The Mainstream Music Establishment Wants You To Think You’re Not Good Enough

image from www.noomizo.comGuest post by Charles Alexander, songwriter, founder of artist services firm Outside The Box Music, and director music marketing learning series "Rock Your Net".

This year the mainstream music establishment was preoccupied with letting the indie/DIY community know they were "Not Good Enough." In fact, some gatekeeping factions of even the DIY/Indie community seemed to reinforce this theme (more on this later).

Who's A Grammy Darling?

The rumblings started in February at The Grammys when Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist over better known names like Mumford and Sons and Justin Bieber. So much so, A member of Bieber's Army hacked her Wikipedia site to say "Who Are You Anyway?"

Bieber also labelled the night "a failure" because he didn't win.

In the same month, The Civil Wars released "Barton Hollow" that promptly became the #1 downloaded album on iTunes and #1 on the Billboard Digital Albums chart.

Yet some folks still have a tough time accepting their success.

The Grammys didn't even consider them for Best New Artist. Although, they have been nominated for Best Folk Album & Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Oddly without much major country radio airplay when it mattered.

And this year at a major music conference, an established music manager all but called them a fluke. I was right there in the audience. I had this feeling the rockstar manager was just bummed that he wasn't the one who "broke" The Civil Wars. So props to TCW management team, Sensibility Music.

Seems like all the critical acclaim and all the commercial success is still "Not Good Enough."

If You're Not Making Money On Spotify, You Suck

spotifyEarlier this year, Spotify struck a deal with the majors. With the majors reportedly pocketing a cool $60-100 Million dollar advance. While independents got to rely on the hundreths of a cent per stream model. Don't get me wrong – as a consumer, I love Spotify. But as a musician/artist, I think it sucks.

Spotify & Independents

The labels very likely have equity in Spotify as part of the deal. But who knows what they get in return, cause these deals are not transparent and are covered by (sometimes multiple) non disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Why Spotify Won't Succeed

This of course prompted some indie acts to cry foul and pull their catalog off Spotify. Which in turn resulted in Jay Frank formerly of CMT and now DigSin to make the observation:

It's Not Spotify's Fault That You Make So Little Money

Zoe Keating rebutted this statement with a very eloquent and well thought out response.

zoeSpotify, Indies & Lettuce

Other artists have made the same observation. Even commenting that they make more money on giving away music or even encouraging piracy of their music.

No Love for Spotify

Derek Webb – Giving Away Music Makes More Sense Than Spotify

It's fine to say that Spotify is a great discovery platform. I don't necessarily disagree. But discovery only helps if you have the opportunity for creating and nurturing long term relationships with prospective fans which Spotify doesn't offer.

All this reflects a larger attitude in the mainstream where so called "power players" have decided that indies or DIYers are not worth bringing to the table in formulating decisions about the future of music. As Ariel Hyatt observes, independents don't get invited to this party. Because the perception is that the content generated by indies is simply not good or valuable enough.

Should also be noted here that I know Jay Frank. He is a good guy. He is also an author who has a book out about writing hits based on prevailing trends in hit songs. This algorithm can then presumably predict the possibility of a song becoming a "future hit." Not sure where prior knowledge regarding song craft or God forbid, emotion, comes into play.

SOPA – Piracy vs Parity

This fall some members of Congress introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill is being pushed by the RIAA & the MPAA. After reading much of it at Open Congress (follow the money trail), I've decided that this bill is a bad idea and bad policy.

So I joined forces with a small but dedicated group of artists and tech innovators to work against this bill. One of the first things we heard from folks on the other side was how we don't represent artists and creatives. I'm not sure who gets to decide who does or doesn't represent any particular segment in the halls of Congress – but I'm pretty sure the entities espousing this bill on behalf of artists, songwriters and creatives don't represent my views and those of forward thinking artists. Just ask Janis Ian.

Here's a cool infographic about the legislation.

This bill has very little to do with protecting IP and everything to do with keeping a stranglehold on the channels of distribution. Loss of control of channels of consumption for the old school music business means loss of revenue from traditional income streams that feed an obsolete business infrastructure.

Because artists who have learned to leverage free and open forms of communication suddenly find themselves in a position of power over traditional power brokers who have gotten used to being in charge. They want to keep it that way.

