Thursday, 10 December 2009

Season's Greetings and Apologies #1

Each week I receive at least one, sometimes two or three, e-mails that come via this blog, from artists just starting out in life, or managers looking for a new way. It has only really dawned on me that this adds up to a hundred or so such contacts in the year.
I’m sorry to say that I have responded to no more than a dozen. I’ve only managed to read a few more than that properly. And I have on just one or two occasions got ‘round to giving the audio clips sent through to me a play. Any that I have replied to or listened to have been on a fairly randomised basis – catching me on a good day so to speak.

So – to all who have contacted me and have either had a half-arsed reply or more probably no reply at all, please accept my sincere apologies. The same goes to all those brave folks who have written to me about their brand new digital music ventures – I’ll post a proper apology to you folks in a day or two.

For the artists and managers, firstly, I wholly appreciate that you read this blog. And I appreciate you taking the initiative to contact me directly, it shows how much you are scanning the market and seeking out any clues to a new approach – something outside the over-worn and ever more precarious tracks of ‘route 1 to market’. To me that’s a positive sign you’ll have some success.

The reason for my non-reply rate is simply that most precious of modern commodities, time. I’m no A&R guy either, as you might have figured out by now if you read JB regularly. You’ll also know that I don’t give out codswallop marketing advice or cod-self-help, this blog isn’t the place for that.

There are plenty of actually rather good places to get genuine advice and fresh ideas. Music Think Tank is great. Derek Sivers’ stuff can be insightful and inspiring. There are occasionally inspired interventions by David Byrne & others in the space – all of whom know this subject rather better than I do.

The ‘Artist Services’ business is booming – you should take advantage of all the low-priced digital service platforms out there – the bandcamps, reverbnations etc. I even signed up to RandR World myself and have found that as a ‘linked-in’ for musicians, it seems to work just as effectively (does Linked-In work effectively?). There are emerging services that focus more specifically on artist career strategies including Rick Goetz’s Musician Coaching. In short, the ‘answers’ are out there.

That said, and for what it’s worth, whenever I have had these types of conversations, what I think I know and do advise comes down to a few suggestions and these are they:

My five codes of conduct for the emerging artist that’s different:

  1. Be in no hurry whatsoever. Why would you be? You are in the field with several million competitors, so an attempt to win a race this isn’t. New music flows onto the market in a continuous, random fashion, so the fans are expecting nothing. Your ‘market-entry-strategy’ is all basically about when you are ready. One trend that does strike me these days is how apparently full-formed bands look when they do emerge. Have you seen & heard Delphic yet? They remind me of Radiohead several albums in. You can’t rely on music to sustain you a living in the early days anyhow, so you are likely to have alternative means of support anyhow. So write as many good songs as you can. It’s better to have two albums worth of strong material when something starts to happen for you.
  2. Set expectations high. Why wouldn’t you? You know all that commentary about the new ‘middle-class’ artist and sustaining a career ‘from 1000 fans’? It’s all utter bunk. Claptrap. Total rhubarb. How on earth, in the current climate of low-loyalty and limitless choice, will you ever convince a small army of dedicated fans to stick with you and buy your stuff long enough for you to have a decent career? It’s too much to ask. The only way bands have acquired a sizeable, dedicated following is by breaking into the big time, for however short a period. You must strive and work towards a breakthrough. How you sustain it from there is critical too – but you need to breakthrough somehow.
  3. Hone your craft in live performance. Can you win over audiences? If the answer is a genuine yes, how are you doing it? With song quality, performance, charm or shock value? Work on the combination. Artists that can get there audiences to ‘transcend’ are, as they say in the old school, the ‘real deal’. You will build a local following and word will spread from there. If it isn’t working on that level, consider changing the material or the membership!
  4. Scan the market. The music market changes constantly. As with all good marketing strategies, understanding the environment in which you are operating is critical to success. Did you catch the news of a new artist investment fund the other week? Did you see that a big corporate is working with an ex-musician to develop services including A&R? Do you have a song that is relevant to something happening out there in which your song could give resonance? Marketing is all about finding context for your stuff. You will need to have one band member or manager or someone out there for you market scanning with one eye on the prize. This is an investment of time and thought, not necessarily money.
  5. Get a plan together. There is no substitute, in my book, for a proper business plan. They never work and they always get scrapped in the end, but the discipline of knowing where you set out from, with what – and a bit of the how – is the best way to get started. I recently met guitarist Martyn Shone from the band Honey Ryder. He shared with me some of the band’s business plans. It was impressive. No wonder the band sold enough shares in themselves to build up a marketing budget equivalent to that of a major label with launch band, but with none of the binding clauses. Just an obligation to do everything in their power to succeed on the major stage.
Good luck. Seasons Greetings.
Oh, and apologies.

