The Business of Musical Dreams

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G D Sweeney 12/07/15

 

If fame and fortune was a town, there would only be one road to get into it and you can be assured that the route would be lined with toll booths every one hundred yards!

It’s always been free to dream…of finally receiving artistic recognition and of all the wonders that a successful music career might bring, but if you dare to act upon your burning ambitions, be prepared to pay a bit more than just blood sweat and tears.  Once you’ve done visualising that sell-out arena concert and the Hollywood style entourage – allow me to pinch you, and bring you round with a strong scent of reality!

The ‘pinch’ that I’m referring to, normally starts with the amount of money that you will surely hemorrhage with the increasing demands of ‘making it’ in the modern music business. Being a full-time musician and writer with hopes of success, is like operating as part of a franchise. You might not be aware of this, but once you get started, you are constantly paying someone else before you ever see a penny of your spoils.

There are things that you will need to purchase and invest in before you can establish yourself in the music business, and items and services that you can genuinely guarantee in return for your hard-earned cash. If you have a budget plan, be prudent. Frankly, any prospective music career is a high stakes gamble, and you must identify the difference between genuinely effective and helpful methods to increase your popularity and music sales, and the many opportunists out there who are hell bent on blowing your budget.

Initial startup costs can include, design, business cards, photography, video production, advertising, audio recording, mixing and mastering, paying musicians, radio marketing, petrol costs, to name a few. This is just some of the financial considerations that I have had to make in my first 18 months, don’t forget, you’ll want to eat and maybe even treat yourself to the occasional beer too!  Luckily I have been able to curtail some of the financial outlay; acquiring skills to execute many of these tasks myself, thanks to a previous career in design and also having a very supportive partner who believes in me.  However, unless you are a photographer, designer, press agent, multi-talented musician or your dad owns Chevron or Shell – then you will likely have to pay someone else to do it!

So let’s assume that you have all your eggs in a row now.  A website, an album recorded, and a burning ambition.  Now this is where you face your biggest and most costly challenge… promoting yourself to the wider world.

If you are not already an expert marketing guru, you will start researching public relations companies, online marketing and social networking businesses and outlets to get your music played and purchased.  If your music is a ‘niche’ genre, like mine; this can be to your advantage when it come to marketing it. In my case, there are dedicated magazines, websites, societies and festivals that are specifically country music based. Some of them offer free marketing and reviews, but many of them are businesses that are run for profit, and rates may vary according to their popularity in readership, listener numbers and subscriptions.

You’ve dared to dream – and there are an infinite number of online companies and individuals who have made it their business to keep your dream alive.  The lure of success can be a bounty that many folks hope to profit from. You are now entering unchartered territory, the ground that is occupied by the opportunist ‘middlemen’ (as I like to call them) – the self-appointed gatekeepers to this ‘Promised Land’.

Maybe it’s just me. But I have been inundated with e-mails, tweets and messages with the kind of promises that would turn any unsuspecting songwriters head, if he didn’t know better.  These guys are happy to equip you on your arduous journey – with golden nuggets of advice, secret tips on ‘How to break down the doors of fame’ and ‘How to scale the fortress walls of musical fortune’.  In truth, as long as the dream of ‘making it’ still exists, then so do they, and there are more and more of them appearing online than ever before.  This is ‘the business of musical dreams’ and it’s a very lucrative one.  Again, let me reiterate: there are genuinely legitimate businesses, who will prove to be both honest and helpful, and there will also be individuals who seek to prey upon the vulnerable starry-eyed musician.

There are no quick fixes in the music business, regardless of the promises and tales of success that you might be encouraged to read about. Sometimes you have to try things out for yourself to ‘feel the sting’ and find out the real truth behind them!

