As we enter into 2016, my reflection on the current state of the music business began in my mind, as it typically does, as a tirade against the major record labels (now down to “The Big Three”) and the archaic structures and business models that perpetuate them. But that feels like a tired old argument. While the Internet has spawned illegal downloads, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify that pay musicians next to nothing in royalties and the almighty Shazam (which has somehow morphed overnight from music discovery tool to kingmaker), it has also spawned powerful social media platforms and potentially lucrative grassroots crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and Patreon.
For every seemingly insurmountable mountain in the treacherous modern-day music biz, there’s now a curious new wormhole that, if stepped into properly with purpose, can launch an enterprising indie band into their very own parallel universe of direct artist-to-fan reciprocity, happy customers and a steady income. This allows a musician or band, regardless of what level they’re at, to operate outside of the traditional music industry. It takes determination and hard work, but there are plenty of musicians who have proven that it’s possible.
Meet Amanda Palmer, The Crowdfunding Queen
There is perhaps no one more adept at the concept of direct-to-fan marketing than sometimes Boston-based Amanda Palmer. With a background in street performing (she busked in Harvard Square as “The Eight Foot Bride”) and alternative rock/punk cabaret (The Dresden Dolls, Evelyn Evelyn and as a solo artist), she’s lived the life of a D.I.Y. artist to the fullest, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding long before Kickstarter. After an ugly split from her major label, she decided in 2012 to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance her album, Theatre Is Evil. The campaign ended up raising $1,192,793 with 24,883 backers. At the time, it was the most successful musical project ever on Kickstarter. This extraordinary success, thanks to her rabidly loyal fanbase, added to her public profile and got her invited to deliver a TED talk in 2013. This then led to her memoir and indie musician how-to primer, Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, which was published in 2014.
Amanda has had her detractors. There are people who see her as an opportunist, a narcissist, an exhibitionist, as overly ambitious, as a “phony” taking advantage of her fans. They refer to her Kickstarter campaign as “digital panhandling.” I can’t help wondering if the same criticisms would be leveled against a male artist. Let’s face it — women are still not allowed to be ambitious, strong, savvy marketers, and that’s in any line of work, not just entertainment. As for being a phony, I’ll just say this — Amanda Palmer is one of just a small handful of musicians whose songs can bring actual tears to my eyes (“Ampersand” will forever turn me into a sobbing mess every time I hear it). There’s also no denying that she’s as rabidly devoted to her fans as they are to her. If you’re a cynical person by nature, you might say that it’s all calculated, but I can’t imagine anyone sharing as much personal information and inviting strangers into their life as she has. If it’s all an act, that’s quite an act.
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Though The Art of Asking was published back in 2014, I’ve only just read it now and in fact, finished the last page just a minute shy of midnight last night, on New Year’s Eve, with just enough time to walk calmly into my living room after having a major epiphany, turn on the TV and watch the ball drop in Times Square.
The Last Three Titans and the Crumbling Kingdom
According to Nielson SoundScan’s 2012 report, the three remaining major record companies of the once “Big Six” now control 88.5% of the global music market (sales of CDs, music videos and MP3s). That would be Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. In the age of the Internet, with rampant illegal downloading, music sharing on social media and the popularity of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, sales, even of MP3s, have steadily decreased. There is no doubt that this is what has led to the current climate of label desperation, in their last-gasp efforts to maintain big profits.
This desperation has created, as I see it, an adversarial relationship between the artist and their fans. At the very least, these corporations, through their own petty financial fears and insecurities over losing their market stronghold (which began a long time ago), have bred a culture of distrust. Fans are viewed by these conglomerates much the same way that I see the squirrels in my backyard — running off with the goods (or the bird food) without so much as a “how do you do.” It then becomes the sole sales strategy of the label to find a way to force music consumers to pay for their music and punish them when they don’t, rather than trying to develop new business models and marketing strategies that adapt to the changing environment and cater to the specific tastes of each artist’s fanbase.
The music industry “old guard” has also set requirements for musicians that are so unrealistic and myopic that all but a small handful of top earners churning out mainstream dreck are destined to fall short. This includes expected sales figures, radio airplay, Shazam numbers and other metrics, demographics and analytics — while dismissing old-fashioned ideas of community building and consumer loyalty.
