New Rules for the Music Business
I launched my music career in 2006, after years of writing and performing just for fun. To my surprise and disappointment, I found that I had launched it to the strains of a funeral dirge. The Old Business was dead or dying, depending on who you asked. It was not yet clear whether there would be a New Business.
Thus, my business strategy for this past eight years has consisted mostly of guessing, experimenting, praying, and failing. Nobody I’ve met, no matter how experienced or successful, has had anything better than an informed guess about how to “make it” as an artist in the 21st century. It’s a strange and confusing new world.
However, thanks to some combination of luck, madness, and pigheadedness, I’ve been making a full-time living at this for about six years. And it’s starting to be kind of fun. I’m not saying I know what I’m doing, but I have ideas, and some people have asked me for advice. So what follows is my best guess at what the fuck is going on here.
The Market and The Muse
A funny thing happened in the 20th century. Artists - known the world over to be fuzzy-headed, open-handed, penniless fools, with one eye on the sky and the other turned awkwardly inward – were forced to become businesspeople. And I don’t just mean that they had to handle money – I mean, they had to start thinking about markets.
Let me make clear for you how absurd this is. The difference between the concerns of pleasing a muse (which are largely abstract and unnameable), and the concerns of pleasing a market (which are largely concrete and quantifiable) are akin to the difference between a bird and a stone.
When we serve the muse, we open ourselves up fearlessly to the woes and passions of the world, we experiment playfully and adventure boldly; we forfeit all allegiance to time, money, and external expectation. The poet Mary Oliver put it this way, “If I have a meeting with you at three o'clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”
When we serve the market, we strive to make something “marketable”: ie: something that meets an identifiable need or demand, is understandable, and is most likely similar to something that came before it. We try to please the fans and the managers and label-heads, because they are providing the money. We cater, above all else, to time, money, and external expectation.
In short, the muse and the market are not just different, they are diametrically opposed. One asks us to proceed boldly, the other to proceed with caution.
But don’t despair, artists. That’s how it used to work. Then, the internet took everything we knew about markets, turned it upside down, shook it hard, and stole its lunch money.
New Rule #1: Create Ceaselessly
These days, instead of appealing to one big market, artists have the opportunity to appeal to any combination of an infinite number of small markets – which don’t even behave like markets, really, but like communities. Our work can reach these communities no matter where they are in the world, how old they are, or what radio station they listen to. And these communities are highly networked within and between each other.
In other words, there are now infinite markets, and infinite ways of marketing to them.
Work ≠ money:
In the old business, every iteration of your work (every concert, CD, and photograph) could be expected to make you a fixed, knowable amount of money. Now that your work is being dumped into the bottomless maw of the internet, you can no longer count on it returning to you with a handful of cash.
A lot of artists aren’t ready to face this one, which is understandable. It’s devastating and terrifying to learn that the way you used to make money is not going to make you money anymore.
But let me state this clearly: the old world is not coming back. We can either learn to live in this one, or we can get a job.
Now, many of us have been lulled into believing that we already have a job. We do not. We have a calling. If you want to follow your calling, a steady paycheck is one of the many nice things that you’ll be asked to sacrifice.
That said, I believe that the problem of money is working itself out in some new and interesting ways. Fans don’t equal cash the way they once did (they don’t necessarily buy your records or go to your concerts, for example), but a fan is still a person who loves and values your work, and is probably willing to pay for it. Kickstarter, Patreon, and Bandcamp are a few of the models that allow us to experiment with turning fans into income, and I predict there will be many, many more in the coming years.
The trick is, they are not linear models. The more fans you have, the more money you can make - probably - but the ratio is not 1:1. The amount you get paid depends on lots of mushy, musey things, like how inspired your fans are, and how much they like you personally, and what they ate for breakfast.
I happen to believe that good artists will always be able to make a living doing the thing they’re good at. Maybe not a great living, but a living. That said, I’ll get a job if I need to. I didn’t get into this for the money; and I’d wager that you didn’t either. Like Gillian Welch said, back in 2001 (AKA: the beginning of the end), “We’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”
Two crazy masters:
So in the old business, the market was fairly bounded, and behaved in a somewhat predictable fashion. In the new business, it’s not, and it doesn’t.
We still have to cater to two masters (the market and the muse), but now, at least they are equally insane. They both require from us every ounce of boldness, passion and open-mindedness we can muster, and they both reward us in surprising and unpredictable ways.
We have to learn to treat our careers the way we treat our art: open ourselves up to mysterious forces, work fearlessly, and pray that we’ll be rewarded.
New Rule #2: Share Generously
I’m about to say something that’s gonna get me into trouble.
“Intellectual property” is an absurd concept that only a society of clueless, museless marketers could possibly conceive of. It’s an idea that serves markets, cripples muses, and is willfully ignorant of all of human history.
We are stealing from one another constantly and shamelessly, and that’s a blessed and beautiful thing. Every folk song is a mashup of all previous folk songs. Every film stands on the shoulders of all other films. Every sentence, poem and novel exists only for the creative gumption of all previous speakers of language, which is itself a collaborative invention of the entire human race. The whole history of human invention is characterized by a kind of joyful, infinite plagiarism.
Ideas are not commodities. They are made to be shared, not owned.
That said, I do get the point. If somebody covered one of my songs and got it on the radio and made millions and didn’t pay me, I’d sue the bajeezus out of the motherfucker. If you’re going to turn my song into a commodity, I expect to paid as though it’s a commodity (even though deep in my heart, I know it’s not).
