What does it mean to be a 'professional' musician.
August 12, 2008
Steve Lawson in Effective Publicity and Promotion, Music Business Models

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


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…
Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (http://www.musicthinktank.com/).
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