Even under the present DMCA statute, the power can be abused as so aptly illustrated in the MegaUpload and Dajaz1 cases.

One of the ways to do this is to control what you get to see and hear online. The Stanford Law Review published a position paper on this. Read their take:

Don't Break The Internet

Piracy is bad. Censorship is worse. The above by the way is an analysis of rev 2 of the bill. Which is the "less bad" version of the bill.

The entrenched old guard want SOPA because they want major labels and big business to control distribution. In turn indie/DIYers are denied an equitable market share. If anything this year has proven that indies need to be awarded more opportunities. Not less. A larger segment of indie content creators deserve the right to be heard and seen in the marketplace. Even on major commercial distribution channels in primary markets.

Consequently they are also entitled to a larger percentage of income streams generated by content they have helped create. Not just 9 cents. Or the bare minimum.

It's worth noting here that while the RIAA and everyone in their camp have been complaining about piracy and declining music sales, CD Baby and TuneCore the main aggregators for digital music distribution used by indie artists are reporting sales in excess of $350 Million dollars in just the last 3 years. In each of those cases, there was no "down" year.

Chorney Chortling

grammyFinally the largest volume of static this year was generated from the roots based indie/DIY ethic driven Americana genre. Linda Chorney, a NJ based indie artist, managed to leverage the Grammy 365 social network to get herself nominated for a Grammy in the Americana category.

Her music isn't my cup of tea. But at least she sings on key and performs with conviction. And without any pyrotechnics or electronics to mask her deficiencies. That alone deserves some kind of award…

Even the egalitarianism espousing Americana community seems to be upset about someone leapfrogging over their place in line and picking the lock that christened gatekeepers have so carefully guarded. My friend, Paul Schatzkin, details this saga over at his blog at Cohesion Arts. Kim Ruehl over at No Depression also goes the distance with a look-see at this nomination. She also turned me on to the fact that Eddie Vedder has been nominated for Best Folk Album. What???

So you know where I am going with this, right? All of this "You're Not Good Enough" messaging is hogwash.

It's just that it's in the best interest of the mainstream music establishment to perpetuate this myth. In spite of the successes of The Civil Wars', Arcade Fires, Julia Nunes', Pomplamooses, Louis CKs and Amanda Palmers of the world.

You see if these acts are acknowledged as being legitimate, reproducible accomplishments then those reverberations echo through the offices of the RIAA, MPAA and the hallowed hallways of The Grammys.

Suddenly highly paid gatekeepers and tastemakers become obsolete. Entire belief systems begin to crumble. The entire musical arena becomes a level playing field. There is no distinction between premium and low grade. There is only good and bad. And either can come from major labels or independent entities. The fact that they are pre-labeled as being one or the other is no pre determinant as to the quality of the content. The people consume and they get to decide.

This isn't a paradigm shift. It's a complete tearing down of the curtain to reveal what is real about music. All that is left is emotion, truth and the experience. Though having capital to invest and market in any business is critical, it's not about how much money is spent behind an act. The main criteria for success will be how audiences respond. In fact to some extent, it will be all that matters. The monetizing will happen after the fact. Not before.

So in this season of gifts and miracles and new beginnings. Give yourself this gift. Know that you are good enough. Embrace it.

Then go knock out another brick in the wall…Happy New Year!

Share on:


  1. In a recent Lefsetz email he lists things he hates starting off with
    1. Unsolicited E-Mail
    I’m not talking about spam, offers for imitation Viagra, but those bullshit e-mails from wannabe musicians imploring me to listen to their music and spread the word.
    I ain’t got the time and it’s not my job.
    We live in a pull economy. We find stuff we like and then we spread the word. Go back to your hole and do something great and let me find out about it organically, which I never will, because it’s a hell of a lot harder to write great music than to find my address and send me an e-mail.

