than being dragged behind whingeing and protesting?

We're all ranting about this in the pub with our musician mates. It's good that somebody is writing it down in a clear and accessible way.

Keep it up. ;o)

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterBen Walker

What it all comes down to is artist education. If an artist completely refuses to learn anything about the modern music business, you will probably have a really difficult and expensive time marketing them. If you could convince the artist/band to read just one short book (with large text), have them read Bob Baker's Guerilla Music Marketing. It lays out step by step every necessary step a musician must take in order to know success in today's music business. Great real world examples that may even inspire them with the ability to blog or make a top ten list.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

As always, a killer post full of thought provoking, accurate content. Thanks again.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

You said it:

"There are very few jobs anywhere in the world where you can conceivably use the fact that you're far too busy going to parties and getting drunk as an excuse for not doing what you're supposed to do. That record labels play the role of enabler in feeding the crass teenage rock star fantasies of the artists they sign is both astonishing and tragic."

It needs to be said / posted / printed in as many places as is humanly (computer aided even) possible!

I really enjoyed this entire post, it is probably my favorite so far regarding the musician / artist / industry and its constantly evolving digital environment. If only this lesson could have been taught more vigorously prior to the digital revolution. A much less saturated environment.

Musicians, singers, rappers, artists....we are a dime a dozen. Technology and economy have made this possible. A rampant disregard for quality television and multi media marketing have fed our youth's heads with the idea that "star" is an actual career choice...rather than the windfall of talent properly encouraged and managed. This is not to suggest that there have not always been "Industry Created Cash Cows" throughout the history of entertainment. What I am suggesting is that the vast majority of respected and remembered artists / musicians came to be recognized as "stars" because they were / are that good (or great) at what they do.

I do not think any of those you or I might place in that category just "decided" they would become a star. They most likely pursued their passion and at some point found themselves in the right place at the right time and eventually talking to the right person. And it was easier 20, 30, 40 years ago. You could not assemble a studio and produce your own record for around $5k like today. (OK haters, proceed to reiterate the immortal point that no one can actually get a full LP length professional recording accomplished for $5k)

To the point (hopefully); Every other tween, teen or 20 + pop culture misfit wants to be a "star"...sadly, some of them will succeed. Many, many, many more of them will spend a large portion of their lives trying to "arrive" only to find themselves grown adults with a considerable chip on their shoulder...and no fame or fortune.

Musicians, artists; Do what you love and do it because you love it. Be smart, be consistent all the while as you pursue your passion...and you can be in the right place at the right time and eventually talk to the right person. Those are the keys to any chance at this music gig...they have been the same since the music "business" began...The differences now are much, much, much, much more folks can afford the gear and generate noise you must filter through. But this also means that genuine artists / musicians have access to better more affordable tools to achieve their goals.

Too long.


August 12 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

If record labels are to survive as anything other than karaoke vendors, peddling Simon Cowell's latest selection of mediocre also-rans, they need to start expecting artists to hold up their end of the promotional bargain.

Yet artists who are capable of doing all that, would have no need for a label. I don't think this points to the end of record labels, though, because they've always been playing a different game.

There will always be cash cows like Britney Spears -- living brands managed by a large-scale business of trainers, promoters, handlers, media contacts and image consultants.

There will also always be stars big enough and talented enough to get away with psychotic acts of self-indulgence.

Someone will be there making money off it either way, and that someone will probably be a major record label -- perhaps more properly termed a "music corporation," now that vinyl is so old it's new again.

August 13 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I also thought this was a high value piece as a starting point.

The literary analogy that sprang up for me was that if you've got a roster full of Moriartys you better find some Kerouacs. Many people have the ability to tell the story, so someone has to write the blogs, someone has to point the camera. Do the hours in editing. Some kid out of school or something?

Because someone has to be the story. Be the face. Be the brand. Be the product. Be the inspiration. Be the legend! Y'know? Citing a Hendrix or a Page for breach of contract because they didn't update their blog?

I think a professional musician would reflect prudently on the decline of an era where traditional media influence sold recordings. If your brand is your asset and your content is your promotion . . . then you'll need brand and content management more than you'll need say . . . a record producer. Or perhaps a record for that matter?

this just in for all the Hilton-philes

"Worldwide Entertainment Group Inc. filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Miami, alleging the 27-year-old model-actress-heiress owes US$75,000 in damages for not fulfilling promotional obligations."

