Dear Musicians: Become Your Own Middleman

Joshua-lundquistBy Joshua S. Lundquist, musician and blogger at An Incredible Waste of Time.

Finally over ten years after the music industry started freaking out about Napster and BitTorrent downloads of entire albums (a godsend for fans of old out-of-print music), there is starting to be a glimmer of hope for us artists.

In this post I am talking specifically to musicians, but for visual artists the same might also be true.

The long tail is getting longer and more populated, people are ostensibly branching off into ever more niche silos of music tastes, seeking more eclectic music and ignoring the mainstream, and the means of distribution and promotion are more streamlined than ever.

You can put up work today and sell it (as long as someone who would want it can find it).

Bloggers already know why it's a good thing to be in a niche and value a core group, a tribe of followers, but musicians still haven't totally come around to this idea enough to implement it.

In blogging the best thing you can do is make a community of fans, hopefully to get them to subscribe to your services at some point to create a sustainable source of income for yourself. We see this everywhere now online, the subscription model of business. Even iTunes ostensibly is looking into the subscription business model for its media distribution.

Pete Townshend likened iTunes to a "digital vampire" back in 2011, saying they should at least offer some of the services that record labels used to offer to "smaller" artists. However, I think "small" has it's advantages.

And if we musicians had some smarts and a little know-how, we'd realize we can do the same thing for ourselves that iTunes does "for us", but on our own. We don't need iTunes to set up a little store or a subscription service for us. We have all the tools at our disposal! We don't need middlemen to determine our worth anymore!

The relationship between iTunes and the artist is like someone offering a newspaper a service, saying "I will deliver your articles to people's email inboxes and take a cut from your profits. Oh – and I get to choose how much you charge, too, ok?"

And though I think subscriptions are a great idea because they're more sustainable, I think we artists should take this idea and run with it. What if we gave our fans something that can be monetized regularly, like access?

Why don't the artists take the means to exist as an artist completely into their own hands?

We can circumvent iTunes, Spotify and all middlemen if we want, and charge our own fans to access our content on a subscription basis. WE just have to find THEM–our fans–instead of grabbing random people who may not be as interested. This might also require questioning what exactly the role of an artist is.

Which means we can't be lazy about who our fans are, we need to get to know them. Or at least let them get to know us.

The key is in offering meaningful content, not just songs. So why aren't artists thinking in broader terms on how to make a living off of their work?

I think the answer is that after years and years of mass-production mentality –driving prices down on songs to sell as many cd's as possible–young artists, not wanting to appear entitled like the oldsters, have turned to "FREE" as their promotion approach. As if hoping to go viral.

The only flaw with this approach is that it causes not only fans to devalue what we do to a cheap commodity (who doesn't want something good for cheap, or better yet: free), but now artists themselves don't even see the real value of what they're doing.

Nobody sees the monetary value of what artists do, including artists.

The inspiration artists create from nothing and give to people, the lightning they bottle and could be getting paid for doesn't have an agreed upon price tag. Spotify says 0.003 EUR per play or 0.29 EUR per album. iTunes says it's $1.50 (I live in Japan, so it's ¥200), 70% of which artists get (minus the cost to put albums up on iTunes) so are you selling enough for this to support you?

I'm not suggesting artists complain in order to get prices raised on songs or per-play rates, in fact I think that should stop, just for the sake of our integrity. As we know, complaining won't change things, even if you're Pete Townshend.

And of course, you should focus on making great music, as Bob Lefsetz says.

So for the rest of us not on labels, or on labels so tiny that our only payment is simply having our songs pressed up on vinyl or digitally released for free, the idea of making a living from music has been vanquished to fantasy-land.

Which is a shame.

But if bloggers are able to make a living offering different kinds of value to people, then we sure as hell should be able to. With a little effort and a change in mentality, we could toss aside the middlemen and gatekeepers who value artists at .003 dollars per play.

A new approach can change things.

The tools exist, we just need to learn how to use them. Artists need to get out of the dark ages, the mentality created by the big music industry that's been lingering since the 70's. We also need to open up to our fans, to connect with them in a way that is more vulnerable, that shows them we trust them.

Music is the most powerful introduction you could make to a person, all you have to do is take the next step and, as Amanda Palmer said, figure out an answer to "How can we let them pay us for our music?" How can we ask?

So, if you're an artist putting your stuff up on Bandcamp, determining your own prices (and using the pay-what-you-want option for fans), that is a step in the right direction.

However, if you're going to be giving your music away for free on there, at least get people's email addresses in exchange. Because there are other ways to monetize, and you want to be able to tell the people who love your work how you can "let them pay."

