June 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Guest Opinion: How The Music Business Actually Failed

What follows is a guest post from Angela Poe, founder of the Music Is My Boyfriend blog (where this post originally appeared), and director of online marketing, promotions, and social media at The Gary Group, whose clients include major labels and other brands. Whether you agree or disagree with this (we actually see several bright spots in the music business today, though we understand where she’s coming from), we think you’ll find it an interesting read.

Here, Poe traces the evolution of the music business from her grandfather’s role as a big-band drummer through classic rock, punk rock, to the music apps of today in an attempt to figure out how musicians are supposed to do things these days. Hint: Josh Freese.

angela poe

Angela Poe of the Music Is My Boyfriend blog wrote this guest post.

What I’ve always wondered working in this business for the last 16 years (I’m 32) is why everyone thinks it still has to be a business. Times have simply changed, again.

My grandfather was a drummer and a booking agent in New York City in the ’40s. Bands were playing standards, traditionals, the same set every week, and occasionally, they’d throw in a new arrangement or instrument to keep it interesting. People didn’t pay to go see a band; they paid to have dinner, meet with friends, or have drinks, and there just so happened to be entertainment in the form of live music present to keep them around long after dessert or for that third “last drink.”

Clubs or venues were selected based on cuisine, atmosphere, decor, availability, etc. Venues were more than just a place to see the band appearing nightly, but they were destinations with service, style, something to offer. Musicians didn’t have to go on tour. You could play at the nightclub in the neighboring city every Friday and Saturday night and earn enough in tips and wages to feed your family. Many had a day job that paid the bills. That’s how my grandfather made a living for all those years. Bands weren’t even really bands in the sense we’ve come to know them. They had band leaders and often the rest of the players would change out night after night, since everyone knew the songs and everyone knew each other. There was a union, rules, a community, a code of ethics, a commitment to their craft/instrument/discipline. There is a complete lack of that now.

Sometime later, songwriting factories started cropping up in Philadelphia and Chicago and in the South. These groups would churn out song after song, and on another floor of the same building, groups were being groomed based on their range, look, and overall sound. When a song that “fit” their motif was complete, it was recorded and put out by the label. The groups had almost no say in what the songs they recorded “meant” to them and it was, to the groups, more about being about to sing and perform and be on the radio than anything else.

They weren’t trying to be family-men or mothers. If they were performers, that’s what they were. Full stop. The dream of having it all was just unheard of and part of the business. The “living” you were making was just that: living. They were supported on performance riders, backstage catering, traveling on tour buses which carried all the members of the whole tour on one bus which were all employed by the songwriting factories (didn’t you see That Thing You Do?). There was one house band who either traveled with the singers or were hired in each town to play the accompaniment. And when it was all over for your group, you went home and did something else: work in a factory, sell vacuum cleaners, or get married and be a housewife.

The music business as we know it was truly born with the superstars: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, etc. They were the artists who emerged from those days with such a new sound, they were able to continue to churn out songs (some for themselves, some with songs written by others), because it became about their personalities. They weren’t really just selling the music, they were selling themselves. You didn’t buy a Beatles record because you just liked “Love Me Do;” you bought it because you loved John, Paul, George, or Ringo (yes, some people loved just Ringo). Someone else singing “Love Me Do”  wasn’t going to sell as much as The Beatles were.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it became about the message, and being supportive to the cause. You weren’t buying Bob Dylan’s records just because they were by Bob Dylan (that’s why The Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” both did better than Bob’s version of those songs). You were buying the message: the songs of freedom and choice and rebellion. If you bought Joan Baez records, you were supporting the cause. Once the cause ended, the war ended, the movement ended — the good ones earned the following to carry on into their next genre, and the less creative ones faded into obscurity. Bob went electric and over 45 years later was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by the 10th president in office over the span of his career. Joan remained niche in the cause-rock genre, but never again enjoyed commercial success.

In the ’70s, it was all about the distribution. The industry leaders found ways to make distribution of the better-sounding recordings thanks to studio engineering and technological innovations. The live show and the radio were no longer the best ways to hear a band. The home hi-fi rack system and 8-track car player giving way to the cassette tape meant you could take Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Rush anywhere you were going.

