Two stories came to my attention recently that could be potential game-changers for indie musicians. Both involve major initiatives taking place in the Boston area. One, Boston Creates, could greatly assist musicians and other artists living and working in Boston. The other, the Open Music Initiative, could impact the lives (and livelihoods) of musicians around the world.
Following Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s election in 2013, a Chief of Arts and Culture position was created along with increased funding for the arts in the city, and the Boston Creates cultural planning program was established. These sorts of initiatives tend to be very slow in coming together, but since then, they’ve been engaging the public in a series of town hall meetings, focus groups, interviews, a survey and an online map of cultural assets. Recently, the plan was drawn up and it looks like real action is about to start taking place.
The results of these efforts can now been seen in the Boston Creates Cultural Plan. There’s a lot of reading here, from information about the research process through the plan’s creation, implementation and action items. If you’re interested, do check it out. However, the basic gist of it is that the city is putting some money into improving the situation for artists and their audiences (long overdue), in addition to encouraging art education in schools (and often-overlooked subject). This is a very good thing. Some of the key problems they found include the need for affordable cultural spaces and facilities, the lack of affordable housing and work space for Boston artists and imbalances and gaps in funding for Boston artists, the arts and cultural organizations. It was also found that there is a need for better arts education programs in Boston public schools.
The good news is that they have a 10-year action plan, and the plan details recommendations and action items. Since the plan was recently approved and put into play, musicians and other artists living (or attempting to live) in the Boston area may find some help in the way of funding and resources. To keep apprised of the latest news, visit the Boston Creates site.
Open Music Initiative
This wonderful initiative began as a collaboration between the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE) and the MIT Media Lab. They state the mission of the Open Music Initiative as being “to promote and advance the development of open source standards and innovation related to music, to help assure proper compensation for all creators, performers and rights holders of music.” Not a moment too soon. Lack of artist compensation by streaming media sites has been widely documented, and that’s just one part of the wider problem that makes it nearly impossible for musicians — unless they’re superstars — to make a decent living. The way music licensing, distribution and ownership works is complex and often quite secretive. The Open Music Initiative seeks to make the entire process more transparent and fair, and that’s definitely something to cheer.
Fortunately, there has been a lot of industry interest in this, both from big names to independent musicians. Some of the entertainment companies that have signed on include YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, Soundcloud, Netflix, NPR and major labels Universal, Sony and Warner. Perhaps if the process of identifying music rights was easier, there would be fewer lawsuits and more fairly paid artists. What they propose is a global infrastructure — a shared, open database of music ownership rights. They believe this would help to speed up payment to the artists from the entities that play their music. This would include streaming sites, internet radio, podcases, YouTube and elsewhere. As Panos Panay, founder of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, describes the music business, “It’s one of the few industries that I know where you can use something and it’s OK to not really know who to pay. We don’t think that that should be acceptable.”
Despite the fact that he is no longer with us, the stories about David Bowie are far from over. So prolific was this legendary artist, there are many songs yet to be heard that will no doubt see the light of day in coming years. His Twitter and Facebook feeds are more active than those of artists supposedly still in existence — yet more evidence of his eternal presence and lasting legacy. And yes, the stories from those who knew and worked with him keep coming in, uncovering a depth of knowledge about his work previously unknown of by even his most devout followers. One such story is of his time working with once Salem, Massachusetts-based maverick indie label upstart Rykodisc, and in particular, their A&R and Special Projects Director, Jeff Rougvie.
Rougvie had a job that Bowie fans could only dream about, which involved digging through the Bowie archives, listening to all the original master tracks of legendary albums and putting together a “wish list” for Ryko’s David Bowie Sound + Vision reissue series. This unveiling of an audiophile’s collection of CDs began with the ambitious Sound + Vision 3-CD plus CD-ROM box set, which went on to win the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Album Package. They then re-mastered and re-released all of his RCA albums, from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters.
Recently at CinemaSalem, located in the heart of this town on Boston’s north shore, Rougvie gave a presentation, ‘Bowie, Rykodisc, Salem: The Untold Story.’ If I were more savvy with a smartphone, I might have Periscoped it for Bowie’s fans worldwide, such were the gems uncovered — in story, visuals and song. It began with a comprehensive history of Rykodisc, a brave little CD-only indie label that achieved stupendous things back at its inception in 1983, but which has fallen into the shadows of rock history. When most people think of Salem, they have images of its witch-burning history and modern day pagans that still inhabit this still rather sleepy New England seaside town. Suffice it to say, a little bit of pagentry to celebrate the good deeds of this label that brought the first compact discs to the U.S. is long overdue.
