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Questions & answers about the music business – August 2007

September 2, 2007

Date: September 2, 2007 7:32:09 AM EDT
Subject: Questions & answers about the music business – August 2007

Every so often I answer artist’s questions about the music business and send them out to my email list.

I hope these emails can educate and inform you and also, serve as a bit of entertainment and fun reading material!

Feel free to send your question in and I’ll do my best to answer it next time!

Jennifer Yeko
True Talent Management
9663 Santa Monica Blvd. # 320
Beverly Hills, CA  90210
http://www.truetalentmgmt.com

Question:

I read your reply about playing out, without it you won’t succeed.

How successful are cover acts?  If you are an artist/writer, is it better to perform covers with originals if you don’t have enough original material?  It is very difficult to perform original material live when nobody has ever heard of them or not on the radio, etc.

What is the best way to maximize yourself live when pushing strictly originals?

-Paul

Answer:

Be a great live artist/band.  Write great songs.

In answer to your other question:

There are a lot of successful cover bands out there.  In fact, many cover bands make more money than many original “live” acts, at least at the indie/club level.  Almost every huge artist I’ve seen live will do one cover song somewhere in their set (oftentimes in the encore).  It might be ironic, like Travis covering Britney Spears “…Baby One More Time” or it might just be a cover of a regular, popular song.  I’ve seen some acts do 1/2 covers and 1/2 originals in their live set.  Only you can judge if your live material is good enough but one band I know did exactly 1/2 covers and 1/2 originals and grew their fan base that way.  Which worked as a great compromise.

Ultimately, though, it depends on what your goal is.  If you want to make money and play out, being a “cover band” is the faster way to that.  But if you want to ultimately succeed as a original band, you’ll need to perform your original songs somehow!

The only way you can become a better performer is to get out there and perform. I recently met an artist who said she wasn’t very good until she’d done about 50 live shows.

And as for the music, the songwriting is key.  Write every day.  Rewrite.  You only become good by writing more and more.  Every day.  And ultimately, to succeed in the music business, you must be writing GREAT songs, not “good” songs.

Practice your songwriting craft.  Take songwriting classes.  Learn how to record at home using your computer and ProTools.  Seek feedback from other artists you like and respect and take their opinions into consideration and rewrite your songs until people really respond to them.  Cowrite with other artists.  Listen to the radio. Study the structure of “hit” songs.

Even if it’s just one guy in the bar – people should be tapping their toes, bobbing their heads, be into whatever music you’re doing and telling you so after your show.

Hope that helps.

Question:

Hi Jennifer,

I want to say that I enjoy these topics you send around, they are educational and informative, and it’s always nice to know what other bands are dealing with.  Thanks!

So – I’m replying to you on this topic because I have a big question regarding touring that I would like some advice and feedback on.  You said “Touring is a crucial part of becoming a successful artist/band”.  My question is why is touring such a big consideration?  Why does it even matter on an indie level?  Isn’t it supposed to about the songs first?  It seems that if a band doesn’t tour, labels won’t even talk to you.

Let me explain why I ask and give you a realistic, everyday scenario that an indie band will face – some artists, and I venture to say MOST indie artists, have no financial cushion to fall back on.  Not everyone lives with mommy and daddy (and therefore have no bills and a place to stay), and not everyone has independent financing.  This means you pay your own rent, your own bills, and have nothing to fall back on but yourselves.  The bulk of indie musicians live off of our measly day job paychecks, scraping by, not making enough money to save anything substantial to be able to live on.  Paycheck to paycheck is the way of the artist, so saving money for a rainy day, or a tour, is completely impossible.

Now consider this – to go on the road as an unknown indie band, you make no money.  You might be the biggest thing your home region has ever seen, but if you’re from NY for example, and you want to tour in Tennessee, it’s fair to say no one in TN has heard of you and therefore you’re not gonna be a big draw, and therefore you will not receive a big paycheck from shows on tour, if ANY paycheck at all.

So now you go on tour – you all hop in the van for a short 2-3 week tour.  You go to all of these venues in all of these towns that have never heard of you.  You play your heart out, you make a good impression on the people in the club, but the draw is light as expected.  This usually means you don’t get paid, or you get paid very little like maybe $50 for the entire band.  That, by the way, is a VERY accurate scenario as far as indie band tour pay goes, I know this from several personal experiences and the experiences of friends.

Now after your 3 weeks, you are hundreds of dollars in the hole.  You have not made a dime in profit, and you have spent far more than you made in gas, lodging, food, etc.  You get home.  For 3 weeks you have not worked, so you have no paycheck.  Now the bills are piling up.  The landlord wants the rent.  You might very well have LOST your job because you took 3 weeks off and now you face joblessness and homelessness because of your 3 week tour.

My point is this – HOW is an indie band with no money supposed to actually get on the road if they have nothing to fall back on, like mom and dad or some substantial savings?