It also sounded great! It was the beginning of the rise of the industry, because now, for the first time, you could provide the audience with the ability to build a real relationship with the band members (who can’t name every member of those bands I listed?), and hear the huge recordings they made at home; and both the hardware and the software (cassettes) were available, mass-produced and inexpensive — and since those bands were all production-heavy outfits, the live show was a must-see for so many devoted passionate fans made through this new availability.

Long gone were the hippy festivals with poor organization and minimal production value. Arena rock shows began in the ’70s, and all aspects of the business were cleaning up: promoters, venues, labels, artists, hardware, software, managers, record stores, distribution companies, even music media like Rolling Stone were seeing their copies fly off the shelves. They were scooping even the nation’s biggest papers because it was cool to be in Rolling Stone. It was the height of the industry, and it was the business model finally all figured out.

I believe the mid-’80s era was the beginning of the end:

1. Cassettes were tapering off in favor of a new, more indestructible compact disc.

2. It wasn’t enough to have a great song and talent to sing/play it. Performers had to have a great look and charisma from the get-go because of the new MTV and music video craze. Songs were often introduced on MTV, which meant the performance had to be multi-sensory.

3. The advent of hip-hop music (while I love it) meant that you didn’t have to have traditional musical talent to make a record. You just had to learn how to rhyme and remain on the beat. And it meant the field was now widening to people who didn’t necessarily have to have a specific musical talent, as they had to have a clever way with words. Has anyone ever heard Flava Flav sing?

4. It was the realization that technology had to play a part in the preservation of the recordings being made. And the development of those technologies became a business on its own.

5. Synthesizers and disco music all meant venues no longer had to have huge PAs or lighting rigs. Disco and synths simply needed power, and any venue could provide the space to host a DJ or a group whose primary instrument contained tons of programming, making it sound as big as an enormous band. Those technologies let promoters know they could pack the room and pay for one person or a few people with DJ or synth equipment instead of a whole band.

6. Punk rock was meant to be played in dirty basements and little clubs, and they were fine just having a place to play in front of people where they could drink beer and do drugs in the back room. And punk rock was alarmingly rebellious against money, which is one of the things that kept them so poor. (Anyone who wonders why CBGB couldn’t pay its bills is delusional.) They were against taking anything from “the man,” which “the man” loved! With no concept for margins, punk bands often were taken advantage of by promoters, managers or their partners.

Making the development of better distribution technologies a business in and of itself, and thereby broadening the field for more to enter the business in just about every facet, is what killed the 20th century version of the industry. Nothing else.

Also, with too many people hunting for a better technology, it became clear to the consumer that they could customize their music collections and make their own tapes and eventually, CDs. Cassette replication, at home taping and then later at home CD creation and finally at home original CD creation meant that the technology gave the power of distribution to the consumers and the selection of what should be distributed to the consumers, too.

We know the rest: grunge, Lollapalooza, the late ’90s (what I call the “tub-thumping era” — one of the worst times in popular music), Napster, Metallica, and Pearl Jam spent the entire decade in court, ringtones, MP3s, torrrents, Grey’s Anatomy/the licensing for “exposure” deals, Garageband, at-home indie labels, RIAA lawsuits, YouTube, iTunes, iPhone, Pandora, auto-tune, dubstep, Spotify.

Nothing in that nearly-20-year period has been a glimmer of hope in the direction of reviving the heyday, and devising a way to successfully make a living writing, recording, touring, and/or performing music as an industry [ed. note: Spotify CEO Daniel Ek offers another view]. Sure, a few artists like Amanda Palmer and Gotye can use their creativity to get noticed, and make it based on their merit or talent alone. Or a label can get behind an artist like Adele and just keep pumping money behind her, so it can keep the lights on. Or a promoter like Goldenvoice can run the entirety of a market and produce a festival which seems to grow year over year. But those stories aren’t typical, and they’re certainly not replicable.

