The Evolution of the Modern Artist/ Entrepeneur
Music, as well as most forms of art, is an interesting business. Remember BMG, or Columbia Record Club? I do. Ah, the 90s. Out of cassette tapes, and in with the easy to produce, speedy compact disc. They were the rage, sign up with a club, get 10 cds for like nothing, then buy a few, stop the membership. Do it again. Where do you think most of my music came from?
As I have been going through Ghost Writer Radio, scanning and posting shots of the incredible music library I keep on my phone, I have noticed a few things that are very telling. You find bands all over the place, through the late 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s that got record deals, released a couple of albums, and then vanished. They are everywhere. Why? What about the business created so many record deals, but created so few lasting impressions? Whereas nowadays, indie bands are doing all of the groundwork of the first two or three albums completely on their own, just for a chance to get noticed. It is a completely different system.
It took some time, for the record labels to come to terms with the speed with which technology changed our music culture. Streaming came along with law suits, and Napster and file sharing eventually gave way to Pandora and Spotify. When it comes to art, the entire purpose of representation began to shift, and perhaps it is the most obvious in the music industry.
Let’s take a time machine… back to the fifties, back to Sun Records, back to the golden age of radio. What was the purpose of a record label? Exposure. The purpose for label representation was funding to make your music, and exposure to get it listened to on the radio waves. Fast forward about sixty years. Most of what a label did for an artist, is now possible to do yourself, and this has changed the way fans experience music, changed the way artists release music, and it has very much changed the time it takes to get signed to a major label. Well…. unless you get a million views on Youtube watching you sing in a bathroom.
When you think about music in this context, think of the popularity an artist has to build on their own, before a record label is even on the skyline. Look at acts coming out of the late 70s. Depeche Mode. The Cure. The Smiths. Echo and the Bunnymen. The Cult. Metallica. Guns n Roses. The Rolling Stones. The Beatles. The list goes on and on. These folks were all kids… when a record label hit.
Depeche Mode was playing covers of Bowie’s Heroes, in local Discotheque clubs… and had a label before the band members were 22. The Cure, same thing. Over and over again. Look at the bands now…. mid 20s, mid 30s…. and still plowing along, waiting for that first break.
Go back thirty years, bands were touring the world on less street cred than today’s average indie band.
Even if major representation is in the game plan, or potentially on the horizon, the average artist is much more of a business entrepreneur right out of the gates, than they have ever had to be before.
A while back, when I first started this Keep the Greasy Side Down gig, I did an interview with the Phoenix band, Wyves, and I tied it all into a Forbes article saying that the music industry was dead. My interview can be viewed HERE, and it was all about refuting Forbes, when it comes to keeping your ear to the ground locally.
Well, Forbes has struck again, but this time… I agree whole heartedly with the op ed piece, which basically says that in the modern era, all musicians, and I would go further by saying all artists, are basically entrepreneurs. View the article HERE.
Paul Pacifico, CEO of the Association of Independent Music (AIM), says: “Artists today are pretty much by definition music entrepreneurs and owner-operated companies, building their businesses and their brands. For them, technology has been the principle driver, reducing the barriers to entry in terms of lower costs and the democratisation of industry supply chain resources, such as production equipment and support services.”
Therefore, the model of getting into the studio, recording a song on 45, with a B-side, sending it out to radio, and using radio play to fuel album recordings, and then tours to promote the album…. has certainly changed. Now, YouTube, Likes, Shares, and Social Media presense is what clues the big labels into thinking they can make money off of your brand. That is really what it all comes down to. So…. kids singing in bathrooms and about change in their pockets can go viral, not necessarily based on talent, but based on the rabid nature of their social media followers. And bands working the circuit, practicing, and trying to carve our careers can go unnoticed for years. Again, based not on themselves, but on the craze they can inspire on YouTube.
That has created a new, and very interesting, indie entrepreneur model. 45 record radio singles, have been replaced with YouTube videos. And the way that they translate from those single song recordings to studio albums and tours….. is the path of the modern artist. Perhaps this is nowhere more visibly on display, than at a local album release show.
