The New Recording Paradigm

On May 31st 2012, a music conference focused on the future of the recording industry will take place in Maastricht, Netherlands. In preparation for this event, they interviewed a variety of musicians, bands, and thought leaders. To view all the responses, click here. Below are my thoughts about this quickly and ever evolving business.

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do? What inspired you to write your book and what is your own musical background?

I maintain a varied career as a jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, blogger, consultant, speaker, advocate, and entrepreneur. In fact, a recent career map showed that I have no less than 24 income streams! Balancing that many projects can be challenging, but it is also an incredibly fulfilling and interesting career model.

My training at top music schools helped me develop into an advanced and well-rounded artist. Yet I felt completely unprepared upon graduation to excel in the professional world. Noticing that many other musicians experienced similar challenges, I began a long trek towards unraveling the mysteries of the music business. More than a decade later, I wrote The Savvy Musician to help my students, teachers, friends, colleagues, and other talented individuals achieve greater success.

Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
My immediate reaction is that whenever many people start buying into a claim, look for another approach. The point of view above asserts that the two main professional opportunities for bands are recording and touring. While those can certainly be helpful parts of the mix, forward looking groups have many additional options: corporate gigs, educational initiatives, political engagements, interactive events, online forums, music for video games, etc. The world has a need for bands that not only offer great music, but also innovative business models and forums of art making.

To more directly address the question, the formula has indeed changed. In the old paradigm, many tours were organized to sell albums. Most musicians earned little or no money through recording, but a few superstars made out like bandits. Today, it is necessary to record in order to book tours, promote your group, sell other merch, and generate interest. Even fewer artists earn significantly through recordings, but more are able to distribute their music and possibly earn something. For a musician like me with a portfolio career (multiple income streams), every little bit helps.

Which alternatives for musicians to earn money through record sales seem most promising and will prevail in the future?
I believe that in the near future:

  • The majority of people will subscribe to streaming music services like Spotify.
  • With abundant access to most music and no cost barrier (once you’ve subscribed to the service), groups that create demand will be the royalty winners.
  • Devoted fans will continue to purchase novelty products, like new releases, alternate versions, and “bonus tracks” not offered through these services.
  • People will purchase more personalized recordings, like the soundtrack to a concert they attended or customized tunes (imagine if a band had 1000 versions of single love song, each integrating the name of another female protagonist).
  • People will also purchase products that come with music recordings as a bonus. Perhaps a recording will be bundled into the price when they buy soup, shirts, or souvenirs.

What do you think about DIY (do-it-youself) practices, such as fan-funding?
Fan-funding is a great opportunity and positive development, but far from a panacea. Some musicians today mistakenly believe that the secret to success is simply erecting a Kickstarter site. It’s not.  Though a powerful tool for some, what it takes to succeed today is the same thing it has always taken, only more so: a following. Fan-funding methods are not the key to building a devoted audience. Quite the opposite: Building a devoted audience is the secret ingredient to fan-funding!

On average, how many people would you say still pay for a release when given the option to download for free?
Thirteen. The first dozen are over 50, and don’t know where to find the free version. The final person is the artist’s aunt.

Seriously, Free is a reality here to stay. In many cases, having a Free aspect to your business model is imperative. The trick is learning to leverage Free in order to earn income through other avenues. A chapter in an upcoming book of mine focuses on this very issue.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to
finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?

For the most part, yes. Of course, there are exceptions, particularly with classical music, comedy albums, musical stories with narratives, distinctive styles the set a particular mood for a particular function, etc. And a huge fan of one group may certainly choose to absorb themselves just in their music for a period of time.

The more important question, of course, is whether people will buy complete albums when they have the option of picking and choosing. In many cases, the answer is simply no. But why shouldn’t consumers be able to pinpoint just the elements they want? (In the near future, it will likely be possible for readers to purchase just the e-book chapters of interest as well.) Many albums were famous for featuring one hit surrounded by second-rate, grey filler. Today, to even have a chance at selling the entire product, there’s a mandate to present A-level material throughout. That’s good news!

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
The digital era is absolutely responsible for the extinction of record stores. This development was inevitable, tragic, and beneficial all at the same time. It has been a devastating development for the traditional record industry and mass marketed artists. But the development is good for the Earth (without the need to manufacture physical products), for the music (much more is being heard by a greater variety of people than ever before), and for aspiring and midlevel artists (who now have a path to reaching audiences and disseminating their wares that never before existed). Changing the rules changes the game.

The question today is not how to get your music out there, but how to get people to care.

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