The Problems Musicians Face and How To Solve Them, Pt. 4
Written by Tommy Darker, originally published in The Musicpreneur.
Travelling the world and chatting with fellow aspiring artists reveals astounding insights about the future of music. Here’s the deal: we think we all face different problems, but the reality reveals the opposite. I will share one of these insights, explaining what it means for the way we work as musicians and how to move in the future.
This is the 4th part. Each part is linked at the end of the post.
“The Medium Is The Message” in the Music Industry.
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher of communication theory, rose in popularity with his thesis “the medium is the message”, a quote from his book ‘Understanding Media’.
In short, the medium carrying the message and the message itself are symbiotic, not separate. The phrase encapsulates the notion that the perception of the message is influenced heavily by the medium that it’s communicated through.
It would be useful, in other words, to examine the context of today’s music world and list the most popular ways we use to deal with problems. Said with brevity: what is the infrastructure we can use (the Medium) to find solutions for musicians’ problems today (the Message)?
We’ll attempt to interpret today’s music world, through the eyes of an analytical musician who uses McLuhan’s suggestions.
MEDIUM — Where we turn to for Business
On one side of the table we have today’s musicians. On the other side of the table we have labels (majors and indies) and tech corporations (YouTube, Spotify etc.). These are the main ways musicians rely on to make some money with their music.
Musicians hate business. They love making art. So they look for bosses (or ‘friends’) when it comes to business.
What do they do?
Musicians provide their musical creations to corporate strangers, whom they trust, because the musicians believe that they ‘see’ business better than them. They also convince themselves that they’re loved by these strangers (because ‘see part 1′). Trusting a stranger with the blind hope that they’ll make you money is a clear sign of desperation.
Obviously, these strangers will do what they do best: take something and squeeze money out of it, by selling it to an audience. They do all the work, so they and their contractors (aka mediators) take the biggest chunk of profit earned, leaving musicians with the smallest bit of the pie. Labels see music as intellectual property and tech companies as content (both of which are human inventions and have nothing to do with the musical expression originally conceived).
The difference between those two (and why we say ‘Fuck The Gatekeepers’ while we ‘Love YouTube’) — labels are remnants of the Electrical Era, and more inelastic to change, while corporations are natives of the Digital Era, and thus more customizable and musician-friendly. The old boss meets the new boss.
Quick recap: Labels and tech companies build a good business upon the massive amount of music submitted voluntarily by desperate musicians. They help only a few to succeed, but feed the hopes and dreams of millions.
Things are quite straightforward with business. What about knowledge?
MEDIUM — Where we turn to for Knowledge
Musicians are always learning stuff. Now, before we assume safely that they want to learn exclusively about making music, let’s ask questions.
The first question is: what do they want to learn about? But it’s difficult to draw a straight line between what we want personally and what we’ve been conditioned to like.
A better question: what do they think they want to learn about? The strongest reason we do things is the idea that we follow the default — the pre-existing choice!
The most interesting question to explore, then, is: what did they have to learn about so far?
Where do they look for answer? Two prominent examples that come to mind are knowledge institutions (music colleges) and knowledge curators (bloggers).
Music colleges are official institutions (governmental or not) constructed to facilitate educational activities on topics that seem to be popular, practical and realistic for a musician’s career. Their value (and relevance) lies in their ability to give you a credible certificate.
Their main value is the credibility of the paper they hand you at the end of the studies and the commitment to learning. Let’s not forget, music colleges are institutions with history, brand reputation and success rates to maintain. Their paper, however, becomes irrelevant in a world where 1) quality knowledge is democratized and freely available, and 2) people care about results or quality products more than simple assurances of one’s abilities (aka certificates).
In reality, music colleges teach musicians about the artistic side of their career, excluding a vital part of today’s reality: the practical and realistic issue of making yourself known…
Practically, the majority of the musicians graduating from a college have no idea where to go next and how to kickstart their career. Yes, they know how to approach, compose, perform or produce music (or some combination of these). But, what’s next? No clue.
Let’s return to the initial question: what have they learnt about so far? The answer: ‘how to make cool art that everyone will ignore’.
This creates a foundational framework of thinking for music students. ‘But… if the syllabus puts gravity on music, this is probably what matters, right?’ Not exactly.
We all make what Andrew Dubber calls ‘popular music’ (nothing to do with ‘pop’ music). In popular music, the context your music lives in matters equally as much as your music does. It’s the aforementioned ‘The Medium (context) is The Message (music)’ that Marshall McLuhan described.
Heck, even hardcore contemporary music practitioners (who used to focus on the inherent value of the musical expression) are affected by the notion of context and have realized they need to adapt to the laws of the new world (or become irrelevant and obsolete).
Why have colleges missed that they need to teach their students what to do next? Because they’re inelastic to change.
Meanwhile, there is another form of education for musicians, this time related to business and promotion. The knowledge curators (bloggers) dominate in this area.
The great thing about blogs: diversity of opinions, they’re free for everyone, you don’t have to commit to a 2-year schedule to read them and you can work on your own pace. Great stuff. Type anything in the search bar, you’ll probably find a few hundred posts about it, examined from various angles.
The downsides of this blog-generated knowledge are conspicuous:
• How credible is this knowledge and how do we filter the signal (useful information) from all of this noise (the incremental vastness of posts)?
• How do you stay accountable to someone, so you can put things in practice after you’ve learnt them, and how do you get support if you have questions?
From my experience, nothing read on the Internet should be taken for granted without investigation. When the entry barrier to publishing is having an Internet connection, quality of content inevitably drops.
Just because someone can write about a topic (in an interesting way, most of the time), it doesn’t mean it’s true or you should pay attention. Heck, not even the words you’re reading now should be digested uncritically.
Everyone can be an expert today and analyze their experiences. This creates a comfortable echo chamber for today’s musicians: everything is possible, you can make a living as a DIY artist, knowledge is free, entry barriers are non-existent.
If all this is right, where does effort and investment come in? Who stands out?
Music blogs never explain, because they’re most of the times impractical and reflect an idealistic reality impossible to implement in the real world.
Quick recap: Music colleges are institutions constructed with the mindset ‘we have a lot of tourists in this area, let’s build a hotel’. They offer credible knowledge but, as a natural result, they are slow to change and can be easily disrupted by a more relevant AirBnB-type of solution — see blogs (less credible, lack of knowledge filters, no accountability) and Coursera-type courses (not enough diversity in the topics discussed — yet).
Now that we’ve sketched today’s Medium (context), it’s time to jump on the modern Messages (how musicians give solutions to their problems).
Following up on the Medium-Message theory of Marshall McLuhan (Part 4), let’s examine how musicians have been solving their four biggest problems today, as seen on Part 2.
Live performances. Why do most musicians want so badly to perform live? Because that seems the best way today to express your passion, find a new audience and make some income. It is one of the few remnants of the old music world that has survived and still makes sense for musicians.
Most musicians look for gigs by approaching booking agents or doing it themselves. They tap into a network of pubs and small festivals that is known to host similar live performances (Medium).
In short, if a musician wants to perform live, they have to build the business of the pub. This benefits everyone except the musician, since there’s no real exposure performing in front of the same people and the economics of pub gigging are made to favour the business (pub). After all, people go to a bar to pay for beer and have fun. Music is complimentary — not the main experience.
Like the labels and tech companies mentioned before, real businesses win again (the pub, in our case).
My point of view: no matter how broken the system, because of the scarce number of venues in this network and the increasing number of aspiring musicians, we all have contributed to creating an echo chamber that is difficult to satisfy our needs: to grow an audience and build a business. This is not going away unless we look for alternatives.
What we ignore: online performances / personalized gigs in living rooms / crowdfunded or pre-sold performances on demand / custom-made live experiences for die-hard, small audiences / performances in unexpected places.