January 20th was to be a great night. Previously, back in December, Jane n the Jungle had done a charity event at the Phoenix Hard Rock Cafe, and I had taken my daughter and her best friend from junior high to see them play. Well…. what an impression that made! Jordan White, lead singer of Jane, took a huge step, and went out of her way to make those two young lady’s night. They took pictures, got CDs and shirts, and basically…. single-handedly made such an impression, that Jordan created her very own Street Squad. The girls had a total blast! Fast forward a month, and Jordan sends me a message, “Did you get tickets for Crescent yet? They just made it an all ages show, don’t get your kids tickets, we have got you.”
Without further ado…. it was a massive success. And the massive support these artists gain by embracing the young music fan is priceless. These are the fans that stream YouTube videos. These are the fans that share Spotify playlists. These are the fans that wear your merchandise, boost your visibility, and talk about your band to all of their friends. It is one of the vast disconnects in the live music world. The majority of venues have rules in place bases on insurance and liabilities for the mixing of ages and alcohol. So…. an answer for local acts seeking to boost their youth presence need to be on the look out for not only traditional pub shows, but also venues much as The Nile Theater in Mesa that reach out to the younger demographic.
As we mingled before the start of the show, as usual, I dropped plenty of eaves on various conversations. Keeping my ear close to the ground is a huge way that I develop material for future articles. In so doing I overheard one of my favorite guitarists in town talking to a gentleman that I have seen at almost every Wyves show. The soundbite that caught my ear was as follows, “We have been focusing on putting energy into singles, videos, and press. It seems that this gets more media attention than an EP release where it feels like it is a one-and-done.” He was not critiquing the night’s event, not at all. What he was doing was providing a perspective on how an indie band surfs the waves of media to build their brand… which is exactly what the aforementioned Forbes article discusses.
Instantly, the perspective for this article started to take shape. Instead of a simple review of a five band show, I decided to put the spin on it of taking a look at the way five unsigned bands from Phoenix are building their brand – as entrepreneurs. In that light, it is not so much a showing of successes and failings, as it is an offering of a “how to” to sorts by looking at five bands at various stages of their marketing presence. I have focused on two brand-building topics per band as a way to review the Oasis Unknown album release party.
Hang around enough music people in the local scene, and you are bound to hear about the issue of set times and ticket sales. This is a continual issue, and sometimes obstacle, for local acts, and it has to do with the needs of the artist versus the needs of the venue. In fact, it is very similar to the idea of trending on YouTube leading to record deals. It really comes down to money… for better or worse. It’s business.
Exhibit A, a band fresh to the Phoenix music scene, Adero. The band has a lot of potential, they are energetic, their singer is charismatic, and their playing shows a lot of raw talent. They have played a handful of local shows, but one thing the band has shown that they can do besides deliver a solid live performance…. is sell tickets.
When a set of bands book a venue, in this case The Crescent Ballroom, it is impossible to simply think of the individual bands’ needs and seniority. The venue needs to bring the people in, and keep them in, preferably drinking. This is how they make their money. So, regardless of a bands longevity in town, if they sell tickets, chances are the venue will want to keep those people in the club for as long as possible. This does not always fall in sync with the artists’ ideas of longevity and play order.
The second business topic that I thought of while watching Adero, was simply professionalism. Professionalism (a.k.a. faking-it-till-you-make-it) in some ways is the best rule of thumb when any artist is first striking out. It is important to remember, you know yourselves far better than the audience does. Everyone is going to make mistakes. Everyone is going to be nervous. Everyone is going to have growing pains, and those growing pains are going to happen live in front of other people. However, also true… most of the audience will not notice each mistake if you do not point it out. Pointing out your flaws humbles you, and acknowledging your newness can be endearing. Do not overdo it, or you look like you are pointing fingers – on stage.
JANE N THE JUNGLE
If there is one band in town that I look to for guidance, as an example of good business and pubic relations, it is Jane n the Jungle. From our first meeting, Jordan White’s business savvy was evident, and it has been very enlightening to watch their moves… almost like the way that one thinks about their strategy in chess. The first of the two topics that come to mind with Jane, is the aforementioned outreach to youth and local charity/ public support.