One of the most successful musicians I know is Josh Freese. Depending on who you ask, everyone would have a different opinion about what band he’s in. To some he’s the drummer from the Vandals, to others he’s part of Devo — still other people have seen him with Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, or Weezer. I just found out yesterday that he played on a Ween record!  He’s session, he’s touring, he’ll do one-offs — he put out a solo record, and he has a big family which he supports by playing music.

He also gained notoriety because he uses social media to stay relevant, and his humor and creativity to engage new fans who don’t know which of his projects to reach for first! He’s the one who released his solo album with special packages for the big spenders, which included doing mushrooms and racing around L.A. in Danny from Tool’s Lamborghini. He has lived the history of the music business and I’m sure, like me, he knows it’s at a steady decline. He came into it during a time when I considered it over, and he was trying to do what he’d seen his idols do, just about 10 years too late. Remarkably, he’s managed to make a career for himself with some integrity and a lot of good times to look back on. But I’m sure if you interviewed him, he’d tell you there were moments when he considered leaving it all, or getting a job selling real estate. And again, his story isn’t typical or entirely replicable.

The rules he seems to work by: He doesn’t commit to just one band; he’s known throughout the community; he’s brilliant at his instrument; he’s willing to adapt to the ever changing music business landscape; he sees who the “bandleaders” of the time are (Reznor, Keenan, Cuomo, etc.) and has relationships with them; and he can tow the line nicely between indie and pop, big and small, etc. He manages to support himself through the music he makes, or the tours he goes on, or the records he produces.

The music business as we know it is less than 100 years old. It’s not as though Mozart and Beethoven were making a living by selling their original compositions one listen at a time, and going on tour. In fact, Mozart made next to nothing. At the height of his career, even with his most prestigious appointment (800 florins a year… which, pre-tax, would be about $100K), Nicky Minaj and Jay-Z would laugh themselves clear into next Tuesday over his salary. And they weren’t composing music for their own catharsis exclusively; they were simply good at it, and were being offered money to create music meant for the enjoyment of their employers — just like a gardener being good at caring for plants means he can earn money doing it for those who don’t have that skill. The release it gave them was a bonus, like going on a business trip to a convention in Vegas and getting free dinner, or a deluxe suite. If the music business today were like it was in their time, it would be fans sending Justin Vernon or Win Butler an email saying, “I’d like you to compose a little song for my wedding next year. It should be under three minutes, and be about me and my fiancee Dave, and it should include a mention about our dog, Minnesota. Also, we’re from Ohio, if that helps. We’ll pay you $2,000.”

If we tried to run any business of today on a model that’s nearly 100 years old, it would be dead in no time. Even hookers use Craigslist, because the corner is too old-fashioned. The top of the music business’s most successful period was in the late ’70s — that’s almost 40 years ago. Ask David Gilmour if he would be able to have all the stuff and money and properties he has, if he’d started making music in the last 30 years.

What I’m trying to say is:

It’s not about passing down the strategies that once worked. Even if Clive Davis himself trained every new employee at Sony in every aspect of the industry he knows, it would be an old dog teaching old tricks.

It’s not about creating a way to make it “fair” for everyone — it never was fair for everyone. The sooner the entitlement generation learns that not everyone gets a gold star and a music career just because they went to college and got a degree in music or the music business, the better. And not everyone with the best computer equipment has talent.

It’s not about marketing. I’ve been working in marketing and advertising for years for the music business and we’ve learned the same truth about ads that anyone with any other product has learned: If the package is good and the product sucks, it won’t sell. If the product is good and the package isn’t great, it will sell, just not in the first week and not very fast. (Adele’s highest-charting single from her first album, 19, got to #21 in the U.S. and she was barely noticed — the three other singles didn’t even chart. The word spread once “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” were on the radio, and her constant brilliant performances meant she had the goods. It just took time for the audience to discover it). If the product is good and the package is good, it will sell, and circulate, and rise to the top naturally — no marketing or advertising needed. Example: Beyonce.

Technology is the death of tradition. It’s not just the music business, it’s everything. Families don’t gather around their one television set anymore to watch one of five channels and discuss their thoughts about it over bowls of ice cream. They separately DVR their own custom set of shows from over hundreds of channels and text each other or discuss it on their Facebook walls while at the gym, office, sitting in traffic or flying on a WiFi-enabled intercontinental flight.

I’m not saying it’s bad or good — that’s a matter of preference. But it’s undeniable. And the same people who gripe about things like Spotify should remember they’re doing that on their blog, from their smartphone, in real time, over a 4G connection. You can’t have it both ways. And those developing the technology aren’t to blame; they’re just doing what they do best. It’s the Oppenheimer Effect: Sometimes you don’t know you’re building a bomb until you successfully blow something up. Give Fanning and Parker [of Napster] a break; they weren’t brilliant masterminds, they were poor college kids, and they didn’t destroy the music industry (much to their chagrin) — they simply accelerated something that began 20 years earlier.

It’s been said The Beatles didn’t make music because they were hoping to make money; they were making music because they wanted to make music. It just so happened they were handsome, interesting, talented, young entrepreneurs who hired smart people to manage their careers. Then they continued to re-invent themselves as things changed, which earned them an ever-growing living. I sincerely think Paul McCartney would’ve been just as happy if he just got to play songs with his friends and have a nice family.

My grandfather wasn’t trying to be the Rolling Stones (they weren’t even born yet when he began his career) — he just had a skill, and thought he could use it to make a little extra money to feed his family while having a nice time playing music with his buddies. He was a composer who wrote film scores that never saw the light of day, but he made his career teaching music to school kids once his nightclub band could no longer book gigs. Just like Josh Freese, he adapted and used his skills to continue doing what he loved, and sharing it with others. And just like Josh, he was a drummer. Maybe the guys keeping the pace and watching everything unfold in front of them have a unique insight. Either way, their hearts seem to be in the right place, and their priorities seem to be: make music, and if some money comes with it — bonus.

  • http://twitter.com/InAurem_a2d In Aurem A2D

    “Technology is the death of tradition.” True.

    I believe we are losing respect for music, as a side effect of losing respect for knowledge in general. In the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, “Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant.” I say, when mere access replaces ownership, it also replaces understanding and appreciation.

    Culture is predicated on shared knowledge and experience. Social networking is predicated on sharing links, passing one’s access to information to others without really transferring knowledge or understanding. More “media outlets” exist to re-blog and re-tweet the news without further comment than to report it originally. Status on discussion boards is conveyed based on a person’s number of posts, not the validity of their arguments. Klout scores equate influence with volume.  Social networking is our new shared experience base; books have been supplanted by bookmarks.


  • http://twitter.com/cweichen Ching-Wei Chen

    Sorry, I stopped reading at

    “The advent of hip-hop music (while I love it) meant that you didn’t have to have traditional musical talent to make a record. You just had to learn how to rhyme and remain on the beat.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesjosephhoward James Joseph Howard

    Time to step out of the way. It’s so boring reading the echoes of music in decline bouncing around the old guard. The fact is today’s environment -for artists and fans- is better than ever before. It is the middle men getting squeezed.

    No one cries any tears for the dwindling profits of labels. To quote Brian Eno “There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from
    selling records except that everything was right for this period of
    time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last,
    and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like
    the way things are going.”

    The top 5 highest grossing tours of all time were in the last 10 years (inc inflation). Adele just outsold MJ’s Thriller in the UK -your point about her having massive marketing spend seems off given she is signed to an indie and grew organically as you later describe. Digital revenues off the back of streaming services have bridged the gap left by the decline of the CD http://www.musicweek.com/story.asp?storycode=1049759.

    What is the most consumed music format for modern fans? The music video, on Youtube. The music video is the essence of the musician as rounded entertainer as you seem to promote and then detract. Anyone considering music in abstraction of it’s visual element is firmly detached from it’s origins by the music business. Music is the most shared content on social media. Music takes an ever more central role in our digital lives and has more opportunities to flourish.