In the next couple of posts, I apologise to any number of start-ups, sum up my music of the decade and look forward to major business breakthroughs in 2010. Also, do look out for my next guest post on the MIDEMNET blog as you might like it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

2009: The year of music not necessarily from 2009

This will be one of a few year-end round-up posts, just for fun really, nothing too serious. If you want to catch more ‘business-like’ music related writings then keep an eye on my guest posts on the MIDEMNET blog, with the next one through in a week or so. If you’ve enjoyed the JB blog’s insights into the music business throughout this year look out for a series of insight-led pieces I will be writing from next year on the wider media sectors and beyond...for now it’s about the music...

It’s coming up to that time again, reflecting back on the musical year. All the papers and music magazines have had double debriefs to contend with as we wind up both 2009 and of course the decade. My reading pile is substantial, which does not sit too well with my first resolution for 2010 to ‘read less, listen more’.

As ever, music itself played a central role in my year both in terms of consulting projects but of course in terms of music itself. I can’t help but feel compelled to round-up each year – I think I have done this more or less for as long as I can recall. But here’s the thing – this will be the last year in which I do this.

The reason is simple: I’ve stopped defining my music consumption and experiences by time, certainly by year. In 2009, I found myself discovering (I use the term ‘discovery’ to embrace not just the practice of finding music, but connecting with it) music that could be from anytime.

Most notably, the record I played most this year was GaGaGaGaGa by Spoon, which was released last year. I have also just being enjoying Martha Wainwright’s album from last year ‘I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too’, which is a really rich collection of songs. I’ve been much more tardy though, in discovering I Am Kloot’s ‘Natural History’, a wonderful album that I actually did buy the year it came out – 2001 – but have played to death only this year. I will definitely pounce on their new record next year, not least as it is being produced by Elbow’s Guy Garvey who is a patron of the band – context that might have provided some glue for my connection to them after all this time.

I also just discovered Gil Scott Heron following news items about his ‘reappearance’ this year. And I’ve re-discovered Grace Jones, Talk Talk and The Beatles for the umpteenth time. Much of this of course is related to events in 2009, so the context is contemporary, but the music itself is from way back.

As for music released this year there are plenty of records I’ve acquired but have yet to connect with, somewhat disappointingly. This includes, to my surprise, the new albums by The Arctic Monkeys, Wilco and Metric – three artists I have absolutely loved, previously. Slightly disturbed by this, since I can’t tell when the opportunity will come to hear these records in a new light. I was also disappointed with quite a few records that came strongly recommended or anticipated, including The Duke & The King (it's just a bit dull, no?), Doves and even The Hours’ ‘ See The Light’, which lacked the intensity and staying power of ‘Narcissus Road’. The latter is one of my records of the decade by the way, which I will post on later.

From the year itself, I more immediately connected with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘It’s Blitz’; EG White’s ‘Adventure Man’; Adela Diane’s ‘To Be Still’ and bona fide ‘return to form’ albums by Madness, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains.

Pride of place in the CD player and on the iPod however were Portico Quartet’s ‘Isla’ – a genuine ‘grower’ that gets richer with familiarity; John Vanderslice’s ‘Romanian Names’ - he defines the genre 'interesting pop'; Spiro’s wonderfully uplifting ‘Lightbox’; Pink Martini’s ‘Splendour in The Grass’ and Bill Callaghan’s wistful ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle’ which has marvellous arrangements.

The surprise of the year for me was Starsailor’s ‘All The Plans’ which I was moved to blog about back in March. There is always delight in discovering music accidentally, but that’s sometimes even greater when you really didn’t like the previous work of an artist. I didn’t previously like anything about Starsailor – suspecting them of being a bit run of the mill – but they completely won me over with such a superbly written, performed and heartfelt record that really doesn’t contain a single filler track. Put away your preconceptions is the lesson there I suppose.

I did not get around to Animal Collective and any number of other ‘buzz’ bands, but that’s not untypical for me. I discovered Arctic Monkeys on the second album, not the over-hyped first. I’m in no hurry. And that’s our divine right as music fans isn’t it? I’m really not interested in having music rammed down my throat – that’s the old way. I don’t really listen to music radio (with the exception of Guy Garvey, Gideon Coe and occasional KCRW) so I have no idea what’s being pushed. I’m very much on the pull side – actively using the reviews and taking in other contexts.

I know what I’m ready to like and when I'm good and ready. As Daniel Levitin says in his fascinating book 'This Is Your Brain On Music': "Trying to appreciate new music can be like contemplating a friendship in that it takes time, and sometimes there is nothing you can do to speed it up".

But the era of lists and end notes on a year may well be over. As music fans, it’s increasingly unimportant what week, quarter or even year, we discover the music, but how we discover it, enjoy it and pass on the good word about it. I wonder however, if I can resist the urge to list.