Saturday, August 11, 2012


Billy Corgan is the frontman for the immensely successful band, Smashing Pumpkins.  His seasoned insights are valuable to any musician hoping to build a career today.

"Corgan, who’s no stranger to controversy, believes that the music industry is currently structured to prevent artists from achieving the type of success his band enjoyed. In fact, Corgan doesn’t believe the Pumpkins could achieve the success they have, or anything close to it, if they debuted now."

To paraphrase what he says in the video: he hints that music culture has become a service culture--which he argues is counter-intuitive to the temperament of truly talented artists.  Optimistically, he does also suggest, however, history inevitably honors the auteur--the artist who's vision is distinctive enough to shine through the industry's machinery and/or the popular taste of the day. (I should mention, from my perspective, history perhaps posthumously honors a "truly talented" artist with respect, but, alas, not necessarily cash, which would have probably been a li'l bit more useful while the artist was still alive!) 

Corgan furthermore suggests the industry's move toward a less profitable service culture is a vicious cycle, one driven  (in part) by younger artists more excited about fame as an aspirational lifestyle, more so than they are about the cultivation of a fan base devoted to innovation and the exchange of that innovative product for the consumer's hard-earned dollars. 

A sidebar: here's a familiar conversation I personally have had on more than one occasion with young artists...  The young musician will say, "I have a zillion Facebook fans!" To which I say: "Awesome! Are you making any money?" The young social sensation will respond: "No."  Then [quietly to myself] I think: ...hmmm, really? Then: who gives a %#@!  You see, too many younger musicians aspire to fame, but not professionalism...

What is a professional musician?  I recently asked my musical colleagues on Facebook.  My informal survey produced some interesting answers, a few of which are bulleted below. Note how some of these definitions are very practical, and/or defined by the IRS...not by fan base or by video hits. I cannot, of course, say these quotes define comprehensively what it means to be professional, but they're actually not a bad jumping off point to begin the discussion in your own mind:
      • "If you are using IRS Form 2106 you can probably call yourself professional. But "making a living" is something else. Perhaps if 'musician' is how you designate yourself on page 1 of the actual tax form?"
      • "You can lose money for up to 3 years before it is switched to a Hobby."
      •  "If you don't have to do any non music related jobs in order to make ends meet then you can claim pro.

In any case, Corgan goes on to suggest democratization of technology is not actually happening. 

Whaaaat??!!??  This was shocking to me insomuch as Garage Band and iTunes, and all proliferation of so many other handy tools for music creation and distribution have made it possible for just about anybody to produce something and get it out there into the marketplace.  Right?

But Corgan's assertion is: people aren't as wired into the internet as we're led to believe. The reach of mainstream media still rules disproportionately in comparison to any online channels. What is happening, however (according to Corgan), is the "democratization of attention spans"...resulting in a widening gulf between how artists must rely on the more sophisticated segment of their fan base versus a "splaying out" of their creative intentions to a "general morass of crap".   We're all focusing on putting our music online, because we can...because it's possible, and in our control.  But his point is this: while there's an ever growing audience of music lovers who are wired, and who do use these emergent technologies, the internet is still most definitely not the primary channel by which music is being consumed across the nation.  Or, more precisely to the point: it may not be the primary means by which the vast majority of musicians are making any serious money.

That rings true to me, because I know, in my own career, it's money from live shows, from touring, that generates the most income.  All industry stats point to this being the case.  The money is in live shows, not in the sale of recordings.

Importantly, Corgan confirms what I've known for a long time now: people on the street no longer really believe in the idea of purchasing music, not as a commodity in and of itself.

Allow me to break that down another way...

What you do as a musician--i.e., your skill set---increasingly, has little intrinsic value to most listeners (again, not as made demonstrable by nice comments but by actual dollars). In other words: if music is detached from a physical object (like an vinyl album or CD), it's an ephemeral thing, and has only marginal or quite possibly no value in the average consumer's mind.

I know, I know... That's at complete odds with the idea that the money is in live shows.  Allow me to explain:

Live shows are lucrative if you've got a huge fan base and can regularly fill a large hall or stadium.  If you've got only 50 fans, however, live shows likely won't pay your rent unless your tickets sell for mucho dinero.  But even a locally successful indy band can't really command crazy high ticket prices.  In the past, however, musicians in the middle tier of professionalism might not have been able to rake it in by performing live, but they were able to successfully augment ticket sales with money from fans buying tapes, CDs, and other physical objects.  Today, though,  the idea that your CD is going to a profitable endeavor--that's fading in a marketplace where there is no physical object for sale.  The implicit logic of Corgan's argument is: a hardcopy of music is more valuable than a digital copy.  Why?  Because you can hold an album in your hand, you can enjoy the cover art, read the liner notes, trade it with your buddies, etc...  People understand the exchange of money for something they can hold in their hand more readily than something they can't even touch.  Fans value what they can hold more than they value what they cannot.