Look at their names and realize that these are people, these are your fans. You can offer them an experience that iTunes can not profit from.

Figure out how you can form relationships with these people, maybe you will convert those fans into a steady-paying clientele. More than that, these fans could become your friends (don't tell them they used to be "clientele"), and friends are often for life. And it's scary because there's no proven way, since it's up to you now.

Joshua S. Lundquist lives in Tokyo, Japan and is a content creator at his site An Incredible Waste of Time. He also writes and records music under a few different names and hopes to be a part of a true community of like-minded artists who wish to be self-sufficient on their work and want to support each other.


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  1. I completely agree with your post – however, it seems that most of my “fans” (and I’m guilty of this too) will hear one of my songs on the radio and then go straight to iTunes or Amazon to get the track and may never visit my website. I’m happy for the sale either way, but of course I’d prefer that they would simply search for my site first and buy from me directly. Only my “hardcore” fans will take the time to go to my website, follow my posts, etc.

  2. This is a nice fantasy, but the reality is that most musicians don’t have the time, money or knowledge to produce and maintain their own website.
    The cost and relatively easy of using an aggregator such as CD Baby is relatively low (figure your first 8 or so album sales go to this cost)and you are on all these services (and a million you never heard of) at once if you want. No need to deal with WORLD wide money conversion, etc…
    The reality of it is that the overwhelming majority of people prefer to go to single one stop place (itunes or amazon, for example)to hopefully buy your music.
    I do agree that giving your music away devalues it…not only does it devalue your music, but the music and work of other trying to make a living. The current view that piracy of music is acceptable exemplifies that. But I don’t agree that “an email address” is sufficient payment for an album. Email addresses are free and really tell you nothing.
    I do agree there are tools out there to help artist be successful, much more so than in the past. But there are many problems with the entire approach presented here, at least at this time.
    We are always hoping for a better way for artists to make a sustainable living from their craft. But I am not convinced this is best at this time. We all can’t live in the wonderland of Amanda Palmer unfortunately.

  3. Chris
    I hear you, even if it isn’t the simplest way to buy music, iTunes still has that pull of familiarity and is relatively easy to purchase stuff because people are always pretty much signed in.
    So yeah, that is a problem, and maybe what Pete Townshend was all in huff about..
    One solution might be to only put ONE track, your best track, on iTunes, sign in to iTunes and leave a review where you say “if you want the rest of the album, go to my site and support me directly!”
    That’s just one idea. Anyway the hope is that those people rush to iTunes, get your song and then find your website and you engage them again there, and they eventually become hardcore fans, right?
    Definitely treat those hardcore fans well! (I assume you have a mailing list).
    Thanks for the comment, Chris!

  4. Slashntravel – I hear you and I have been thinking about this post for the past day or so. I know it may seem like a fantasy because indeed its not a reality for most yet. So it may seem to be the enthusiasm of a neophile, with a “cyber-utopian” view of how the Internet can change things for artists.
    I don’t think there’s harm in proposing fantasies or, as I call them “ideals” in an effort to spark inspiration and hopefully action. The truth is, people like convenience. Yes. Another truth is that people value inspiration and connection. So perhaps more than just a website, I am proposing a new model for monetizing the value artists create. So I don’t mean to tell artists to get off of iTunes and try this new great thing. I

  5. (continued) I do however want to reach the (few?) artists interested in new ways of doing things, who feel that the $114 in buying a domain name and hosting for a year is actually a good investment of both time and money.
    (It took me all of a few hours on a weekend to set up my site, btw)
    And I would say an email address can tell you a lot. If you email the person and get them to respond, you can hear a ton about who the people are that like your music / art. Email addresses are people. If you treat it delicately like any relationship, it becomes about more than money for music.
    And I think Amanda Palmer realizes that, that her ability to connect with people is what makes a lot of her art possible. So yes, it is a wonderland, but an attainable one.

