Musicians, Business, and The Music Business

Money, glitz, and glamour have never been a good substitute for actual talent and class. Never. It’s possible to sink a lot of money into promotion and distribution, and a lot of acts get a short ride, but I’ve never seen a music business alchemist who can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

I played my first paying gig in 1972, the summer I turned 16. Back then it really was all about the music. In those few years after Woodstock and before Watergate, the Age of Aquarius was peaking. Musicians and producers and engineers and promoters had developed some wonderful technologies that made some great things possible: Stadium tours, 16-track recording, synthesizers and electronic music, and an array of new brands of instruments that were greatly improved over the ones that had been available in the ‘60s.

Looking back, I see that the people I looked up to were interested in artistry. Sure, there were some who were only in it for the money—but they were easily recognized. The early ‘70s were still very much about sharing, working together, improving standards, and mutual respect. Another great thing about those times was that musical genres didn’t have to remain separate. It was common to see concerts that included folk, pop, and rock acts all on the same bill. You didn’t go to hear one type of music; you went to hear good musicians playing good music, and playing it expertly.

Fast-forward to the ‘90s. Things changed. A lot. The world grew up, and technology was zooming along, the Space Age having given way to the Information Age. Technology and economies began to influence music and the music business in new ways. Not only was it possible for millions of people to start recording at home; it was also possible for most of them to market their products on their own. Although an abundance of mediocre music began to circulate, some great musicians, notably Ani DiFranco, began successful careers as do-it-yourselfers.

Since that time, information technology and the economy continued to influence musicians, but in an interesting way. There has never been a more important time to be self-sufficient and knowledgeable about business. Along with that truism it is also a fact that it’s relatively easy to promote and distribute just about any idea, information, or product using the internet. There is a small number of great musicians who are doing just that, in conventional and unconventional ways. The flipside of this terrific coin is that when success happens, the formula is transparent—very easy to see, and hundreds of musicians will attempt to duplicate it.

When the copycats start doing their thing, music suffers because they’ve put their focus on selling, earning, and fame. That’s not music, and that’s not art.

I hear lots of musicians promoting themselves these days, but their conversation is littered with talk about markets and demographics and statistics. They talk about who they want to sound like and sell to. They seem to be knowledgeable about business. What they talk much less about is the emotion behind the music. The life experience that connects with their musical experience. The music itself. They sound much more like executives rather than talented people who have something to say.

Note that these musicians are not “selling out.” Selling out, by definition, happens after a musician or group has become hugely successful. Selling out is merely duplicating a formula for the purpose of earning another boatload of money. Selling out isn’t hard to do—but initial success is impossible to predict and no professional knows when or even if they will ever get to the Big Time.

There’s another problem with approaching the music business while putting the Music in the back seat. Money, glitz, and glamour have never been a good substitute for actual talent and class. Never. It’s possible to sink a lot of money into promotion and distribution, and a lot of acts get a short ride, but I’ve never seen a music business alchemist who can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

And as long as I’m on a roll, let me be one of the very few who will denounce Open Mic Nights for what they really are: a huge rip-off of musicians. Open mic nights can be hugely popular and successful, but if we’re measuring success in terms of money, who gets paid? The proprietors. They provide space (notice I don’t say “stage”), a sound system, and sometimes even a producer. The musicians provide whatever talent they bring, plus paying customers. The performing musicians even buy their own food and drink. Let me ask you again: Who gets paid on open mic night? Or more to the point, who’s working for free?

The Music Business in the 2000s has cut to the chase: how many butts can you put on barstools? Most of the bookers and promoters I meet aren’t interested in musicians and music. That doesn’t surprise me, but it’s disappointing to see it at the local level. I would expect that from concert hall and stadium promoters. In my own community, that kind of selfish, faceless treatment is a bitter pill to swallow.

I don’t know where the Music Business will end up years from now. But just as surely as cream can rise, mediocrity fails. Money will continue to pour in from marginally talented players, and thousands of sincere, talented artists will go unnoticed by the masses. It reminds me of the old joke: “How do you become a millionaire in the music business? Start with two million.”