Ask Ty...May 2 [The Music Business Question]

It must be Tuesday, Middlespacers, because I'm answering your questions
Q: Dear Ty,

Yo. So I've been interviewing with a hedge fund, and it's making me think about careers. I'm pretty much finished with my current job and though I'd like the job I'm applying for, I was wondering about the music business.

It'd be really fun to identify new ways to represent & manage talent and distribute music and other content.  I'm pretty sure that's just called running a record label, but I  have no clue how the nuances of music industry work. I understand that artists have labels and agents and managers, but have no clue where the lines of responsibility are actually drawn.  Could you tell me what they all actually do and what the difference is between entities in the music business?

Ty: Yo. Good question and an even better observation, Mike. Good lord, the music industry...where to begin? Since I mostly disdain the biz, I'll just ramble a bit (probably not even really edit much).

You are a young man, and a big chunk of your music enjoyment history has consisted of either downloading or making direct digital copies of the songs and albums you like from some source directly to your personal computer. Sometimes you even purchase a ticket to and attend a live show. In significantly 100% of those cases, you purchased your ticket online. It's all online.

You didn't grow up eagerly awaiting a release date for an album by unknown stars you read about in a magazine or heard about on the radio, and driving to (or having your mother drive you to) a "record store" to "purchase" a new title. After said purchase (probably a cash transaction), you'd scurry home to play said release on a turntable. Oftentimes without headphones if you can believe that.

Sure with the introduction of the 8-track cartridge, you could eagerly await, drive, purchase, and play the album in your car on your way home. Then with the audio cassette, you could now copy, share, and mix songs for both home and on the go play. Mix tapes became a vehicle for and of community and courtship. Music became portable. It's all portable. It's all online.

Now. Jesus, now you simply think of a song and it magically appears in your pocket entertainment and computing device. Everything is now available to everyone everywhere. Artists use social media to develop loyal niche communities of fans who believe they are friends. Artists can determine what is hot and where to perform from social media. I can tweet that someone's song is "incredible" and within minutes the artist (or artist representative manning the tweets) will reply a thanks. It's all online. It's all portable. It's all about community.

I DO NOT consider the traditional music business model to be some "good old days" of music nostalgia. That was hyper-controlled corporate bullshit. Artists were constantly ripped-off and continue to be. George Clinton still hopes to reap royalties from his music.

You are also correct that "artists have labels and agents and managers." See? You already know everything you need to know about the music business. Sure, artists need people to represent them, book and manage touring, help them record, and keep all the administrative aspects in order but, in the old model, labels, agents, and managers are basically hangers-on that skim loads of money from artists. This Steve Albini's essay is the definitive word on the topic (and will answer your who-does-what questions):

I have nothing to add to how the music industry works worked. Let's look forward to what you can do.

So Mike, you think it could be "really fun to identify new ways to represent & manage talent and distribute music and other content." Hell yes that would be fun. That would rule. And, yes, you are right, "that's just called running a record label." You become cool-finder and king maker. But you also take on a ton of responsibility. Some people can handle that. Others…not so much. The business aspect involves specialized professionals (or friends you can trust) to conduct specific business transactions.

What it sounds like you want to do is discover, nurture, and manage artists. Great! You scour clubs and internets and find talent. You convince them that you can help them grow their following and their skills. They need to 1) play more shows, 2) write and rehearse new songs, and 3) record. REPEAT.

You find a producer, engineer (and/or studio) to get recordings made. You upload that music to followers and see if it grows new followers. Tour. Play. Nurture audience. REPEAT.

Without writing a dissertation on the music industry, let's just say that Odd Future (Wolf Gang Kill Them All) has figured out the new music business. There's a clue: It's all online. It's all portable. It's all about community.

[Oh, and the artists have to not suck and have the potential for some sort of following. There's that. And producers (what I do to bring out the talent in recordings) really, really matter - it's a skill that not everyone can master]

You, Mike, have inherited a miraculous future that kids like you need to fully embrace and push forward. Something very special exists for each and every one of us when it comes to music. And, no, you probably will not become a billionaire, but you can find deep and lasting satisfaction making a new music "industry." It's all online. It's all portable. It's all about community. Production and talent matter.

My advice to a young man is to take the old record label blueprint for the music industry and ignore it as a failed pyramid scheme. If you want to make money in this new frontier, you need to have/spend/invest money in talent, recordings, and community and hope you can get lucky on the sales and ticket sales side.

Just a guess.


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