  6. Josh, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I do sincerely hope that you and any other artist attain whatever goals they set forth to attain. I truly believe out goals are virtually the same, so it is with that idea that I read and analyzed your piece, which I applaud you for not only try to help other but sticking your neck out publicly.
    My response is for that sake of debate (which I shouldn’t have used a term like “fantasy” in my reply) because I think there are very real challenges.
    I agree that anything is possible today. And if the world does suddenly make this move (due to movers and shakers like yourself or not) that’s great. But until that happens (if at all) musicians trying to pay the rent for next month might not make it that long to see that day.
    But as mentioned, the technological tools that are out you already allow you to do what a label might do your you. Essentially by taking your proposal, YOU become your own label AND distributor. Oddly enough, even Amanda Palmer wrote that she could NOT do that and be a touring musician. She happily, at that time, signed to Roadrunner/Warner and reaped all the benefits of being on a major label who greatly expanded her fan base. It is THIS aspect that Amanda Palmer seems to completely forget…that all these fans who contribute to her lifestyle are a product of her being part of the “evil” system.
    The problem with crowdsourcing is, not every new/small artist has the luxury of being on a major label FIRST like Amanda Palmer, and able to draw on that fan base built in great part from the luxury of being associated with Warner Brothers and their machine.
    But I agree, it is possible to compete in the existing system with the tools of technology.
    I will leave it at that, because I do think it is a huge debatable topic….Best to you and all artists out there!

  7. Joshua,
    My name is Tyler and I’m an artist from Austin. I’m writing you a response to this article now a month after you posted it, because I am in need of a second opinion, and well, since your piece is one of the roots of my conundrum, the opinion ought to be yours.
    I’ll explain myself. I read this article about a month ago, and it coincided with something that I had been mulling over for several months prior. You see, we launched a kick starter to fund the pressing of our second album. We had already spent large sums out of pocket to record it, but we wanted to see if we could raise funds to press it on vinyl. As most bands do, we offered rewards packages for contributions between $10 upwards to $500. And, like most bands, what we promised to give in return was mostly resources we already had at our disposal, and little creative things we could come up with that wouldn’t break our tiny piggy bank and defeat the purpose of even doing a Kickstarter. We were successful, and I must admit I was somewhat surprised by the results. I noticed that of the 73 backers we had, which admittedly included many people we knew or had met personally, the average package chosen was anywhere between the $25-$100 level. I had always known we had a many avid supporters but I didn’t think they would go as far as to give those amounts for our art; especially not hundreds of dollars. I was so thankful.
    Ten people pledged at the $100 level. For their contribution they received the biggest box set we could muster which included the new vinyl, the new CD, hard copies of all our previous recorded work, plus a bonus CD of demos, outtakes, and live performances. Bought at a show, the package would have amounted to about to about $40. But isn’t that the spirit of crowdfunding? It’s less about what you receive than it is about joining in the struggle, helping an artist/entrepreneur’s vision become reality because you believe in it, right? At least that is what I’ve read.
    Then I stumbled upon your article, and it triggered this idea. If these members of our modest fan base were willing to show faith in our project by donating large sums to see our wish of vinyl become a reality, would they not then be interested in a direct subscription to our content? We could offer them content on a weekly basis for a monthly fee of say 4.99-the cost of a beer in downtown Austin? Suppose 10 crazy people were just intrigued enough to sign up for a month? That is a $50 operating budget. We’ve produced more with less! $50, supplemented by the cash from our day jobs that we already throw into our band each month, could give us the means to make some fine content. It could include all aspects of what we do: songs, drawings, videos. We are big fans of comic book style storytelling, and building narratives, so I would imagine some of it could come as the installment of some story arc each week that was complemented with songs, pictures, etc. It could be relevant and coinciding with upcoming shows. I set about asking for opinions. I talked to bands that had done similar things. One helpful fellow from a very successful band we know said to make sure you have the content ready a year in advance. I talked to a few people who I knew followed our music closely. Many of them said they would be interested. Some suggested they might even enjoy it.
    But, then I made what I think might have been a mistake. I decided I should ask an expert. So, in between lunch and 5th period, at the school I teach at during the day, I quickly hammered out a letter to one of my favorite blogs Ask Fan Landershttp://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2013/04/fan_landers_kickstarter_abuse.php?page=2-perhaps too quickly because she hammered me back…hard.
    After explaining to me that I shouldn’t mistake our kickstarter backers for actual fans, but instead really nice friends, she said it seemed to her that I wrongly needed others to validate what I do. She reprimanded me for wanting “bilk” my friend fans by asking them to pay each month for weekly content, which she she implied doubtfully would it be good content at all. Then, taking her advice a step further, she assessed my desire to be a working artist, suggesting that rather than trying to find a working model to sustain my art, I should spend the next year meditating about what it means to be an artist so that my dream of playing music for a living could “grow up.” She suggested I head up to Chicago and play as many free shows for nursing homes and the underserved as I could, spend less time practicing for and playing shows and more time mentoring others.(which I already do, but that’s ok she didn’t know that) Only then she said would I be able to untangle the messy association I had in my mind between success and money. The headline to the response read “Bands Abusing Kickstarter are Exploiting Fans” Her twitter link to the post said “What to do when your kickstarter goes horribly wrong.” The responses and conversations thereafter on twitter became about the ethics of Kickstarter, which was not even the main subject of my letter.
    Granted it could be argued that “nice friends” who gave us money could just be incredibly generous, but it is my opinion that most people would likely not invest $100 in a friend’s art if they did not find it somewhat valuable. I personally, would be hard pressed to even give the cursory $10 if I didn’t in some way either like the content, or at least feel the project was worthwhile, and trust me, I’m a really fucking nice guy. These are hard times, and everybody I know these days is an artist in some respect, so if I am going to throw out $100, it’s going to have to be somebody whose work I believe in.
    There are several other marks that she missed in her latte spewing analysis of me and my band but I’ll spare you my “she got the wrong guy” sob story. I just want your opinion on this content subscription idea because A.) It was this article that sparked this allegedly abusive idea in my mind and B.)I think this is a debate worth having.
    It seems that every article I read these days on indie band DIY sites, deals with the question: How does the indie artist sustain his career? How do we bypass major labels? How do we earn revenue so that we keep getting to do what we do? Not to mention along the way introducing something nice into the world. This question colors the conversations we have with fellow artists that we play with in town, tour with, and spend long nights talking with over beer and records. So, you can imagine how I might have been taken off guard by her harsh reaction. On top of that, I assumed it went without saying that we always try to put the fan first. I could open a small general store with the amount of money the band has spent on free things for the fans. Incedentally, our entire record is up for free download at our website.www.unionspecificmusic.com
    I’ve read that indie artists should look for any possible revenue stream be it be from Spotify, Itunes, Youtube, licensing royalties etc. With this direct to fan idea I wasn’t planning to milk the cow dry by taking money from friends and family in return for nothing. To me it was a practical model that would add some structure to what we already do, and a give and take relationship between us and the people who do seem to genuinely care about our success…the fans. I’m anxious to hear your thoughts. Am I a top hat wearing robber baron, or just an artist trying to figure out a way to get by in this ever changing industry?
    P.S. …And for the record, I have played a shitload of nursing home gigs in my time! They’re a fucking trip.