Ryko's contribution to music aficionados' collections is vast.
I won’t go into Ryko’s impressive artist roster here (Frank Zappa, the Residents, Chris Bell and Big Star, Bowie, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix, Devo, Nils Lofgren, Bob Mould, Yoko Ono, Galaxie 500, Misfits, Morphine…). You can see their Wikipedia page — or, better yet, Rougvie’s ongoing online retrospective.
In this amazing presentation, what was billed as a 90-minute show turned into three hours of hilarious anecdotes and delicious behind-the-scenes stories (I was going to say ‘dirt,’ but I don’t want to get him into any trouble). This was accompanied by a slide show with rare photos and internal record company documents and two blistering mini-sets from Boston-based Bowie aficionados The Daily Pravda. After the Ryko story leading up to Bowie, the band performed four Bowie songs, in stellar fashion (they’re really quite wonderful). Rougvie then launched into the Bowie portion of the show, which included an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography, some interesting stories about RCA and other entities and what went on when Ryko took over. This was accompanied by photos of Bowie (several of which I’d never seen before) and documents like master tape track listings and album tracks which included possible bonus material, some of which remains unreleased. By hardcore fan standards, it was intense, so you can imagine what the audience thought — a mix of big Bowie fans, casual fans and regular cinema visitors. The band came back and played another four songs to seal the deal for those who were still riveted to their seats in awe.
It is my hope that Rougvie takes this show on the road, because I know of many devout Bowie fans and collectors who would have loved to be there. Until that happens, if you’d like to learn about Bowie’s collaboration with Ryko on the reissues, discover what really happened behind the scenes and learn about the rare tracks that have yet to be heard, check out Rougvie’s Bowie Sound + Vision Blog. It’s crammed full of really interesting information for the serious fan and collector. And follow him on his Twitter and Facebook for any news of upcoming posts, publications and events. He did tell me that this was “just the tip of the iceberg” and that much more is on the way.
The Daily Pravda’s setlist: (set 1) Rebel Rebel / Ziggy Stardust / Man Who Sold The World / Moonage Daydream // (set 2) Starman / Drive In Saturday / Hang Onto Yourself / Heroes
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 Threeâ€) 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, thereâ€™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 theyâ€™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 thatâ€™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.
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 donâ€™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.
Have you ever purchased tickets to a show in a town you’ve never been to and wondered what the venue was like? How’s the parking? What type of seating is there? Is the sound any good?
VenueIQ has been created as “a Yelp for event venues” (sports, concerts or live theater). This is a great site where users can sign up and write reviews about their favorite venues. You can also contact them to suggest venues that should be added.
In the Boston/Cambridge area, for example, I see several key venues that aren’t yet listed, such as Brighton Music Hall, Cafe 939, Great Scott, The Middle East, Berklee Performance Center, Somerville Theater and Club Passim.
I’m not sure if there’s a “cutoff” in terms of size, but of course there are others like Arts at the Armory, the Lizard Lounge, Midway Cafe, Cantab Lounge, O’Brien’s Pub, P.A.’s Lounge and Precinct. Anyway, register with the site, log in and weigh in on your favorite places to see live music! (and, of course, your least favorite ones).
While I’m here, if you’re a musician interested in playing somewhere and are wondering about capacity and contact information, visit our Band Resources page. It’s a tough world out there if you’re a struggling indie band and information is vital. Which leads us nicely into a little advance promotion for our final post of 2015, which will be a ‘State of the Music Industry’ diatribe. Be on the lookout, and buckle up. It’s bound to be a bumpy ride.
It’s time to check in with one of our favorite Silver Lake, Los Angeles indie bands, Silversun Pickups. Brian, Nikki, Chris and Joe have a new album just out called Better Nature. From what I’ve heard of it so far, it sounds like it has all of the heart-pounding propulsion, musical sophistication and smooth/edgy vocals we’ve come to expect from this fine band. Lead single “Nightlight” has a beautifully executed dark and sensuous little film to accompany it.
