How To Succeed In The Music Business (By Trying Really, Really Hard)

Apr 9, 2012
Originally published on April 11, 2012 2:43 pm

It's never been easy to make a living as a musician. But there was always a dream: to become a star on the strength of your talent and your music. The Internet is a rude sandman, however, and today that dream is a lot more convoluted.

No longer can a would-be rock star follow the once-accepted checklist: (1) sign with a big label, (2) get a hit, (3) buy mansions and cars. The number of ways a musician can make money is now varied. The question, for many musicians still trying to make a go of it in the industry, is whether those many sources can add up to something sustainable.

In 2010, the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for musicians, decided to survey more than 5,000 musicians to find out the answer to that question. The study, which is ongoing, has found 42 different sources of revenue for musicians. Fifty-six percent of respondents felt the Internet made it possible for them to manage their own career. Sixty-four percent said it also made the music world more competitive by creating "an overwhelming amount of music that consumers are now also bombarded by," says Jean Cook, one of the study's authors.

At this year's South by Southwest music conference, I spoke with many young musicians who are navigating the new reality of the music industry. And as the Future of Music Coalition's report suggests, many musicians are questioning the entire checklist, starting with the very benefit of a major record label. Raka Dun and Raka Rich, of the Oakland, Calif., duo Los Rakas, release their music via iTunes, but you can also download a free, legal version of their new EP, Raka Love, via Bandcamp.

"Even though people go on iTunes and support our music, we give it away for free and then the shows — the touring, the shows, the merch — is where we get our income from," says Dun. Add licensing of the group's songs to movies, TV shows and commercials to that list, says Rich.

Japandroids, another young duo, put out their music via a label -- the group's sophomore album, Celebration Rock, comes out on Polyvinyl Records in June — but drummer David Prowse says selling music is nowhere near the top of their list of priorities.

"It is pretty funny, 'cause a guy from our record label is standing right beside me and he probably doesn't want to hear this, but we don't really care whether we sell records, you know? We just want people to hear the record," Prowse says. The Internet has done the job of exposing Japandroids to a wide audience — just a few days before it arrived in Austin to play at SXSW, the band played multiple shows in Brazil. "We're definitely living our dream. I mean, we're incredibly lucky to get to do what we do."

As a duo, Japandroids can keep touring costs relatively low. But living the dream still requires some sacrifices.

"I spent a lot of last year selling my belongings on Craigslist to pay the rent, eat and buy groceries and get by so that I could just keep playing in the band," says Japandroids guitarist Brian King. "You do what you have to do."

Doing what you have to do, for many artists, means expending a lot more effort promoting yourself. That's something labels used to do. But 37 percent of the musicians surveyed by the Future of Music Coalition said that they were spending more time doing promotion and less time making music.

"Hopefully, one day I won't have to be so caught up in all of that day-to-day, the Twitter and the Instagram," says Madi Diaz, who released her album, Plastic Moon, in January. "But I also would like to at some point turn off and take a break and also be, like, an artist."

One question that the Future of Music Coalition study hasn't been able to answer is whether musicians are better off today than they were when the path within the industry was easier to navigate. That's partly because there weren't any studies of how musicians were doing back then. Today, musicians call their own shots, but they've got to make all the decisions, too.

"You have the ability to retain all of your rights, if you want to," says the coalition's Casey Rae Hunter. "You have the ability to exploit those rights in a way that works best for you. You're in control if you want to be."

Rich, of Los Rakas, acknowledges that reconciling the new dream with the old checklist is a challenge. "We're living our dream," he says. "We're doing what we we want to do, but we haven't got to where we want to get yet."

In the current climate, getting to your dreams may require a lot more time spent finding your own path.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's never been easy for a musician to achieve the dream of becoming a star. And the Internet era has been a rude sandman, making the dream a lot more convoluted. Well, now, an ongoing study is trying to give musicians some clarity. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on an unprecedented survey of thousands of people who are trying to succeed in today's music business.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Until about 10 years ago, there was a sort of checklist for pop musicians who wanted to make it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

SYDELL: High on the list: Sign with a big record label, and get a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY")

THE OJAYS: (Singing) Talk about getting money, dollar bills, you all. Come on now.

SYDELL: Check. Then buy mansions and cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL BIG")

MANNIE FRESH: (Singing) House real big, cars real big, belly real big, everything real big.

SYDELL: Check. But today, labels are not too cool.