  8. Thanks for the reply! I am glad people are engaging in a healthy debate about this and that there need not be a bunch of “Let me tell you how it is” type of puffery, so no worries at all as per your previous comment, I am very interested in this.
    I think it’s a sign that nobody knows how it’s going to go in the future (not to give false hope), and that the definitions of what is and isn’t “indie” are also being threatened. For the more dogmatic, this may be a problem, and for those who had to work their asses off just to get a tour together to promote their band just so they could break even on cd and merchandise sales, well it means they have a new way to break even.
    Certainly there are more than enough people on Kickstarter just asking for money, and that doesn’t always work. The smartest ones will likely be the ones who get support, smartest as in they can intuit what other people feel when you ask them for a favor, and they know who their fans are.
    Yeah, that’s the thing, there are touring artists and non-touring artists, and if you are of the latter, you might need a way to engage people in a way that is as intimate as touring, that makes the relationship with your fans and makes them pledge their loyalty to you.
    Since writing this I have been researching and found things that both support: and contradict: some of what I propose above.
    I don’t mean to be an authority or even say that I have proven this to work, just that I believe now the opportunity exists for artists to make connections with fans without needing to tour, and that there is potential to monetize things other than individual songs and merch.
    The whole indie movement was founded on an ethos, and so buying music from an indie band wasn’t only about the music but about what people believed in and believed themselves to be. So I am intrigued buy the thought of artists creating a unique kind of mini-movement and ethos or if not that, then at least a sense of community and belonging for fans.
    And you’re right, Amanda Palmer probably greatly benefitted from the promotion efforts of her label, totally. She also did things like sleep on people’s couches while touring and was a pioneer the trend of artists asking fans for things, whereas now it is starting to get tenuous as some people get irritated about all the asking (see Tyler’s below comment in relation to this article: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2013/04/fan_landers_kickstarter_abuse.php)
    And she quit the label in a way and at a time when the story of an artist leaving a label had some romance to it, it was in sync with the negative sentiments artists have had about major record labels, which likely helped her career (and her Kickstarter) out even more.
    I think the thing to know is that artists have to be better at many things now–not just music. They have to be good writers (or tweeters) and super tricky about marketing, etc.
    For some artists it just comes naturally and they don’t even know their own savviness…for them it just means being yourself and taking risks.
    Thanks so much for the discussion!

  9. I don’t like the thought of giving itunes 30% when you can get 99 or 100% at your own website. But it mirrors the rate that actual record stores used to give independent artists for stocking there CDs.

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