boxingLast week, the Huffington Post published an article by Mike McCready titled The Future of the Music Industry.  In this article, McCready describes his vision of how music will be discovered and consumed in the near future.  Besides overtly (over-)plugging his new Music Xray service and offering a somewhat reductionist view of the music industry’s glory days and current challenges, McCready predicts that:

  • Music will appear free to consumers, even if it is actually paid for by advertising and licensing fees
  • People will generally find music via computer programs and databases, and the key to the success of these databases is tied to the accuracy and depth of their data
  • For artists to earn any sort of living making music–from music sales, concert tickets, or otherwise–they will need to reach the masses, and these recommendation systems will allow them to get in front of the “…gatekeepers, such as music supervisors in Hollywood, ad agencies, program directors and video game designers…” who will give them that mass exposure

I could go through McCready’s essay almost paragraph by paragraph, explaining where I disagree (and I still may in a future article).  Admittedly, he does get a lot of things right, and my issues are not with many of his facts, but rather, the assumptions he makes about the modern music business and the modern methods by which artists can achieve success.  Two of these assumptions in particular are very relevant to readers of this blog, and so let’s examine them.

Assumption #1: The Record Label’s Role as Filter

First, McCready seems very confused as to what the actual role of the major record labels has been, as well as their current challenges. His claim:

…[In the past] The music labels were society’s music filters. They were responsible for finding the best talent, nurturing it, promoting it and distributing it all over the world…[But now] How can the fans find the needles in the haystack they want to hear? How can the artists locate their future fans? It’s the fundamental problem the labels were solving but now they can’t do it effectively. There’s too much music for them to even try to filter effectively and nobody wants to buy their CDs anyway, so how can that work even be funded?

Yes, you read that correctly: the job of the major labels was to find the best talent and to promote said talent, and the problem today is that there is too much music for them to sift through to find the talent.

in reality, the job of the major labels has always been to find the talent with the most commercial potential

Now, as anyone who has worked at a major label will tell you, their goal is not to find the best talent; often times, quality is even an afterthought, as there are always singing lessons, auto-tune, and Max Martin’s production to fall back on.  No, in reality, the job of the major labels has always been to find the talent with the most commercial potential.  For better or worse, the major labels are in the business of generating income from music (not the music business, but the business of music), and while they often times find both, if they don’t see the potential in an artist to earn back more than what they are going to have to invest to make that artist an international star–whether through album sales or all-compassing 360 deals–they will not even consider offering the most talented musician a contract. I’m not saying that the major labels do not sign talented artists, but rather, that their goals are first and foremost commercial, with artistic talent in second place.

The claim that the labels can’t find the talent in today’s market is also bogus. The issue is not finding the talent–despite reductions in A&R budgets, hundreds of artists are still signed each year.  The challenge lies in being able to successfully promote that talent in the traffic jam that is today’s entertainment market place and convince consumers to spend money on that talent.  In the past, there were relatively few channels that the masses could use to discover new music–radio, print, television and word of mouth–and the major labels were generally able to take advantage of these channels and generate music sales with startling efficiency. However, they now they find themselves at a loss as to how to continue to generate revenue in a democratized marketplace (which, McCready, to his credit, quite accurately describes in the first three paragraphs of his commentary).

The lesson? Do not ever believe that you don’t have a major-label deal because you lack talent; it almost always comes down to economics.

Assumption #2: Mass Exposure is the Only Way to Earn a Living as a Musician

McCready also claims that in the future, mass exposure will continue to be the key ingredient to success as a musician. In his words:

In spite of the reduced barriers to music creation and access to easily have your song distributed to all of the digital outlets…it still almost always requires mass exposure in order for a song to really take hold and begin to earn some money…Songs must still come to the attention of someone who has an opportunity. The gatekeepers, such as music supervisors in Hollywood, ad agencies, program directors and video game designers remain and will continue to remain in place playing a valuable role.  So, real change will come by leveling the playing field and by giving individual artists equal access to mass-exposure opportunities.

The problem with this reasoning is two-fold. First, it relies on a very limited definition of success. We have addressed this before, so I will not go into too many details here. Sufficient to say, because of technology, success as a musician no longer requires platinum albums, ubiquitous radio play and major label money (in other words, mass exposure). If you are comfortable defining success as, “earning a decent living as a musician,” then you can be successful without mass exposure.

If you are comfortable defining success as, “earning a decent living as a musician,” then you can be successful without mass exposure.

Second, McCready seems to lack a fundamental understanding of who the gatekeepers are today, supplying an anachronistic list of typical entertainment executives who have something to do with music. The truth, though, is that, for better or worse, we have all become the gatekeepers–we send song recommendations to friends via Last.fm, iLike and imeem; we comment on user-generated videos and mark them as favorites for anyone in our network to see; we tell those who have decided we have something valuable to say our opinions and ideas in 140 characters or less, and allow others to do the same.  Inclusion in a block-buster movie or top-rated television show is no longer a guarantee that a song will sell, but get 500k views on YouTube or mass buzz via Twitter, and watch the sales of that song explode!

As a musician today, you do need gatekeepers, but those gatekeepers are all around you–they are following you on Twitter, making music videos for your songs and putting them on YouTube, reading your blog entries and, most importantly, using that same social media to tell their friends and followers about how much they enjoy your music. Is having a song included in Grand Theft Auto a good thing? Of course, but the point is that the importance of those who make those decisions as to what-is-exposed-where has been significantly diminished thanks to social media.  Today, everyone has an opportunity to be a gatekeeper, and your focus as a musician is no longer to search for your one big break via the gatekeepers of the past, but to take advantage of the dozens of small opportunities that you have each day to grow your tribe and create new fans.

*****

I have nothing personal against Mike McCready–I have never met him, and his Music Xray service appears to be something that should be in the independent musician’s toolbox. However, his essay for the Huffington Post on the future of the music industry demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the opportunities and possibilities that artists now have.  You don’t need mass exposure, and you don’t need the support of a major label. Build your tribe and create your own success.

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