Making music for a living is the dream of many ambitious young adults with a mild case of talent, some time on their hands and with the dream of fame and fortune as the engine. Do some gigs, record albums, sell them and engulf yourself in the adulation that is rightfully yours. Not easy, but worth a shot if you’re ambitious enough. Central was always the record. Every band, every artist needed one. It was the vehicle on the road to stardom.
But nowadays record sales have plummeted to all time lows. Spotify, YouTube and illegal downloads have made making money off of cd’s hard if not impossible .The haystack of available music through Internet and Itunes is bound to obscure your beautiful and expensive needle. The very few ‘lucky’ bands and artists that do get signed, only get a 360 degree contract. Their biggest money maker is t-shirts and other forms of merchandising; not records.
Musicians have to rethink why they are doing what they’re doing.
Does making records still make sense?
A Brief History
We sometimes forget that making money with music is a relatively recent development, meaning only about a century old. In the Western World before the 20th century, earning your keep with music was the prerogative of a very small elite class (classical music) or the hobo outcast (folk music). To perform music was the only way to make money for musicians, aside from distributing compositions on paper.
Because of this music was primarily “local.” If you wanted to hear music you went to the local juke joint or to church on Sunday. If you wanted to learn how to play yourself, your teacher was the local stable hand with a beat up six string or the preacher. Your reach as a performing musician was limited to where you could travel.
Radio and records changed all of that. Radio has only been around since the early 20th century and records were invented around 1920. Both had a huge impact on the availability of music. Radio was a new way to sell washing powder door to door, interrupted by Presidential speeches, Opera and easy to digest Louis Armstrong.
Records made it possible to hear music without the actual orchestra, band or artist being present.
Records also made it easier to learn about music from other areas of the country and music from other cultures. The ‘local’ aspect was removed, which also made it easier to study non-local music styles and learn how to play them.
Contrary to the tall tale of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, he probably learned to play from records; just like we do nowadays. The tale is just plain old marketing savvy. Records became an almost overnight hit. Blues and other forms of folk music are largely responsible for the success of the 78 record.
Through 78’s it was possible to hear music that was not mainstream. Many up-to-then obscure local artists “profited” from this new mass medium. That is: the record companies and producers profited. Most artists remained poor until the recording ban of the mid 40’s.
Artists went on strike to get their fair share in the shape of royalties, i.e. a percentage of sales.
Putting musicians on stage and rewarding them for their ability to entertain us is a thing of all times. Records and royalties provided a new business model for aspiring musicians, promoters and retailers. Recording an album became a way to capitalize on “live” success for the mildly popular artist.
The rise of the middle class in the last century gave birth to a another new phenomenon: spare time.
Time that’s not needed for hunting and gathering. Time we can devote to plucking strings, blowing horns and yodeling. Compliments of family members and the odd filling of the tip jar would suggest that there are fortunes to be made and fame to be had. Why not give it a shot? Why not record an album?
For a short period of time getting a record deal looked like the way to go for a musician in search of a career.
The music industry actually became a somewhat viable career option from the mid 50’s to end of the 90’s. For a musician this meant making lp’s/cd’s and selling them to pay your bills.The gig became a means to support and promote the sales of records.
The advent of the internet, downloading and the sheer mass of bands and artists that produce records (spare time!) has killed this business model. Aside from niche music and middle of the road sing-along’s there is no money in selling records anymore, whatever form they may have (LP, CD, MP3). Music as reverberating air is going the way of regular air. It’s everywhere, so it’s gotta be free, right? If nobody pays you and you’re invisible, you don’t have a career. Or…you adjust to the new reality and make it work for you.
So Now What
There is no use crying over spilt milk. The rapid developments in the music business force an artist to go with the flow and be creative with challenges and opportunities. Records (as in CD’s) have now become a marketing tool or a piece of l’art pour l’art. And this development is not a bad thing per sé. Many artists and bands taking aim at our wallets have found out the hard way that easy money is a thing of the past. Many sacrificed artistry and avoided originality all for the mighty buck and “look-at-me-look-at-me.” They let their creative output be influenced by record producers and managers.
They sold out.
When you take out the middle man and produce and distribute directly to your fan base you can shape the product in any way you want it to.Taking money out of the music creation process means you have your freedom back to do just that. Which puts the focus back on where it needs to be: writing, playing and recording good music.
For many musicians these new developments mean going back to “local”; just for family & friends at the corner bar. Others will reach their own niche, through Soundcloud, Facebook, and YouTube friends scattered across the globe. A creative use of new tools like a band website, email-marketing and Twitter can widen your audience by targeting groups of people that are open to your style of music; not just the general market. There are tons of specialized internet radio stations, you can create Podcasts and quirky music videos on Vimeo to support your music, there are loads of internet music magazines, etc. And if the bass player gets married and gets off the road, well then, it’s easier to find a replacement by searching the net.
Ten Reasons to Make Records
To Get the Gig
Nobody will hire a band or a solo artist unheard. When you go to the corner bar to do some person-to-person sales, there is no replacement for immediacy. You hand the booker the CD, he pops it in and you can make your pitch. Other forms of selling are less direct and require more technology (YouTube, Spotify, download cards, mp3 through website, etc.).
To Become a Better Player
There is NO substitute to recording yourself and listen back to what/how you played. You have listened to tens of thousands of hours of music and know what sounds good and what sounds s#!77y, or well…not so good. Finishing it off into a piece of hardware, labeling it and putting a wrapper around it forces you to say “I’m done, this is it, this is who I am at this particular point of time”.
To Make Money
Think small! CD-R’s have become dirt cheap, you can print your own labels and sleeves. Nowadays you can buy excellent recording equipement and mics for a song and a dance. Mixing and mastering is not rocket science and can be learned through YouTube instructionals. With some standard computer hardware at home you can create a CD for less than $3 including sleeve.
To Interact with Your Audience
Selling a physical CD at the gig gives fans a great way to interact with you. It gives them a reason to come and talk to you, share their enthousiasm and give you well meant tips. Follow-up gigs are easier to nail down with a CD in hand.
An mp3 is compressed audio. Although most streaming services, iTunes et al have recently raised the quality of the mp3’s (less compression, bigger files), there is nothing like the real thing. Most listeners will barely notice the difference when music is played back through small earbuds. But in a car- or home stereo system you will hear the better quality of a physical CD.
For the Liner Notes
Mp3’s don’t have a sleeve or a cover. There’s no room for credits, liner notes, dedications, background stories, lyrics, art work or thank-you’s.
For the Whole Story
An album has roughly the duration of one set; somewhere between 10 and 15 songs, lasting between 40 minutes and an hour. Most musicians stories last longer than one song. There’s buildup- songs, there’s the climax, the hit and the cooldown tunes
To Have a Business Card
By having a physical CD you show your audience, bookers, promoters and radio dj’s that you took the effort. It ligitimizes your business and shows you are committed to your music and take it seriously.
To Create a Snapshot Diary of Your Musical Life
Only people at the gig remember the gig. Over time that memory will fade. You will forget the fun, the disasters, your stellar solo, the time you quieted the rough and beer throwing crowd with the sensitive ballad, the long and exhausting trip back home in the back of the van, the time you…Your prize cabinet needs to be filled with records and recordings. Don’t forget to take pictures and videos too.
To Share and Be Heard
This is your life, leave a footprint! When you record and send it out into the world you will be heard. I’m sure your music will be found by someone who’s day you’ve just made a little lighter.