Producing Original Music in the Early 21st Century

by Bob Dee

It’s been hard to even contemplate what one must do in this current music industry environment to efficaciously release newly recorded original music.  And I’m not just talking about profitability, which to me is a multi-faceted term anyway.  Finding clear, and more importantly, accurate information has been my first hurdle.  As much as some things have stayed the same others have changed over the last 20  years, so looking at what opportunities are present has been my first step; doing some simple due diligence.  But the more I dig the more convoluted the information I read seems to be.  One article says one thing, another, something different, and so on.  There are hard facts you can run into, like within this CNBC article Spotify and Apple Music should become record labels so musicians can make a fair living from January, 2018.  And there are other facts and figures out there regarding physical media sales, digital sales and streaming.  But just reading about what’s what within the modern day music business makes no guarantees that anything you read is necessarily going to steer you in a good direction.  There have been loads and loads of blogs and articles for decades that have claimed “blank” was going to be the new winner in the digital age for distribution, or “independent artists should invest their time and money in ‘X’ as it will be the wave of the future.”  Here’s an article from 2012, The USB Memory Stick Is Facing Extinction.  It highlighted the fact that mobile media access through cloud-based services will be the wave of the future, and in that view they were correct.  However, six years later flash drives are far from extinct. Conversely, they are as popular as ever and have become huge marketing tools for all sorts of industries including the music industry.  So knowing what to invest your money in for production, sales, promotion, bookings, publicity, etc., is as hard as it ever was.  For someone like me, my goal is just to produce good music, played well and recorded well, and try to make enough back on my investment to continue feeding the musical bear inside of me that wants to continue to produce new stuff without having to claim bankruptcy.  My guess is a lot of people have no clue how hard it is for some musicians to stick their hands into the business side of the equation without getting lost or making things worse for themselves, or just becoming a ripoff target for all those out there that love to help independent artists.  I’m good at hearing music.  I can hear stuff most laypeople can’t.  I’m good at musical math.  I’m good at writing scores and charts and knowing how to use the modes of a harmonic major scale in a guitar solo—the sort of stuff your average person could not even begin to comprehend, let alone aurally identify—means nothing to them.  (But it does actually mean a lot to them, little do they know.  Just watch your favorite movie with the sound off and you’ll know what I mean.)  And it’s just me, I suppose, complaining that I’m just not that good at the business side of the industry—mainly the creative side.  And that’s natural, too.  There have been lots of musicians just like me for hundreds of years.  So finding clear-cut solutions to the how to release new original music successfully in today’s environment question is illusive.  The market is so laden with advice that I believe it has created an all-new industry just to deal with that burden. There are companies that claim they can tell you how one can be pushed up as high as possible and made visible within the heap of musical blather that exists.  Some of those companies not even doing the actual work—just telling you what you must do! Of course, many of these are paid services—so someone is getting paid by you, the hungry independent artist.  Proving any credibility for that information seems impossible.  So just getting facts with any integrity is daunting enough to drive any musician nuts.  Point is somehow, amidst all the neck-deep posing, one has to figure out just what is real. Seems like anyone can call themselves an expert these days.  And truly, many people attached to the old music industry—people that had jobs for Sony or EMI, or whomever that worked in the mailroom—can use that as a credential to become a modern-day expert behind a computer keyboard.  (And this is no lie!  I’ve met them!).  I almost think the biggest music company players out there that accurately foresaw what was to come in the digital age were laughing even harder at those attempting to skirt the former non-digital record company protocol that had existed for decades.  I can remember reading article after article in the ‘90s slamming “big record,” that their time had come and “the new digital age” would put the power in the hands of the artist to have more control over their product and own more of that product.  I remember that because soon after my first CD release and on the heals of the next one it seemed momentarily true.  You could actually get paid by some companies real money for downloads.  And CDs were at the height of popularity and sold like hot cakes from the bandstand.  But it was fleeting.  And just a few years after my second CD release a lot of that changed.  Not naming names, but those companies that took over the control to so magnanimously endow the independent artists’ with control over their own destiny started becoming very wealthy feeding off of those they were supposedly helping.  And this is not just sour grapes—a lot of supposed artists working at their day jobs helped support these companies thinking they were going to make for themselves fame and fortune somehow without really doing much work, like practicing their instrument or composing intelligible music, or actually going out and doing any gigs for a living—that magically, by giving up a monthly fee and producing some sludge from their bedroom studio, all would eventually fall into their laps.  Those, the true posers (imo), deserve to be ripped off—they want to be ripped off—so they can say, “Yeah, I’m a professional.  I got my music played on Flimflam Radio.”  So you can’t fault these “Sign Up and Get Your Music Heard”, and “Free Airplay For Your Music—special, only $125 if you sign up today!” companies.  There are suckers born every minute and they are specifically there to help feed the families of those that spot them as such.  Been that way forever.  Nothing new there.  But in addressing the problem for the serious musician that has devoted so much time to his/her art, given up so much in order to use their gifts and try to share that with people that really enjoy good music, herein lies the problem (in my estimation) within the current business environment:  Total saturation!  