RAKA RICH: They want to take your creativity away. And it's like if you sign me, you must have signed me because of something good.

SYDELL: That's Raka Rich of the Oakland, California, duo Los Rakas.

RICH: Now that you've signed me, you want me to dress your way; you want me to do this your way. A lot of people lose their art form.

SYDELL: It's always been a part of the industry that most dreamers choose to ignore. But today, labels are on the outs not only with fans but with a lot of musicians. Rich and his partner, Raka Dun, release their recordings themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Old checklist: Make a living selling your music. Today, uh-uh, say Rich and Dun.

RAKA DUN: Even though people go on iTunes and support our music, we don't really sell our music. We give it away for free, and then the touring, the shows, the merch is where we will get our income from.

RICH: And also - we also get our income from licensing.

SYDELL: That's a new item on the checklist: licensing your songs to movies, TV and commercials. It's one of a striking number of - in today's parlance - diverse revenue streams laid out in an ongoing study by the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group for musicians.

CASEY RAE-HUNTER: Now, whether that actually is translating into meaningful, sustainable revenue streams, that's the open question.

SYDELL: That's Casey Rae-Hunter, deputy director of the coalition. Two years ago, the organization decided to try and find out the answer to that question. The coalition surveyed more than 5,000 artists, and they did over 80 in-depth interviews. It's the first time anything like this has been attempted. Fifty-six percent of respondents felt the Internet made it possible for them to manage their careers themselves. But Jean Cook, one of the study's authors, says 64 percent also found the Internet made the world more competitive.

JEAN COOK: It also created an overwhelming amount of music that consumers are now kind of bombarded by.

SYDELL: The study found 42 different sources of revenue for musicians. The new checklist includes teaching, selling T-shirts, royalties from streaming music services, and performing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: The Japandroids are a rock duo from Canada. Brian King and David Prowse talked to me in a parking lot after finishing a recent show at the South by Southwest Music Festival. Japandroids is signed to the independent label Polyvinyl Records. But like Los Rakas, selling music is not high on their list.

DAVID PROWSE: It is pretty funny because a guy from our record label is standing right beside me, and he probably doesn't want to hear this, But we don't really care whether we sell the records, you know? We just want people to hear the record.

SYDELL: Prowse says the Internet has gotten them fans all over the world.

PROWSE: We just got to play shows in Brazil. We're definitely living our dream. I mean, we're incredibly lucky to get to do what we do. And I think for both of us, to be honest, this is so far beyond what we even hoped we could achieve.

SYDELL: Paying the rent is another matter, says Brian King.

BRIAN KING: I spent a lot of last year selling my belongings on Craigslist, to pay my rent and buy groceries and get by so that I could just keep playing in the band. Yeah, you do what you have to do, so...

SYDELL: Doing what you have to do, for a lot of artists today, means a lot more effort spent promoting yourself, something labels used to do on the old checklist. Thirty-seven percent of the musicians surveyed by the Future of Music Coalition felt they were spending more time doing promotion, and less time making music. Madi Diaz is a 25-year-old singer-songwriter.

MADI DIAZ: Hopefully, one day I won't have to be so caught up in all of that in-the-day-to-day - the Twitter and the Instagram - be able to kind of like, turn off and take a break and actually, you know, be an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: But she also feels lucky she's been able to cobble together a full-time living from selling songs for commercials, writing music for other people, and playing shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I GO AGAIN")

DIAZ: (Singing) I don't know where I'm going, but I sure know where I've been.

SYDELL: One question that the Future of Music Coalition study could not answer was whether musicians are better off today than they were when the record industry was ascendant. There weren't any studies of how musicians were doing back then, but the coalition's Casey Rae-Hunter says the labels often kept a lot of the profits. Today, musicians can call their own shots.

RAE-HUNTER: You have the ability to retain all of your rights, if you want to. You're in control, if you want to be.

SYDELL: But 25-year-old Raka Rich, of Los Rakas, acknowledges that reconciling the dream with the checklist is still a challenge.

RICH: We're living our dream, but we - I don't know; it's kind of weird, how to explain it because it's like we're doing what we want to do, but we haven't got to where we need to get yet.

SYDELL: In the current climate, getting to your dreams may require a lot more time spent finding your own path. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I GO AGAIN")

DIAZ: (Singing) And I've made up my mind. I ain't wasting no more time. I ain't wasting no more time. I ain't wasting no more time.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.