    I think it’s an interesting other look at the “not good enough” idea. There’s no conflict with this article, but the comparison is interesting. Many people who are in positions of influence get barraged by requests to listen. They are being sent music in many genres, most of which are naturally outside of their tastes or business interest. Artists or managers who send the unsolicited emails think they’re good enough, and in many cases they are, but that’s not enough to get noticed by influential people. When I get an email from a band or artists I don’t know, it feels like work to check it out, and any perceived imperfection of the song is likely to become its defining moment. If the same artist was suggested by a friend, it would be a break from work, and I’d likely miss the imperfections and concentrate on things I enjoyed about their music.
    To sum it up: many artists are good enough, but they need to grow from their niches where they can have an influence. Top-down promotional success (being mentioned by someone of influence) feels great and is alluring, but it is fickle and unpredictable. Many artists who would be good enough for their niches if they concentrated on fans instead reach for the taste-makers, miss their chance and stay in complete obscurity without a way to monetize their art and craft.

  2. The problem with the music industry is over saturation and lack of filters. I agree there are indie artists that are far superior musically that many major label artists but they will never reach a major artist level of success due to the fact their music gets lost in a sea of crap. Or simply due to the fact they don’t have the money to spend to be played in the radio and TV which happen to be the preferred way people discover music still. Why? Because choice is limited, they don’t see 100,000 musicians competing for their attention, they see 5 or 10 and they pick from those and become their fans. Simply put people have heard so much garbage now their not willing to take the time to listen to new up and Comming bands, for one main reason, If they were good they would of made it big. At least that what they think which is off coarse wrong. But that’s the consumer mentality. And they heard so much crap they didn’t like before its hard for them to take the time to listen to things that are LIKELY in their minds to BE CRAP.

  3. As someone who works in the music industry I can say without a doubt that the reason most people’s music doesn’t reach those labeled as the taste makers or “filters” in this case is because it’s awful. Just because you can play an instrument doesn’t mean I want to listen to your band’s new EP about Betty Joe your ex-girlfriend.

  4. Hey everybody,
    Thanks for your comments (except maybe Chancius – Not sure why that’s here.)
    Chris, your observation resonates the most with me. I think the biggest problem for indies is reach, influence & impressions. Or said another way money & access.
    That’s where the majors have the advantage.
    However, I think there’s ways to fix that. It would mean building equity into how things are heard in various media channels besides online outlets ie. radio, TV etc.
    I have some thoughts on that and will share in a future blog post.
    Thanks again for taking the time,
    Charles Alexander

  5. Further to your suggestion that the good and the bad are equally likely to be found among major label output or independently: my experience (as a listener) is that major label/ industry involvement tends to push music strongly towards the latter. Notwithstanding that a lot of people like that shit (and without wishing to contradict those commenters who’ve pointed out that there’s a lot of dreadful independent music), I find it a lot easier to turn up something I like from random browsing Bandcamp or Soundcloud than by looking at the latest iTunes mailout. The reason something sells a lot and is widely consumed is not necessarily anything to do with its quality, as people are taught by consumer culture to listen in particular ways, that reward recognising the familiar and fitting the model of the implied listener… rather than actually engaging with the sounds.

  6. Charles,
    Agreed on the issues of reach, influence and impressions. The first two just take time to develop, the same way an artist’s craft develops. I feel that though technology has sped literally every aspect of music up (creation, production, distro, marketing, PR, CONSUMPTION) it still takes time, and our bearing on that has become less realistic in some ways. It could take one band a year to achieve a modicum of success, while another a decade…it’s hard not to compare experiences at times, and get frustrated when you see other acts globetrotting while you’re on the chitlins circuit.
    As far as impression, that is the hardest nut to crack right now in my opinion, really because bands and artists “grow up on camera”.
    Being that there’s access to everything, and you CAN release something, most people do, which isn’t bad, except the fact that before recent times most artists developed well before we were even remotely aware of them.
    You never get a second chance to make a first impression. With so many artists out there fighting for attention, even if you can get a click out of a potential fan, if your initial effort is not up to snuff they’re on to the next blog, stream, or free download. People generally don’t come back to check on you and your progress…and everyday they’re swamped with another 10 new bands to check out.
    Definitely beyond a new paradigm, but I still prefer it to the good ol’ days in regards to potential egalitarianism and meritocracy.

  7. To Gaetano & Oli, I agree with both your observations. Though it maybe helpful to clarify a point in the article. I wasn’t trying as hard to say that all this doesn’t take time or requires work. It takes a lot of hard work. Maybe in some ways a lot more work than in the “old” days. The problem is
    a)an unconventional impression (online/guerilla marketing etc.)is perceived to be less valuable than a TV & Radio impression just because of historical bias. And that’s an expensive impression.
    b)regardless of whether major label products are good or bad, the myth that is being perpetuated is that unless it carries the majors/RIAA imprimatur it’s not even worth considering. This is the last bastion of the majors. The illusion of “premium” just because it carries their tag.