The Shazam Factor
Shazam is an especially disturbing trend. What made its debut as an iPhone application in 2008 has gone from software that identifies a piece of music to a deciding factor if your band gets on the radio or gets booked by a promoter for a show in a particular region. This iPhone app is now shaping the music industry — and not in a good way. Though not originally intended for this purpose, radio station programmers and concert promoters now use the data collected from many millions of users to see what songs are most popular and in which parts of the country a particular band has a following. Critical decisions that can influence a musician’s career trajectory hinge on this data. Since people tend to gravitate toward the familiar and like a new song that sounds like something else they enjoy, the result is an ever narrowing and homogenized collection of songs on radio station playlists that sound remarkably similar to each other.
So What Does Amanda Say?
Quite a lot, actually. She has surfed every treacherous wave in this crazy music industry ocean, and she’s got the scars to prove it. What she provides in The Art of Asking is nothing less than a road map for fellow musicians and a message of appreciation, respect and empowerment for music fans everywhere. Her insights about the importance and difficulty in asking for help are downright enlightening for anyone trying to do something outside the mainstream, in any field.
The Artist-Fan Relationship
“Throughout my career, the fanbase has been like one big significant other to me, a thousand-headed friend with whom I have a real, committed partnership. I don’t take vacations from communicating without warning. We share our art with one another. They help me run the business by feeding me constant information. I cop to my mistakes. They ask for explanations. We talk about how we feel. I twitter to say good night and good morning, the way I would with a lover. They bring me food and tea at shows when I’m sick. I visit them in hospitals and make videos for their friends’ funerals. We trust one another. Occasionally, I’ve broken up with fans. Some have broken up with me.”
Obviously, Amanda is a sharer in every sense of the word. Not every musician will feel comfortable with the level of intimacy she has with her audience. Some artists are just private people. But that’s ok. Even a little sharing in the form of an occasional newsletter — nothing personal but just enough to let people know what they’re up to creatively and professionally — is better than nothing.
She speaks about “the net” (her community of support) and how it is tightened and strengthened by interactions and exchanges over time with members of her fan community. You can’t outsource this critical communication. You can hire help, but the artists themselves must create the emotional connections and create their art. As she points out, this can’t be done by an Internet marketing company, manager or assistants. It has to be done by the artist.
The Major Label Business Model (Fan-Hostile)
“One of the strategies the label employed that always baffled me was wanting us to focus all the energy on casting the net elsewhere, to attract strangers, while ignoring our established fanbase. I loved new people. Of course. But it seemed insane to jeopardize the current relationships to find them.”
This is not to say that every band shouldn’t be trying to expand their audience, but to ignore the existing fanbase, those who are eager to purchase product and support their favorite artists and those who form the band’s unpaid army of promotional people, is sheer stupidity. Musicians must instinctively understand this because after all, why become a performing musician if not to make a connection with your audience? If that wasn’t a key motivating factor, they would be perfectly happy playing songs for friends and family on the weekends when not working their 9-5 office job. No, musicians (unless they have become jaded, hostile and petulant and have temporarily forgotten) understand the importance of their fans and of maintaining a close relationship with them. It’s their labels and marketing firms, the music business establishment, which takes ownership of their social media and uses it not to communicate and engage, but merely to blatantly market, as if peddling a pair of shoes.
Fans that are garnered and cultivated more organically tend to be in it for the long haul. They enjoy the band’s entire output, not just one catchy song they’ve heard on the radio. Also, today’s “commercial alternative” radio and in fact the entire music industry does back flips to cater to a younger audience, which I’ve never understood. Aren’t those the individuals far more likely to be sharing tracks with their friends rather than purchasing music legally and less likely to have disposable income for higher-priced tickets, collectible vinyl, t-shirts and other memorabilia?
“The label’s theory probably followed some kind of cutthroat marketing maxim: once you’ve got a customer, you’ve got ’em. Move on to the next victim. Except that our driving motivation was to hang out with and bond with our small group of existing customers, whom we’d worked so hard to find in the first place. We knew from experience that our evolving friendship was slowly but surely bringing new people into the fray. Making fans that way — in person, one by one, as they were won over at our shows by our harder-core fans — seemed more effective than going out there and hollering on the radio to a group of unknowns, hoping to be heard by someone who might like us. Our way felt more like getting introduced to a person by a mutual friend, personally, at a bar over drinks. It felt real.”
