I’m writing this to you, the young musician, producer, singer, instrumentalist, songwriter. I’m writing this to you because everything else you read on social media about the music industry is all doom and gloom, and it’s simply not true. I’m writing this to give you hope. I’m writing this to show you that now is a great time to chase your dreams, become an artist, release your music and spread your message to the world. And the world needs to hear what you have to say now more than ever.
You’ve heard the stories. Someone has tens of millions of streams on Spotify and gets paid only a few thousand dollars. Record sales are plummeting. There’s hundreds of memes dissing the current crop of artists like “I hope the next trend in music is talent”. Artists are being ripped off left, right and centre, and new acts are being drowned out by all the other new acts pushing their songs on social media. Facebook has changed it’s algorithms to make it harder for bands to reach their target audiences. We’re told that back in the good old days before the internet came along (with its illegal downloads, streaming and social media) all you needed was talent and hard work and you got noticed, signed and made a ton of money and fans.
I think it’s time to tell it as I see it from my perspective – that it’s a great time in history to be be a new artist, with almost limitless possibilities. We live in a highly connected world, and we no longer require the approval of a few gatekeepers to have a career – we only need the approval of the music fans.
I decided to ask a bunch of my friends who are experts in their field one simple question : Do you think it’s a better time to be a new artist now in 2016, or twenty years ago in 1996 before the internet?
The people I asked cover many facets of the industry – artists both new and established, producers, managers, engineers, songwriters. Each of them gave thoughtful and comprehensive responses and gave some fascinating insights. At the end of this blog is a link to each of their answers in full.
These are the people I spoke to :
- Cam Nacson – Lead singer of MOZA, songwriter and performer
- Carmen Smith – Singer-songwriter, vocalist (Jess Mauboy, Guy Sebastian)
- Ciaran Gribbin – Songwriter (Madonna, deadmau5, Paul Oakenfield), Lead Singer (INXS)
- Correne Wilkie – Manager of The Cat Empire, Harry James Angus
- Eden Martin – Producer, Mixer, Programmer (Bjork, Gwen Stefani, Muse, P Diddy)
- L-FRESH THE LION – leading Australian hiphop artist
- Luke Escombe – Comedian, singer-songwriter, creator of The Vegetable Plot
- Mark Gable – Lead singer of The Choirboys
- Tommy Fleming – Multi-platinum selling Irish singer
- William Bowden – Grammy Award winning mastering engineer (Gotye, The Living End)
THE INTERNET – A BLESSING OR A CURSE?
There’s no doubt that the Internet has been the number one game changer in the music industry in the last twenty years. It has created a centralised hub for so many branches of the business that were previously scattered, and sometimes hard for the young musician to access – production, marketing, distribution, retail, mastering, manufacturing, PR, statistical analysis, the press and media, keeping in contact with fans and peers. Now it’s all there at the swipe of a finger or the press of a button. Most of us haven’t bought a CD from a record store in a few years now because most of us stream a good chunk of our music through sites like Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud. The changes to how we consume music have been immeasurable. It’s simply a completely different landscape in so many ways.
So is this beneficial for a new or independent artist looking to make a career out of their music?
William Bowden : “I think it’s fair to say though, that Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know broke many ‘industry’ preconceptions. It didn’t have a huge record company behind it, it didn’t have a promotional budget, it showed for once what the people wanted – a good song and a good video. Simple really!”
Tommy Fleming : “My Friend and producer Mike Moran who has worked with artists like Queen, Freddie Mercury, Elaine Paige and myself, recognises that compared with twenty years ago, it is much easier for artists to kick start their career. Where twenty years ago, aspiring artists would rely on corporate bigwigs to listen to their demo disc, the internet has put some power back in their artist’s hands. Thanks to the internet, musicians and singers now have more control over their own fates.”
Eden Martin : “In terms of being a creative artist, I think now is an incredibly exciting and much better time than 20 years ago. The tools that are available for you to create your art are numerous, easily available and relatively easy to master the technology that enables you to record and mix your material.”
Cam Nacson : “My first ever radio single “Crazy Kids” was for the most part recorded in my bedroom on GarageBand, free software that came with my Mac. Every week I get to collaborate with and write music and vocals for so many different artists around the world without having to leave my living room.”
Correne Wilke : “The internet has made it possible to have an international career with far greater ease than 20 years ago. Borders and boundaries are invisible in the virtual world, and it is as easy for your music to be discovered by someone in Russia as it is for someone in your home town.”