As big a production as “Nightlight” is, visually and musically, “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)” is a quieter, more personal story. It was written and is primarily sung by bassist/vocalist Nikki Monninger, who recently lost a friend. The video visually mirrors the introspective nature of the song, filmed in black and white and featuring close-ups of the band performing in what looks like a simple rehearsal room.
The music is beautiful, and it’s no surprise. But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. With this new album, SSPU embarks on a bold journey of self-determination. Though I’m sure they had more creative and financial control with Dangerbird than they would have had with a major label, they have now left the indie label and have formed their own, called New Machine Recordings. This is a big deal, since Dangerbird put out every SSPU release since their 2005 Pikul EP. It’s also really great news for their many fans. As a band that has always had a strong online presence and a close involvement with their fan base, they’ve taken that relationship one step further with a very exciting PledgeMusic campaign.
PledgeMusic, similar to crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, lets artists market directly to their audience. This gives a band full control and maximum returns, and it gives fans the opportunity for a closer connection with their favorite musicians and the ability to buy exclusive merchandise. It’s a Win-Win situation.
For Silversun Pickups’ Better Nature release, just a small sampling of the delicious “premiums” that have been available, for different levels of pledges, are limited edition signed vinyl, art proofs, signed handwritten lyric sheets, signed drumheads and guitars, custom SSPU nightlights, disposable cameras with behind-the-scenes band photos, hoodies, handwritten postcards from the band, vinyl test pressings and, incredibly, a private Skype drum lesson with SSPU drummer Christopher Guanlao! Pretty amazing, right? And if you’re on a tight budget, you can spring for just the AccessPass, which lets you download the new album. This special pass also provides access to private updates from the band and behind-the-scenes photos.
Personally, I think this is the way of the future for all bands who aren’t at the top of the Billboard charts and selling out arenas and stadiums (which, let’s face it, is most of them). Instead of a corporate entity making promotional and marketing decisions, the band communicates with their audience directly and asks them for support. It’s a direct, honest exchange of art for financial backing, sans middleman. All creative control and financial compensation is kept where it belongs, with the artist. For the fans, nothing is more rewarding than directly helping their favorite bands make music, and in addition to being a part of the creative process and enjoying regular updates, they can come away with unique merchandise and special opportunities.
For their Better Nature album, the first on their own label, the band went back to Topanga Canyon and recorded the album with longtime collaborator Jacknife Lee. You can read more about the recording process and their decision to strike out on their own in their interview with the Albany Herald. They promise YouTube videos of studio sessions “writing the album, finding the right sounds to each song, and having lightsaber magic glowy sword fights.” They’ve also promised more shows, so keep your eyes peeled!
In the meantime, choose a bundle from their PledgeMusic campaign or order from Amazon or iTunes below.
If you’re a struggling unsigned band, it can be a jungle out there. You create your music, put it online via Soundcloud, Bandcamp or some other online music service, make videos and put them up on YouTube and send mp3s out to as many blogs as humanly possible in the hope that someone, anyone, will hear your music, like it and maybe even buy it, so that you can start to create a buzz. With so many bands out there vying for the same listeners’ ears (and hard-earned cash), the odds are stacked against you. All you have to keep you going is your belief in yourself and a love of the music. Or at least, you’d better have a love of the music, because if you don’t or you’re not sure, there are definitely easier ways to make a living. Truth be told, being a music listener is no less daunting. Where do you go to hear new bands? How do you wade through all the, let’s face it, utter dreck out there to find those songs that give you goosebumps, or at the very least, find music that sets itself apart so that you stop thinking about the half dozen other things on your mind and really listen?
There are so many places to learn about and listen to new music, it’s mind numbing. Terrestrial radio is a thing of the past, gone the way of the dinosaur (though I still listen to it in my car). There are countless online stations, there’s iTunes, there’s Spotify (and all the others of that ilk), there are zillions of music blogs and of course, your friends on Twitter, Facebook and wherever else recommending bands. For musicians trying to promote their music, the possibilities are endless. This is both wonderful and horrible at the same time. Wonderful, because there are so many places where you can promote your music online, opening avenues of promotion and marketing to those with little to no funds. Horrible, because the listening audience is incredibly fractured and all over the place. It’s impossible to hit every music discovery platform, every blog, every social networking site. An army of marketing firms specializing in this wild frontier have risen up to represent those bands that can afford them, because seriously, a musician’s time is best spent creating music. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be involved in your business and oversee every aspect. Anyone who’s serious about getting their music heard and being a musician for a living these days has to be fully involved. It’s more the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.