It is also far more enduring. Ensnaring a big audience with a radio hit is great — until the next album comes out. Without naming names, we now have the situation of a band that put out their first release in 2013 and happened to have a big radio hit (just one song) headlining shows, supported by bands that have been touring virtually nonstop and putting out music for 10 years. And what happens in another 10 years when this new band hasn’t had another big hit? They’ll no doubt be at the other end of that bill — if they’re still around at all.
The Crowdfunding Business Model (Fan-Friendly)
“Labels don’t understand the importance of community — the existing fanbase. Instead they focus on new audiences at the expense of nurturing the existing fans.
“The label didn’t understand why they should pay for the band to maintain a website year-round. They thought it was something that only needed to be “up” when we had a new record to promote, and wouldn’t pay to keep the site active the rest of the time.” “I knew the way to keep the fans happy was by staying present — through the forums, through sharing people’s art and music back out through the Internet channels, through keeping everybody connected. That’s just how a relationship works. And when the time came to ask them to buy a record, to buy a ticket, whatever… if I’d been there for them, they’d be there for me. It went beyond the emotional; it also seemed like smart business.”
Bands who are outside of the mainstream in terms of their appeal tend to have “cult followings” and tight-knit communities of supporters. For these types of musicians, the major label business model makes no sense whatsoever, while the crowdfunding model is a perfect fit. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Fans can support their favorite artists at whatever level they’re comfortable with and by doing so, they become part of the creative process. The artist can sell directly to their fans, giving them complete control over their creativity and maximizing profits. No more middleman!
Even when bands have signed with a record company, most labels won’t put in the time or expense that it takes to develop an artist, provide decent promotion and encourage a growing fan community. All relationships, if they are to endure, require nurturing.
Coming Down From Your Garrett (or inviting people up)
In The Art of Asking, Amanda speaks about the difficulty for an artist to leave “The Garrett” (that place, literal or figurative, where they create their art) to go into the “crass and mundane” marketplace to sell that art. With today’s technology, they can chronicle and share their backstage and behind-the-scenes working processes and distribute the work themselves to their public. But they must either leave The Garrett or invite people inside. The essence of crowdfunding is “finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. Not for the masses, not for the critics, but for your ever-widening circle of friends.” She goes on to say, “If you’re not social — and a lot of artists aren’t — you’ll have a harder time. Risk is the core cost of human connection.”
That connection has a real financial payoff. Amanda’s Kickstarter campaign demonstrated how much an artist can achieve with a limited but dedicated audience. “By the time we closed, after a month-long campaign that gathered over a million in backing, the most astonishing thing to me wasn’t the number of dollars. It was the number of people. There were just under twenty-five thousand backers. Almost the exact number of sales that had constituted a failure in the eyes of the label.”
On Honestly Relating to One’s Audience
“I have faced a slew of screw-ups over the years… but most of the time, if I explain the backstory and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the situation, the audience stands with me. I’ve apologized tons of times. The only thing I must not do is break the code of honesty and steady, forthright contact. You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating.” “I think the real risk is the choice to disconnect. To be afraid of one another.”
It comes down to mutual trust, really. When an artist is being absolutely up-front with their audience, it shows the respect they have for them (treating them as partners and not as customers), and this respect is given back in loyalty. This might not seem important — that is, not until the artist encounters a serious roadblock and is faced with leaner times. Then, loyalty is everything.
“Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability.”
Again, this is not to say that that a musician must share everything with their audience. Boundaries can be drawn, and observing them is a big part of that mutual respect. But fans who are investing their time, energy and hard-earned money have at least a right to know what’s going on publicly with that artist, and the more they share their experience in the treacherous undercurrent of the music business, the more their dedicated fans can help make it a smoother (and more lucrative) ride.
For Amanda’s latest insights into the current music business landscape, read her April 2015 interview with Forbes.
Note: All quotes in this article are from Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help — published November 11, 2014.share this: