[UPDATED] By Mike Gendel.
As 2014 comes to a close, musicians can find little to be optimistic about. The decline in sales continues and it appears that the only album that will have platinum sales this year will be Taylor Swift’s 1989. By this time last year, we had only five platinum releases and according to some, none of them would have been in the top 10 sellers just a decade earlier.
The many problems facing independent musicians are growing.
The ability to break from the old record label system was seen as liberating. Many music observers saw the rise of independent releases as a chance for artists to have their music released and heard by a significant part of the music-buying public. However, this has proven to not be the case.
While it was seriously flawed, the label system was the most reliable financial and promotional source available to artists. As revenues continue on more than a ten year decline and as digital has become the predominate choice for music buyers, the label system has for all intents and purposes been dismantled.
Digital continues to grow, but the growth has not been enough to overcome the decline in sales of hard copies. Some point to the resurgence of vinyl as a bright spot, but vinyl sales account for an almost insignificant percentage of overall music sales. Of particular concern to musicians is the ever- decreasing payments to artists with each new delivery system. Streaming royalties are significantly less than those of downloads, which is less than those from CD sales.
Streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora were welcomed as a way to gain exposure as well as a revenue stream to offset recording costs. However, the growth of subscriptions to the services is relatively slow. A bigger problem for artists is the fact that the services method of computing royalties is murky at best and payments are very low. The result is that some artists, including Taylor Swift, have removed all of their releases from Spotify.
To succeed in today’s music marketplace is harder than ever. Radio has long been seen as the best means for gaining exposure. However, with only a few corporations owning all of the radio stations in the US and employing corporately generated playlists, the possibility of a new artist (especially an independent one) getting exposure is slim.
Establishing a presence and demand by touring has also become more difficult. This is a multilevel problem. Music fans’ concert budgets have been squeezed by high service fees, which may actually equal the ticket price in the case of a low-cost showcase. They have also become disenchanted by the high cost of everything from parking to beer, and as a result are choosing to stay home more.
Another factor that has a certain bearing on the profitability of live performances is the growth of promoters demanding free shows. The demand by promoters for artists to play for free affects the up and coming artists and the big names as well. The IHeartMedia Music Festival is one example. Without saying as much, they hold the promise of airplay over the artists’ heads and ask even the biggest artists to play for free.
Today’s artist not only needs to be a talented musician, but also a savvy social media expert. While Facebook, with its policy of making bands (and other commercial) interests pay to show up in readers’ Timelines, is less of a priority, Twitter, Instagram and a bevy of other services demand attention.
While much of the news for aspiring professional musicians appears bleak, there are some avenues of exposure and positive developments.
Look for Viral Ways to Gain Exposure
Getting exposure and celebrity endorsements require the artist to think outside the box. One way to do so is the follow the lead of industries that have ancillary involvement with music. We’ll use Monster as an example.
Monster has made significant investments in the marketing of their headphones. One of their major commitments is in poker tournament sponsorships. The question to ask is “why?” but the answer is simple.
Perhaps more than in any other sport, poker tournament players listen to a lot of music when they play. Most players say it helps them remained focused and relaxed. Casinos and poker tournament areas can also be very noisy and listening to music blocks out the distractions. Poker players not only listen to music, they frequently share their choices on their blogs and in interviews. The all-time money winner of all time Daniel Negreanu likes reggae and Die Antwoord. Liv Boeree is a metal fan and has mentioned bands like Mushroomhead. Phil Helmuth has mentioned contemporary artists like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Mike Sexton listens to the standards and player and commentator Kara Scott is a fan of contemporary pop.
Poker players not only listen to music, they frequently share their song choices on their blogs and in interviews. We’ve learned that the all-time tournament money winner Daniel Negreanu likes reggae and Die Antwoord, while British poker pro Liv Boeree is a metal fan and has mentioned bands like Mushroomhead. WSOP champion Phil Hellmuth has listed contemporary artists like Jay-Z and Beyoncé as members of his poker playlist. Poker legend Mike Sexton reportedly listens to the standards, and player/commentator Kara Scott is a fan of contemporary pop.
Each of these players have significant fans and followers; Boeree’s Twitter followers are close to 100,000 while Negreanu has well over 300,000. In many cases this far exceeds the number of listeners to any local radio station, so mentions by the players can be a very nice PR move for the artists they enjoy.
Poker is just one example (but a very good one) of a way for artists to promote their music in an effective and very cost efficient manner. Savvy artists make sure their music gets into the hands of those that many give them valuable word-of-mouth marketing.
Bands need a web presence now more than ever, but finding a way to attract attention is difficult. Savvy marketers increasingly look for blogs where they can make guest posts. For example, a band with all vegan members may look to make a guest post on a blog that advocates a vegan lifestyle.
Music clearances for broadcast and commercial interests have become another alternative way of gaining exposure. Licensing works to use in an AT&T commercial by an established artist can be very expensive, and the same goes for music used in programs. Selecting music for film, television, ads and video games is the job of a Music Supervisor. Adding music supervisors to your promotional mailing list may result in a major break. Music supervisors often have to find music that has the feel and sound of a song that they cannot license. When this happens, they contact other musicians to record a song or segment that will work for their current project. While this doesn’t provide exposure for the artist’s work, it can provide revenue which can help the musician continue.