May 2007


As a a follow-up to this previous post, you can read what Mr. NIN has to say about the state of things in this interview with Australia’s Herald Sun.

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 Guitar Hero screen capture

Making music for a living is hard work.  Whether we’re pitching a soft drink ad or making records, it still takes a lot out of us… though considerably more so when the client is present in the studio.

Sometimes a little Guitar Hero goes a long way when we’re in a creative rut and looking to break out of it.

I can’t be the only one totally jacked about the third installment of this fine piece of inspirational machinery… check out the list of tunes you  could be playing along with (including a bunch of ORIGINAL recordings, to boot!).

Please take the time necessary to read and understand these words. The ideas presented apply specifically to certain subjects, but extend much further into some areas we might feebly attempt to address herein. If you aren’t familiar with Andrew McKenzie, do yourself a favor and take a look.

Since I was a kid, media formats have changed, and now yet another has come into the fold: digital. Consumers by the boatload are sold on this format’s convenience. They know the quality of the audio is less, they know they won’t get much in the way of artwork, but they also know that they can take their music with them pretty much anywhere. Convenience is a value driver not used since the days of the original “boom box,” and later the walkman, in music and related advertising. Mostly, quality has always been the focus. But, times have changed.

Record labels and musicians all over the world are interested in getting their music in people’s ears, and if customers are buying into a new format, you can be sure that record labels and musicians are going to try to accommodate. It’s the basics of business. But let’s look a little deeper into the business of it, and see what’s really happening.

A record label initially determines the margins on CD sales. There are a variety of ways to approach this – packaging, limited editions, bonus material, etc. In essence, there’s room to control the perceived value in the product. Then, whether the product is sold to a distributor, retail, or directly to consumers, pricing can be based on those value points, and with smart planning, can better ensure that costs are covered, and profits are made.

With selling digital, there is not this freedom. Sale prices are determined by the digital stores (iTunes, eMusic, etc.), and royalties are paid after their expenses, sometimes leaving as little as .20 per track to go to the record label or artist. At .20 per track, selling 10 songs will get you 2 bucks. Not a lot.

Now, you might be thinking, “yeah, but I won’t have all the production costs associated with making discs.” True, but you’re not without costs. You likely paid something to record the music, you likely have produced some other marketing material to drive sales of said music, and, perhaps most importantly, there is a value to the material that you have created, a value that should be compensated for. Are you going to be able to recoup your costs on .20 per track? Good luck.

Think creatively. I’m not saying that digital is bad or useless to record labels and musicians. It’s very important to provide products and services to your customers in a way that appeals to them. But, you have to do it smart. Taking a black and white stance will only exclude you from the benefits of the other.

(this post was originally published here.)

What’s the longest amount of time you’ve spent working on music? I mean everything – writing, recording, mixing, etc. Probably more than you think. It takes time to fulfill an idea, right?

Apply this same concept to other forms: painting, illustration, design, web, copyrighting, or any creative art. Local artists sell paintings for upwards of $1,500 or more. Designers get $100 – 150 per hour.

Could you ever do that with your music?

Think very critically about your answer to this question.

One thing good managers have pushed me to do for years is study things outside of my “expertise” in order to find creative inspiration. Creativity is manifested in uncountable ways across every industry, arena, and field of interest, and if you search hard enough, you can easily find parallels between what others have done and what you are trying to do. For instance, if you’re in marketing, take an improv comedy class to learn how to adjust your message on the fly. That same improv class can help a manager deal with unexpected office problems.

In music, we tend to believe that a song is born from some sacred and magical, vaulted womb that exists somewhere within ourselves, and we are at the mother’s mercy as to when the song is allowed life. This notion, is of course, BS. But we all get trapped, consciously AND unconsciously, into this frame of mind from time to time. If we don’t “feel” it, we don’t finish it.

This is when it is extremely helpful to look outside of music for inspiration, approaches, design, construction, and whatever else goes into the creative music process. If you’re struggling with lyrics, read a book or magazine or poetry or, hell, even some marketing copy. Good writing exist everywhere. If the song can’t seem to find direction, check out a good software design blog.

I thought about this post as I was catching up on some of my favorite blog and site reading (yes, they span many industries). One blog I was turned onto recently is Your Daily Awesome. It is daily, and I assure you, it is awesome. Recently they posted four short YouTube clips called Ira Glass on Storytelling. Now, I’m biased because I firmly believe that This American Life is THE BEST show spanning ALL media, but if you do anything creative, these videos are must sees. He covers storytelling, approach, shaving the bad to make the good even better, and a whole lot of other topics that should help you the next time you are in a creative quandary.

We’re trying to bring you perspective From All Angles. Sometimes those angles happen to form outside of the music industry altogether.

Trent Reznor has posted a scathing message at nin.com after finding his Year Zero CD extravagantly priced in Australia.

Say what you want about NIN selling out after their early days on TVT (though, as I always say, it’s easy to say you’ll never sell out when no one’s making any offers), they certainly haven’t been Yes-Men for the recording industry – even after moving a few million records.

There has to be a better way for labels (especially the largest of them, multi-national corporations) to forge ahead. Gouging the frenzied fanbase of any particular band is just stupid business, a short-range scheme aimed squarely at squeezing as much water out of the towel before it’s bone dry and lifeless.

There are forward-thinking record labels out there, and they do still serve a purpose, but I am left to question what plausible reason NIN even have for being on a label any longer. They have such brand-recognition, such an installed base of loyal fans, and certainly, by now, a bankroll to rival that of all but the most obscenely wealthy of the music industry. So what, then, is the point of NIN being ‘signed’?

One of the things I’ve tried to get artists I work with to understand is that a label is merely a bank and investor, generally speaking. Artists must be concerned with building their BRAND, as well as their band, on their own these days.

Music has been completely devalued to a point that entire high school graduating classes have never paid for a CD! Artists must continue to inspire and give people a reason for supporting them, to turn listeners into fans and evangelists… the music is merely an entree to the entire scope of merchandise and fan interaction/experiences that should be offered by artists.

Clothing, jewelry, stickers, posters, photos, exclusive clubs, private fan-only events, sponsorships, vacation packages, songwriting classes or seminars, email lists, blogs, discussion groups, prizes, giveaways, surprises… all of these should be part of an artist’s business plan these days.

But none of that matters if the music isn’t worth talking about, sharing with others, insisting to your friends that they come with you to see your favorite artist at a show.

Yes, it’s shame that Universal Music Group decided they could take advantage of NIN fan loyalty and extract more of the almighty dollar out of them. It’s a shame that music has been simultaneously devalued to the point that it is right now, where free downloads are the norm, not the exception, and people would rather spend $30 on a tshirt than $10 to buy the music the tshirt is merely an advertisement for! It’s a shame that music takes a back seat to marketing and profit margins, but such is the way of big business… and believe me, music is absolutely big business these days.

So I am challenged daily to make music that has some soul, to make music that matters to someone other than the board of a corporation. Music should be by the people and for the people, and CDs priced at $29.10 USD – unless they come with a share of Universal stock (hey, there’s a creative idea!) – should never be made or marketed, bought or sold.

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