Finding The Holy Grail For The New Music Business

Holy-grailGuest post by music industry veteran David Sherbow who blogs at MyMusicLife

The music business is like our Congress – full of factions who can’t work together and special interests trying to manipulate them for profit at the expense of the people they serve. I have spent forty years of my life working in virtually every aspect of the music business. I have lived and breathed the traditional music business and made a difference there…

I have been immersed for the past ten years in the digital/Internet music business. Daily, I read everything I can find on the new music business. I look at every new music business site that pops up.  Unfortunately, little if anything addresses the by far single most important issue facing the music business today: How can a new and unknown artist with great music get massive exposure, build a large mainstream audience quickly, advance into the next generation major artist category and make a lot of money?  Any person or company that solves this problem with a solid, sustainable business model will have found the holy grail of the new music business.

CopyrightOf all the artists in the world, far less than 1% have ever needed a manager or business manager, booking agent, a publishing company, a PR/social media expert, a lawyer or an accountant. Yet it seems like 95% of everything written talks about these very things that really only apply to the 1/10 of 1 % of artists that actually need to use them.  Does it really matter to the masses of middle class artists and musicians whether Taylor Swift pulls her music from Spotify? Maybe from a vicarious thrill standpoint there is. However, in reality, there are only a couple of hundred artists on the entire planet where the debate surrounding this issue might actually be helpful. I suggest that a serious discussion of how new artists can be better discovered and developed is a far better topic for debate and requires a much greater needed solution.

There seems to be a major disconnect between the old guard still running the music business and the young technologist entrepreneurs who think they can come up with a disruptive, sustainable business model for the future. It seems that if you are under 30 and have been in a band for six months or booked a show or two in college that you are an expert in the complicated ways of the music business. There have been many attempts to build websites that could make a difference but thus far all have failed or haven’t scaled enough for reasonable exits for their investors.  More often than not, they are built by people who can code but have no real understanding of the interactions required or the necessary components that make the music business really work.  Also, it is painfully obvious that Wall Street has never had a clue as to what drives real success in the music business. 

I believe the answer lies in developing a new mainstream music filter that targets the 80% of casual music listeners who are totally underserved by the Internet music business.  This new disruptive filter will be borne out of a meaningful collaboration between the existing music business factions, a better corporate sponsorship vision of the music industry, the return of key old school promotion techniques and substantial value propositions that will financially incentivize artists, trusted sources, major influencers and casual music listeners.  If you study the music industry as I do every day, you would see that slowly but surely all of these elements are coming together and will eventually evolve into the mainstream music filtration platform of the future.  The ultimate final result will be one or two places on the Internet where 80% of all new music discovery and artist development will take place.

IStock_000010267528Small.jpgThe factions with the most to gain from a successful new music filter are artists, record, management and music rights companies, trusted sources and corporate sponsors.  With the major label artist development model no longer viable because it takes way too much money to find and break a new talent, artists are desperate for an artist development funnel they can enter and end up as mainstream successes like the old days. The music industry is bleeding out financially and desperately needs to find a much better and cheaper way to find, expose and control content. If they don’t and some other person or entity develops the secret sauce, they will be doomed to be catalogue houses forever. Should artist management companies develop a successful platform to break their artists using the Internet, they will have no problem totally dismantling the major label system and leaving it in the dust.

Trusted sources need their new music opinions and critiques funneled into a system where they can truly help filter a few great choices each week or month for timely consideration by the casual listener to decide if particular new music deserves a place in their listening mainstream.  Overwhelming tyranny of choice has all but destroyed the casual listening audience’s ability to discover and champion new mainstream music. Contemporary hit, rhythmic and pop radio with half their former reach continue to be the major platforms for breaking new music almost solely fed to them by what’s left of the major label music machine.  

Sirius, Music Choice, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Deezer and Beats have never been in the mainstream new music discovery business.  YouTube is more of a freak of nature than a viable music discovery system when the occasional music video or particular artist goes viral and breaks into the mainstream.  Some labels woefully appear to pin their hopes on Twitter analytics providing them with real time trending artist data from which they can discover the next “big” thing.   The human element seems to be disappearing more and more from the A&R process every day.  Analytics can be a useful guide but will never be able to replace a “human ear” assessment of new music or find great new songs that have no real traction on the Internet.