>>Yet artists who are capable of doing all that, would have no need for a label.<<

Hi Justin,

I think there's a lot more to what a label offers than what I'm talking about here... leveraging the exposure, interaction and relationship that the artist builds up by providing the social media content is a whole other set of skills. The indie polymath will do it all themselves, others will stay self-funded but get help from friends/fans/consultants. There will, I'm sure be a growing business in online profile management - the artist will act as their own record label but with outside contractors to do the code-monkey, day-to-day managing of a lot of that stuff.

I also think it's vital that it scales - quality interaction with a successful band has to be somehow ringfenced and 'earned' for the fans - you can't have a sensible conversation with 10,000 people at once. Like an online version of the old fan club meet 'n' greet, properly leveraged social media interaction can become a lynchpin in an artist OR label's way of encouraging and rewarding peer to peer promotional activity.

It's one of the ways that Reverb Nation's fantastic set of stats tools attached to their widgets can really help. You let the street team loose with a load of widgets, and the top 50 promoters get invited into a webchat with the band after each gig...

But in a way, you're right, there will be more and more artists that need labels less and less, often because they will set their sites lower - fame will become a downside, and making a living will become the goal - I wrote about this recently for another site I write for called Creative Choices, in a post titled The Myth Of Success - that's a really fun blog to write for, as it's focussed on actual creative careers, rather than the quest for superstardom :)

I guess the nub of this is that the 'Britneys' of this world aren't in the music industry, they're in the entertainment industry. Music is the soundtrack to that brand, and it's destroying her life, by the looks of things. We've got to stop looking to that as a model for musicians... The Myth of Success post is all about this. :)

August 13 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

"There are very few jobs anywhere in the world where you can conceivably use the fact that you're far too busy going to parties and getting drunk as an excuse for not doing what you're supposed to do. That record labels play the role of enabler in feeding the crass teenage rock star fantasies of the artists they sign is both astonishing and tragic."

Points up the fact that there's a huge difference in job description between 'musician' and 'rock star'. For a rock star, feeding into the puerile fantasies of the fans is probably the most necessary part of the job. As an entertainer, glamour is the first prerequisite, superseding even talent. How popular would Oasis be if they were forced to interact with their fans? Let the promoters promote. Let the creators create, and leave the poor sorry-ass rockstars alone.

August 13 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

I like the distinction between music and entertainment, but I have no idea where I'd draw that line. Britney in a Pepsi commercial seems clear cut, but then there's Saul Williams in a Nike ad, and Led Zeppelin selling Cadillacs.

Ultimately, music is a smaller chunk of the entertainment business. I'd like to think it's separate and sacred, but reality does not appear to be with me on this one.

August 13 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland


>>Points up the fact that there's a huge difference in job description between 'musician' and 'rock star'.<<

...except that 'Rock Star' isn't a job, it's the prize in a showbiz lottery - there's no sensible path to being a 'rock star', and there's no Long Tail of semi-successful 'Rock Stars' out there making a reasonable living while still cruising around in Limos, getting wasted, trashing hotels and making overly expensive records promoted in the tabloid press... you're either top of the tree, or you've failed... like the Lottery.

The point is that for people pursuing music as a career, to get sidetracked by the behaviour and aspirations of rock superstardom is the equivalent of quitting your job to focus on playing scratch cards, convinced that you'll hit the jackpot.

There are thousands of times more working, professional musicians out there than there are rock stars - the path to making music work as a career is one that requires us to be deeply savvy about how to connect with our audience, and for record labels not wanting to fall into the 'find a celebrity' lottery, they need to start encouraging and - I'd suggest, contractually obliging - the musicians they work with to connect with their audience.

Oasis are in the top 0.001% of pro musicians who end up in the place where music is what they do three weeks of the year, when they aren't badly dealing with the wealth they've found themselves with. When considering how the industry works for those of us negotiating it as professionals, we need to give 'rock stars' a weighting according to the number of them who 'make it', not according to the column inches afforded to them in magazines.