    This is the way of the digital world, you point at our generations lack of value for media when in fact we strip out the bloated inefficiencies of your old models -along with the profits- by delayering and automating the distribution. We deal with eachother rather than conglomerates. We reward artists with time, marketing and money where they create the right value. Artists rise faster, reach more fans in more places. Music is alive and kicking and this kind of writing doesn’t do it justice.

    Also you make a lot of assumptions and generalisations on the state of the business and the beliefs of artists (inc Paul McCartney if you knew what he thought you’d be a lot better off).

    Artist Fan, Artist Artist, Fan Fan. The channels are open -thanks to digital-, many and making our music experience richer than ever before.

  • John Kim

    I still read through in case some mentioning of electronic music and the effects of technology on musical production and distribution might come up.

    Should have stopped where you did.

  • Chris Rodinis

    Thank you for so succinctly explaining the music biz to me. My innate intelligence told me the truth about this awhile back: “Either way, their hearts seem to be in the right place, and their priorities seem to be: make music, and if some money comes with it — bonus.” You are wise beyond your years….you made words to live by for this melody making song composing singing classic acoustic guitar player. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robbie-Fields/574371120 Robbie Fields

    It got worse.  More bizarre pronouncements : 

    Punk acts worked for cheap,  as opposed to mainstream acts?

    If mainstream acts played a club, the labels either papered the room and/or provided tabs. The Ramones were hugely profitable as a live act, belying their atrocious record sales.

    She also thinks the compact disc replaced the audio-cassette.

    It’s hilarious how wrong she is about Mozart and The Beatles not playing for money. Mozart’s father didn’t make him do the endless touring as a child prodigy for the love of music! And for the Beatles, what was the Hamburg gig(s)? It was the equivalent of working on a cruise ship.  

    It has always been the case that some muso’s outgrow the lifestyle, success or no success.

    I think Macca would have been a teacher or bank manager. Well, his brother Mick McGear abandoned music. Lennon and Sutcliffe were hardcore proto-Slackers. From what she writes, I can only surmise that her grandfather was on par with today’s Top 40 cover band musician. She blithely ignores the touring bands of the day  lead by Harry James, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, ad infinitum!

    A few Top 40 bands do draw by the way …  In Sweden, the touring Top 40 bands are a phenom until themselves.  

    I kept looking for her earth shattering conclusion. Found it :

    “…make music, and if some money comes with it — bonus.”

  • Joegreeenlight

    The CD did replace the cassette, in my music collection anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be so hard on her people.All she was trying to do was give her impression on the developement’s in a, commercial sense, of music.I thought it was an interesting read personally, although incomplete – definately a some differing point’s of view within it that are informative.Nobody, repeat nobody has the complete answers on the direction music is going – everybody has a right to express their point of view.Add up numerous point’s of view & you will get closer to the full picture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003605344389 Jack Wang

    As a longtime music industry insider (college radio DJ) and outsider (college radio DJ), I disagree with the assumption that the industry has “failed” or is “in decline”.  Failed – how?  In decline – for whom?
    If you ask Apple, the integration of music products (software & hardware) is a key component of their entire success under Steve Jobs, and will continue onwards as well.  The demand for music and its consumption has only increased in recent years.  Music is everywhere, from video game soundtracks to dingy renegade warehouse parties to dental offices.  There are dozens more new platforms for experiencing music as well.  Additionally, there are exponentially more ways for consumers to expand their collections.  Ask the manufacturers of laptops, thumb drives, hard drives, CD-burners, Internet service providers, and “the cloud” providers:  Is music good for business?  I’d say yes.

    To fulfill this exponential growth in music demand and the increasing number of platforms, conversely there’s an exponential growth in music production as well.  A new generation of producers are armed with new tools that can arrange or remix a track in a matter of hours, not months, and distribution online is virtually instantaneous.  Therefore, the volume of music (new and archival) that’s available for the consumer has also exponentially grown.

