Music Industry Monthly – Inside the Music Industry: Part 1

ThinkSpace Education Interview, Music Industry

Welcome to Music Industry Monthly. In this series we are having conversations with leading experts in the contemporary music industry. This is for those of you who are interested in developing careers in music management, marketing, promotion, and many other related careers in music business.

We will be releasing follow up blogs with more interviews and texts, so stay tuned for more.
Video - Interview with Phil Larsen and Steve Cusack

Phil Larsen

Music Production

Steve Cusack

Head of Label, Marketing & Promotions


Starting off this episode, we are tackling the elephant in the room; COVID-19. How has COVID affected working musicians? The obvious answer is 'quite a lot', and that's true for a lot of musicians. Just over half the music industry is sustained by live performance and touring, therefore, half the industry is staying at home, not earning an income, and not able to fund new projects.

On the other hand, we have more tools than ever to create, promote, and release music from the comfort of our own homes. With distribution services like 3Tone and CD Baby working with digital distribution as well as retail, and social media being an ever-growing platform for artists to self-release, it's easier than ever for those artists who are 'in the know' and have researched the industry to continue their own creative development for very cheap.

Is now a good time to be in the music industry?

The answer is both yes and no. It's crucial for artists to be able to get out there and expose their music to a live audience, and unfortunately there just isn't really an online equivalent. The intimacy between audience and artist has proven to be key in developing the brand of an artist. Currently this is difficult, despite the fact that many countries are slowly reopening live music venues.

However, there has never been more tools available for artists to develop a remote fanbase. With online streaming, social media, and even sites like Fiver and the Unity Asset store, there are so many online revenue streams that artists can tap into. There are many outlets to maximise income, the trick is knowing where to look.

THE "D.I.Y" approach

For an artist to make it on their own, they need a stategy. As we've already discussed, the tools are out there ready to be used. A good artist, with basic social media and streaming knowledge, has already won half the battle.

The key thing here is "good artist". There is no substitute for sub-par music. Simply put, if the music isn't listenable, no amount of marketing and promotion will fix that.

Back in 'the old days', if you could record a half-decent demo and get it picked up by a record label, you were most of the way there. There was far less competition, and as long as someone was putting money behind the music the chances of earning an income were comparatively higher. Now, literally any musician with a browser can release their music. The difficulty is standing out.

So we reiterate - the music is the key. An artist must take as much time as they need to make that first single as good as it can be. Musicians are often awful at calling a project quits; they will tweak, adjust, re-record, continuously until it's "perfect”, but perfect doesn't exist.

Your Sound

This is something that is talked about a lot. You must figure out "your sound". What does that mean? Simply put, you must have an element of your music that is new and people can associate with you, whatever that may be.

We have already discussed that the sheer quantity of new music out there is higher than ever, so if people can't distinguish you from another artist, why would they come back and continue listening?

If being unique is important, why do a lot of mainstream singers sound similar?

That is a difficult question to answer. You may look at an artist like Billie Eilish and easily be able to identify key elements of her sound, but then look at a bunch of other mainstream artists and think they all sound quite similar.

It's important to remember that the 'fresh sound' doesn't always happen on an individual basis, but within a genre. Artists start trends, and people follow. We are not saying that you need to start a new trend with every new single, but being aware of what people are doing within your genre is key: Are particular guitar tones being used? Are there any chord progressions that keep popping up? By knowing the trends, you can make conscious decisions to devise a way to create your own, unique sound.

Detaching the artist from the business

Everyone needs to look at themselves like a business. Whilst the music is important, monetisation is crucial to a self-sustaining business model. Uploading a 'great single' to Soundcloud and expecting it to change the world is simply not going to happen, at least, not without some help.

Research income streams, build a brand, figure out what is selling, and go from there. Sure, put your own creative spin on it and write music that you enjoy, but the audience is your greatest asset, and sometimes you need to pander to them.

Do record labels help manage the artist, and do artists need to be proactive in managing their own brand?

Artists are now in a position where they can really develop themselves without the need for a label, and therefore remain more in control of their music and rights. Companies like CD Baby do help, but are really looking for artists that they can offer a lift in the right direction. That can be with promotions, marketing, sync, pitching, publishing, retail, and much more, but they are there to support the artist by helping with those things, instead of taking full control of the ship.

Music will always need a way of being distributed, and artists will nearly always need help, but in recent years it has been easier for artists to dictate where the line is and the terms of those relationships.

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