what will become of us all?

there have been many, many missives written over the course of the past few years about the shift – or shifts – in the music business, and how the old model is dying, how the internet and file sharing is killing the commerce component of the business, how it ain’t what it used to be, how cable or video games or satellite radio or (insert villian here) is to blame for the declining interest in music…beginning with janis ian’s excellent article the internet debacle and the excellent follow up (posted here in PDF form), and culminating with literally tens of thousands of articles, posts on industry forums like the velvet rope, and blogs all over the internet.  my two cents’ are, doubtlessly, nothing groundbreaking…and i’m relatively sure that i’m not saying anything that no one else has said before.

the one thing that i have in common with everyone whos’ pontificated on this subject, going all the way back to the original janis ian articles, is that i can see the future no more clearly than they can, and to try and do so is simply to hypothesize based on our own experiences.  and i’m not really here to do that.  i don’t have any grand solutions, no superior methodology for remaining solvent as an artist…all i know is what i see.

and what i see is both disturbing and encouraging at the same time.

right now, we seem to be at the apex of the ebb of this whole thing.  i’m sure that’s been said a few times leading up to this…but with the economy collapsing in the manner that it has, i can’t imagine things getting much worse.

i could say that every artist i work with is struggling, but i don’t know any of their individual business well enough to make that statement.  i can say, though, based on attendance at shows and the frequency of bookings, that it’s probably a safe assumption that none of us are doing as well as we were even a year ago.  personally, i’m as busy as i ever was, but i’m working with more artists, doing more session work, and still working during the day as well.  i’m lucky in the regard that i have a skill that i’m able to find a market for – but the amount that the market will bear as payment for that skill isn’t going up…in fact, it’s been flatlined for a very, very long time.

in 1982, when i was in high school, the cover band i was in made anywhere from $300 to $500 a night.  this was in the west tennessee area, twenty six years ago.  i was seventeen years old, and minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour.  in 2005, when i played my last stone road gig, the minimum wage had gone up to $5.15 an hour, and for playing our final notes together and going gently into that good night, we got…$300.00.   and, it must be said, the room sizes, the crowds, and the rural demographics were all virtually identical in the two scenarios.

and there are rooms out there who refuse, under any circumstances to pay any band more than $200.00.  there are places who will only let musicians play if they put out a tip jar, and they leave with what fortune sends their way.  then there are places where you won’t hear any music of the live variety at all.  a lot of them have been driven out of the business by PRO’s (performing rights organizations) like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC – who collect licensing fees from clubs who feature live music so that they can pay their members.  but all of this is a subject for another discussion at another time – my point is that the median rate of pay, even for cover bands, has barely moved at all in well over 25 years.  what else can you still get today that you pay the same price for as you paid 25 years ago?  can you name anything?

what that tells me – when i chew on that information for a while – is that over the period of time in question, the general perception of worth has eroded.  those footing the bill simply aren’t willing to pay any more for it than they historically have had to.

the laws of supply and demand are in play, as well…let’s say you’re a club owner or talent buyer, and you’re paying a solo acoustic act $150.00 to come play covers at your restaurant for two or three hours on a friday night and he either asks for a pay raise or becomes a problem in some other area, you can say to yourself with total confidence that you’ll find someone else willing to work for that amount – or less.  how can you be so sure?  because it’s been repeatedly proven.  when you, as a venue owner or talent buyer, are constantly faced with the fact that there are four other guys out there willing to work for less money than you’re paying someone in your current rotation, that’s a hard call to continue to make in favor of the incumbent.

so what do you, as an artist, have to bring to the table to slant the odds in your favor?

people.  a following.  loyal fans.

this is a universal truth, no matter if you’re playing covers or your own material.  if you’re not bringing people out and putting asses in the seats, your career is in trouble.  trust me, i know.  it’s the single biggest reason that you’re reading the grumblings of tom hampton, sideman and session musician and not tom hampton, singer/songwriter.  whatever talents i may or may not posess as a songwriter and vocalist were overshadowed by the talents i lacked in galvanizing the few folks who took something good away from what i did…and, as time went by, i found myself spending more time on trying to build an audience than i did actually creating something for that audience to consume.

to say that my musical life in the present day is both more rewarding and less stressful is a gross understatement…but yet again, i digress.

the question on everyones’ collective mind in this business right now seems to be centered on this one single galvanizing objective – how do you monetize your art?  for independent artists and those at the top of the food chain alike, there’s a real effort underway to strengthen the existing channels and identify new ones between artists and fans as we collectively watch many of the old ones sink beneath the waterline.

artists’ goals used to be simple – align yourself with a record company, and let them do all the work.  once you were signed, you had their muscle behind you and you’d be unstoppable.   the clout that came with signing a record deal was once worth rolling the dice and taking the chance that you’d be one of the folks who would beat the law of averages and wouldn’t get screwed out of the rights to your own work while working for pennies on the dollar and footing the entire bill for the groundwork out of your meager share of the gross earnings of your work…that is, if your work ever saw the light of day.

