Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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The music industry is alive and well - and being financed by the musicians

Album cover for Two Door Cinema Club's 'Beacon'

So Two Door Cinema Club’s album has leaked. The band’s singer Alex Trimble has written fans a message about this, and, like David Lowery’s recent rant at an intern regarding the topic of illegal downloading, it’s been doing the rounds online. I much prefer Trimble’s more gentle, thoughtful (and pleaful) take on the situation than Lowery’s; but regardless of tone, both pieces add to the sense of a music industry in deep crisis and a bunch of suffering musicians getting ripped off by their listeners.

However I’ve got a hunch that the music industry’s probably doing fine…and, in a sense, probably generating as much, if not more, dosh than ever before.

“What is that mad Irishman talking about?” I hear you cry. Well, I think of the music industry as something different to the record industry. The record industry – individuals and companies manufacturing and selling records – is generally screwed, because the digital revolution has led to a situation where recorded music has been reduced to a set of ridiculously-easy-to-copy files. However, the same digital revolution has also led to an enormous explosion in the number of bands that are actually in a position to record, distribute and promote music; this means that the music industry – which I think of as all the people, products and services generating revenue as a result of music-making, not just CDs and MP3s – has a much bigger customer base than ever before. This customer base is not the music-purchasing public though – it’s the musicians who, in most cases, are no longer the people generating income from music, but the people financing this industry.

There have always been thousands of bands all over the world that have wanted to make records. However, until about a decade ago, when advances in technology started to put ridiculously good recording equipment in the hands of musicians, release-quality recorded music was expensive to produce and very difficult to distribute, meaning that only bands with a significant budget (those who were signed or had investors) generally got to put out records. However, these days, every Tom, Dick and Harry has an album up their sleeve, because they a) simply bought a laptop and an audio interface and recorded it on that, or b) availed of studio time that is now much cheaper than it used to be (due to studios having to compete with the aforementioned laptop and audio interface). As for distribution, getting an album into the ears of a (theoretically) global audience is now incredibly cheap and easy thanks to the likes of iTunes, Spotify and so on. 

What does this mean? A huge increase in the number of bands releasing albums. However, most bands – understandably – are reluctant to pour their hearts and souls into recording an opus only for it to only ever be played by their mums. So they start to buy services that might give the album a chance to reach the great unwashed. Graphic design. Manufacture. Photography. Web design. Web hosting. E-newsletter design. Public relations. Radio pluggers. Printing of posters. Distribution of posters. Online advertising. Digital distribution. Venue hire. Smoke machine. Hairy sound guy…the list goes on. Generally speaking, all the above services come with a price tag, and thanks to the explosion in the number of bands releasing music independently, a big “DIY-release” market has developed as a result, packed full of companies, consultants and freelancers catering to the 'needs' of the DIY musician (not to mention a whole load of pro-audio equipment vendors selling gear that promises to make your record sound like it was recorded at Abbey Road).

And here is where the opportunity for musicians to get ripped off really lies. For the vast majority of self-releasing musicians, the whole ‘some bastard downloaded my album for free’ argument is a bit of a sideshow. (In fact, independent musicians are generally delighted when somebody downloads their album illegally, because it hints at the fact that somebody somewhere actually likes their music). No, the opportunity to get properly robbed arrives when bands start to purchase the ‘DIY-release’ style services I mentioned earlier.

The problem is – and I speak from personal experience here – that bands are not like normal customers of goods and services. For most musicians – certainly those without children – their music is their baby. They don’t think rationally about it. They love it so much that they are prepared to spend whatever it takes (or whatever they have) to help it succeed in that big bad music-filled world out there. They ignore the fact that people are not buying music in the droves that they used to, and that there are probably more artists flogging music than ever before. The idea of a return on an investment doesn’t figure in their thinking at all, and many artists releasing albums now don’t have any management, meaning there is nobody in the background to say ‘whoa, don’t spend all that cash on putting together a triple disc limited edition vinyl press of your concept album about beans’.

This generally results in musicians making four big mistakes: 

  1. They don't set a strict-enough budget or consider the fact that they need to actually sell X number of records to make their money back
  2. They don’t shop around for the best deals on the things they do need (if they actually know, of course, what these things are)
  3. They invest in things they absolutely don’t need (over-the-top packaging; posters; narcotics for the A&Rs who are unlikely to attend the launch party anyway)
  4. They hire unscrupulous, snake-oil-salesmen who operate out of a glorified shed in a field north of London promising fame and fortune to artists in the form of a £1,500 per month ‘reputation management’ arrangement

I’ve made all of these mistakes in my time; but in hindsight I don’t think I would have made them had I grasped the importance of the ‘record industry’ / ‘music industry’ distinction I discussed earlier. If musicians understand that the record industry is dying on its arse, and that the notion of people paying for recordings is becoming increasingly quaint (whatever we feel about the moral implications of that), it forces them to think more creatively about how to monetise their music rather than simply hoping millions of people will buy their next album. And if artists understand that the ‘music industry’ is increasingly about servicing a market of DIY-musicians with products and services that may or may not result in album sales, it might encourage them to think in a more business-like way, decide what actually might generate a return on an investment, work with the right people or agencies and crucially, avoid the snake-oil salesmen – or at the very least, ask some probing questions about the snake oil.

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