August 14 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson


>>I like the distinction between music and entertainment, but I have no idea where I'd draw that line.<<

I'm not sure there needs to be a clear line in terms of how we see other people's careers - there are totems, like Britney, and there are case-studies - Saul's case would be a fascinating one to write up, if he were happy to talk in any depth about how he feels it affects what he's doing... If he takes the advertising money and uses it to fund him doing what he does as best he can, then he's won. If he gets stuck in a career he never wanted writing music geared to getting it sync'd, it's a major fail for him, and a win for his publisher...

I think the place where the distinction is important is to each of us in our own journeys - we all, I think, need to be entertaining, but are we musicians who are getting better at entertaining our audience, or fame-hungry wannabe celebs, who are happy to use music if it's part of the vehicle that gets us the fame we crave... that's probably an easier distinction to draw..?

August 14 | Registered CommenterSteve Lawson

I have just come off an 2 year gig where amongst other things I was employed to construct the “digital footprint” for a music artist – my experience taught me that the higher level “push” channels: web site, blog, video sites etc., – can be effectively handled by a 3rd party, however – the “interaction” channels - community sites such as: Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Reverbnation, iLike, etc., – aren’t nearly as effective unless the community can actually reach the artist – and as Steve makes the point – “you can't have a sensible conversation with 10,000 people at once.”

“What does it mean to be a professional musician?” If we’re looking at this via a marketing construct (which seems to be the essence of this article: online strategy, interaction with fans, etc) – then I’d say it depends on: 1/ what kind of musician you want to be and 2/ where you are in your career. I agree that it is bollocks that musicians find online strategy too hard or they don’t understand – the ones that shouting bloke refers to probably don’t do it ‘cos they don’t need to. Unless you’ve already won the rock star lottery and can afford to pick up the tab - you absolutely need to get online.

August 21 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew McCluskey

Adding on to Justin Boland's comment, I agree totally and your point is evidenced by the Britney Spears Pepsi commercial being promoted at the online advertising sites.

August 8 | Unregistered Commentermlgreen8753

"While talking about musicians and social networking, he shot down the idea that musicians should be part of their own online strategy by basically saying that it's 'too hard' to get them to do it and they 'don't understand it'. "

How old was this person?

The artist that are graduating from high school this year are the first generation in history that have lived with the internet basically their entire lives.

They have a deeper understanding of cyberspace then most of us. They "understand it" and if they are worth their salt it wont be "too hard to get them to do it."

August 8 | Unregistered CommenterDon Martin

I took a real liking to your post, the truth is I am out there to change the very nature of the music business, sometimes the rules have to be completely broken though, I could not be allowed to follow the typical rockers path, Instead I was taken off for a ride of immense proportions.

It is very important to interact with the fans but remember it is also always dangerous, you never know when some psycho will just leap out of nowhere for some crazed reason and try to off you, the thing about being the big rock star is this everyone knows who you are, and they all have they're expectations...

That aside the music biz is failing because those who are at the top of the pyramid are complete asses who dont know what they're doing any more, they charge 20$ for a piece of plastic that someone can just as easily steal for nothing, and all that they are taking is the electronic information, and housing it on their own medium...

They need to wake and realize the only way to combat music downloading is not to try to stop it more or less but to embrace a whole new type of sales strategy, banking on the true numbers of the world not the numbers of the past in the music industry, I am starting my own lable called Empiirael, and that is precisely the aim behind my label, I am out there to find and develope the absolute best of all worthy genres, and to help them generate as much dope music as can be created by their hearts...


This means that I'll be selling digital rights of the music, for 5-25 cents at the most for masterpieces...

I'm not banking on selling 1,000,000 copies of an album, but 1,000,000,000 copies of an album containing 20 great songs for 1 United States Dollar, or Euro or any other currency...

I intend to set a new standard, reward the fans, be true to the rockstar within, and to punish those whom download just to be cheep when they know they can get what they want dirt cheap, these people need to be stopped, but more or less punished accordingly, to a new set of standards...

I see it as a duty to all music fans and lovers, since they provide their own medium to house the music I can do something excellent by them, and give the customer what they want, the customer is always correct, just sometimes they need to be informed and enlightened a little better than what their environments have allowed them to be...

Star Prince
Angelyce Tristian Lux

September 1 | Unregistered CommenterAngelyce

As im looking at a Full time position into music i would consider a profection of music to where you making a living out of music for a ammount of time (eg 6 months)

January 10 | Unregistered CommenterJames O'Connell

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