Music Business

Do artists know enough about the music business?

Keith Jopling, aka The Song Sommelier, dives into whether or not the average artist is informed enough about the industry’s business side as he preps Season 8 of the popular podcast.

by Keith Jopling of THE SONG SOMMELIER

It is common knowledge that artists haven’t always been treated well by the music business, particularly when it comes to contracts and commercial terms. And the rest. There are plenty of horror stories about bad deals and shabby, ulterior or questionable motives of those in executive positions. Of course, there is a flip side and many artists remain eternally grateful for the work done by their labels, managers and publishers. 

It’s also true that artists these days are much more informed, savvy and proactive about the business side of the equation, and that the balance of power has tipped in their favour. Well, partly it has. The topic of remuneration from recordings in the streaming era remains an unsolvable and out of reach problem for music artists. Right now, a dollar or two on the price of a music subscription or experiments with “artist centric” payment models are not exactly game changers.

The writers and actors strikes in the USA appear to demonstrate a far more direct and powerful force in the film industry than the Musicians Union could hope to galvanise against the might of music’s distribution infrastructure.

Again, old news. 

But is part of the problem a collective, historical failure by musicians to understand the business they are in? If that was the case, it almost certainly isn’t now. Artists know their business extremely well for the most part – in many cases better than executives do. This is because they know their fans, just as a good brand might know its customers. 

A couple of years ago I set out to talk to artists – famous ones – about the music business. About music of course, but also about money, formats, fans and the expectations they have from their partners – managers, publishers, labels, lawyers. We touch on these subjects on The Art of Longevity – and usually its artists that bring it up! Or, a simple question like “what has streaming done for you?” will glean all manner of interesting responses. 

Take Corey Taylor, who we interviewed for the 50th episode. 

The metal renaissance man and purveyor of no less than three music projects of sustained commercial success (Slipknot, Stone Sour and the CMF himself!) was well aware of the recent streaming rates (in the USA) increased by the Copyright Royalty Board. He knew immediately that streaming had benefited the metal genre by making it easier to find, yet is partly responsible for taking away the livelihood of metal musicians through pushing the genre into the hinterlands, compared with pop music. He also knows another distribution system will replace the current one, eventually. The CMF knows his shit when it comes to the music business! In that regard, he is not exceptional (in almost every other regard he most definitely is). 

Over & over, through 50 in-depth conversations, I’ve found artists to be articulate, informed and often ahead in their thinking about the business side of music. Of course, any artist should know about the structure of the music biz. They should know the basics of copyright and how to read a royalty statement (and how to make sure they actually have one). 

But my guests on the Art of Longevity have shown real insights and wisdom about understanding fans, marketing and of course, creators’ somewhat diminished position in the music industry value chain. They get it. And they want to fix it. 

If I could leave a legacy in the business, it would be to play a role in seeing artist-centric models fly. What the hell does that mean? It means that the next generation of music legends will have a chance of becoming just that – legends. Even if their legend is a quieter, more subtle version than that we’ve had so far. 

As we prepare for Season 8, here is a short summary of what has impressed me most about what artists really know about the music business from those first 50 conversations:

  1. That real success is making fans happy, recognition from peers (and ticket sales would be nice). Those come above chart positions, awards and streaming counts. 
  2. That direct-to-fan makes money and makes you feel good, removing the barriers between you and your fans is a worthwhile endeavour. 
  3. That you should always have a close inner circle. They will keep you grounded. And staying grounded is key to longevity and making a living from what you love. 
  4. Labels are important, still. Don’t let your label off the hook, but keep your expectations about what a record deal will deliver in check. 
  5. Streaming is a double-edged sword. It is more of a promotion than a paycheck. Embrace it, don’t chase it. 
  6. Engaging with marketing and promotion will help your career, not hinder it. Marketing and promotion are not dirty words. If you want to enjoy them more, get involved and be more choosy about what you decide to do – and then do it well. 
  7. Artists who network, pay attention to industry trends, and collaborate with other experienced artists have a better understanding of how the business works and can learn from sharing experiences and mistakes.
  8. One music project is not enough to make a good living. Being in a band might mean being in two bands, a solo career, a side hustle. Multi-task your way to longevity!

Quite a few industry executives and journalists told me that artists wouldn’t want to talk about the business side of music. Some don’t, but most absolutely do. All they need is a safe and comfortable place to do so. Some artists are naturally curious and interested in the business side of their careers, while others may prioritize their creative work and delegate business tasks to others. But all the guests have demonstrated impressive business savvy.

After all, the artists are the ones at the sharp end. They’re the ones who pay our salaries and fund our music ventures too, one way or another. 

Season 8 of The Art of Longevity begins shortly. 

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