The good, the bad and the damned ugly are all vying for the same spots in the market.  Now there’s so much available at the click of a cursor that anybody with access to the internet can instantly get nearly whatever they want and most of it, if not all, for free!  Everyone and their mother is doing beats and writing hit songs in their bedroom—all available on the net—so much so that there is really nothing left to sell, let alone effectively make standout in the crowd.  I mean, isn’t it a little like trying to sell salt on a salt flat?  But not all salt is the same, right?  Some is better than others?  However, even the worst salt can outsell the best salt if it becomes more popular.  It’s not about what’s best, just what’s most popular that wins.  Nothing different there, either.  Been that way forever.  But the shear volume of musical contributions (those good, bad and damned ugly) are so great that it seems like there isn’t enough ears in the world to get to even a tenth of it. People do not generally sit around listening to music all day—but when they do want to listen I think they try to choose what they think will please them the most—usually something familiar.  So getting new stuff to stand out amidst everything that is already out there seems nearly impossible, especially if you’re trying to sell it!  If it’s not free, then the uphill climb just went up by 45 degrees.  Tough if not impossible to do something like that with any sustainability while trying to be that artist that needs to put food on the table and pay the rent.  Maybe you can make enough in short bursts to help, but nothing close to what one needs to pay a mortgage or rent, food, clothes, equipment repairs, travel, etc, with any consistency.  Type in “selling my music online” in a search engine and tell me how many hits you get.  Pages and pages of services that, for a price, will help you sell your music.  Services with claim after claim, testimony after testimony and success story after success story on how their service is the best and will help you rise to the top of what seems like an infinite online catalog available to João and Jean Doe.  It’s worth noting that I know many people that are signed up with services like these because it’s the only way to manage their catalog—they just do not have the time, resources and money to invest in any other means to distribute their music.  “What’s your take been like,” I’ve asked them.  The answers are always nearly identical.  “A check for $49.50 in 2017 for X amount of sales;” and “Well, I haven’t really made much, a few dollars from CD Infant, but I’ve gotten more gigs.”  How much do those pay?  “Well I haven’t really seen any major profits from the tours, but at least I’m playing.”  Words I understand completely and just exemplify why I’m wearing a patch into my scalp from scratching it while pondering what I’m supposed to do next to release another collection of newly recorded original music.  So when you see so many “Sell your music here” companies online you know that that portion of the industry is thriving.  No way there would be so many companies if it weren’t profitable for them.  Somebody’s eating well, but I can tell you it isn’t most of the artists.  So all the pundits that were vociferously proclaiming success that the artists had finally won over “big record”, claiming the new digital age had finally put the power in the hands of the artist were not quite well informed—it was all just smoke and mirrors.  I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t all planned this way in some boardroom—not unlike the scene in the Godfather where they came to terms at the end of their turf war and decided how they’d go forward in the future—drugs, their contemplation; music ours.  They, making all the decisions of the future’s new digital rules of the music industry.  I just don’t believe this has happened by accident.  There was no way big record was just going to say, “OK, we lost.  Let’s close up shop and let our multi-billion dollar business go.”  Really?   BUT, I don’t think it’s all bad and that there’s no room to move.  I just believe that, like I said earlier, some things have changed and somehow older artists like myself have to figure out a way to reasonably adapt.  The young artist has a couple of things moving in their favor where it was harder for us when we were younger.  First and most obvious to me is social media, like Twitter and Facebook in that there is an instant, nearly totally free option to plug your band’s shows and music.  I was just talking to someone the other day about this.  In the 80s it was wheat paste and posters all over the east village, word of mouth, Village Voice ads and, if you were lucky a few radio plugs.  There was no Facebook or any other instant social media to plug your music and events.  So we have it up on that earlier time to be able to get the word out more quickly and globally.  And I also just read that “Spotify has today launched a new feature which will enable independent artists to upload tracks to the service directly – without any requirement for a third-party aggregator or record label.”  That’s nice.  We’ll see how that plays out in the coming year.  However, one thing from that article not being addressed is the saturation factor I spoke of earlier.  Another thing is the fact that the artist still has to collect so many hits (millions!) in order to see any real money come in.  And it appears they are going to reserve the right to change commission on royalties (Godfather boardroom?).  Maybe it will be free for the artist to submit material—but you may not see much from that.  Again, more freedom for the artist to produce essentially free music for the masses for very little return.  Will that be better?  Hmmm, we’ll see.

Finally, the bottom line for original music artists like myself and my friends is we keep doing this because we’re totally addicted to it!  It’s what we do.  I love to compose music.  I have a huge backlog of compositions, either ready to be recorded or in need of some sort of final arrangement or edits—but lingering and hoping for a home eventually.  I’ll never finish the whole lot, either.  I can see that—time’s gonna run out.  But I’m truly fine with all this.  No matter what happens in the world of music, or in the world in general for that matter, as long as I have the facility to do so I can continually enjoy composing and playing music.  And I will.  I can’t see an end other than the inevitable one.  Money is important.  To continue to produce good music one must keep the $$ coming in somehow.  But the greatest blessing is the fact that we original music artists can actually produce something good in the first place.  I have to remember that.  Not everyone can do what we do.