I’m posting some early drafts of chapters from Audience Supported just for supporters of spinme.com…
The new boss looks a lot like the old boss.
We’ve only been handing out Grammys for about six decades. The Oscars started about twenty years before that. You may still have a relative who can tell you about how her family entertained themselves each night before live television dominated the living room. What we think of as the professional entertainment business hasn’t been around very long at all.
Yet, if you ask most of the musicians at a typical entertainment conference, they’ll tell you that the only way to make a living making music is to “get discovered” by a record label, a talent promoter, or a reality show. Singers and songwriters are some of the most iconoclastic, quirky, and difficult to manage people I know. My career has included stints as a radio producer, a record label owner, a booking agent, and a publicist, and I still don’t quite know how to get some musicians to their gigs on time.
So artists get pigeonholed as “being difficult,” forcing them to find symbiotic relationships with business professionals who can help them sort out the day-to-day responsibilities of paying bills, promoting shows, and producing recordings. If you’re the kind of artist who’s not professionally difficult, you probably get even more frustrated about the discrimination you’ve faced when dealing with “the industry.” It probably looks a lot like the experiences Amanda Palmer described on her blog.
For about the length of time that we’ve had a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, our global culture has relied on record labels to curate and distribute music. That’s the first time in our world’s culture when we allowed an industry to shift our attention away from live performance and into pre-packaged entertainment product.
You can trace the “entertainment industry” back hundreds of years, to the theatres of Shakespeare’s times and to gathering places stretching back to the Roman era and beyond. But the technology of audiovisual recording and distribution shifted our expectations and our consumption. It commodified music recordings and reduced many entertainers to exaggerated replicas of themselves.
It wasn’t always this way, and it won’t stay that way for long.
Until we allowed record labels and television networks to democratize artistic consumption, the world relied on relationships between artists and patrons. Charles Erlandson summarizes the idea:
The concept of the patron which is still with us originated in the times of Rome and designated a Roman citizen who was a protector (the patronus) of a foreigner who had settled in Roman territory (the cliens). The relationship between the patron and his client (clientala) was an especially close one and involved many of the terms found in feudal contracts between lords and vassals. This Roman concept of the patron was extended into the medieval and Renaissance times, during which artists were afforded protection and sponsorship by various nobles and merchant princes.
The modern entertainment industry disrupted this notion of the artist as the “client” of a wealthier patron, replacing it with the notion that artists must serve their audiences.
Americans love charts and rankings. Trade publications like Billboard chronicled the rise and fall of singles and albums for decades, often using easily manipulated statistics. Achieving a “number one” hit on that chart often meant the difference between a signifiant album advance and getting dropped from a label’s active roster. (Yet, as Amanda Palmer and other artists have discovered, getting dropped from the roster and released from your recording contract are two very different career experiences.)
Rankings made sense during a time when recordings were expensive. Record labels gambled on every track they cut, and any statistics that pointed at success made A&R executives feel more secure than if they’d just blown their budget on a horse at the 4:15 at Santa Anita.
Two things have happened in the past few decades to change that equation, and neither of them really had anything to do with the Internet.
First, global audiences changed their expectations of musicians and performances. We can thank the art, punk, and rave scenes for this, mostly. Andy Warhol’s Factory changed how we think about producing and enjoying art, inspiring experiments in painting, filmmaking, and music that resulted in acts like The Velvet Underground. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols challenged our notions about the separation between artistic vision and musical craftmanship. Manchester’s youth rebellion in the late 1980s and early 1990s spawned a do-it-yourself ethic that turned any available warehouse into a performance or DJ venue.
Artists stopped seeking permission from labels and production companies, embracing “indie” and “alternative” ethics that have gradually swallowed mainstream popular culture. Audiences now seek the transcendent experience of seeing something special, something unique, in person. It’s no longer enough to watch a concert film, even in 3-D. Audiences will pay a premium for the chance to be in the same room as an artist at the top of their game, producing something that won’t ever get recreated, even by the same backing band and technical crew. As much as we crave something that’s polished, we get even more excited about seeing the elements that make a performer more human, more vulnerable, more spontaneous.
Second, the cost of making art has dropped considerably. Today, you can mix a four-track demo on a wireless phone that sounds better than the four-track audio recorders I noodled with in the early 1990s, at about one-fifth the price. Buying your own “prosumer” recording equipment and installing it permanently at your house can cost just a fraction of a week’s tab at Sony Studios. Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl even used that technique for his band’s album, “Wasting Light,” explaining the decision to Sound on Sound’s Tom Doyle:
“What if Butch [Vig] and I were to get back together after 20 years and dust off the tape machines and put them in my garage? We’ve recorded an album somewhere where no?one has ever recorded before. We’ve not gone to the studio where Zeppelin made In Through The Out Door, we’ve gone into my garage.”
Recording on a shoestring budget places constraints on any band, especially if you’ve got considerably smaller shoestrings than Dave Grohl. Even an experienced producer like Butch Vig raised concerns about making an album on low-cost gear:
I said to him, ‘That means you guys have to be razor?sharp tight. You’ve gotta be so well rehearsed, ’cause I can’t fix anything. I can’t paste drum fills and choruses around. This is gonna be a record about performance, about how you guys play.’”
With art appearing to cost less to make to the average consumer, it’s no surprise that we’ve devalued recordings as commodities. For most bands, making an album is now a line item in the promotional budget for a tour. Albums as standalone products rarely make money. Very few major label recordings “earn out,” forcing artists to surrender portions of their publishing and touring incomes to labels in many recent contracts.
Restoring the patron-client relationship.
As a business proposition, it’s harder than ever to find a record label willing to front the advance money to make an album or to support a tour. It’s just not good business.
But, it can be great art.
Patrons don’t have the same motivations as businesses. They can invest money based on passion. Their profits come from elsewhere. They want to experience the world through the senses of an accomplished artist, and they want to share those experiences. They’re willing to pay the freight for audience members with limited resources. And they understand the distinction between challenging and enabling.
Sure, they have their own needs that artists must meet to make the relationship work. However, the best artist-patron relationships of all time have revolved around the trust between all parties that The Work will elevate us all.
I won’t stop encouraging you to run your artistic enterprise as a business. You’ll still need to make sure you’re paying the bills on time and earning enough money from multiple sources to ensure you don’t end up on the street. However, finding some patrons to support your work can mean the difference between slugging it out for a place on the iTunes chart and really creating the art you’re here to contribute.
The next ten chapters contain the best practices I’ve observed among artists who run their businesses effectively, supplementing their ticket sales and royalties by offering patrons a place at their tables. Achieving this kind of success in your career requires a commitment to your craft and a clear understanding of how you can enrich the lives of your audience.
I’ve learned, primarily through surviving shows for whom I was not the intended audience, that there’s always someone out there willing to support your work. If you’re at the very early stage of your career, I recommend you refer to my earlier book, Grow Your Band’s Audience, for some specific steps you can take to find your first few hundred supporters. Regardless of where you are in your development, I want you to get clear about the work you’re making and the impact you want to have on the people that experience your work. Do that well, and you’ll never face the fear or the shame of “selling out.”