L-FRESH THE LION : “The Internet is such a powerful tool to utilize to help shape an artists’ career. The Internet means that an artist can do that on their own. They can begin to shape their own careers on their own terms.”
Everything is certainly not perfect now – there are undoubtedly pitfalls for the new artist now, and artists have to be smarter than ever.
Carmen Smith : “The web has opened us up to the world but personally I think the fact that everything is at your fingertips, breeds a very fickle audience who move on very quickly so it is much harder to have long lasting fans.”
Eden Martin : “In terms of making money from your art, I feel the odds can be even more stacked against you than 20 years ago. Sure, you are able to put your music online very easily to reach people on a global level that you would have needed a major distribution company/label behind you to achieve in the past, and some new independent artists are reporting that they are getting paid fairly and regularly from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music etc, but you don’t have to search very hard to find stories about major artists pulling their catalogs from these platforms over unfair royalty distribution.”
Correne Wilkie : “Where 20 years ago people bought albums and became fans of bands and albums, the music consumption methods these days see people listening to individual songs, and not necessarily associating them with albums or indeed the bands/artists who created them. Fans don’t identify themselves with bands with the same fervour they once did. They tend to “follow” and “like” whats trending, and then move on…This makes it much harder to build a loyal and large fan base. It makes it harder to hold a listeners attention.”
Weighing it all up, I’m super excited about the opportunities for young artists in 2016 – we now live in a world where you can make professional quality recordings on your laptop at home, upload it to social media for free, and, if it’s fresh and new, wake up the next morning with thousands of new fans. And you own your career. What a great time to dream.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM – HOW MUCH DO STREAMING SERVICES PAY YOU?
In case you think that tens of millions of streams only equals a tiny amount – a couple of thousand dollars, then think again. Sydney singer-songwriter Cam Nacson makes $750-$1000 per month from Spotify alone, which isn’t bad for a bunch of records made almost entirely in his bedroom. And let’s not forget that before Spotify came along people were still streaming his music online, only he wasn’t making a cent.
Cam Nacson : “There have been a few articles going around lately about various artists & bands being ripped off by streaming services like Spotify. These artists claim they’ve only been receiving paychecks in the thousands of dollars, when they’ve been streamed millions of times. Let me put this to rest… want all your money? Stay independent. The highest profile artist making this complaint is Taylor Swift, who is signed to a major label and no doubt countless other contracts. All these people take their cut, as per their contracts. For myself, on average my music gets streamed about 100K times a month. For that I get paid between $750-$1000 per month and because I’m independent and I release my music through TuneCore who only take a small $30-$70 annual fee per release, I get 100% of that money. That money then goes straight back into the music.”
This calculator from Time Magazine is cool and worth checking out (click on the image to go to the calculator) :
What we learn from this calculator is that there is serious money to be made from streaming – millions of dollars in fact for the top artists. Add to that actual purchases of the music, other streaming services, touring, APRA and other royalties, sync placements if you can get them and merchandise, and you can be earning a pretty healthy amount of money. Sure we can debate how that compares to other industries and whether musicians get financially rewarded enough, but let’s face it – if you’re reading this you probably didn’t go into making music for money did you? You don’t choose to play music and pursue it with all your passion – it chooses you. Most artists want more than anything to connect with fans. Fans from all over the world.
One of the tracks I produced for Little May called Boardwalks has been streamed on Spotify alone over 25 million times. That’s a band of three (albeit amazingly talented) girls from Sydney reaching millions around the world via the internet, and it could happen to you too.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BACK IN 1996 FOR NEW ARTISTS?
Like now, there were a bunch of major labels and a bunch of smaller indie labels. Street press was king – everyone wanted to have an article in the local music papers. There was a show on the ABC called Recovery which showcased primarily local Australian talent. CDs had taken over from vinyl and cassettes, but only recently. Home studios were basic and sound quality was only just starting to become truly professional. Computers were not the preferred recording format of studios – it was still dominated by analogue tape and digital multitrack machines such as the ADAT.
So if you were a new artist in 1996 you had to spend a bucketload of money to record in a studio, press CDs, hope you got a record deal, court the media, get a manager, hit up radio and build a fan base live.
