Print Page

Survival of the Artist

8/6/2012

 
 
 
For some, the urge to create music becomes an obsession, and ultimately fuels the notion of a lucrative career. You get a taste of success, and a dangling carrot appears. Just as you’re about to grab it, it moves, and you find yourself forever chasing after bigger and better opportunities.

It’s no secret that over the years, the music industry has changed drastically, and  this changing landscape continues to raise questions about what it takes to be a successful musician: How can artists make money? What is effective social-media engagement? Is touring crucial? What are the missed opportunities?

Electronic Musician set out for answers and enlisted help from The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, solo artist/Kickstarter queen Amanda Palmer, Chester French frontman/Spotify advisor D.A. Wallach, Glee music supervisor PJ Bloom, Linkin Park manager Ryan DeMarti, San Francisco alt rock radio leader Live 105 FM’s music director Aaron Axelsen, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, and Walk Off the Earth member/YouTube sensation Gianni Luminati.
 
  
 
“[My Twitter] engagement, even if it seems a little crazy and obsessive, is why you’re seeing those results on Kickstarter, because every single one of my followers is in turn a megaphone out to their own communities and fans.” —Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer’s new album, Theatre Is Evil, was funded through Kickstarter.
 
 
But first, some perspective from a veteran musician of nearly 30 years. “Most things that we’re going to do, all of us, are going to fail,” Coyne admits. “It’s hard to make anything work, and you don’t have very much control over it. The thing that we decided that we could control was: We knew that we could be kind; we knew that we could be generous; we knew that we could have fun. If our music succeeds, then good for us: Then we get money and people think we’re cool. But if it doesn’t succeed, we know at least we did that.”

Coyne’s positive attitude has taken him far. “We ran into so many people early on who had tough lawyers and fought their labels every step of the way,” he says. “We never wanted to do that. Sometimes things just don’t go the way you want them to, but it’s made doubly bad if things don’t succeed and you’re treating everybody like shit, you’re demanding, and then they fail anyway.”

When the Flaming Lips released “She Don’t Use Jelly,” it wasn’t an instant hit. “When it was first put out in 1993, nobody really cared about it,” Coyne admits. A year-and-a-half later, the song caught fire and was re-released. Not that Coyne and his bandmates were concerned about the song’s success. “By then, we’d already been a band for ten years, and we had made mistakes. We said, ‘We believe in our music, and if we keep believing in it, maybe someone else will, too.’” Their tenacity paid off. The band has released more than a dozen albums and participated in numerous unusual high-profile projects along the way. (The latest: breaking the Guinness World Record for “the Most Live Concerts in 24 Hours.”)

For Gianni Luminati, whose band Walk Off the Earth made the most popular cover song in the history of YouTube (their five-person/one-guitar version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”), frustration pushed him to try new things. Although it was hard work for Luminati and his bandmates to churn out visually creative covers that involve ukuleles falling from the sky and Luminati dashing through an obstacle course of instruments, it paid off. “I was sick of not getting opportunities to play shows and not having people throw me a bone,” he reveals. “I was just like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do this myself.’ It was the quickest way that I was getting a response, and people were respecting what we were doing.”
 
Meet Your Fans Coyne is equally open in his approach to social media, tweeting daily about his escapades and giving play-by-plays of events in the studio. Meanwhile, solo artist Amanda Palmer (formerly of the Dresden Dolls) gives credit to Twitter for her Kickstarter success, where she famously crowdfund a record-setting $1,192,793 this summer for her new album, Theatre Is Evil. “I can not stress enough how much Twitter changed my touring life, my business approach, my brain,” she says. “I move through my life permanently conscious of my Twitter feed. It’s not something I set aside ten minutes to do every day. I check my feed constantly and share information, links, photos, and content from the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to bed. That engagement, even if it seems a little crazy and obsessive, is why you’re seeing those results on Kickstarter, because every single one of my Twitter followers is in turn a megaphone out to their own communities and fans.”

But Palmer doesn’t overuse Twitter to self-promote. “You have to treat your relationships with your fans like a relationship with a friend,” she says. “It’s not all about taking what you need and asking for something when you want it. It’s about having an ongoing conversation and caring about and listening to the other person. If you only go to your Twitter fanbase when you want something, you’re not being a good friend. You’re being that irritating, selfish friend that no one wants to hang out with.”

