A career in live music, possible?

My last post started to examine the value of record labels in the Music 2.0 industry, but was left somewhat unfinished. Well, I won’t be finishing it today either, because there’s far too much to examine to do so in one go. I do think that labels have a continued value to artists, but it is the responsibility of labels, and musicians, to figure out exactly what each one of us can do, and what our new roles ought to be. Some things are now easier for musicians than ever. Making a recording, getting it onto iTunes, creating an awareness of their music online, all far simpler than it ever was. So simple, that a band really doesn’t need to go mortgaging their careers to a major label deal just to get those things done. Labels now have the responsibility not of making the product, but of getting it heard, sold, loved. Again, the musician also has responsibility for that, in the Music 2.0 industry, where fans demand levels of interaction with their musical idols that were unthinkable twenty years ago, it’s actually pretty demanding for the band to achieve. It’s another moment where the whole series of demands that consumers make in the Music 2.0 model seem more difficult than they should be, and are stacked in the favour of the consumer rather than the providers. Since writing my last post, I attended a really enjoyable live gig by Rob Sawyer and his band, and was well impressed by both the quality of musicianship and the stagecraft of the act. At the end of the gig, there were CDs for sale, and a healthy queue of people lining up to buy them. Clearly, there is still demand for recorded music, on CD. I’d say that some thirty or so people bought an album, at ten euros each, myself included. Quite a good result for a Wednesday night gig. Looking at the CD itself, it’s in a simple cardboard cover, the type that costs about a euro eighty or so per unit to manufacture. The gig itself was at a venue that pays around two-hundred euros per gig. There were three members of the band, plus one selling merchandise. Sawyer seems to have based himself on this stretch of French Atlantic coastline during the European summer months, and then tours his native Australia during the southern hemisphere summer. It’s a great strategy, aided by the fact that his music fits very nicely into an acoustic/roots/rock mileu that is now the soundtrack to the surf lifestyle. He’s seen his audience and he’s chasing it hard. Nevertheless, the next morning I saw him and his bassplayer emerging from a pretty ratty campervan, so it’s not a life of immense luxury. The problem is that the approach Sawyer is taking is textbook Music 2.0. Every discussion I have read about music, and how difficult it is becoming for musicians to make a decent living now that there is so much music, so little attention, and so many ways of getting it for free, includes at least one petulant voice saying that ‘recorded music is not real music anyway. Playing live and selling your merchandise to a loyal fanbase is the new way forward’. Well, it might pay for a few campervan summers for a singer in his twenties, but it won’t put food on the table when the sheer inconvenience of endless touring becomes intolerable. There is an invisible wall that can keep a band playing pubs and small festivals for its entire career. Usually it ends with one or all of the band’s members deciding that, seriously, they’re not going to be able to do this forever. That wall is based on the fact that, if you have to actually perform live to make sales, your income is restricted to the amount of punters you can physically put yourself in front of. Fine if you’re playing three stadium gigs a week to fifty-thousand or more fans, but not fine if you’re pulling in a very respectable three-hundred or so. Even filling a hall with three-hundred people is beyond the capability of most bands or acts, unless they have some sort of a professional promotional platform. The ‘buzz’ created by a live performance is not enough to deliver any significant fanbase growth without some serious legwork on social web, radio play, print media and television. This is the flaw in that other great hope of Music 2.0 – the fan-funded revenue model. If you consider for a moment the Slicethepie or PledgeMusic models of generating revenue, the invisible wall becomes more obvious. Say you need ten grand to record an album, and you have a thousand fans willing to split that cost, you’d feel pretty happy about that. Unfortunately, once the album is recorded, and your thousand loyal fans have their copy (which they were loyal enough to pay for up front, and wait for), who do you sell the rest to? Your loyal fanbase already has its product, and quite possibly does not want you to become so successful that you move beyond the small venues where they can chat to you after the gig. You have the CDs to sell at gigs, but the fans already have them. You could go back onto PledgeMusic and ask that the fans come up with the cash to help you promote and distribute the album, but, frankly, what’s in it for them? So your big hope is to make enough money out of live performances to live on. How many live performances can you do a week? How many can you actually get? How much can you charge for each? How many people at each gig will be new fans who might buy a CD? How do you get the time to compose and record new work when you’re gigging all the time? Without the additional revenue of record sales (sales that take place around the world, without you actually having to be at the point of purchase), fanbase generation from gigs is a closed circuit. Truly, if we condemn our musicians to a life where sales of recorded music are only realistically to be expected at gigs, the rate at which our favourite artists start giving up on music as a career will be astounding.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A career in live music, possible?