Correne Wilkie : “In the early days of THE CAT EMPIRE, we had to spend thousands of dollars on going to new markets, and just blindly hope people would come out to see the band. Bands don’t have to do that anymore.”
If you didn’t have a label behind you, you were basically dead in the water – there really was no other way of reaching a huge audience and creating millions of new fans. You could certainly argue that the record labels were a form of quality control – filtering out the crap so that the music fans only heard the good stuff, but I’d argue that there would have been hundreds, if not thousands of bands that were amazing that we never got to hear because of the fickle nature of personal taste. This worked great for the chosen few, the ones who the tastemakers of the time deemed worthy. But not so well for thousands of bands and solo artists. Check out Frank Zappa’s brilliant summation of this here.
William Bowden : “Having a platinum selling album in the 90’s would have bought you more houses and sports cars than today. However back then the record company would have taken the lion’s share of whatever the artist earned.”
Ciaran Gribbin : “Before the internet, recording studios, record companies, record stores, CD manufacturing and sales of music was big business, but that didn’t mean that the musician and artist were making lots of money. Sadly this model wasn’t set up to benefit the musician or artist, however a lot of record industry people seemed to do OK out of this model. I know plenty of bands and artists including myself that signed deals with labels in the old model and basically all that happened was the artist went into debt to the label and spent the future trying to pay back the debt… most acts I know made no money and gave up trying to pay back the debt. “
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED IN THE LAST 20 YEARS?
In some respects the internet, and technology more broadly, has completely changed the music industry. Interestingly most of the people I spoke to looked at it from a different perspective – it seems that the core of what it takes to succeed remains untouched .
Luke Escombe : “It’s easy to feel like the internet changed everything, but ultimately the essence of being an artist remains the same as it has always been. You take your passion and experience, your fears and desires, your love and inspiration and all your expertise and pour it diligently into a piece of work, then you present that work to other human beings in whatever way you can, with courage, heart, humility and reverence. The tools may change, and the means by which you reach your audience may change, but the internal process of an artist like Kendrick Lamar is probably not so different to that of William Shakespeare. Picture them at work in a split screen image for a second. You’ll see two guys in deep concentration, staring at a page and writing rhymes. That’s the essence.”
Correne Wilkie : “At the end of the day, at least from where I sit, it’s actually still all about the music. Great music does always find it’s audience, and the internet makes it even easier for that to happen, globally.”
William Bowden : “What I would say though is that in whatever decade you are born into, there is no substitute for hard work. I would say success – and let’s not even get into a definition of what THAT is – is enjoyed by talented people who work like dogs. They try a lot of things before anything that the public sees. They have many many failures and as a result they learn something more deeply.”
L-FRESH THE LION : “At the end of the day, an artists’ number one focus should be to make great music. That’s the foundation right there.”
Mark Gable : “I know more talented people, who have greater talent than those who make the big time. They will never see the light of day because they will not put themselves in the line of fire. So, then or now? No difference, if they are prepared to suffer in any environment they will sooner or later shine.”
The quality of what you produce is still key and that includes your music, artwork, videos, social media presence, branding and promotion. There are always going to be haters, and there will always be people who will either willingly or unconsciously try to take you down. Make your music and everything surrounding it undeniable.
IT’S A GREAT TIME TO BE A NEW ARTIST
The music industry is vibrant, evolving, exciting and full of creative and passionate people who believe in the power of great music to bring change to people’s lives. Be a part of it if that’s your passion.
Music can bring sadness or euphoria, laughter or tears, escapism or self-reflection. It can sometimes bring all at once.
Luke Escombe : Music is alive and well in 2016, and for those who have tuned out, I encourage you to tune back in. Any time is a good time to be a new artist. New is a state of mind, you can be new whenever you want, just throw out your old ideas and start fresh. The world is constantly moving. Wake with the sunrise and get to work.
So back to the question : Would you prefer to be a new artist now or in 1996 before the internet? If you’d like to read all the answers in full click here – everyone had a unique perspective on the question, and all the answers are worth a read, and I’d like to thank each of them for their thoughtful contributions.
I’d like my friend L-FRESH THE LION to sum up :
“Now or 1996? I would prefer now. The Internet is such a powerful tool. To know that I can put out music, and it reach audiences locally and globally is powerful. Who would have thought that an aspiring artist from South West Sydney would have people all the way in the UK listening to his music?”
Thanks for reading this and I’d love to know your thoughts too so feel free to comment. Peace.