In 2008, it was internet radio — Pandora, iLike and Last.fm. By 2009, people were talking about Shazam, The Hype Machine and many other music discovery sites like Stumble Audio, which has since bitten the dust. On the “hottest music streaming and discovery sites” list for 2010, Bandcamp joined the scene, as did TheSixtyOne. In 2011, it was 8Tracks, an internet radio station, and Blip.fm, a social network/internet radio blend. Soundcloud made the lists in 2012, and We Are Hunted, a music aggregator, joined forces with Twitter on their own music discovery project, Twitter Music (which was shut down in 2014). Over the past few years, the introduction of new music discovery sites has continued unabated. Mixcloud is a place for both amateur and professional DJs to share their mixes and radio shows. Discovr Music is a service from music reference site AllMusic. It shows you related artists for a particular band, and you can drill in to get more information, their biography, song streams and videos. You can also track your favorites. Songza suggests music to fit your current mood, and you can see what’s trending and popular. And that’s just a very small sampling.
In the already chaotic scene of music discovery portals, places where musicians can post projects and fans can discover new bands, a few more have appeared in recent months. Consider this the eighth or ninth generation of music discovery sites.
Tradiio, a Portuguese startup, first launched in the U.K. on March 2 of this year. This music discovery platform is a little different, in that it’s reward based. It’s an interesting little twist to distinguish itself from the many others, and a pretty cool concept. It can be accessed via the web, IOS and Android. Not only are Tradiio users able to listen to new bands, but by “investing” in them with virtual coins, they’re able to be talent spotters and tastemakers, helping their favorite acts rise up the ranks into recommended and trending lists, gain exposure and credibility, and potentially go much farther than just online accolades. The more popular bands are given real world rewards and opportunities, such as a performing slot on the Tradiio Stage at Field Day, access to studio time through Tradiio’s partnership with Moloco Studios, benefits from Tradiio’s label partnership with Believe Recordings and the chance to make a music video with Radar. Tradiio is open to both new bands and more established artists, and it’s a free service for artists and music fans. This music discovery site has worldwide impact. In Portugal, Universal Music Portugal selects artists from Tradiio’s top 50 chart for worldwide distribution.
Listeners on Tradiio are encouraged to use the service with “missions” and “challenges,” turning the music listening experience into a fun game. Social engagement includes being able to follow other users to see their musical picks and the ability to share your discoveries on other social networks. There are also real life benefits for music fans. By investing in artists you like, you earn credibility and virtual coins which you can then redeem for Field Day tickets, Bleep download store vouchers, AIAIAI headphones and Sonos speakers. While in the Tradiio Market, you can also get Add-Ons, which let you earn coins more quickly.
WorldArts is a music discovery and opportunities platform, based in Los Angeles. Their mission is to change the way musicians connect with fans worldwide, and to offer bands huge opportunities for wider exposure. Like many of these music discovery sites, WorldArts levels the playing field for new bands, making it easier to get started without having a manager, record label or publicity company. The Artists section is a listing of World Arts artists. Select a band, and you can read their bio, listen to music, watch videos, look at photos and see who’s a fan. You can share and follow your favorites. From the Discover page, you can watch videos from new artists and choose to follow or share. The Opportunities page is how bands can win big career boosts by submitting their music. Current opportunities include music video production, a recording session, a professional photo shoot, the opportunity to record a track at NightBird Studios and airplay on KROQ’s “Locals Only” radio show in Los Angeles. Previously they’ve chosen artists to perform at a SXSW showcase, which was then live-streamed, and one musician was selected to attend and perform at the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, which included a studio recording and vinyl pressing of a single. WorldArts Live regularly live streams concerts and festivals. In the News section they offer original and aggregated content that helps you keep up to date with music business news, items of interest for working musicians and upcoming events. There are also artist profiles, Q&As and other music-related content.
