“The papers said Ed always played from the heart
He got an agent and a roadie named Bart
They made a record and it went in the charts
The sky was the limit”
Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” catches the dream very well and it is one of my favorite songs. It’s about and artist rise and fall and the lines above here is the essential dream of the music industry.
Someone said that the music industry is selling a dream; we make smoke and mirrors to keep that dream still true. The question now is when will this dream change? The dream will always be there, that a lot of people will enjoy my art. But the rules have changed.
In the dark middle-ages when we didn’t have cell phones or internet, yes I’m talking the 80’s and early 90’s. Recording a record was expensive. To get a good sound you needed to be in a professional studio with the right equipment. The record label put up money for artwork, a producer, pressing, and recording. An album was an achievement.
Today, you can get the same effects with a plug-in that is cheaper to buy than a sandwich. What we lost is the knowledge of how to use these sounds, but if you just go after that you can now, as an artist, get whatever soundscape you want, it’s true. The cost is now down to almost nothing. A lot is recorded at home so no studio costs. If a studio is used, you can always just send the files by transfer and get the files back the same way with no travel costs.
All this, of course, have now made the record labels transfer all the cost of a recording over to the artist. When people are talking about demos, I smirk a bit. There are no demos anymore, just bad recordings. Today the industry expects a perfect recording and they want to do a re-recording of a track, it’s just a waste of time and money. We expect the artist to solve the problem with a recording.
As well, PR was a huge cost to the record label before. They employed a whole staff just to get the record out in the stores, in magazines, radio and TV. All that has changed as now as well. In the current times they mainly hire people to help out to maximize the online presence. The important word here is “help”. They expect the artist to manage their own social media with a decent number of followers to be able to execute this help. If the artist hasn’t got to these numbers, the label really can’t help. The days when the labels took over the social media accounts and pretended to be the artist is way over. In fact, most PR is put back in the hands of the artist. Today you can get access to all these media lists that they had for no money at all. The label doesn’t really want to waste money in salaries on employees just sitting and cold emailing; no that is now left for the artist.
Videos and photo shoots were a cool thing back in the day. Not unusual that they actually spent the same amount of money on a rock video as they did on an indie full-length movie. Today this is just content that everybody expects the artist to contribute. At the same time doing a flyover and artist playing on the rooftop of a skyscraper was a million-dollar shot. Today you can do this using your friend’s drone in exchange for a meal at McDonald’s. It is now expected that you as the artist are expected to present the full product to the label. Essentially you are producing all the PR material that is needed.
Live shows and touring were something that you got assistance from as well from the label. They paid tour support so you could do some free shows to promote the album you were about to release. Now during Covid nothing is certain, but the tour support was already gone before that. Today even with many of the booking agents they expect the artist to bring in shows that they can promote. Very few of them can set up a tour even for a mid-size act.
If you read one of my other columns you saw that we are now seeing more that the managers are selling their knowledge as consultants. Another step in the way that we are pushing most of the costs over to the artist. There are no real investors left in the industry. With the new technology, we can easily see which artists are doing these things and then conveniently go in and offer some help at the right price or percentage. No risk really is taken and if it won’t work out from the first single, we can minimize damage but severing the deal since we didn’t sign any long term contract.
So why are the artists continuing to fall for this? It has with that dream I was writing about at the beginning. Ed in the song “Into The Great Wide Open” gets everything sorted for him and then he can go on and destroy himself by drinking and behave badly. Today no real artist would have time to behave badly. Since everything is put on their shoulders both economically and production-wise, they have no time left to party. To many artists they don’t see the changes as they are still viewing the world that happened before cell phones and the internet.
Yes, it has become cheaper to make music and create the PR around it. At the same time, we have opened up all the channels for anyone to participate, which has led to the audience losing their gatekeepers and now we have a really hard time to find new things. The consequence of that is that PR takes so much more time to do to reach the same amount of people.
Many artists are just going around trying to find people who will do these things for them. Also, they try to get them to do it for free. Yes, you need a team, but don’t expect them to buy into into the risk that you are taking. Instead of looking for that investor, try to build up a small team that you pay something minimal at least. Yes, you need to invest in your own career, the days with an investment of just time is over, you need money to stand out. On the other hand, the same things that were just exclusive to labels before are now open for anyone. It’s not the same ridiculous money that the labels spent back in the days.
You have to look more at your career as opening an enterprise. Yes, your staff will get paid before you. And you need the staff expertise. The time that you would meet a person on the street that would give you a lot of money to open an enterprise or doing a career is pretty gone and angel investors are few and far between.
Editor’s Note: Peter Åstedt has been working in the music industry for over 30 years. He has started record labels, distribution systems, and publishing companies. Peter also runs several major showcase festivals and is an advisor for INES and co-founder of MusicHelp/Discover Sensation. He has worked with the Top Ten most streamed songs and had music on both the Olympics and Super Bowl. Peter has currently taken up the seat of Station Manager of Cashbox Radio, working with MD, PD and station owner, Sandy Graham. His latest venture is a new Showcase Festival in Sweden, Future Echoes scheduled for September 16-18, 2021.