If the songs are great, the hometown draw and hometown sales (also internet sales) are strong (we have thousands), maybe the band has some nice licenses under their belt (we have 14) and some big publicity (we have that too) why does touring make any difference at all, when you have no financial means to be able to actually sustain a tour?  Why is this a pre-requisite to getting a deal in many cases?  It’s almost as if the industry discriminates aganst the blue collar bands with no money, and this is a dilemma my band has faced for years.  If we go on tour, we will lose our jobs and our homes and wind up homeless living in the street.  My parents are both dead, I have no one to help finance me or to give me a place to stay, and I (as most of us) do not have the luxury at my job to just take weeks at a time off.

What recourse does an indie band have in this set of circumstances, and why is a tour necessary when touring is not a realistic possibility?

Thanks for considering my question, and please have a wonderful day!

-Vince

Answer:

Wow, that’s quite an email.

First of all, sounds like you are doing great.  So why do you need to tour and to get signed to a label?  Maybe you don’t.  Maybe things are fine as they are.

Not every band or artist needs to sell millions of CDs, be on the radio and on MTV/VH1/Fuse/etc.  In fact, the scenario you just described is far more realistic.

If you’re doing well locally, stick to what works.  Don’t go tour in Tennessee just because you “want to”!  Is it a good business decision right now?  Probably not.  Not unless you can get on the radio there or get some local press going and tour supporting a band that has a fan base there already.  Be smart about where you play out.  It only makes sense to tour far away if you can bring some people out and go back there again in a relatively short time frame to build your draw.  It’s about repetition.  Say you play to 10 people at some divey bar. But you are so great, next time you play, your 10 fans tell their friends and at the next gig there are 20-30 people there.  And then next time, 50. Then 70.  I think you get the point.  Is it easy?  No.  But this is about work, not just fun and games.  How much promotion did you do the last time you did a 3 week tour?  Jumping in a van and spending money on food, gas and lodging doesn’t make sense unless you’ve put a lot of effort into promoting those shows.  Did you look into playing colleges?  Colleges and universities will oftentimes pay bands and pay for their food, lodging, etc. in addition to money for coming to campus to perform.  But your music has to be pretty clean cut and appeal to the college aged demographic to do this.

But let me get back to answering your questions.

Touring is important for a number of reasons.  Traditionally, artists make 60-70% of their income from ticket sales and touring.  Touring sets you apart from the other tens of thousands of artists who sit at home, write a song or two (or an album’s worth) and throw them up on myspace.  Sure, a label may like your music but do you have a fan base?  How many CDs have you sold?  And who cares about labels, without fans, without people coming to see you live, how are you going to make a living with your music? Sure, film and TV licensing is a huge business and many artists make their living from it alone.  But to truly break through, if you really want to become “huge,” you must tour.  You have to start somewhere.

When you tour, you are out there, meeting and networking with other bands.  Great things can and have happened to artists on the road because of who they meet.

Also, performing live is just about the #1 way to sell CDs.  And while CD sales may be declining, it’s still a huge source of revenue for most indie artists.

There are a million reasons why touring is important.

You’re right, if a band doesn’t tour, a major label will not take that act seriously (unless that act is a pop act and/or can truly be broken from radio – in which case you better be writing songs as catchy and poppy as what’s on the radio today).  Now that’s not to say a band that doesn’t tour will never get signed.  Just no bands that I know of.  Sure, there are the Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne’s of the world who may not have toured much until they got signed. But they worked hard in other areas.  Britney on the Mickey Mouse Club and Avril had the whole “punk/goth” image and blonde hair going for her and claims to be more of a songwriter.  And once they did get signed, both toured shopping malls to get a fan base.  And consider that they were both very young (16ish) and very blonde when they got signed. And they make pop music.  Very different than most of you artists out there.

Is touring easy?  No.  Is it even harder when you get older and have responsibilities, like a wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/cat/dog/fish/kids?  Of course.  Why do you think labels have traditionally signed younger acts?  Well, for a lot of reasons (that I’ll save for another email) but one of the reasons is because the younger the artist, the less they’ll mind touring around in a van (yes, a van, not a tour bus!)  And they might live at home so that definitely cuts down on expenses like rent and electricty.  Besides, even if you somehow manage to get signed without a huge fan base, what are you going to do when you get signed? Make an album. And then get out there and go to radio and hit the road to tour (in a van) and promote it. A label is a thousand times more likely to sign a band who’s already been doing that on their own (that already has hundreds, if not thousands of fans and CDs sales already) than to take a chance with a band that doesn’t tour, doesn’t have a fan base and hasn’t sold many CDs.  I’m not saying it’s impossible but given the choice between signing 2 bands, one that tours and one that doesn’t, which band do you think the label will sign?

That being said, touring isn’t for everyone.  But it sounds to me like you’re making excuses.  It’s too hard?  Maybe to you.  But thousands of indie bands are doing it right now.  In fact, I was just talking to an A&R executive who has been following a band around as they tour this summer and he wants to sign them.

