The Shifting Sands

Over the past several years, there's been much talk about how the World Wide Web has democratized the music industry, allowing independent musicians to
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Spellman''s new book, Indie -Marketing Power, describes in detail methods for self‑marketing your music.

Over the past several years, there's been much talk about how the World Wide Web has democratized the music industry, allowing independent musicians to distribute and sell their own product free from the control (or “tyranny,” depending on your point of view) of the major labels. But is the do-it-yourself, or DIY, route really a viable path for a recording artist?

To help answer that question, I spoke with Peter Spellman, the director of career development at Berklee College of Music and author of several books, including the recently published Indie Marketing Power (Music Business Solutions, 2006). Spellman has put a great deal of thought into the subject of the changing music market, and DIY music marketing in particular.

How does a musician decide whether to aim for a major-label deal or to go the DIY route?

It depends on how well you tolerate not having control of your music and career. Nowadays it's both easier and more difficult to make it in the music business; there are lower barriers to entry thanks to the Internet, but there is also a lot more competition. Getting signed by a major label forces you to toe the line of the corporation, which is owned by shareholders wearing 90-day glasses. So you're putting your art into a machine that treats music like a disposable product, and you've got to be willing to handle that.

So perhaps DIY is the way to go these days?

In general, it is. And, by the way, DIY doesn't necessarily mean doing it all alone. I think that that acronym is misunderstood from time to time. As Derek Sievers of CD Baby says, “DIY really means ‘decide for yourself.’” That's the key: creative artists are increasingly moving away from the paternalism of, or wanting to be taken care of by, the record companies. Musicians no longer believe that everything is going to be hunky-dory once they get signed. They are waking up to their own creative powers.

But for those artists who are aiming for the pop-music,American Idol — type mass market, is getting a deal with a major label still the best outcome to shoot for?

If your goal is the pop mainstream, a Britney Spears — esque approach to things, then yes. Major labels are optimized for pop music. But anything outside of that, and the bigger labels tend to fumble the ball a lot; they really don't know what to do with music outside the mainstream. And often it's not even something they want to deal with, because the market for the style of music you're in might be too small. So it's not even appropriate in that situation to get signed by a major.

What about indie labels?

In general, the indies are in another realm. Of course, there's a whole spectrum of indie labels — from wannabe clones of major labels all the way down to profit-sharing models like Equity Records in Nashville, and everything else in between. Each one has to be looked at individually as to what they can actually contribute to what you're about. If you want to get signed, try to find a deal that's more of a partnership, where a label might be doing some more creative, different things than the traditional approaches.

Can you make a living off of a self-released CD — by selling it offstage and from your Web site — if you have a good following and you're talented?

I think so. Just look at the jam-band scene. Much of it is happening under the radar of the “musical industrial complex.” It's similar to the Grateful Dead tradition of a band getting a fandom going, and that fandom creating its own economy around the band. You've then got this whole support network that will allow you to do shows, sell merch, and create subscription and patronage models.

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Peter Spellman

Can you define what a patronage model is?

It's like what [indie artist] Barbara Kessler began doing a few years ago. She started something called The Singles Club — a subscription model with her fans in which they would pay her a certain amount of money each year in exchange for being the first to be able to check out her newest tracks, have access to her, and get discounts on live shows. This powerful approach isn't entirely new; it's an old model that has been reborn in a more diffused way.

That sounds somewhat like the model used by ArtistShare (www.artistshare.com), in which many behind-the-scenes aspects of the creative process become commodities that fans can purchase.

Yes, that's a similar model, too. It's kind of cool because it comes up from the fans. It reminds me of what Thomas Dolby once eloquently stated. He said, “The computer sets the music industry back 300 years.” By that he meant that it enables artists to go direct to their audience, the way they used to be able to before the arrival of technology. But it's the technology that allows us to go direct to our audience, to bypass the intermediaries, and to galvanize that audience so that they become a support network for you. So instead of one patron, like the king taking care of Mozart, you have 1,000 people sending you $50 a year.

It seems that creative types such as musicians often struggle with the business and marketing side of music.

In general, musicians and artists don't realize that they can apply their creativity to business and marketing and be very effective at it. So it's a continuous challenge, and unfortunately, not many of us got any extra training in marketing and business with our music training. Today, however, business and marketing resources are abundant.

You talk in your book about finding, and then developing, a narrow niche as a way to be successful. Can you elaborate on that idea?

Sure. A market niche is a specialization within a market. For example, a studio musician in L.A. who plays, say, primarily piano on country sessions, has created a personal niche. Or take Eric Stone — and I mention him in the book — who created Boatsongs.com. This guy took a love of music and boating and turned it into Boatsongs.com, where he sells music CDs and performances with a nautical theme. And he's done quite well. He's sold over 250,000 CDs on his own, and his audience continues to grow.

Let's aim this one right at EM readers — those musicians who compose and record their own music. What do you think is the best way for them to market their CDs?

First of all, they need to see the task before them not so much as having opportunities to sell CDs but rather to build their value in a target market over time. However they can do that is step one. And the whole plan revolves around that. Selling CDs is just a piece of it. They need to think in terms of where music is used rather than where music is sold. That little turning of the phrase can open up multiple opportunities. It gets one into the whole area of music licensing, which musicians need to begin to explore in earnest because rights management of copyrighted works is going to be on the front burner for anybody involved in creative-content production.

For example, from my own experience, one of my musical partners and I teamed up with a National Science Foundation — funded program at Boston University that was creating a film about microorganisms in pond water. They needed some music for the film part of the project. I connected with these people through a friend of Berklee. They listened to our demo, licensed some of our tracks, and it ended up being the best-paying music gig I've ever had. I'm currently looking into more education projects like that. So with my musical group, called Friend Planet, which produces experimental, improvisational, “out there” music — all instrumental — we've found a market. It's the soundtrack to microorganisms in pond water [laughs]. Who knew?

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.