  1. Great article and thanks for the shout out. Just one point I’d like to make is that we have found that the average fan spends allot more using our platform than they normally would if just buying a record were the option. For example we have sent 14 bands to SXSW, funded numerous tours and 5 of our bands have now been signed to solid indie publishing and record deals.

    The main point is that 1000 fans at $10 is one equation but 1000 fans at $92 (our average) is quite another. Most of our artists raise above and beyond what they want to and so you can get a few hundred fans to make the record and a few hundred to market it. Also with label services companies springing up left right and center this can be a more than viable route to the market of your choice.

    77% of bands that have run Pledges have succeeded in hitting their financial goal and as such have gone on to make records, promote records and tour as well. It’s their choice as to wether they want to focus on the whole process of making and promoting records or involving the fans in all that they do.

    I’d say that doing a 360 deal with your fans is a better way to go than a 360 deal involving the giving away of rights, live and merch income.

    In other words you offer the fans what the band is, and not just the music that they make.

    Cheers and best
    Benji

    • Thanks for getting in touch Benji, and with good news too!

      I’m actually revving up to doing a blogpost that isn’t all doom and gloom, something along the lines of developing an ethical ‘contract’ between fans and musicians to really nail what music 2.0, or, in fact, music 3.0 can do for all involved. Services like yours are massively important to figuring out how to make the future work for artists and fans – neither of which is getting a very good deal right now in most cases.

      Part of what I wanted to do here was first establish what’s wrong with Music 2.0, and, once that’s done, move onto the hard part – figuring out how to fix it. That would need a commitment on the part of fans, especially the type of really clued-up, enthusiastic fans that would pledge money on your site. It would also need a commitment from artists too – not to go pulling exploitative stunts like $650 phonecalls (as examined in my Amanda Palmer article) or releasing shoddy, unmastered material, but in the knowledge that if they do the job properly that there are proper fans out there willing to pay for the product. Pledgemusic goes a long way towards showing that those fans really exist, and that they are logical people who understand that the deal cuts both ways. So once I’ve gotten all the whingeing done, I’ll be moving on to the building part. As I said to you on twitter, I’m impressed by your operation and think that Pledgemusic is one of the few Music 2.0 entities out there who are actually making the whole shebang actually work, rather than just seeing it as another cash cow to be milked.
      Thanks again for commenting,
      Sean.

      • Hi mate,
        Thanks for the reply and you don’t have to publish this but I don’t have an email address for you.
        I think that you are right about the fact that there needs to be a “commitment on the part of fans” but I would also say that the same need be said of the artists. Since we work with both established and up and coming you get an amazing cross section of artists who just love what they do and appreciate all that the fans have given them to get them to where they are. One example of this is that since Pledge believes in rewarding fans from the word go for their Pledge, quite often if a campaign has not met it’s target the artists will have given their fans as many as 25-30 updates. We define “updates” as unreleased tracks, live videos, rough mixes etc i.e. items for Pledgers only & also they will often fulfil things like soundcheck passes and studio visits even before the money is taken from the fans. In these scenarios the fans are engaged. They are literally getting it for free and then getting charged later. There is a bond of trust. It takes allot for some of our more old school artists to stomach this but as I always say to them: If you give fans, true fans, the ability to do the right thing they will. What has been amazing from the Pledge end is that virtually no credit cards fail and if they do first time out the fans rush to make sure that they work or choose an alternative like paypal. It’s an amazing thing to see in action and it really gives us hope. Keep up the good work mate. Let’s see if we can’t get some unbelievable music made and raise the bar on what is possible from both artists and fans and do a little good in the world at the same time. As for the Music Business? Well that can just go on and be what it want’s to be. I’d far rather be in the business of making music anyhow.
        Cheers
        Benji

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