Only a few companies like Red Bull, Toyota and Mountain Dew have made corporate dollars available for artist development and unfortunately have met with little major success. The idea of providing the unknown artist with a national platform brands these companies as “cool” in the eyes of artists and their die hard remaining 20% of music listeners.  When Internet based viable music discovery concepts come calling for support, enlightened corporations should immediately pony up sponsorship dollars. 

Major, record, artist management and rights holding companies all of whom are staring “the innovators dilemma” squarely in the face need to aggressively start funding disruptive music business platforms.  They waste millions every year on music with little profit potential. They should take some of these millions and fund any project that if successful will destroy their future lest they suffer the same fate as companies like Kodak, Xerox, Skytel and Blackberry. They should embrace the brave new music business world and finance it instead of looking for ways to minimize it at every turn. 

Imagine if all of these major music industry factions could be combined into one orderly platform serving their best interests as well as those of unknown artists trying to break through and the mass of casual music listeners needing fewer quality music selections to choose from.  If this were to happen the music world as we know it and the music business in it would be forever changed and finding the holy grail for the music business would no longer be necessary. 

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  1. “How can a new and unknown artist with great music get massive exposure, build a large mainstream audience quickly, advance into the next generation major artist category and make a lot of money?”
    Is that really the goal? Maybe – but perhaps not a realistic target for anyone unfortunately – there’s too much out there and the old ways have gone.
    What artists should be focussing on (apart from writing great tunes and playing them well) is to get a sustainable career that allows them some of the nice things in life for them and their family.
    I’ve created a social network , gig guide and directory for the live music community that ties in working original bands, live music venues and die-hard fans of live music. Please check out http://www.eatnoise.com
    It allows bands to promote their gigs for free – everywhere and anywhere they play on the planet. It ties in all their social and music media into the one place on a great looking landing page (that works like a press kit). Plus social networking to optimise engagement between fans and artists, and even the venues that support live music.
    It’s sort of like what MySpace was for bands before they went haywire. And with FB making it difficult to reach fans organically, EatNoise is it’s antithesis. All I need to do is get that critical mass for a niche live music market.
    We’re not going to see the massive bands selling millions upon millions of records – unless some draconian measures to control the internet or stop people recording albums cheaply are put in place. Do you want that?
    The future is in live music. You can’t capture that effectively – even through live recordings – sound or video. And that’s not a bad thing – in fact it’s bloody awesome!
    I’m not some young under-30 tech savvy bloke; I’ve played for years in bands you’ve never heard of, but foremost I am an avid fan of live music and love seeing great bands, particularly in smaller venues. That’s what http://www.eatnoise.com is about.
    It’s probably the only online social network that tries to get people out into the real work – to gigs! Oh wait – there’s four square, but that’s not for music.

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Sherbow, this article basically outlines the broad thoughts that anyone with anyone knowledge of the music industry could say will be the savior of the industry. I am not sure if I was just misled by the title of “Finding The Holy Grail For The New Music Business,” and I expected to read about a very specific new business model for the future of the industry, but I was let down by Mr. Sherbow’s thoughts. You said the “holy grail” lies within a “meaningful collaboration between the existing music business factors, a better corporate sponsorship visio of the music industry, the return of the key old school promotion techniques and substantial value propositions that will financially incentivize artists, trusted sources, major influences and casual music listeners,” but that is basically like saying “to be a successful actor you have to have great looks, the right team, perfect promotion and marketing, etc….” You are pointing out obvious factors that essentially mean nothing specifically. It’s almost a nice use of verbiage and obvious facts about what is currently wrong with the industry – put together in what is supposed to be “the holy grail” savior of the music industry.
    I was very surprised when you said that the number one issue in the music business today is getting unknown artists exposure, money, etc. I believe quite the opposite. While not the number one reason, I believe there is an over saturation of music from unknown artists, to the point where a new unknown artists can burst onto the success with great success, literally from being so “different” or “weird” that they were noticed for that reason (see ILOVEMAKKONEN). I definitely feel that artists today, with the right talent, can be more easily discovered and have access to making superstar amounts than ever before. Its actually baffling that you can say the number one issue is exposure and building a mainstream audience quickly, this is by far the easiest part of the industry today. The hard part is actually getting fans to listen to more than one of your songs, listen to you past the first day they hear you, and maybe eventually spend money on you. That is the number one problem in the music business today. And yes, I might be speaking from the point of view of an “under 30 year old who has been in a band for 6 months an booked a couple shows,” but me, and others like me are the leaders of the future of this industry. With that said, I definitely understand the importance of people who have been working in this industry for many years, and I agree they are integral in building the foundation for the future of the industry.
    Its also crazy for you to say “YouTube is more of a freak of nature than amiable music discovery system,” when you consider how many people today discover artists and use youtube as their number one source for casual music listening. The songs that go viral on youtube are defining the entire year of the music industry internationally as a whole – how can you say this is a “freak of nature occurrence?” I think this is a perfect problem of why the industry is where it is today, people who are in control and who have been “working in every part of the industry” are not embracing the new processes and ways of the industry. Instead of saying “YouTube is a freak of nature,” you should be talking about how it has been one of the last limbs the music industry has left as a promotional or marketing tool. Furthermore you mention how it takes way too much money to break new talent, when YouTube is out here offering a free way for both new and established artists to reach their artists instantly with whatever content artists chose.
    As I wrote my response to your article while I read through yours, I came to your conclusion and could not agree more. I feel this is what record companies should have been doing a long time, and need to start doing now. Stop wasting money on useless tactics to get people to buy records, and embrace and pour those funds into new digital based methods that are being created today.