Busker is the newest of these music discovery sites, about to launch this summer. Busker, with headquarters in NYC, is calling themselves a “next-generation discovery and booking platform for musicians.” This service will feature live music videos from musicians, letting users browse artists, view their videos, create playlists and follow their favorites. Channels will act as guideposts — they give the example of a Julliard channel for students and alumni of the prestigious music school. This music discovery site will go one step further to help musicians get gigs so they can build a sustainable career. There’s a booking platform for anyone interesting in hiring musicians for any type of performance, from private parties and events to venues and large festivals. It is said to function like an airbnb for musicians. Busker’s “Musician on Demand” service will allow potential hosts to text a request, and the Busker team will line up a musician for their event. Their mission is to show people that it’s not as expensive as one might think to hire musicians, and to give musicians help in finding work. The long-term goal is to “use technology to help musicians make money,” which would include not only online bookings, but direct links to purchase music and merchandise, including concert tickets.
Busker is being guided by a group of people with impressive pedigrees — a Harvard MBA and Sydney Law School graduate and advisors from Berklee, Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, Google, Kickstarter, Grooveshark, Spotify, MTV, ABC, Sony and others. You can check out the beta version right now. Musings from Boston readers can use the code “BSTNSURV” for VIP status when you sign up (as a user) or submit videos (as a musician). They’ll add you to their mailing list and will keep you informed about the launch and their services.
No, this isn’t the name of a hip new downtown restaurant or a particularly delectable new band. Oddly, the word maven has a Hebrew origin, meaning “one who understands,” as in an expert who passes their knowledge on to others, so I suppose it’s the perfect name for this Central Square, Cambridge-based music studio and DJ/production school. If you’re sitting there thinking that hip-hop beats and scratching techniques aren’t the most widely covered topics on this blog, you’d be right, but we’re giving our music creators of the machine persuasion a little love this year. After all, computers are people, too.
Mmmmaven offers instruction in DJ techniques and electronic music production. They have state-of-the-art production labs and the latest technology and software. They also offer a career development program, youth programs, summer camps and classes conducted in Spanish. Their classes meet twice a week and on weekends. No prior experience is necessary. Students range from college students to older adults and professional musicians wanting to pump up their skills. The styles of music explored are as diverse as the students and include all kinds of house music, hip-hop, country, electro-swing, soundtracks and tunes for video games. Mmmmaven sponsors special events and an annual electronic music festival. For a comprehensive profile about this unique music production school, check out this special on Chronicle.
If you’re in the Boston area and you’ve always dreamed of spinning discs at a club or staging your own rave, check out what Mmmmaven has to offer. Contact them for a FREE DJ lesson and a tour of their studio!
Learning the tricks of the trade, from one of their 'Sip & Spin' events
For those of you who enjoy a behind-the-curtains look at today’s music business, there’s a new podcast you should know about. Darren Rose, best known for his previous on-air gig on Alt 98.7 KYSR in Los Angeles, has just inaugurated Darren Rose Radio – Inside Radio & Records. It’s an unedited and uncensored series of conversations with people from every corner of the music business — artists, managers, DJs, producers, label executives and others.
In these hour-whatever conversations, it’s no-holds-barred discourse about people’s careers, world views and insights into this sketchy sophisticated industry. Darren has a great resume for doing a show like this, as he’s interviewed many people in the biz at 98.7 and enjoys a casual rapport with them, which always makes for great conversation. Judging from his first four podcasts, this is going to be a real eye-opener, a rare look at how the music business operates today.
Thus far, he has featured Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event, Pete Galli of The MGMT Company (who manages Airborne, Andrew W.K., The Bravery and others), his friend Josh Venable, Radio Programmer and DJ at Z104.5 in Tulsa (and formerly with Alt 98.7 and 102.1 The Edge in Dallas) and producer Andy Rosen (a.k.a. Dr. Rosen Rosen). Here are my initial thoughts.
His friendly chat with Mikel – This 75 minutes is like a rushing river of information after a particularly long dry spell for Airborne news. Mikel has a tendency toward major snarkiness if an interviewer 1) doesn’t know anything about the band and clearly hasn’t done their research or 2) asks the stock questions (“So tell us about the name”). This was a casual chat between friends, unguarded to the point where Mikel spoke about what he’s been doing the past six months, his home studio, what his plans are for the next Airborne album, how he and the band work together, his writing process, his thoughts on radio singles, his favorite artists, his health and workout regimen, his lifestyle, marital status, personal introspection, the music industry, you name it. For the Airborne fan, it’s an exhausting, exhilarating, gluttonous feast.