Linkin Park also focuses on engaging with fans in a meaningful way. “Fans don’t want to feel like they’re having advertisements shoved in their faces all the time,” says Ryan DeMarti, the band’s manager. “When fans feel connected to an artist through channels such as Twitter, they will be more inclined to stick with them for the long haul. The best approach is to be yourself and be honest. If you are goofy, be goofy. If you support social causes, talk about them. And when you have new projects or appearances to promote, do it tastefully without blowing up your fans’ Facebook timeline or Twitter feed. It’s easy to cross the line and have all of your communications become online noise that your fans ignore.”

For Live 105’s Axelsen, engagement is all in the questions. “Facebook’s become very narcissistic, but I think it’s a great opportunity to involve your listeners in the process: ‘Hey, we’re touring in Seattle. Where should we get tacos?’ or ‘What should our design be on our band t-shirt? Here’s three of them, vote.’ Or, ‘We’re on the road. Which ten albums should we listen to?’ I think that resonates more than, “Here we are, like us. Come to our show.” I know Facebook is a global medium, but localize it. Really target the cities that you’re going to.”

Advisor for the music-streaming service Spotify and frontman of Chester French (which recently released its sophomore album, Music 4 Tngrs), D.A. Wallach allows that intense fan engagement isn’t for everyone. “What worked for me was being super-accessible and super-responsive,” he says. “But I think it’s different strokes for different folks, and people like Jack White seem to generate a lot of interest and mystique by taking a different approach in the way they deal with the Internet.”
 
“We are getting into a realm where artists are making art because they must, and if they can find a way to make money, good for them. I started to make music because I knew that I was afflicted by it. I didn’t do it,
I was not happy.” —Wayne Coyne, Flaming Lips
 
However, Pandora founder Tim Westergren says the days of artist mystique are numbered. “To survive as an artist, you have to nurture the fanbase so people literally feel responsibility to help your career along,” he says. “I don’t think the kind of arm’s length, ‘I’m a rock star’ thing is really going to work. It will work for fewer and fewer people each passing year.”

No Shortcuts! Although Walk Off the Earth has built a fanbase with consistent content on YouTube, Glee music supervisor PJ Bloom (who helped break the band Fun.), believes that being an ever-present online persona is not the sole ingredient for success. “I think what you’re talking about is a band that caught lightning in a bottle,” he says. “They made a decision to do something outside of the box and had massive success at it. But I don’t think those kinds of miraculous instances happen enough to substantiate the idea of not being a band or an artist in a traditional way.”

In other words, the time and effort you put into creating and performing music is crucial. “Anyone can say, ‘Hey Aaron, we just formed a band a week ago. Here’s our demo. Will you play it?’” Axelsen says with a laugh. “Making a band is analogous to baking a cake. If you’re going to make a good cake, you still have to put all of the ingredients into it and bake it for a f**king hour in the oven. It still takes that process. You can’t just be like, ‘Hey, we made a cake. It was in the oven for two minutes. What do you think? Taste it!”’

And here’s another reality check: You still need talent. “One of the effects of the migration of the music business online is that it’s given everyone an opportunity to participate, and the truth is that very few are good enough to be professional musicians,” Westergren says. “But just because it doesn’t work for most people is not a sign that the ecosystem is broken. When I intersect with bands and hear various stories about their success, it’s pretty clear why: They’re talented, they’re great performers, and they have charisma. When you marry that to a smart, effective use of these new DIY tools, then you’ve got the recipe for success.”

Axelsen seconds that notion. “Every artist has the ability to get his or her song on YouTube, Soundcloud, Twitter, or Bandcamp,” he says. “Gold is worth something because it’s scarce. If you can go to a vending machine, put a quarter in it, and get out a bucket of gold, that would devalue the worth of it. And that’s analogous with bands. The core of a good artist is if he or she has something to offer.”

And once you have good songs, you have to perform them—a lot. “It’s not a stale model to record and bust your ass touring. It’s still the model,” Palmer says. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a model where you just sit in your bedroom and do some stuff and some songs and wait for everyone to pay you.”

Wallach plays devil’s advocate. “Because all of the money evaporated from the music business over the past 20 years, people started to conflate the different pieces of work that as an artist you’re able to produce: social media, videos, cover songs, and whatever,” he says. “I think in the future it makes sense that there are artists who don’t even need to tour. I don’t know why you have to have a really great live show if your thing is that you’re really good at making songs in a studio or making YouTube videos covering other people’s songs.”

But for Walk Off the Earth, YouTube success actually translated to ticket sales. “Touring as a small-level band, you’re going to play in front of 50 to 100 people a night and you’ll spend a lot of money doing it,” Luminati says. “If you get an online following, that’s a lot more people you’re reaching than if you’re driving across North America playing sh*tty shows. We’re playing sold-out shows across the States to 1,000 people a night, and we’ve never played any of these towns before. I know bands that have toured ten to 15 years to be able to play for 500 people in a city, and they’ve got a lot of miles under their belt.”

