How to Make It in the Music Industry
Once upon a time, you could be a musician anywhere in the country, pack up your gear with nothing more than the desire to be a rock star and head to Los Angeles. In LaLa land you could troll the Sunset Strip; you would easily find a band and start playing shows. Almost instantly you started feeling like a rock star. Girls were everywhere just looking for someone that was in a band. Stand on Sunset, hand out flyers, plaster walls with them and soon thereafter your shows were packed and even if you had marginal talent but played the part someone would notice, word would spread and before you knew it someone from a record label was shoving papers in your face and was going to take you to a whole new level. It happened on a weekly basis, so it seemed. Those days of standing on the strip handing out flyers nightly and that being your ticket to a record deal are long gone. This is a new age…a digital age. Yet, there is still a similar formula. Hollywood Music Magazine (HMM) has talked to several music industry insiders about what it takes in the scene of the new millennium for bands to get to that next level.
Contributors to this chapter in the series of articles include:
Blasko said quite frankly that the base of the formula has not changed, that there is no secret “Holy Grail” of information that only a few people know. This is not the Masons. Bands still have to work hard and be creative and create their own buzz in order to get noticed. Seemingly a lot of bands today rely on MySpace and YouTube and the viral aspect of the digital age, thinking that is their ticket and have gotten lazy. If you think that label execs are digesting who has the most friends on MySpace trying to find the next band they want to sign and spend their money on, then chances are your band will continue to play the same local bar and the same people will see you over and over. If you play music as a hobby and that is the ceiling of what you want to do with your music, then everything beyond this point is just filler. If you are striving for something more, chasing the same dreams as those in Decline of the Western Civilization 2 and you want to be a rock star, you want to play in front of thousands of people, you want this to be your job then you have to treat it like it is a business not just recreation.
It is no secret that if you want to have a record label give you money to record, to tour, pay for public relations, and for merchandise there has to be a “perceived value” backed up with a demonstrated value. As Stevens elaborated, musicians that want to fight the exploitation of artists by labels are fighting the wrong fight. Yes, record labels are going to exploit you in every way that they can. Exploitation is their business. Contrary to some belief, labels and their network of promoters, booking, marketing and production professionals at their disposal are not in business to make sure everyone gets a shot at their dreams. They are in business to make money and if you can make them money, well that is how you get to where you want to go. Where do you even begin?
The days of plastering Sunset with flyers may have fallen by the wayside but the premise is still the same. If you handed out 1,000 flyers and got 20 more people to your show, then it seemed like it was worth it. With email, social networking sites, uploading videos, Twitter, there is a far broader potential fan base that can be reached; however, just as handing out flyers and the ratio of the number that you handed out to the number of fans you actually reach, the key is being able to connect with your target audience and getting your message to the right people. Blasko elaborated that not “knowing who your demographic is; who you are trying to reach,” is where many bands stumble and end up wasting their time and resources. He further intimated that “Labels are no longer putting their money towards just pure musical value; you have to have something going on.” What that “going on” is can’t be defined, but rest assured if the only thing you have going on is that you write good songs, the road is far more difficult to navigate. Some think that having something going on means that you have to have a gimmick, whether it is wearing make-up, or costumes or pyrotechnics or theatrical show, etc. and that has been a feature of some very successful bands/artists like KISS, GWAR, Alice Cooper or even Poison. There is no one thing that is going to propel your band. It is a combination of things; promotions, touring, establishing a solid fan base, being able to connect with people, image and oh yeah, good music.
Although, 20 years ago, it may have seemed that bands were getting record deals just because of their image; that is an aberration. As Blasko said, “Poison didn’t get signed or sell all those records because they looked like girls. It was because they had good songs; that connected with people and were marketed properly.” Yet he also asked rhetorically, “How important is image? Why don’t you ask Lady GaGa how important image is because she sells a lot of records.” Image may play a role, but it is only a piece of the puzzle, even if you are anti-image. Stevens added that even not having an image, is an image in itself. Case in point: Grunge. All those Seattle bands of the mid 90’s were determined to just play music, wears jeans or shorts and a flannel and have no image; however, that in itself became the image of a huge movement in music. So much so, that Collective Soul, who hailed from Atlanta, were dressed in flannel, at the behest of their label, after their song “Shine” broke and the label wanted to cash in on the grunge image. The band that arguably has succeeded best in a demonstration of anti-image is Tool. Yet, that is their modus operendi and thus, their image.
Billie Stevens extensively talked about the first step aside from writing songs and music being connecting with people; building relationships and a solid fan base. The music plays a huge part in that, just as image and promotions do. But like any relationship you have to connect with people. You may write songs that when digested by fans the song is about something totally different than what you were thinking when you wrote it. Nevertheless, you connect with people through your songwriting. Maybe the guitar riff musically expresses; without words, the rage or energy that someone feels. The bass line and drum beat may depict the building anxiety. Musically connecting is the premise of what defines most musical genres. The metal scene was formed and gained notoriety because there was a musical movement happening that connected with the angst of teens that expressed their rage, their anger with parental units, school, etc. People want to feel like they are a part of something.
Steve Bartolone touched on the approach to the different age of music and how it is received, distributed and promoted with the following: In today’s Music Industry, the artists need to grasp the power of the Internet much more fluently, but the trick is to know what works and what doesn’t. It’s a time to run your band like a business, you can make more money in a band today by investing into yourselves, being smart, professional and most importantly getting off your ass and promote than you could have ever done in the past. Most bands think that just because we have the internet to promote they think they can just sit around writing songs without connecting on a personal level with their fans. This is the same idea business professionals thought when Amazon.com launched; they thought that people would never go to their local mall ever again because they could get everything the needed online. Last time I checked, people still go to the mall and the ones that don’t are affected by the economy more than they are Amazon. Most people want to get out, and bands need to go out and meet your fans, and make new fans, make them feel part of your family or that they are a part of something. Myspace and other social Networks have crippled bands in many ways when they are not sure on how to separate the two promotional styles, and grasp each of them to benefit their success.
This is just scraping the surface of the Industry Insider series. Come back to future issues for more thoughts on how to move forward with your passion from the people who know.
TO BE CONTINUED…