  8. I’m all for a meritocracy. God knows I’ve seen many deserving and undeserving acts rise and fall in my 25 years in the business as a music creative. In the end it all comes back to sustainability, in terms of analyzing the dynamics of power and how individuals function within it as perveyors of the ‘goods.’ And in some ways it comes down to the somewhat insoluble combination of emotion/soul/inspiration, and commerce/entertainment. There are so many subtle forces (lateral, vertical, top-down) on these parameters that are driven by market and internal demands, much of which on a street-level is motivated by the needs of people to maintain their place in the food chain.
    One thing that is lost on many artists is the myth of entitlement. No one owes you anything. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but when you are motivated by confidence and the validation of your craft/spark by professional peers (what is disingenuously referred to as ‘paying your dues’), then you have a chance for connecting with a fanbase, which includes the humans working in the infrastructure. The same groundswell phenomenon has been much commented on by the likes of Seth Godin, Gladwell, etc.
    But this is true in any consumer driven market. Ten years ago, we didn’t have major supermarket/in-house brands selling free-range chicken, eggs, eco-cleaners, etc. Consumer awareness and choice drive markets, which is then in the hands of the monopoly-holders to adapt the market choices (electric cars, anyone?). Somehow this has been lost by the major music stakeholders/lables/establishment, in the scramble to stem the bloodletting of their historical arteries of revenue.
    At a recent music conference, I boldly introduced myself during a radio listening session and was challenged to back up my claims of ‘being that good’ by putting on a track. To my relief and surprise, the room surged with positive feedback and vocal kudos for my bravery. One small win for meritocracy.

  9. @chris
    Careful here, you are buying into a few myths
    First, there is a problem with the OLD industry. they no longer have the control nor make the money they used to make. The new industry is doing just fine (in the last three years, TuneCore Artists have sold over half a billion songs earning over a quarter billion dollars.)
    Second, 98% of what the majors released – the “filtered” music – failed..
    Third, how does music available to be found on iTunes if searched for stop Radiohead (or any artist) from selling
    Finally, there is nothing stopping you from limiting what you buy to only what the majors release – you now have your filters back. Problem solved for you. The rest of us will make decisions based on our own likes and dislikes.
    Jeff Price

  10. Charles,
    I completely understand and agree wholeheartedly. You covered a lot of ground in this piece, it’s one of the best articles I’ve seen written in recent times, and I want to thank you for it!
    It really is that ubiquitous, seemingly omnipotent co branding, and overall brand identity that is still perpetuating an old and declining paradigm…though I’m confident that with patience and resolve we’ll continue to chip away at the beast. It may be here for the long haul, but at the very least it won’t dominate as it has in the past.
    Thanks again.

  11. Hey Charles Alexander. Thanks for you reply.
    And I look forward to reading your future blog posts on this. I’m curious as to how you want to build equity.