    I argue the industry isn’t in decline at all, and it hasn’t failed at all.  It is a constantly evolving marketplace responding to technology, and that marketplace has exponentially grown in demand as well as supply.  What has happened, however, is that these market shifts have caused some music-related firms to be more successful than others (Apple’s iTunes versus, say, commercial radio – ex. ClearChannel).  

    But as for the artist?  The only problem for artists nowadays is that the exponential amount of supply of music means that a smaller & smaller percentage of them get to become huge money-makers.  Take electronic music:  tens of thousands of house/techno producers are making hundreds of thousands of dance tracks per year, all available online.  Only a few of those get to become memorable names.  And that memory becomes shorter and shorter as new names become readily available.  

    So for major labels & the so-called “commercial music industry”, this is a big problem as they have to try and bring to market their products into:
    a)  an exponentially increasing supply of music
    b)  a shorter attention span
    c)  and an ever-expanding set of platforms for their product
    d)  and virtually no barriers to entry as anyone with ProTools & a laptop can make music.

    The music industry isn’t dead (it’s bigger than ever and expanding exponentially).  The only thing is that the market is now completely uncontrollable – nothing limiting the ability to consume/produce music.  And it’s the loss of control that industry insiders lament.

  • http://twitter.com/CajunDriftwood Maurice on an Island

    I think the larger conclusions she arrives at are all spot on. As for historical context, it’s very tricky to pin this down as it amounts to guessing the inner dialog of the actor(s) in that period. I’m no Marxist but the economic issues are always a safe bet for discovering the motivations that shaped events in the past. She’s covered that issue here with showing that from Mozart all the way to her grandfather, a desire for musicians to join the ranks of the middle class was leading the charge.

    Now we are in a time of erosion of the middle class thanks to the autocratic powers that be (represented in this case by corporate media and entertainment ) and the sway they’ve had over the culture these past 30 years or so. The Faustian bargain seemed to have been that a few talented people could be plucked out of obscurity to live unbelievable lives of wealth but the vast majority deserve no better than to starve in the dark.

    Alas, truth be told, musicians have always been favorite targets of disdain by these over-lords whether it’s Clive Davis or the Austral-Hungarian Emperor in Mozart’s time. You see, it comes down to plain jealousy. For all their power and wealth, they tend to have not a whit of talent or social insight.

  • Dweeb McFlarben

    As a musician who composes and plays for his own enjoyment, and someone with a lot of musician friends, we’ve all discussed these topics amongst ourselves and come up with remarkably similar conclusions.  And yes, the advent of sequencers and sampling (primarily the hip hop revolution) DID mean you needed no actual talent to play or sing in order to achieve in the music world.  That was a major shift.  What most people don’t appreciate is that even in the major label music world of 30 years ago, cream tended to rise to the top or at least get some pretty decent exposure and a reasonable shot at an audience.  Today there is more music than ever and also more crap.  I had a conversation with a very open-minded musician friend of mine and we both ended up agreeing that the quality of what we heard was better when there were gatekeepers — good A&R dudes and label chiefs who believed in raw talent whether it was Neil Young, The Clash, Funkadelic, Chic, Bowie, The Replacements, White Stripes or whatever.

    Now it’s wide open and that’s good and bad.  The good part is that it’s easy to DIY, post your own song and perhaps get a huge audience.  But, it’s also really easy to DIY and have no talent and zero discipline and gum up the works.  The result is an explosion in mediocre, unimportant processed junk that just makes it harder to find the good stuff, pardoxically magnifying the importance of the big publicity machines but also resulting in a profusion of no-talent celebrity pop.

  • http://twitter.com/youngurbanamatr Benjamin Schuman

    Such a good article on a subject usually dominated by shortsighted music industry-bashing and dogmatic tech futurists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stphinkle Stephen Hinkle

    What gnaws at me the most is how the RIAA handled the file sharing issue.   I think that suing college students and others, and using the DMCA to kill technologies hurt the industry’s image.    It amazes me as to why they refused to license Napster, Scour, and Aimster/Madster from the very beginning.    Suing them made later generation file sharing networks harder to shut down due to decentralization, open source code, etc.   Moreover, these lawsuits alienated their fan base.