AN INDEPENDENT MUSIC CONVERSATION by Neil March

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BACKGROUND

For the great majority of us currently operating within the Independent Music Sector making viable income is hard. Really hard! This is true whether you are a recording and performing artist; a label; a manager; a live promoter; a plugger or PR person; an author or an academic or indeed if, like me, you are all of those and more besides! We are an army of multi-taskers, continuously seeking to perfect our skills in as many areas as possible. Not least because we cannot afford to pay third parties to carry out work we are capable of doing ourselves.

The industry is perpetually fluid and unpredictable too. How many of us foresaw the speed with which downloads would minimise the importance of CDs? Moreover how many of us foresaw how rapid the rise and fall of downloads would prove to be thanks to the advent of streaming? In twenty years we have shifted from a culture in which artists and labels were prepared to make a financial loss on touring in order to sell copies of the new album to an epoch in which they will now take a hit on streaming of the album in order to sell the live dates where money can be made from merchandise, physical sales and ticket receipts.

The pace of change in the associated media has been just as dramatic. Twenty years ago weekly music papers like NME and Melody Maker still sold in vast quantities and had considerable influence over the future prospects of new and emerging bands and artists. A rave review or conversely an unequivocal panning in a major music paper could make or literally break the career of an upcoming band or artist. There were also a number of monthly glossies covering a range of genres. Some still exist on the shelves of leading newsagents but nothing like the number there were in 1999.

Radio has changed markedly too. Twenty years ago BBC 6 Music, now the undisputed spiritual home of alternative and much independent music, did not even exist. Neither did 1Xtra. There was no such thing as DAB Radio [or if there was, it certainly was not a feature in most UK homes and it would be many more years before it made it onto car stereos]. FM was still considered state-of-the-art. Independent labels’ releases would mostly compete to be played on the evening shows on BBC Radio 1 (John Peel Show being the Mecca of Indie and related music and the preceding show, presented by various individuals from its inception in 1979 playing less obscure music). The concept of BBC Introducing was yet to be thought up.

A good deal of what has happened over the years since has actually been positive for independent music and its many stakeholders. The digital revolution has made it possible for radio-quality recordings to be made in our homes using laptops and suitable accessories.

It has also meant the old problems for small labels of trying to benefit from distribution deals that relied on shops taking products on ‘sale or return’ have gone and now a good digital distributor can place our music in every recognised digital music platform on the planet.

Even where labels and artists see a need to have physical products (CD, Vinyl) to sell, we can now produce smaller runs at lower prices compared to even ten years ago when, for example, every CD pressing plant offered minimum runs of 1000 copies with a glass master. So recording, production and manufacturing costs have come down while distribution has become affordable, easy and efficient.

Every silver lining has a cloud though! Yes, costs have come down and access to the necessary processes and facilities has increased. But of course that inevitably means the competition has become more intense. Coupled with this, the switch over to streaming by subscription which is the choice of most fans has meant the monetary value of this form of sales has gone through the floor. Each individual stream is worth a minute fraction of a penny to the rights owner (i.e. the label or whoever ‘releases’ the track) and accordingly to the artists and writers too.

Of course there is always a need for some realism. I frequently hear artists complaining that they have achieved multiple streams and yet received a pittance in return. Yet they must surely recognise that, had those who streamed their track(s) on Spotify, Apple, Deezer or some other platform, had to actively spend money on buying their product (as opposed to paying a monthly subscription and downloading multiple tracks at no extra cost), it is highly unlikely that they would have achieved more than a fraction of that volume in sales. Being streamed by subscription paying customers of large digital platforms may not lead directly to making money but it does expose the artist’s music to a wider audience and that has the potential to lead to income from other avenues.

That brings me to one of the central points of this article. Namely that, whether you are living in the nineteen seventies where all music is produced on vinyl and there are only a handful of radio stations or whether you are living in 2019 with digital formats and a growing online media, one principle has not changed. Exposure is key.

EXPOSURE IS KEY: KEY TO EXPOSURE

You can have the fanciest all-singing, all-dancing web page, great tracks and cool looking videos on your YouTube channel. But none of it will help you reach more than a tiny number of potential fans unless they know about it in the first place. And given how many thousands of artist websites and social media pages exist for them to have the minute chance of stumbling upon, you still need exposure in order to alert others to the existence and quality of your output. That is true if you are a band or artist. But it is also true if you are a small label. It is also true if you are a small online radio station, if you publish a niche online magazine or blog, if you promote live events in your local area and so on. Whatever area(s) of the independent music business you operate in, you need exposure.

As I have noted in other recent articles (see freshonthenet.co.uk/emerging-from-the-mist-5 & 6), BBC Introducing is a fantastic resource. It enables artists to upload new tracks on a monthly basis and direct them to the relevant regional BBC Introducing Show and national specialist shows assigned according to genre. I write as someone who has benefitted numerous times both as an artist and as a label manager from this system with tracks (and interviews in certain cases) on five national and two regional radio shows in the past two years alone.