Music Business 101 with Pete – It’s a 30 minute crash course on today’s music industry and what a band has to do to get noticed, from one of the most savvy people currently in the business. Pete shares his four steps for breaking an artist (great songs and recordings, a good story, band identity, live show). He talks about the importance of blogs, radio, major labels and gives an extremely valuable insider’s perspective. It’s also heartwarming to hear him get totally geeked about Airborne and their huge hit, “Sometime Around Midnight.” After many years in the business, he still has that youthful passion and enthusiasm and isn’t completely jaded. Great stuff.
His two-hour gabfest with Josh Venable – This one’s an extremely interesting and thoroughly depressing look inside today’s commercial ‘alternative’ radio station travesty industry. It takes some effort to get beyond their gushing over Coldplay and their defense of Clear Channel (I suppose it’s understandable for a pair of working DJs, as CC has absconded with the bulk of U.S. radio stations). But there’s some really funny shit here. Their conversation veers recklessly from an extremely precise look at DJing as a career, ratings mechanisms and the inner workings of a rock station to behind-the-scenes gossip and endless stories from two chummy radio DJs who are survivors of the industry’s implosion and almost complete annihilation of independent stations by corporate giants. As the “interview” winds on, things eventually disintegrate into a gloriously unedited drunken frat party.
His tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Dr. Rosen Rosen – The conversation veers from home renovations and parenting to his remixes, recent production work with Meg Myers, what it takes for a band to be successful, the role of radio, the importance of artist interviews, live shows and stage production, his process of becoming a producer and his favorite artists. Timbaland? Uh, no thanks. Hearing about his experience as a songwriter and producer in the music biz? Yes, please.
Damn, this is going to be good. Best of all? The podcasts are free to stream or download from his site. Here’s to many happy podcasts, Mr. Rose.
As he says himself, “Over the last 15 years, the music industry has seen more changes than any other time in history. One of those changes in recent years has been the near extinction of the long form interview. Enter Darren Rose Radio, a chance to connect and understand the business from artists and industry insiders far beyond their social networks.”
The current pop wasteland. Clockwise from upper left: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, the reinvented Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV VMAs and Taylor Swift, before and after.
I was inspired by a recent Facebook post by Anna Bulbrook, who plays viola, keyboards and is a vocalist with The Airborne Toxic Event. She posted a link to an article about the rude and demeaning things said to female musicians, and voiced her own frustration with the music industry’s rampant sexism. I’d like to dedicate this to all working musicians out there (and music professionals who support and nurture them) who happen to be women.
Wow, You Actually Know How To Play That?
The object that raised Ms. Bulbrook’s wrath (and started me on my investigative journey) was titled “Infuriating Things People Say to Women Musicians”. It was written by Steph Guthrie, who performs with Toronto-based band Patti Cake. The cringe-worthy comments from male musical instrument store employees, sound engineers, managers and others “in the biz” read like something out of the 1950s, but sadly they’re not. They’re comments that were made in the present day to seasoned and experienced female musicians. Sexism, of course, exists everywhere. Men in the music business still can’t get their heads around the fact that there are plenty of serious women musicians who are proficient with a wide variety of instruments, music composition and recording technology — and this includes the sacred lead guitar, historically the machismo status symbol of the (male) rock god. “Take Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Only two women, Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett, were honored. In a Washington Post article written in response to Rolling Stone’s list, the writer suggests that as interest in electric guitar was revving up in the ’60s, women weren’t encouraged to step out of their ladylike gender roles, leaving them with an impossible game of catch-up to Jimi Hendrix and Page.” (from The 12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarists – Elle, 2009). I can only assume that this disrespect stems from an inferiority complex, leading men to feel threatened by strong women. Regardless of how far we may think we’ve come in gender equality, clearly we haven’t actually progressed beyond The Flintstones.
(add these venues to your Boston-area clubbing circuit – coming soon!)
Valhalla International Restaurant and Lounge, and future sites of The Davis Square Theater and The Sinclair
Attention club hoppers – Davis, Central, and Harvard Squares will all be giving birth to brand new clubs this year. The Davis Square Theatre, which was formerly Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater, will be adding live music shows to its schedule of theater productions (Spring); Valhalla is coming to Central Square, which is actually the All Asia Bar moving house (Summer); and The Sinclair in Harvard Square will be operated by Bowery Cambridge, the latest ‘outreach program’ by New York’s booking agency The Bowery Presents, much the same as they now do at The Royale with Bowery Boston (Autumn).