FIG. 1: Jordan Tishler started Digital Bear Entertainment in his college dorm room and has built it into a multifaceted company that offers recording, marketing, and artist development.
Photos: Andrew Rapp
In the contracted state of today's major-label record industry, having compelling music is no longer enough to convince a record company to invest in a musical act. The band or artist must first generate enough public interest on their own to convince a label that their act is a slam dunk. That means establishing a sustainable career with a professional product, all without the help of a label's advance money, tour support, or marketing dollars.
Despite this new reality, many musicians still self-produce demos and albums in the hope that their music alone will lead them to a record deal or help them become viable as independents. In many cases, they might be better served by first working with professionals who have experience in developing artists. Such consultants, most of whom were once employed by major labels, are now making their services available to all musicians.
One such professional is Jordon Tishler (see Fig. 1). Having gained experience in the 1990s as a producer and development consultant for labels, he now heads Digital Bear Entertainment — a production, marketing, and development company for musicians. Tishler, who is chairman emeritus of the New England Section of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), grew his company from a recording studio based in his Harvard dorm room to its current multifaceted status. I've sat on panels with Tishler at several music-business conferences and found him to be quite knowledgeable. In my interview with him, he offered strong opinions about how artists should approach their careers, what mistakes indie musicians often make, and what the future of digital distribution looks like.
What is the mission of Digital Bear Entertainment?
We seek talent and music that advances the art of music while attaining popular and commercial success. The focus is artist development, music production, and licensing music for TV/film. We help artists hone their songwriting, look, stage presence, and crowd interaction, and also help plot what and when to record and how to market the recordings. For example, bands without followings shouldn't be recording full-length CDs to sell, but rather, 3-song demos to give away — a better investment in garnering new fans. Touring is essential in growing the fan base, and there are right and wrong ways to plan a tour, approach clubs, get on plush bills, etc. We help artists do it right. The exposure and revenue from placing music in sync applications [TV/film] is also important for independent artists. I started my sync-placement company, dBE.Music, after realizing how many great songs out there might not otherwise be heard. We've been really successful with several high-profile indie films this year and a soundtrack album.
How are you different from a full-service label?
I think of us as the front half. We develop, plan, record, and market. Then it's up to the band — with our coaching — to sell, tour, and do interviews. We don't provide marketing dollars, tour support, video budgets, etc. That comes from the artists. We will, however, plan and budget these efforts. Additional costs range from $10,000 to $40,000, with $20,000 being about average. When an artist is ready, we shop to labels and provide connections to management and booking agents. I believe that labels will always be necessary. If you're not a rock star, you'll need a label to become one. They can take regional success to national or international levels. Like a good P.A., they “pump up da volume.” But most people don't understand what labels really are: banks that fund risky projects that no traditional bank would consider. Furthermore, the label won't take your home or car if your album tanks. They just eat the loss. To hedge their bets, they've developed expertise in marketing. Labels have really gotten an unfair bad rap over the last decade.
How do you find artists, and what kinds of deals do you make?
Largely the old-fashioned way: demos, word of mouth, and seeing shows. I attend many music conferences annually to hear new acts and publicize our services. Of course, our Internet presence is key, and we use online services like Sonicbids and MySpace. The band has to have that “something special,” which is largely great songwriting, but also a special presence — something magnetic about the act. For acts in the early stage of development, the deals are fee-for-service consulting. For later-stage artists, we can talk points.
This photo shows the control room and vocal booth at Tishler''s Digital Bear Entertainment studios in Boston.
Where do you think digital distribution is headed?
As one who grew up with vinyl, I miss the space afforded by the packaging for really cool artwork and deep liner notes. The future distribution paradigm will need to satisfy customers' desire for both instant gratification and physical aspects of ownership. As the Internet's bandwidth grows, distribution of truly CD-quality files — not MP3 or AAC — will become standard. I don't download from iTunes, because I want high quality. Once I can get WAV files, that barrier will disappear. How I get that beautiful artwork is another matter. I suspect some interactive Web-based solution will occur where I can get a gorgeous booklet sent to me to accompany the downloaded files. Maybe there's extra revenue in that, and it certainly increases the “stickiness” of the buying experience, which is good for the artist.
What about the lack of gatekeepers?
We engineers talk about the noise floor — if it rises high enough, it ruins good takes by distracting from the performance. Similarly, with more releases than ever before, it's hard to get a good band noticed. A major label used to budget $250,000 for an initial release: half to make the album, and half to market it. Now, it's the same total amount, but 80 percent of it goes to the marketing — it costs that much more today to break through the pack. That's fine for the suits, but not so good for us creative types. It's positive that more music is being recorded, but most of it is crap that my good act has to fight through to be heard.
What are the recording-technology standards?
Many believe that you must use [Digidesign] Pro Tools if you're serious. That's BS! Digidesign makes good and widely used products, but [Steinberg] Cubase and Nuendo, [Apple] Logic, and [MOTU] Digital Performer work very well. With knowledge, all these file formats are interchangeable. As studio owners, producers, and artists, the key technological standard that we should push for is universal digital rights management (DRM). Most who copy music illegally do so because they've never really thought about the consequences to us, and therefore to them: if we can't make a living, there will be no more good music. When put that way, most change their ways. But for others, we should make sure that it isn't so easy to steal our work. I'm generally not big on government intervention, but DRM that is required to be licensed to legitimate hardware-device manufacturers would solve this problem. All our devices would play nicely together, and the DRM would only pop up its ugly head if you do something illegal. If it's seamless for the customer, we can look forward to continued sales of recorded music. Otherwise, I see sales of recordings going away along with our jobs.
What are the biggest mistakes that most self-produced, home-studio-based artists make?
The first is to self-produce. If you're a guitarist who's taken 5, 10, or 15 years to perfect your playing, why would you assume that engineers or producers wouldn't need to spend that amount of time developing their craft? Even big-time artists that self-produce didn't start that way. In terms of quality, objectivity is the key. As the writer-musician, you have none. These songs are your babies, and your passion for them drives the train. Consequently, you can't see the weaknesses or fixes. Hiring someone is the way around this. A good working relationship is about complementing each other: passion and objectivity. In terms of distribution, there are ways to get your music available to sell on the Web: CD Baby for physical media and downloads, TuneCore for downloads, Snocap for sales directly from MySpace, etc. However, the biggest mistake is thinking that having material available will drive sales. You have to drive sales. These portals just provide the means.
Where should talented artists with a decent regional fan base and a home studio focus?
Let's assume that you have done the “giveaway” demo or maybe an EP to sell cheaply. And you've booked your own shows and toured your butt off in a smelly van, and loved it. If you were smart, you've also learned to gig swap — there's a real art to that. When you're consistently pulling 100 fans to shows throughout your region — Northeast, Southwest, not just your state — and 400 fans in your hometown, it's time to talk about booking agents and making a record that will sell to fans. Headlining 400-capacity venues twice a week generates approximately $75,000 annually for a manager or agent, and that's attractive. When independent sales reach 5,000 to 10,000 units, labels will come calling.
Ravi(heyravi.com), former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson, tours the country performing, lecturing, and conducting guitar clinics. He writes for several magazines, and Simon & Schuster published his tour journal.