David Byrne's Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars

 
 
What is called the music business today however is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases and that business will soon be over. But that's not bad news for music and it's certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed with all the ways to reach an audience there have never been more opportunities for artists. Where are things going? Well some people's charts look like this: There used to be a break-even point below which it was impractical to distribute a recording. With LPs and CDs there were base manufacturing costs printing costs shipping and so on. It paid — in fact it was essential — to sell in volume because that's how many of those costs got amortized. No more: Digital distribution is pretty much free. It's no cheaper per unit to distribute a million copies than a hundred. This is more or less what I lived with for many years as a member of the Talking Heads. The record company bankrolls the recording and handles the manufacturing distribution press and promotion. The artist gets a royalty percentage after all those other costs are repaid. The label in this scenario owns the copyright to the recording. Forever. There's another catch with this kind of arrangement: The typical pop star often lives in debt to their record company and a host of other entities and if they hit a dry spell they can go broke. Michael Jackson MC Hammer TLC — the danger of debt and overextension is an old story. Obviously the cost of these services along with the record company's overhead accounts for a big part of CD prices. You the buyer are paying for all those trucks those CD plants those warehouses and all that plastic. Theoretically as many of these costs go away they should no longer be charged to the consumer — or the artist. the artist does everything except well manufacture and distribute the product. Often the companies that do these kinds of deals also offer other services like marketing. But given the numbers they don't stand to make as much so their incentive here is limited. Big record labels traditionally don't make M&D deals. In this scenario the artist gets absolute creative control but it's a bigger gamble. Aimee Mann does this and it works really well for her. "A lot of artists don't realize how much more money they could make by retaining ownership and licensing directly " Mann's manager Michael Hausman told me. "If it's done properly you get paid quickly and you get paid again and again. That's a great source of income." 6. Finally at the far end of the scale is the self-distribution model where the music is self-produced self-written self-played and self-marketed. CDs are sold at gigs and through a Web site. Promotion is a MySpace page. The band buys or leases a server to handle download sales. Within the limits of what they can afford the artists have complete creative control. In practice especially for emerging artists that can mean freedom withoutArticles,Resources — a pretty abstract sort of independence. For those who plan to take their material on the road and play it live the financial constraints cut even deeper. Backup orchestras massive video screens and sets and weird high tech lights don't come cheap. Radiohead adopted this DIY model to sell In Rainbows online — and then went a step further by letting fans name their own price for the download. They weren't the first to do this — Issa (formerly known as Jane Siberry) pioneered the pay-what-you-will model a few years ago — but Radiohead's move was much higher profile. It may be less risky for them but it's a clear sign of real changes afoot. As one of Radiohead's managers Bryce Edge told me "The industry reacted like the end was nigh. They've devalued music giving it away for nothing.' Which wasn't true: We asked people to value it which is very different semantics to me." At this end of the spectrum the artist stand to receive the largest percentage of income from sales per unit — sales of anything. A larger percentage of fewer sales most likely but not always. Artists doing it for themselves can actually make more money than the massive pop star even though the sales numbers may seem minuscule by comparison. Of course not everyone is as smart as those nerdy Radiohead boys. Pete Doherty probably should not be handed the steering
wheel. These models are not absolute. They can morph and evolve. Hausman and Mann took the total DIY route at first getting money orders and sending out CDs in Express Mail envelopes; later on they licensed the records to distributors. And things change over time. In the future we will see more artists take up these various models or mix and match versions of them. For existing and emerging artists — who read about the music business going down the drain — this is actually a great time full of options and possibilities. The future of music as a career is wide open. Many who take the cash up front will never know that long-range thinking might have been wiser. Mega pop artists will still need that mighty push and marketing effort for a new release that only traditional record companies can provide. For others what we now call a record label could be replaced by a small company that funnels income and invoices from the various entities and keeps the accounts in order. A consortium of midlevel artists could make this model work. United Musicians the company that Hausman founded is one such example. I would personally advise artists to hold on to their publishing rights (well as much of them as they can). Publishing royalties are how you get paid if someone covers samples or licenses your song for a movie or commercial. This for a songwriter is your pension plan. Increasingly it's possible for artists to hold on to the copyrights for their recordings as well. This guarantees them another lucrative piece of the licensing pie and also gives them the right to exploit their work in mediums to be invented in the future — musical brain implants and the like. No single model will work for everyone. There's room for all of us. Some artists are the Coke and Pepsi of music while others are the fine wine — or the funky home-brewed moonshine. And that's fine. I like Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man." Sometimes a corporate soft drink is what you want — just not at the expense of the other thing. In the recent past it often seemed like all or nothing but maybe now we won't be forced to choose. Ultimately all these scenarios have to satisfy the same human urges: What do we need music to do? How do we visit the land in our head and the place in our heart that music takes us to? Can I get a round-trip ticket? Really isn't that what we want to buy sell trade or download? David Byrne is currently collaborating with Fatboy Slim and Brian Eno. Separately. Chart Sources: Jupiter Research Recording Industry Association of America Almighty Institute of Music Retail Wired Research www.wired.com "