I’ve heard that cry before, “it’s not fair, I don’t have some mom and dad supporting me” as a reason why an artist “can’t” tour.

Is it hard?  Absolutely.   But buddy, life is hard.  Life isn’t fair.

Still, many poor and struggling artists have figured out a way to do it.  Your email really sounds like you’re playing “victim” and if you “play victim” you’ll never succeed.  Successful people figure out a way.  They say “I can do it” not “I can’t.”  Successful people don’t whine and complain that life is “hard” or that they were dealt a tough life.  Besides, I much rather represent a band that has no money but is working their butt off than a band that has a fat bank account but sits on their butt all day.  In fact, I used to manage an act like that, who never toured outside of his home state and he’s been incredibly unsuccessful.

The music business is very competitive and for every artist out their complaing that it’s “too hard” or “too much work” there are 10 that are out there touring and have figured out a way to do it.

Get some investors to back you.  Do more freelance work.  Start a graphic design or web design business.  If you’re a creative person, use your creativity to figure out how you can make more money and still get out there and tour!  If you really want to break into a new market, teach voice, guitar, drums or keyboard lessons to kids!

Why not take the money you’ve made from local CD sales and licensing your music to film and TV and use it to support your touring? And why not focus on areas closer to home instead of going on 3 week trips to random places where you have no fan base.  Also, you can use myspace and other bands to network with and promote to fans in the places you are going to.

Or, perhaps you are better off as a songwriter and sitting at home writing songs and licensing them to film/tv.  There’s a reason why that end of the business is booming.  Or, make some amazing concert videos, put them up on YouTube and try to promote to the fans that you have. See if you’re really that good that you can get fans virally.

Punk bands work a day job during the week and hit the road Thurs-Sat night, touring locally as much as they can and gradually working their way out from their home town or city.  I’m not advising to quit your jobs and just jump in a van. That won’t work. Be smart, build up a local fan base and then expand outward.  If you’re not doing well in your home town, chances are it won’t be much better on the road, unless you live in a place where your genre of music isn’t popular (say doing country music in New York city).  Touring regionally is a thousand times smarter than touring in random places.  Start in your home town. Then expand out 20-30 minutes in each direction. Repeat.

Most successful bands out there have figured out a way to tour.  Bands without rich parents or anyone helping them. They tend to be very driven and very motivated.  Perhaps some of the touring artists on this list will tell you how they’ve done it.

Listen, if you’re doing well playing locally and licensing your songs, who says you need to tour?  No one is holding a gun to your head. The whole music business is being turned upside down. You can be indie and do very well.  However, if you’re looking to get signed to almost any record label, it will be a thousand times more difficult without a fan base and having toured.

Here’s more info: http://www.taxi.com/transmitter/0405/tips0405.html

****

I’ll leave you with this piece of advice from a fellow list reader:

“The labels are in the business of SELLING RECORDS. (CD’s Downloads – whatever you want to call it).  They have one product and one product only and it needs to sell.”

Just wanted to expound on this and add a couple thoughts, being a manager/indie A&R/publishing company. I started as a wanna be rock star, stopped at 25, had already opened two recording studios, produced hundreds of indie records, then started writing songs for myself and others (yeah, a lot of them sucked too), took time off, and got back in as an indie A&R/publishing company as I saw the internet growing. I have raised over a million dollars from private investors for artists development in the past 4 years. Anyway, here’s what I have to say…(you may want to keep this to yourself, it might be too much for the general public:)

Actually, the labels now know that they can’t generate enough revenue from cd sales anymore. This is why they enter into 50-50 all encompassing deals with the artists now. They get a piece of everything….merch, touring, endorsements, etc. They become partners with the artists. Some see this as good, some as bad.

I think it’s great as the label has to work just as hard as the artist to be successful.

Artists need to realize that TV and film placement are really the new radio, with regards to breaking in to the biz. And they need to look at places like Starbucks and Nordstrom’s as places to get their product. They sell more CD’s then normal brick and mortar retail.

If you’re not out playing, you’re a loser already.

This business is not rocket science, and all the wanna be artists out their are so opinionated and jealous that they completely forget this is the music BUSINESS!

I, like you Jenn, trip over CD’s in my house, office, car, and I can’t believe the amount of money people spend on kits, pressing CD’s, etc. What kills me even more is getting a freakin CD that looks great, sounds like ass crackers, but there’s 10 pages of liner notes! Who freakin cares who you want to thank and love!

Write great songs, release a single, generate money from that to record more, one step at a time, pretend it’s the 50’s and early 60’s…single oriented, LP’s were not made until singles proved the artists viability in the market.

Bottom line is Get IT or GET OUT!

James L.

*****
Always keep doing what you’re doing because you do something that, well, actually, I don’t know anyone that could do what you do. With regards to time, patience, objectiveness, it’s very cool. I am sure you get major emails beating you up, but they’re wrong!

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