and yet, when those giants walked the earth, they were the gatekeepers.  if you found favor in their eyes, they could make things happen for you – you just had to be willing to sell your soul in return.

nowadays…well, nowadays, things are different.  and…interestingly, some people are having a hard time making up their minds how to feel about that.

i wouldn’t be one of them.

our landscape is no longer the same terrain once ruled by the dinosaurs – instead, it’s evolved into an ecosystem populated with thousands of smaller carnivores that all compete for the same food supply once dominated by the larger animals.  while the food supply was sufficient for a handful of the larger animals, it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the horde of smaller ones, who have had to make do with feeding on much less of the collective food supply than they would prefer…and some are definitely hungrier than others.

this is all a fancy way of saying that there are a lot of artists out there competing for a share of a dwindling audience, and that they don’t have the collective force of a major label marketing assault at their disposal to lure you in, so they have to do it on a much smaller scale – and that scale isn’t always enough to allow them to be self-sufficient, so the notion of art as a career has become secondary for many of us, out of necessity.

for me, it’s meant the choice of playing music full-time and doing without a lot of things, and forcing that same fate onto my family…or taking a day job and busting my hump, taking time off for gigs but not for vacation, staying awake a lot longer than i think my species is supposed to, and spending a lot of time in the car.  but i have people to provide for, and an addiction to feed – so i accept my fate and play the hand i’ve been dealt.  and – while i complain as much as anyone i know – i’m generally pretty happy with my life.  in fact, i’d have to say that 2008 has turned out to be a pretty phenomenal year…one of my best.

but i’m not the only person whos’ had to make these kinds of choices…and what i’m seeing, among those who travel in the same circles i do, anyway – is that there’s been a gradual thinning of the herd.  it seems as though a lot of the starry-eyed types who were in this game for a paycheck are starting to die off by attrition, and the ones who are left are the artists – the people who do this because they love it…because they can’t imagine not doing it.  the rest of the “rich and famous” crowd have discovered reality television, and they’re plying their wares there…and leaving the rest of us alone, by and large.

and those of us still here, still playing, still gigging…are seeing the new model unfold before us.

earlier in november, bob lefsetz said:

You’ve got to start making these records for yourself. Forget satisfying the system. The system is decrepit and falling apart. IF you homogenized your sound to fit radio…you’d find out that the radio in your mind has already evaporated and what is left is highly formulaic, doesn’t include many genres and is listened to fewer people than before. The story of the summer isn’t that Kid Rock had a hit without iTunes, but that after a year in the marketplace, “Rock N Roll Jesus” has sold a mere two million copies. That’s with the biggest hit of the summer! A multi-format smash!

You’re better off buying Seth Godin’s “Tribes” than reading “Billboard”. The question is, not how can you get on the radio, but how can you build your own coterie, your dedicated tribe, that will keep you alive. And how they remunerate you might not resemble any of the twentieth century business models.

Make music that satisfies you. Forget the media outlets, go directly to the consumer. Can you get people excited? If you can, they will tell other people. It is very important that you abandon old wave marketing techniques. Street teams, carpet bombing, unsolicited e-mail and MP3s… You can try these, but they don’t work, they just serve to alienate people.

Your community must drive your career. Not your label, not radio and not “Rolling Stone”. Sure, the old outlets still have some power, but it is rapidly fading. And unless you want to have a one year career, NEXT YEAR, you’re better off abandoning the old game and going your own way.

You don’t want to hear this. You want it to be easier. You want to be rescued. But there’s no government bailout for artists. You’re lucky if people steal your music. Then maybe they’ll become fans, and buy tickets to see you live.

A fan will send you e-mail, which you must answer. A fan will sign up for your tweets. A fan will befriend you on Facebook. A fan will buy your merch. T-shirts as a badge of honor. Special edition packages, books. Instead of lamenting your inability to sell CDs, construct other products that fans can buy. Even at the micro level, 100 copies of a $100 package is TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS!! In the old days, you sold a person a CD and then they were done. Your fan will buy the special package AND additional merchandise.

A fan will pick you up at the airport. A fan will let you stay at his house. A fan will bring all his friends to the show. A fan wants access. If you provide this, you’ll be stunned at what you get in return.

But you’ve got to give something in return. You can’t be aloof. You’ve got to get down into the pit with your fans. And not worry whatsoever what the mainstream media has to say about your success. Not worry if the A&R man comes to your show. Not worry about hiring a promo man to get your song on the radio.

Your goal is no longer to get paid by the label, but to get paid by your audience.