Meanwhile, Palmer’s become savvy about maximizing tour profits. “It used to be that you’d have to give all your money to the clubs and promoters and give all your album sales to the label, and as long as you owned your merchandising, you’d be lucky to make your living off of t-shirts,” she says. “But I just booked 35 solo shows, each with a $5,000 guarantee, going directly through my fans. No promoter, no venue split, no booking agency. I put 35 house parties for sale on my Kickstarter, the fans banded together on Facebook, pitched in the money, picked someone’s house, and bought it. If I were to play a $5,000 show the old-school route in Chicago or name-your-city, I’d be lucky to walk away from that show with one or two grand.”

Her band Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra is also supporting her new album on a traditional club tour, and she’ll be crowd-sourcing additional musicians along the way. “In every city we’ll have used the Internet as a tool to get string players, horn players, stage hands, and we’ll put our show together locally, uniquely in every single city.”
 
“To survive as an artist, you have to nurture the fanbase so people literally feel responsibility to helpyour career along. I don’t think the kind of arm’s length, ‘I’m a rock star’ thing is really going to work.” — Pandora founder Tim Westergren
 
Building Your Team The idea of “street teams” is nothing new, but according to Palmer, musicians still underestimate fans’ willingness to help. “It’s important to create an environment in which your fans actively want to support you because then they’ll do anything for you,” she says. “Sometimes they just need to be tipped off: ‘Hey guys, this link is important. Could you please Re-tweet this and post on Facebook?’”

Westergren suggests taking it a step further and hiring a loyal fan with skills. “The artist’s primary responsibility is to put out fantastic-sounding music and put on terrific shows,” he says. “You can wind up spending way too much time on the administrative part of your career and lose the inspiration artistically. I think it’s a good idea to divide up your pie one more slice and get the help of someone who loves your band and is really good at the stuff  you don’t love to do.”

But how? “You gotta wade into your fans and get to know people,” he says. “You’d be surprised at the number of people willing to put up a hand and participate if asked,” Westergren says. “They’ll take pride in it versus viewing it as a pain in the ass, which the bass player will. Get them to put together a plan and audition for you. Then that person becomes a member of the band and gets a share. They don’t play an instrument, but they find ways to amplify what you do, and for a lot of people that’s a huge thrill.”

One online tool that’s unearthed fan generosity is Bandcamp, where you can sell or give away songs directly to fans, or allow them to pay what they want. “Every second song that we would release we would make free,” Luminati says, “but we would also allow people to make donations. Half the people were taking it for free, but the other half was donating as much as $5 for one song.”

On a larger scale, Kickstarter can fund entire projects with the help of fans, but Palmer cautions against jumping into it prematurely. “You can get everyone enthusiastic, make a lot of money, and then realize you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to deliver what you promised,” she says. “And it’s a mistake for bands to go to Kickstarter before they have anything to offer and before they have enough of a crowd to fund from. It’s not a wise idea to get your friends together and say, ‘Let’s start a band. We’ll Kickstarter a record, and then we’ll write songs and find a fanbase.’ Then they’re confused as to why their Kickstarter tanks. You can’t get everybody excited about your Kickstarter if you don’t have an everybody.”
 
 
“A lot of bands focus on the big win: ‘How do I get on Glee? How do I get on Grey’s Anatomy? There’s so much content out there right now, and all of it needs music—cable and satellite television, indie films, ads, video games, webisodes, web content. So it’s really about collecting the pennies instead of spending all your time focusing on the big win.” — Glee music supervisor PJ Bloom
 
Swimming the Revenue Stream As physical album sales have dried up, many bands turned to TV/film licensing hoping for a big payday. Bloom says bands should be realistic: “A lot of bands focus on the big win: ‘How do I get on Glee? How do I get on Grey’s Anatomy? How do I get the main title song on the next big 200-million-dollar Transformers action film?’”

Bloom suggests that bands focus on the little wins first. “People in my position are always looking for great music for little money that we can clear quickly,” he says. “There’s so much content out there right now, and all of it needs music—cable and satellite television, indie films, ads, video games, webisodes, web content. So it’s really about collecting the pennies instead of spending all your time focusing on the big win.”
 