The second, aside from always giving it their all and delivering a stellar performance each and every time they play, is their exemplary use of social media to promote individual singles on the way to building anticipation for an album release. Three songs immediately jump to mind:
All three of these are from the upcoming album, but each has been fully produced, released, and submitted to media scrutiny en route. When you see the band live, these songs are being sung to, danced to, jammed out to, right along with the previously released hits from the bands debut EP, and these new songs have not even been made available as an album. This is similar to a bygone era, but it uses YouTube as a Net-Neutral Radio to gain airplay.
I know my wife pretty well, and at this point I can always tell, almost immediately if she is going to like a band or not. She loves energy. Think Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, Tedeschi Trucks, G. Love and the Special Sauce: ensemble bands, jam bands, bands that organically blend huge sound and often times large numbers. Locally those bands are Banana Gun, Dry River Yacht Club, Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra… and, at least energetically…. these guys: Sunset Voodoo. Sure enough, after just one song, I was turning to give her the knowing nod, and she was already off to look for cds at the merch booth.
So, criticism… Sunset…. we need cds!
But the strength of that energy was on display in two major ways that night, and both are queues other live performers would do well to learn a little something from. The first, one of the things that The Sink or Swim did very well in this line up was surrounding themselves with very high energy acts: acts that were going to set a mood, and keep it there all night. This is evident in every act on the bill, but in the case of Sunset Voodoo, these guys are the mood makers and the fun setters. There is a sexual swoon and energy to this band that really gets things moving in the party direction, which leads to the second positive use of energy and readiness.
Every band is going to have technical difficulties. Every group is going to have mics that don’t work, kick drum stands that break, fuzzed out wires, or burned out amplifiers. This show was no different, but being able to launch right into an impromptu cover of a song that everybody in the room is sure to know, say by Elton John, then a band is able to keep and maintain that energy by covering up the time necessary to make a repair. This keeps the crowd plugged in, and does not allow a dull moment to kinda… come down. This kind of professionalism, preparedness, and ability to maintain energy is highly desirable in a live performer of any kind. Kudos!
THE SINK OR SWIM
If there was an oddity to the band list, ironically, it may have been the actual New Release Boys themselves. Adero comes out with a we-cover-hendrix-gypsy-attitude, Jane comes out punked out and ready to rock,and as Jordan is often switching looks and fashion for her live performances, it is always a bit of a surprise to see what symbolic character she is going to play. Sunset comes in with a hip and a swing and a creole lure right into a voodoo dance. Then … comes The Sink or Swim marching along to an Austin Powers intro.
I have seen The Sink or Swim play a few times now, and they are certainly interesting characters. However… they are also fringe characters in a way, like old school misfits that are somehow on the road to being rock stars. There is an element of quirk to them, that…. does not necessarily play the same way as the bands around them. Wyves own some kind of Rolling Stones Rock Reincarnation. The other bands, as mentioned each have a very sensual and personal approach. So… it plays to The Sink or Swim’s strengths, again, looking at the album release show almost as a showcase of indie artist business models, to be very careful with set orders and set times, and surround yourself with solidly successful friends.
If there is a band in town that is paying it forward, playing on other bills, promoting other indie bands, and using their own crowd appeal and fan base to help their other local acts… it is these guys. Wyves bring one helluva show, my friends.
These guys are not to be missed. Ever.
Therefore, it is a mark to their great credit, that they are willing to throw that local weight onto a billing for the release of a different bands album. That is exemplary.
It also immediately fits right into their own business model which is a crowd-funding model for album production. This is a very common model in the indie world right now, whether it be in music or in publishing. My friend Kevin Lucia uses Patreon in a very similar way, using monthly pledged “subscriptions” to fund content. In Wyves case, they offer different packages of the new album, posters, and merchandise for different levels of pre-sales. They can then use these funds to produce the album. It throws the conventional need for record labels on its head, because in that model bands are basically in debt to the label, touring and trying to sell merch to pay off their obligations to the label. Wyves on the other hand will not necessarily make immediate money when their album comes out, because so much of it was crowd-funded through pre-sales; however, they have the additional strength of being more or less debt free and clear, to launch tours, sell their album and merchandise through the power of their live shows, and they are free to reap the rewards.
Speaking of which…. check out a video… and run right over to the link and get yourself some of what is bound to be one of the most dynamic album releases out of Phoenix in 2018!
More power to ’em! I love my Wyves!
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Keep the Greasy Side Down my Friends