Figure it out.

everyone i know whos’ managing to stay alive in MB2.0 has figured this out, to some extent.

in a couple of weeks, i’ll accompany dan may to his second show at the maumee theatre just outside toledo, ohio – which is where i played my second show ever with the band.  it’s a historic theatre with a capacity just around 400 seats or so.  as with the last time, dan has acted as his own promoter.  he booked the room, hired the production team, struck his own ticket deal, took care of all the publicity with local press…all by himself.

the first time we played there, a little more than a year ago, we were just under two dozen seats shy of selling the room out – hundreds of miles from home, without a deal with live nation or jack utsick presents or the support of a local sponsor or radio station…dan did it all with word of mouth.

we’re doing it the same way this time, and we’ve managed to learn a lesson or two from the first run and have saved some up-front money and cut a corner or two as well…since there are concerns about whether or not we might have the same success with attendance, considering the state of the economy and the weather situation at this time of year.  dan is one of the people who were heeding lefsetz’s notions of a new music business long before the words were committed to public thought, and he’s making it work for him.

some of us have to work a little harder at it…not that it comes easily to dan, but this whole trip has a double-edged dichotomy to it.  i’ve seen acts that deserve a huge, nationwide audience playing to half a dozen people, and i’ve seen talentless hacks headlining rooms without an empty seat to be found anywhere – and the only rhyme or reason to any of it hinges on that one factor…are there people there or not?

the short period of time that i spent as a talent buyer, answering both to artists and the owner of the room, drove that lesson home once and for all.  while the owner was a genuinely passionate music lover, he had a responsibility to the venue itself to maximize the number of paying customers, otherwise it was truly difficult to make payroll, to invest back into the club, and to promote the acts on the bill.  it’s gotten harder and harder over time, as well, to separate people from their TV remotes and game consoles and get them out and into the seats for shows.

so what’s the solution?  well, in some cases, we can take the music to the homes – like we did for the final show of the idlewheel tour in october, as documented in this excerpt from craig bickhardt‘s subsequent newsletter:

Charlie and Dorothy Wade have a modest home in the blue collar neighborhoods of aptly named Union, New Jersey.  Charlie drives a rig and Dorothy plays the domestic goddess, staying home to raise their boys and cook the best Italian food north of Philly.  A couple of weekends ago Idlewheel “christened” the Wade’s basement, nicknamed the Casbah after Pete Best’s mom’s club where the Beatles debuted.  If it sounds like a cheesey gig, well, you haven’t been to this Casbah.

The Wade’s Casbah is sort of a museum.  Charlie collects records and CDs, so the basement walls are lined with shelves that hold a copy of every record you ever thought about owning back when you couldn’t download the tracks to your ipod. Many of the LP jackets and CD booklets are signed.  Then there’s the Poco memorablilia, dozens of trophies from concerts and music festivals, guitar picks, photos, and a few other rarities such as a signed copy of the Longbranch Pennywhistle LP (Google it, folks).

In the midst of all this, feeling like a bunch of teenagers preparing for that basement concert dad never let us do because the music was always too loud, Idlewheel set up to rock the joint.  There were a few comfortable sofas in the rear, and about 40 folding chairs up front for everybody else.  New York Paul brought in a small PA, and somebody set up some spotlights aimed at the “stage” end of the room.  The acoustics were perfect; a concrete floor, wooden subflooring beams in the ceiling and lots of well fed bodies to soak up the noise.

For two hours we shook the rafters and told funny stories.  The audience wasn’t shy about participation, often prompting the punch lines or going us one better with their own one-liners until the humor took up as much time as the songs.  The funniest by far was the “pirate story”, which you’ll have to drag out of Jack Sundrud some day.

We did two sets, broken up by desert– so many varieties of sweets and pies we were almost in a sugar stupor for the second set.  We gave them every song we knew and a few we didn’t, and it ended all too soon.  Miraculously, none of the neighbors called the cops on us.  There was no spilled beer on the floor, no fights broke out, nobody was shitfaced and beligerent, and not one of Charlie’s records went missing in spite of my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that everybody just take a few on their way out the door.  In short, it was a great gig.

If this is the “new music industry”, it sure beats the old one.  What’s wrong with the people reclaiming their right to a grassroots relationship with the artists they support if both artist and fan benefit tremendously?  And in a time when concert promoters, booking agents, record labels, Internet distributors, Paypal, even the guy collecting tickets at the door seem to have their hands deep in the artist’s pocket, it’s also refreshing to note that our night down in the Casbah was Idlewheel’s biggest grossing concert event of 2008 (all 8 shows)— all donations.  Just us ‘n the folks forgetting about life for a while…

-CB, November 2008

i think that, ultimately, the music business will survive…thrive, even.   i can’t tell you how or why, specifically, but the death knells have sounded before, and they’ll be sounded again.  i can say with a degree of certainty that the age of the superstar is over.  we won’t see another dylan or springsteen in our lifetimes, because the industry infrastructure that created them no longer exists.

what’s taking their place?

ask charlie and dorothy wade.

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