BUT, if somebody covered one of my songs and put it on youtube, or wrote a song that was an homage to one of mine, or burned one of my CDs and gave it to a friend, or used a song of mine in their broke-ass indie film, I’d high five them. Why? Because there is a big difference between sharing someone else’s work and profiting off of someone else’s work. And it’s time for all of us to get real, real comfortable with the former.
(This, by the way, is why all of my music is released under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License. Read about it!)
The old business was set up in such a way that pretty much every time somebody heard one of your songs, you could expect to get paid for it. The new business is not set up that way, and in my estimation, it’s not about to be. But at this point, I’m inclined not to mind. Remember: fans are worth money, just not in a linear way. That means that I am downright celebratory about people sharing my work. I want my songs to go out there and make fans.
How to Get Paid for Sharing:
I’d argue that the most effective way to rig this new system in our favor is to create as many opportunities as possible for our fans to pay us for what we do. I think most fans are willing to part with some money, as a show of gratitude for the work that moves them.
When it comes to asking for money, ask with humor, confidence, and a sense of abundance. Try to maintain the sense that what you’re offering is valuable and worthwhile. In other words, “Please buy my CD, which is not that great, so I can buy gas” is much less effective than “I made this album, and I think it’s beautiful, and I want you to have it. If you happen to have made some money, and you want me to have it, I think that’s beautiful too.”
Also, ask often, and in lots of different ways. My ‘asks’ range from the “donate” link at the bottom of this post, to Patreon and Kickstarter, to the pitch I do from the stage at every live show (where my CDs are available pay-what-you-please). For more on the ask, I recommend that you watch this video.
In other words, I don’t require anybody to pay me for any of the work I share. That said, I make it really easy and fun and warm-fuzzy-feeling for them to do so. This has been working for me for the past five years or so, and it works better all the time. I’d wager that if you’re committed, and passionate, and willing to apply a bit of your (abundant) creativity to this endeavor, it can work for you, too.
New Rule #3: Collaborate Selflessly
Back when there was one big multi-billion-dollar market, it made sense to get a little territorial. It made sense that artists talked shit about each other, got into public skirmishes, and were reticent to share their resources. They were competing for their little slice of a very big pie.
These days, however, there are infinite pies. That means that advocating for another artist’s work (or even just tolerating it) takes nothing away from your own work. It means that competition within the arts is outdated and counterproductive. It means that we have to take responsibility for our work, because our work lives or dies on its own merits. That’s true of everybody else’s work, too – regardless of our opinions about it (and we have many).
Furthermore, working with other artists grows both of our pies. Cross-promotion and collaboration are perhaps our very best shots at growing our fan base. Marketing dollars are getting less valuable all the time, but “social capital” is getting more valuable.
So here’s what I recommend: find artists you love (artistically and personally), and make something with them, or for them. Send them fan mail. Tell your fans about their records. Make them a casserole. If you need help, ask them. If they need help, give it to them.
Furthermore, if you need help and they won’t provide it, be gracious. They are fighting their own battles and have their own reasons. Similarly, if somebody makes work you don’t like, or if somebody you don’t like has some success that seems unwarranted, let it slide. What’s more: applaud them. We are not competitors anymore, and we gain nothing by cutting each other down.
We are all engaged in the hard work of trying to make something beautiful in an often-ugly world. We wake up every day and fight the same demons - some external, most internal. Every scrap of encouragement we come across is infinitely valuable. We may be an introverted, neurotic, solitary bunch, but we need each other.
This is good business, but more than that, it’s good living. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to do this work if it means my heart has to shrivel up like a prune. I make music because music breaks me open to infinity and God and magic and all manner of foolish feelings. If that stops happening, I’ll quit. Until then, I plan to share those feelings with every artist who happens to incite them, and say THANK YOU to every one of my comrades who provides inspiration or encouragement or help or hope or humor (for example, The Wood Brothers, Devon Sproule, Milton, Anais Mitchell, Chris Kasper, Peter Mulvey, Vienna Teng, The Weepies, Seth Walker, Mark Erelli, Shovels & Rope, and David Torkanowsky. To name a few).
New Rule #4 (the most important rule): Be Grateful.
Keep this in mind at all times. It is a blessing to be a creative person. It is a luxury and a privilege to have a calling, to know what it is, and to have a shot at pursuing it. Fame and fortune are a completely ludicrous expectation, and we don’t deserve them. We don’t even deserve to live above the poverty line (at least, no more than anyone else does).
Whatever bullshit, boring thing you have to do to make it work - be it hooking, tweeting, waiting tables, driving 60,000 miles a year - make peace with it. When you feel bitterness or disappointment nibbling at your heart, fend them off the way you always have: sing, play, and write.
The world gave you your muse. It has already done right by you, and it owes you nothing else.
So, let’s review.
The New Rules:
1) Create ceaselessly. Approach your career like another aspect of your art: it requires constant inspiration and experimentation, and provides unpredictable rewards.
2) Share generously. As soon as it’s out of you, it belongs to the world. Write the song, record it, bless and release. Then, make it really, really easy for people who love it to give you money.
3) Collaborate selflessly. Make friends with artists whose work you love. Make yourself available to them, and ask them for help. When they help or inspire you, be enthusiastically, vocally grateful. When they don’t, be gracious. Let your heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living (joyfully plagiarized from e. e. cummings).
4) Be Grateful. You are a lucky bastard, whether or not you ever sell a single record or ticket. When it’s not working the way you want it to, fall to your knees and give thanks for your ears and your muse and the infinite gifts of creating.
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