  3. I would ask if there really is a holy grail? Or do we even want one?
    The internet has demoted the gatekeepers and now more artists have the ability to define success on their own terms and to find their own unique path there. Yes, its a work in progress. Yes it hard. So is anything worth doing.

  4. The gatekeepers are still in place. The top40 is less diverse than ever. The radio monopoly is still the strongest determinant of success, and pushes generic pablum, which the public is apparently all too happy to accept uncritically.

  5. Interesting article. It’s important to not forget the much neglected side of music, however.
    I think one of the main points here, is that the only real “holy grail” is to create exceptionally well-liked music, and then harness the powers of multiple outlets simultaneously. The problem is, the music-tech industry has only provided outlets to optimize digital content distribution, and have completely neglected it’s vital compliment – playing live.
    While the music industry is vehemently focused on sealing the “distribution” hole that’s haemorrhaging money, more and more money is being made in live music -and yet it’s still being done with pen & paper, fragmented/proprietary “secret” software, or, not done at all – as people often give up, failing to find a lucrative reason to participate. This used to happen with recorded music as well. Without the proper recording/distribution outlets 10-20 years ago, artists literally used to just stop making music altogether and lost hope it will “ever be heard.” At least we’ve solved the ability for that to happen.
    But few-and-far-between teach companies are attempting to make it easier for artists to play live; thus, the “participation” of live music (for both venues and artists) is stagnant, specifically & solely because there isn’t an easier method to take the plunge. Venues are in the complete dark about who’s who and how to optimize their processes, and up-and-coming artists are swinging blindly sending faceless emails to random bookers. It’s a mess and needs to be fixed ALONGSIDE the digital content distribution conundrum. I personally think the digital side is just fine – but along with food, we all need water. And this is where the live aspect comes into play.
    We’re making progress over at https://muzeek.com to build the best live-performance solution on the planet. We still have a ton of work to do but I think we’re moving in the right direction. Allowing for the participation of live music to work synonymously with the digital participation of distribution.

  6. My take on this is simple. Sponsorships have no place in music other than perhaps the casual sponsorship you get from Google Adwords or similar. The worst thing we can do is to go to corporate companies and get their money. It is not necessary in this day and age and against freedom for artists.
    Exposure is also a non-issue as it is easy to market your music. It costs money but if you use your common sense, you can spend money wisely and achieve great results but with the right music. You have free and paid for marketing options, with word of mouth being the goal.
    Streaming is good but consider it as a marketing channel with sugar on top and seek your big ticket item off the back of it. Ultimately there are affordable tools we all can use and the future is not so bleak.

  7. “How can a new and unknown artist with great music get massive exposure and make a lot of money?”
    This is the issue that our little startup (isongu.com) addresses head on.
    At isongU, musicians & fans
    1) impartially & repeatedly pinpoint the best songs using our proprietary multi-stage filters.
    2)These same filters act as collection points, harvesting mass reviews for these pinpoint best songs: Mass Exposure leading to song sales.
    isongU is designed to take artists from obscurity to stardom in 20 unbiased filter steps, all in a matter of days. They just need a song that’s good enough to beat all 20 filters.
    We launched just last week and the platform won’t be fully ramped up until late February 2015.

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