  12. Ok Jeff here is the deal. I agree that the OLD industry doesn’t make the money it used to. But they still for the most part control or at least dominate the airwaves when it comes to radio and TV. That is just undeniable. Most artists who go on to achieve mass media success need radio and TV, which costs a lot of money.
    That is no myth that is a proven fact.
    Secondly the reason 98% of what the majors released failed went hand to hand with the amount of mass media exposure an artist had. So if they promoted a record for a couple of weeks and it didn’t become a hit they got rid of the act or simply did not become a priority. That’s why artists who had a long career sold more, because in the olden days they promoted artists longer and built a brand that lasted. In the last few years they record industry was just concerned about how much money they were going to make that quarter as opposed to nurturing artists careers for the long haul. Music is good or bad based on taste and that is subjective. Having said that a lot of independent artists DO produce music that is far superior of that of Majors, BUT WE NEVER HEAR ABOUT IT, WHY!? THEY DON’T HAVE THE MONEY TO PAY TO GET THEIR MUSIC IN FRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE. As far as you providing a distribution service and now licensing service both at a cost which MOST artists will never “recoup” since most of the artists in Tunecore according to your own statistics don’t even get the money they invested in distribution back. Specially now that you raised the fee. But thats an entirely different conversation. My guess is that from your point of view you just distribute it for a fee and its up to them to advertize and get demand for it, Which is good and well. And that’s to be expected. But the notion that just because someone puts up their music on Itunes or any service is going to get them noticed it’s ridiculous. And there is still a lot of people that believe thats the case. So they pay whatever it takes to get on their. And from your business side you want to put up anything produced by anyone regardless of quality so long as they pay you the fee! Good for you. You got a business that works. And as you say it doesn’t matter if most people don’t buy it or like it because its there for the few that DO like it. And that is also fine. This discussion its not about Tunecore. Its about a broken system. It’s about the perception of the music lover who believes that music should be free!. Its about the fact we went from spending $15 per album to 99c per song to fractions of a cent in per stream. We as independent musicians have tools to upload our music to all the right places, and tools for licensing, and tools for direct to fan promotion which I believe its the best option as far as I am concerned. But we don’t have enough curators, we don’t have filters, we don’t have access to reach millions at 1 moment in time, we have to compete for attention with millions of artists who believe they are good enough. We have to spend money creating, distributing, marketing and everything involved with the music. There is no solution for this. The ONLY company that I have seen try to do filtering is Pandora. And thats another can of worms I just opened. But it did work to some extent. As a consumer I am sick and tired of listening to the same 10 artists that play on the radio I want something better! I remember when myspace was big I went thru page after page of shitty music trying to find an artist that I liked after a few pages I said this sucks, screw it Ill just stick to what I know. So I stop trying to look for new music cause most of it SUCKED!!!! as far as I was concerned. So I just decided to stick to what I knew was good, and guess what most of them major label artists. MUSIC DISCOVERY is extremely difficult right now because the consumer who IS TRYING to find something new and exiting is overwhelmed by so many choices and must of those choices do not match their taste so they just stand back and say fuck it! This feels like work! I don’t have time for this! So I’ll stick to the artists I KNOW are good. And guess what happens the next time an independent artist approaches them on the street, at a club or in the internet, they dismiss it as. This must be another one of those shitty artists with shitty music that’s trying to annoy me with their crap! Oh and they want me to buy it huh!!! I never even listen to it and even if I did music is FREE!!! WTF! This doesn’t apply to everyone as some people do support independent artists which is awesome. But guess what too much choice can be daunting. But if I used an online radio station that played music based on my taste and only played music that was of good quality I would learned of the independent artists that HAD good music and they I would become their fan. I did this with a couple of artists I found in Jango, but inevitably jango started charging artists money to place their music on there station without filters and now its full lesser quality artists I don’t enjoy. So to conclude my point MAKE THE CONSUMERS JOB EASIER. FILTER THE STUFF THAT DOESN’T MATCH THEIR TASTE AND INTRODUCE THEM TO GOOD MUSIC THEY MAY LOVE! THEN WE COULD HAVE A MUSIC DISCOVERY SYSTEM THAT WORKS!

  13. It’s not as simple as that. There are so many fantastic artists out there who’ll never become visible on a larger scale due to a variety of reasons, the main being the lack of understanding of self-promotion.

  14. I do a weekly rock podcast and 90% of new music submitted is inappropriate for the show, mostly because of my particular taste. Maybe half of that I’d consider to be “awful”. I’ve been doing this for almost three years, and I can tell you, there are TONS of AMAZING bands out there.
    As an independent artist myself, I consider it an obligation to be part of the solution, to work to help change the world’s perception about indie art (music, film, comics, etc), rather than just focus on me, me, me and gimme, gimme, gimme. If the perception changes, we all succeed. Or at least have a much better chance of it. The way things are now, it’s almost shameful to admit one is a musician (it’s even worse to be a filmmaker). The average person sees us just like Lefsetz does (I don’t even know who that is, but I loved his email above).
    There is nothing separating the quality between corporate and DIY but a budget, and I have it proven to me every week that budget doesn’t mean shit (there are handfuls of better garage bands than The White Stripes, for example).
    If more people did this, things might change. It’ll be a long, slow recovery, but it’s time to stop the starfucking in our society. It does NOTHING for us but increase our collective negative self-perception.

Comments are closed.