Fast Company

Riff on the Future of Music

A couple of nights ago I had the prvilege to hear Tom Milsom, a 20-year-old musician play music for friends in my living room. A mutual friend had "discovered" him on YouTube. And he was wonderful.

I wrote a blog post about that experience, and got the following email from an old friend who is now playing music in Austin, and who has the entrepreneurial sense to see where the music business can go next. His name is Bill Teags, in case you are ever in Austin, and he has been a serial entepreneur, a packaging executive, and all the while -- a musician. The cool thing about Teags is that he combines Tom Milsom's passion with the business sense of a 50-year-old. He GETS it.

Take it away, Bill...

I am currently playing with Eric Tessmer (www.myspace.com/erictessmer) and was approached by the management of Joe Richardson (www.myspace.com/joerichardsonexpress) to play bass in his band as well (two of the top guitarists in this guitar town). Back before I was an entrepreneuer / packaging guru, I played music - touring, recording and all that. Here is my take on the music biz today and how it has changed from the 70's when I started my recording and performing career:

#1 Game Changer - The Internet
The Internet has democratized the music industry. Communication is now available to anyone with a computer connection or smart phone.
The good:
- You don't need a major label to gain a world-wide audience.
- You don't need secretaries to handle your written correspondence, such as contracts, letters to managers / booking agents, or your fan list. EPK - electronic press kits are easily packaged for download. No more cassette or vinyl with printed brochures.
- Venues can sample your "best effort" right from their computer. Instant like / dislike - sadly, decisions usually made more visually than aurally. 
- The Internet killed the record label industry. This is good, because this industry totally forgot what it was they were selling. Elvis did not come out of a formula and neither did the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who or the Beach Boys. By the 90's, the majors were all about marketing within a comfort zone, which meant stale music with little room for new or innovative. (Ask Bela Fleck how hard it was to get his first label deal after New Grass Revival - they still don't know where to put his awesome talent!!)
- Viral and community networking. Done right, the Internet can get your Klezmer with Sitar band a decent worldwide audience.
- Craig's List - what better way to see who wants you and let others know you are around - for free!
The bad:
- There is no filter mechanism that separates the good, bad or great artists. The "noise threshold" is now so high that you are hardly noticed apart from the 4 million other artists on MySpace alone.
- The Internet has killed off local booking agents. Venues don't need someone to sell them a good act. They have access directly to the artists. Why is this bad? Artists who in years past would have been relegated to parties and 'audition nights' are getting Friday and Saturday gigs - because they will work for free (or beer and pizza). So why bust your butt perfecting your craft and buying top-line gear when some 'weekend-warrior' with a hobby is going to drive the pay scale down to 1960's levels? Booking agents stayed in business by promising AND delivering top talent. The result was better local music and a healthier music scene.
- The Internet has killed the record industry. Yes this was a good thing, but the problem is that there is nothing in its' place. Artists used to live on royalties from album sales. People want to fill their iPods, but the Internet let's them do it without concern for compensating the artist. We need to live too, and you can't take beer and pizza to the bank to pay the electric bill!
- The Internet has made music a much more individual experience. Ear buds and PC's isolate listeners and we are losing a bit of the socializing that was once integral to music.
- Craig's List - what better way to post that you are a 'pro' musician looking for other 'pro' musicians, but cannot play Wednesday because of bowling nights and Sundays because your ex makes you take the kid (and you only are allowed by your current spouse to play / practice 2 nights a week). Get the point? Weed through 3000 postings to find one that says 'touring band auditioning - US and European dates'.
The key is that the Internet is a tool. It is not the end, but the means. A farmer doesn't buy a shovel, stand it next to the fence and wait for the ground to turn over - he puts the shovel to work digging the ground. Ya gotta use the tool, dude! 
#2 Game Changer - Digital
- The recording process - Back when I first started recording, it was state of the art to have 1" 8 track and totally killer when you could lash-up 2 8 tracks for 16 tracks. Today, hard drives have replaced tape (for the most part) and the number of tracks is almost unlimited. This unlimited freedom does have a price. There were lots of times when we had to 'get it right on the first take' as we were tracking onto existing sound. You had to be really good or you blew days worth of effort. And the art and magic came from unexpected discoveries while being constrained by technology.
- The quality of the artist - with the current tools in a bedroom studio, you can create and fix just about any sound imaginable. There are singers who could never sing tune that are top stars only because the software auto-tunes their voice. (No need to be Barbara Streisand to make it big). Even drummers who can't keep a beat are aided by tempo-correction. Made a mistake? Cut and paste.
- The final product - Albums had several magical qualities about them. One was the artwork (that is why there is a Grammy for album artwork) and the other was the physical presence. You mention chamber music, but during the 60's and 70's we also had album parties. We each brought a few albums over to share the listening with and to talk about music or life in general. Even CD's lack this magic - they are too small to be treated any more than casually. Digital downloads, while probably the greenest way of getting music, is a very sterile process.
So... What's Next?
This is a question that gets brought up often in my music circles. Here is my take:
- Live performance will be more important than in the past 50 years. This is where artists will earn their bread, assuming they can rise above the "will play for beer" crowd. Musicians who are also good business-people have already figured this out. (It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that Madonna grossed $180 million on her last tour in 14 months while selling under 2 million CD's. At $0.09 per song versus a couple of million per show, net, she has it dialed in).
- Recorded music will be like a business card. Record it and give away. Use it as promo for your live gigs. Retain the rights as you are entitled to legally, just in case TV or movies wants to use your sound for background.
- Get 'biznified'. Understand that Colby Caillet was not a MySpace sensation. Her dad is in the music business and she recorded her 'bedroom' tracks professionally and was pitched to a major label by insider business people. Being a musician is like being a baker. You are creating a unique product each time you 'go to work'. Bakers don't give their bread away - they sell it and they call that a bakery! Failure to recognize this is why most musicians are not making it in the business. Learn how to market your art, how to manage your music as a product. You can do this independently, as an indie artist, or you can enlist a solid team of experts around you.
Let's give it up for Bill Teags, ladies and gentlemen. Most musicians still don't get this. The ones who do will be famous as in the past.

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