Even if you can shred on your instrument, the act of witnessing is not something the fan watching and listening can take home, pull of the shelf, and plop onto the turntable.  Hence: it's not as valuable.  And that's why Corgan suggests music has now become more akin to a catering, or bartending, or DJ'ing at a wedding. Think, for a moment, about how when you buy a car, you're not thinking about all the skilled craftsman and laborers who made it... You're thinking about the object itself.  The demonstrable and lasting proof that you spent your money wisely.  And so it is with music... We are no longer a music manufacturing nation.  We are a music service nation.  That's good, and bad.  I think: it's mostly bad.  An album was a physical thing with tangible and fungible (i.e., trade-able) value. A download has near-zero value. And, according to Chris Anderson--author of The Long Tail--the trend is also toward digital goods being Free.  But these money-making mechanisms are the tools of aggregators, not auteurs.

Read my earlier blog post below, and you'll see you need over 4 million streams in a month on Spotify to earn minimum wage for that same month! Hence, by focusing on the digital (which artists must do because they don't control the more profitable marketing channels provided by mass-media) digitizing their wares, artists themselves are devaluing their own worth in the marketplace.  The marketplace is being splintered into an ever more gradiated long-tail of ethereal service options for the consumer. C'est la guerre.  This is the world we live in now, and it's what Corgan is lamenting.

Quotes from the interview...

In reference to being self-promoting, self-representing...i.e., without a label like Universal, or a promoter like Live Nation behind you:  "People can't punish you for wanting to be more than just a musician. If you have to do all those things to get people to listen to your music, and do it in a way that's inclusive, then people have to celebrate that inclusion. Because that's the point."

In reference to working hard at promoting yourself: "The old model: Kurt Cobain, you just roll out of bed and write the song. Or the Keith Richards model: you get high and you write the song. That's not going to work anymore."

In reference to what's important: "It will go back to celebrating talent, and not people who gimmick up one song in a protools and suddenly their a f*&#ing genius. I'm sorry. History has never supported that. I don't care if we're talking about 1600s, or the 1800s, or the 1950s. The talented do, in essence, define the aesthetic movement. (...) It will happen in music, but we have to come out of the dark ages here. This has been a long time like, "Oh yeah, this all going to click in. This is all going to happen." It's not going to happen." 

What Corgan is saying, essentially, is: artists have to make "it" happen--for example, by leveraging the synergy between the growing proliferation of platforms--such as social networks (e.g., Facebook), online video (YouTube, Bravoflix), and sales platforms (TopSpin, etc.).  There is no coming age of easy self-promotion online. We just  can't be lazy about it.  

Want fans to buy your new album?  Work that Facebook page every day.  Tweet to your followers every day.  Cultivate a loyal community.  And then, in no uncertain terms, ask them to help.

Want more unique page views and more traffic for your website? Learn about SEO, and write a blog post every day.  (I've been woefully negligent, I know!)  Search engines gravitate toward new keep it fresh.  

Want residuals?  You're going to need a lot more videos, downloads, and streams across the board even just to make minimum wage.  You have to aggregate those over the long haul.  To take advantage of the Long Tail and the an online economy in which the "Freemium" model reigns, you must become your own aggregator.  And it's going to be a very long haul.  Takes years to aggregate enough content of your own to make a difference...

Welcome to the new Age of Aquarius for musicians.  It's no Utopian paradise.  You have to work harder than ever.  There's hardly time to party like a rockstar.  :(  So: you can't emulate Kurt Cobain or Keith Richards.  Sorry.

Stay sharp.  Stay sober.  Focus on quality.  Write the song.  Use the tools available to cultivate fans, one fan at a time. And don't forget the traditional and time-tested ways of reaching out to your fans.  Nothing trumps touring, TV, and the like.  If you're looking for licensing opportunities--to make money with your internet videos, then a tool like Bravoflix can help.  But the internet alone is not the answer.  And: no one is going to pull you to the top.

But you knew it wasn't going to be easy, right?

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