Developing a relationship with a placement house, publisher, or label is key. “People at placement houses have the relationships with me and my peers,” Bloom says. “For us, it’s about time management. If I have a scene in a television show that I need to find a song for, I’m going to go to the placement houses because I have a shorthand with these people: We have a relationship, they know what I like, and they have a ton of content.”

Bands should also have their ducks in a row: Have songwriter splits registered, have samples cleared, be flexible with fees, respond to requests quickly, and don’t be snobbish about opportunities.

“One of the huge issues I come across all the time is people being overly sensitive to how their content is used,” Bloom says. “‘I don’t like that television show,’ or ‘I’m not a fan of horror,’ or ‘I don’t want to sell soap.’ I’ve never used a song by a band in any show, movie, or media that has damaged the band’s reputation with their fans. It never happens. And I think it’s rather arrogant of artists to think they can deny those opportunities and maintain a working relationship with the sync community.”

As for album sales, artists may still sell CDs and vinyl and collect checks from digital distributors, but many fans are now consuming music via streaming services such as Rhapsody, Rdio, and Spotify. The big debate: Artists are earning pennies on the dollar for full album streams, and it’s hindering download sales.

Wallach sees it differently. “The big transition we’re seeing is from a unit-sales world where essentially every sale of my music is a down payment on all the listening that that person will ever do to that music,” he says. “They give me 99 cents, and that’s all I ever get. If they listen to the song five times, I’ve relatively speaking made a lot of money per listen. But if they listen to it a thousand times, it’s diminishing returns. We say the artist should be paid every single time people listen to their music, and each time that payment’s going to be much smaller, but our goal is that over six months or maybe a year, the average fan listening to my music on Spotify should generate more money for me than they would have if they’d bought it. I bought Dark Side of the Moon when I was in high school for $6.99 in some discount bin, and I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. If all that listening had taken place on Spotify, I’m confident the income would exceed what Pink Floyd made from that single sale.”

Time will tell if Spotify will ever generate real income for artists, but Wallach says the service has more value than money. When Chester French went on a U.K. tour a few years ago, a couple dates were unsuccessful. If he’d known more about his audience demographics, the band might have planned their tour differently. “I can log in and see the demographics of who’s listening to our songs, down to the minute,” Wallach says. “How can we leverage that to be more strategic and targeted? If that means only playing shows in places where you have fans, that should be a net benefit to everyone in the system.”
 
 
“Touring as a small-level band, you’re going to play in front of 50 to 100 people a night and you’ll spend a lot of money doing it. If you get an online following, that’s a lot more people you’re reaching than if you’re driving across North America playing sh*tty shows.” —Gianni Luminati
 
Right now, musicians can email Spotify at artists@spotify.com to get targeting information, and the company is working on a tool for musicians to cull that information in the future. Pandora also plans to help artists with geo-targeting. “Pandora has a healthy agenda to take what’s happening on Pandora and translate it into value for musicians,” Westergren says. “We know an immense amount about people’s listening in the U.S., what they like, their zip code, and we have the ability to communicate with them. That infrastructure could be tremendously powerful for artists.”

Forging Ahead At the end of the day, most artists will never make Beyoncé-level money. “The best that you can probably hope for is something like a teacher’s salary, which is abysmal if you think about its value to society,” Coyne laments.
It’s a reality echoed by DeMarti. “Artists should not count on selling enough music to support themselves,” he says. “That does not mean they shouldn’t focus on becoming the best songwriters and performers they can be. Music is more popular than ever; people just aren’t paying for it. What music fans do pay for is to experience it live. Not only will touring make you a better band or artist, but you will build your fanbase with real fans who will hopefully stick with you through thick and thin.”

Unfortunately, booking your own tours and hiring booking agents is far from easy. “Don’t wait for everyone to help you,” Luminati says. “I spent many years trying to get people to get behind my music, to get record labels, management, and booking agents onboard. If I didn’t spend all that energy trying to do that and just did it myself like I ended up doing eventually anyways, [success] would have come a lot quicker.”

But before you make any moves, ask yourself: Do you have to make music? “We are getting into a realm where artists are making art because they must, and if they can find a way to make money, good for them,” Coyne says. “I started to make music because I knew that I was afflicted by it. I knew that if I didn’t do it, I was not happy, and I didn’t want to be alive, so for me it was either kill everybody around me or do stupid art and music. It was not because I thought I would make money. I’m doing it because if I don’t, I go crazy.”

Kylee Swenson Gordon is a writer, editor, and musician based in Oakland, CA. Her first book, Electronic Musician Presents the Recording Secrets Behind 50 Great Albums, was released last month.   Print Page