Taxi.com, the self-styled largest online Artist & Repertoire Company, are constantly seeking ‘music to screen’ from aspiring musicians (and ‘money to glean’) from hopefuls – dangling the carrot of a handsome pay out as your reward should your music be chosen. You can have your music synced (used as background music) for movies, adverts, trailers, gaming videos. The list goes on, and so do the charges to the unsuspecting songwriter, if you hope to be successful in any of these pursuits. There are indeed some success stories. This is not a scam! However the real money is going to Taxi.com, I fear.  Should you feel happy to take a punt, ‘Online Songwriting Contests’ will also happily strip you of your cash if you are hasty enough to exchange it for the dreams they are selling.  When I talk about these things – I am speaking from experience, and voicing my own opinions. Perhaps, you may have had more favorable encounters than I have experienced.

Music is still ‘big business’ – even if you feel like none of the cash is coming your way.  If you are on a tight budget, Facebook ‘boosts’ for some of your video, website or blog posts can provide cost effective solutions, and magazine and on-line advertising can also be reasonably priced and gain you plenty of attention.  My advice is to ‘shop around’.

When it comes to selling your music online, the big established corporations have indeed invented the rules with which we all have to play, and we are shepherded through the channels and infrastructures that they have created and heavily marketed.  Online publishing companies and recognisable music stores like iTunes and CD Baby -provide a popular platform on which you can sell your wares to the world and for the service they provide they will take their cut.

You may be surprised however that there’s a cost for selling your music on iTunes in the first instance. For a self-published and self-released artist, you must go through channels like CD Baby first if you have any intention of selling your music on iTunes, and this isn’t cheap; at $59 to upload one album. That’s before you even get your first sale on iTunes (the largest online musical store) then, you can deduct the slice of Apple’s pie that they take from each of your sales, courtesy of iTunes.  There are also platforms like ‘BandCamp’ which on the contrary, provide the artist with a majority share of online sales of their music and merchandise, but it’s marketing position in the world of online music sales is not comparable, and often gets overlooked in favour of the infinitely more popular and all encompassing iTunes

The greatest adversity for any songwriter in recent years has been the rapid decline in physical music sales and increasingly downloads for that matter! Streaming giants; Spotify, are the established kings of this growing new platform on which to consume music, and they come with the promise of money for the artists. That age-old musician’s dream – to get paid for your work!  Yes… if it sounds too good to be true… it often is.  For every stream on Spotify; the artist gets $0.007. Unless they have suddenly invented a new monetary system for the ultra-poor, I don’t think that’s even going to pay for one guitar string! This makes the minimum working wage in the UK appear almost altruistic.

It takes time, hard work, persistence, luck and a skin as thick as a phone book to make a living from music. Technology and times may have changed, but this model for success hasn’t – and that advice will cost you nothing! It’s getting harder to survive as a musician, particularly when the rules of the game are becoming so stacked against you. How do you sell, or place a value against something, that people nowadays expect to get for free?

There are still some folks out there who will gladly pay for your music and support the artist. You just have to find them by whatever means you can.  I know it’s difficult when there are celebrities like; Kanye West, flaunting their wealth and declaring their self-proclaimed genius, but we must try to separate the wealthy musical elite from the day-to-day hard working artists who are doing a job, and providing a service like any other occupation. We need to earn money to live, survive and create our work.  I’m merely expressing a universal feeling held amongst other artists; in the hopes of making consumers more aware of the reality of working within the music business.

My own beliefs are born out of honesty, and the same gritty truth that I’d like to think is infused in my music. I want to communicate and deal directly with  people in the hope that they will appreciate my own particular brand of country music, my stories, and my shared enthusiasm for the art form that I love called ‘music’.  In the words of John Lennon “You may say that I’m a dreamer” …but it would seem that I’m not the only one! As reality bites, more and more musicians and artists are ending their crusade to their ‘musical and artist utopia’, realising that the stakes are too high and the chances too few.

I gave up a full-time job as a secondary school design teacher because I dared to dream, and I have realised that a musician’s dreams cost money.  That’s why every penny I spend to kick-start my music business, needs to be accounted for…I say to all musicians  ‘Keep dreaming’ (if you can), but when it comes to planning your assault on the music-buying world; make sure that you have your eyes firmly open and your wallet to the ready!

 

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Thanks.

Gavin.

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