Working For A Living

It’s not a great secret to know that making money in the music business today is as big of a challenge as it has ever been.

It’s always been a challenge.

I remember meeting the late Shad O’Shea at one of his conferences.

Shad was the author of ‘Just For The Record’ one of the best books about the music industry at that time (early 1990’s) and even if the premise is a bit dated, (it deals with radio airplay and recording companies in that era) it is a great read if nothing else to expose the insidious ways that the industry screws artists. (And even though in different forms, it is still happening today)

Shad was a bit of a DIY’er, or at least he wanted you to be able to make informed decisions.

Shad and I had quite a few conversations, and he was always a character, he could tell stories like no one else. He helped me find some people that were very good at what they did. Replicators and such, I developed some long lasting relationships with industry folks thanks to Shad.

He is sorely missed.

The Future Looks Bleak.

I recently read a quote made by David Crosby on ‘Ultimate Guitar’.

Mr Crosby was talking about the current state of the record industry and had some less than encouraging news for up and coming artists.

This is an excerpt from the Ultimate Guitar piece:

(Ultimate Guitar) As a musician who’s experienced every era of popular culture and the music industry from Woodstock on wards and someone who’s very engaged with the state of affairs even today, David Crosby was asked to offer some advice to all the aspiring acts out there. The famous folk-rock musician gave a rather disheartening reply:

“Don’t become a musician. You know how shitty it is for me to say that? You know how much I don’t want to say that? Some bright-eyed young kid who has talent. To the Becca Stevens and the Michelle Willises and the Michael Leagues of this world? To my own son James? I don’t want to say that to them, and it is the truth. I don’t hold out any hope for it at all.”

Nevertheless, Crosby doesn’t think that people should give up making music completely. Rather, Crosby implies that it should rather be a labor of love than a financial decision, and goes on to describe the work he’s been doing with his son as an example:

What James and I are doing, and what the Lighthouse Band are doing — we’re making records anyway, because we love making records and because we think music is a lifting force. You can quote me. I believe this hippie bullshit. I think music is a lifting force, and I think these are really hard times, and people need the lift. I’m making music because music makes things better and it makes people happier. That’s good enough for me. If I don’t get paid, I don’t get paid.

“There’s a song on my next record, it’s a Gillian Welch song that just says it all really beautifully. I have an entire other album — finished, ready, mixed, in the can — from the Lighthouse Band. I went further with that band in terms of ‘band.’ I said, ‘Listen, we’re going to write this one together and we’re going to sing it together.’ It’s going to be a band record, not a David Crosby record. And we did. It’s stunning. Don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s stunning and it’s finished. James and I just started yet another one. It’s about the only thing we can do. They don’t pay us for it, but it still lets me make music that makes things better.”

All Is Not Lost.

You can find the article here.

As I read this article, I was taken aback by Mr. Crosby’s comments. Yes, he came from another musical culture and time. A time where big money was to be made. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Record companies were dumping wads of money into securing the next possible big hit.

But times change, as do cultures. That was a time when music flourished. Money was there for the taking. Big money. But even then, the business made more money than the artists. There were many ways to screw the artist.

Before the prolific 50’s to the 80’s, being a musician was not all that great of a money maker. It was a living, and though things did get better, but you basically were a blue collar worker.

Instead of putting cars or sewing machines together, you played music. And you did it most every day for an equitable wage.

Today there are scores of musicians who do this every week. They play on cruse ships and at casinos and for private corporate parties.

And they make good money. They make money doing something other than mindless work for minimum wage. And that is good.

They use their talent as their degree.

Employer asks “what kind of a degree do you have?”

Musician replies, “I can play the shit out of this here saxophone.”

Today there are still those chosen ones who are super talented and will find a way to super stardom.

God bless ‘em.

If your music is good enough and you perform enough and you are willing to go the distance no matter what it takes, to give up everything for the prize, the brass ring is still there. It can be reached.

Good luck.

I have a feeling that the work necessary today is multitudes more rigorous and complex than when Mr Crosby was an up and coming musician. And I appreciate that. I think this is the point Mr Crosby was getting at.

But, if you value your ability as a song writer and artisan, there are opportunities out there.

Sure, many of us will not achieve the status and economic place that Mr Crosby did, but, you can do quite well for yourself.

There are numerable niche markets out there. Niche ideas that could and will present a world of opportunities to you.

Mr Crosby said: “we think music is a lifting force. You can quote me. I believe this hippie bullshit. I think music is a lifting force, and I think these are really hard times, and people need the lift.”

And that is and of itself a great segue into the world of niche music.

You may not be able to crack the world of mega pop or rock music, but you could have a specialty. A music that is niche specific, that focuses and speaks to a small but engaged audience.

The whole idea is to sell your songs and retain the rights. You own them.

I met a person who was a pianist and made recordings for funeral homes to play during funeral services. Hymns and such. Sold a ton of recordings, and never had to play a live show.

I remember Terri and I meeting with Kenny Greengrass in New York. We were basically bumpkins who started our own record label. We happened upon a spot on a very large Chicago radio station and they played one of our songs. The phone calls started to come in.

One thing led to another and the producer of the show just happened to like us and had a father who was an entertainment attorney in New York. She contacted her father and a few weeks later we were meeting with him and Kenny Greengrass.

We told them both our story and the attorney was adamant that we needed a major label deal, but Kenny did the numbers in his head and said, why do you need us?

We were shocked. We flew all the way from Illinois to New York! We wanted to be stars!!

He said if you are creating children’s music and are selling the numbers you are selling, yourself, we can’t help you.

(He knew we would never sell the numbers necessary to make a record company any real money recording children’s music and we would end up as another statistic)

The father/attorney was very nice and supportive and constantly going on about how we needed a label. Kenny simply showed us that we were making more money in the long run than we would ever make signing a record deal with a pittance of an advance since we owned all of the rights and financed our own replication.

We were forever grateful.

We didn’t become rich over night, but started a slow and gradual career doing what we loved. And made okay money doing it.

The beauty of a niche market is that your fan base usually likes you and likes what you do and wants to support you. So the incidents of piracy are fairly low to almost non existent. Because you are not ‘famous’ there is no real economic benefit to stealing/counterfeiting your music. It’s just not worth the time.

There are always going to be folks who are strapped for cash and will make a copy of a friends CD. It happens. But the more engaged you are with fan base, and the more real and transparent you are, the less that is going to happen.

And while it is true, you may not be a millionaire, you might make a decent living and have a very loyal fan base that will bring a tremendous amount of fulfillment to your musical endeavors.

Many folks I have worked with over the years have been self contained musical enterprises. They were the artist, the tour manager, the road crew, the sound person, the sales person at the merchandise table. Some solo acts would take a friend with them to help.

They’d get paid a fee for the show, and get one hundred percent of the proceeds from the merchandise sales, which in may instances would be thousands of dollars.

Before the internet, and because their music wasn’t in the record stores, the audience would tend to spend money on the recordings if they were moved by the show. They figured they should buy the music while they had the chance.

The artist owned all the rights.

This might not be the dream you had in mind. This is a lot of work if you have your heart set on riding a fancy tour bus to a show and having a big crew do all the grunt stuff.

But it can be done.

Keep on making music

Author: Chad