Making a viable business. The notion that ‘business is bad’ is dominant and ingrained in the music world. It’s not a surprise why most artists hesitate to sell what they produce, let alone make a consistent, scalable business.
The main way of attempting to sloppily make some money comes by tapping into the ecosystem (Medium) that the dominant tech companies have created. Looking at the ways that FutureOfMusic.org suggests, we mainly see:
• Copyright-related revenues (royalties)
• Time-for-money exchanging revenues (performing and teaching)
• Brand-related revenues (capitalizing on your brand)
• Patronising (third-party funding)
In practice, most musicians attempt to make money through live performances, selling music and/or using the solutions of tech companies (YouTube, Spotify etc.).
My point of view: there are big problems with these solutions. Most of them are either not practically sustainable (your brand or fanbase is not big enough), not scalable or too time-consuming (how much time will you exchange teaching and performing?), too dangerous to rely on (I would refrain from building a business on a platform which might not exist in the future — see MySpace, Facebook, YouTube or Spotify) or probably irrelevant in today’s world (this goes for this human invention of artificial scarcity — copyright). In a few words: you’ll never build a real business this way.
How will musicians build a real business instead? By creating their own Medium! It is analyzed in Part 5 and 6.
Promoting music/building an audience. Things are pretty straightforward in this game. Promotion today is a constant fight against noise. Musicians respond by using social media or blogs to promote their work.
Although the way to ensure your music is heard by those who like it still comes down to human-to-human communication, it seems that most artists simply exhaust their personal network and cannot go past that.
My point of view: the noise in the digital world has increased exponentially. Everybody wants you to pay attention to something incredible (which, most of the times, is crap), so people choose to stop paying attention whatsoever. How do you convince some stranger to listen to you, then?
What we ignore: creating an exceptional product worth talking about / being where attention is already (riding the wave) / connecting with influencers / growth from within — fans as your ambassadors / existing fan royalty (community building) instead of constant growth / complete music experiences instead of mere musical compositions / collaborations with other brands/established networks.
Time management. I was not surprised with the massive volume of votes on time management as a huge problem. Nothing confusing here. There seems to be no Medium where musicians tap into when it comes to organizing and prioritizing their tasks/time. What comes close to the answer is probably the DIAY attitude (Do It All Yourself), which is everything but time-efficient.
This is rather sad, because spending time on everything — instead of delegating and outsourcing — leads to frustration, lack of motivation and, ultimately, lack of joy for what you do.
My point of view: I get it, artistic souls are disorganized and all over the place. I’m one myself. However, commitment and resource management (time is included) are what makes things go forward and creates a proper business.
What we ignore: outsourcing to third parties / help from fans — interns / allocating tasks to each band member / building a team around your brand / practical productivity system in place / experiments about what makes you productive / collaborations with partners / clear goals.
Each of the aforementioned problems has a respective environment it lives in and feeds from; its Medium. If the Medium is problematic, then the solution will never be developed.
In my humble opinion and with no desire to sound ominous or dramatic, the only Medium of the four that could bear fruit is the environment of business (with a few tweaks). The live venues, social media and DIAY attitude are the wrong starting point for an aspiring musician and need replacement. I will suggest some possible solutions in the following parts.
There are many other problems highlighted in my research. However, once these four main problems get solved, everything will be much easier. Why spread our attention to every trivial frustration, while we can focus on a few major pains and resolve them?
Let’s start with those four and the others will follow.
Tommy Darker is the writing alter ego of an imaginative independent musician and thinker about the future of the music industry. His vision is to simplify scalable concepts and make them work for independent musicians.
He is a writer about the movement of the #Musicpreneur and founder of Darker Music Talks, a global series of discussions between experts and musicians. He and his work have been featured in Berklee, TEDx, Berlin Music Week, Midem, SAE Institute, Hypebot and Topspin Media. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.
This research and essay is proudly patronized by its readers.
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