It is always a thrill to be played on national or regional radio and it is great for ones PR too. If you are a member of the royalties collection bodies, PRS (for writers) and PPL (for rights owners and performers) or you are signed to a publisher, you can also receive quite generous royalties for a national radio spot play. Conversely, although the small online and community stations do pay license fees, the value of each play is miniscule because they are small and currently only broadcast to limited audience numbers.

However a single spot play on a BBC show is not going to lead to a significant increase in an artist’s following. To make the level of impact that can bring people to an artist’s gigs, Bandcamp page, website etc, more sustained exposure is needed. This is where the small but expanding online and non-mainstream media has the potential to be significant. And the extent of its significance can be partly determined by the support it gets from others including artists. So let us look at how and why.

I’LL SCRATCH YOUR BACK ………

In the latest of my Emerging from the Mist articles for Fresh on the Net (freshonthenet.co.uk/emerging-from-the-mist-6), I touch on this same subject of an independent music conversation but with the emphasis on some of the genuinely independent radio stations supporting new music.

I use the caveat ‘genuinely’ to differentiate between the stations and shows I am talking about and the section of the broadcasting media that calls itself ‘independent’ radio. There are a group of big stations (some of them shadowed by multiple local stations that mirror their playlist and policies) like Capital, Heart, Magic, Smooth, Kiss and the likes who are all owned by two huge corporations. They do not play any new music unless it is either in the current pop charts, formerly in the pop charts or guaranteed to be in the pop charts soon. They do not even have token specialist shows in the dead of night! So you are literally wasting your time and resources by trying to chase airplay on these stations unless you are either famous or you are on a major label supported by an expensive, lavish marketing campaign [in which case someone else will be doing that for you anyway!].

Yet there are plenty of radio stations and shows out there who will happily support new and independent music. They include community radio stations to whom you may have a connection on account of where you live or grew up or due to another aspect such as ethnicity or language. They include hospital radio stations who are able to broadcast online and have audiences far beyond the confines of the hospital. They include internet radio stations who run on donations and stream details of all tracks played on a 24 hour cycle on Twitter. They include online radio stations set up by music enthusiasts who very often pride themselves on shunning the pop mainstream and seeking out new and lesser known bands and artists. And they include individual shows that have new music content.

The aforementioned article lists some of those I was aware of at the time of writing. Included are stations like the excellent Exile FM, Conquest Hospital Radio, Radio Dacorum, The Source FM, RKC, RNA (Radio North Angus), XTended Radio, Radio Wigwam, Union Jack Radio, Lonely Oak Radio and others. I have invited people to tell me about stations and shows they know about too.

Sometimes when I speak to artists they are dismissive of these kinds of radio stations, pointing out that some may only broadcast to a relative handful of listeners. That may be so but there are two counter-arguments worth keeping in mind. Firstly these shows have loyal listeners who always tune in and if your music is regularly played they will most probably pay more attention to it than someone hearing it once on national radio. Secondly if more of us play a part in spreading the word about the excellent content they offer, those audience figures will grow and new music artists who bother to send them their tracks will be among the beneficiaries. So it is a two-way process. We need independent radio stations and shows to play music by artists operating outside the pop mainstream [in a host of genres] but we also need artists and those in their support structures (i.e. fans, labels, managers etc.) to publicise the stations and shows.

That same principle applies to online magazines and blogs that support new music. My own twice-monthly blog (demerararecords.com/trust-the-doc) began as a virtual spin-off from my work as a moderator and reviews author for Fresh on the Net (freshonthenet.co.uk) but it has quickly grown into a popular entity for which I receive a stream of submissions from aspiring bands and artists as well as their managers and labels. It works because I am providing them with positive reviews and they, in turn, are retweeting and sharing details of the relevant editions of Trust The Doc to their fans, friends and families. Once again it is common sense that, if artists want the reviews I write about them to have maximum impact, they need to tell as many potential readers as possible about them. Precisely the same principle applies in relation to all the others producing regular and reasonably well-read material supporting new music.

It need not stop there though. This mutually beneficial style of relationship can extend to the activities of live events promoters, booking agents, merchandise companies, pressing plants and venues. In one of the aforementioned articles I talk about the benefit of independent booking agents working with local promoters to put artists on as supports to popular local acts when putting tours and mini-tours together. I also talk about the artists playing a proactive role in promoting the events (including promoting the brand in the sense that they may be playing at a specifically named regular live event and they can promote that event as an ongoing entity rather than only focusing on the particular date when they are playing there).

This can extend to others with key roles to play in the industry too. Independent music artists, managers, labels and promoters need merchandise and are always looking for providers whose prices are affordable and whose products (T-Shirts, Hats, Badges, Hoodies etc.) are of good quality. They need CD and Vinyl pressing plants whose prices and products are friendly and reliable too. The examples go on but the point is the same. All the relevant stakeholders can benefit from a unified, joined up approach.

We can achieve a great deal by word of mouth. Put contacts in touch with contacts. Use social media posts and reposts to highlight others’ activities which are part of the same independent network we all need to build up and gather support for. There is so much we can do and these ideas are just a few of those we can begin to make happen.

AN INDEPENDENT MUSIC CONVERSATION GATHERING

I have called several times recently for a one-day Conference about the Independent Music Conversation. It could take place in a central location (probably but not definitely London) and have keynote speakers, panel discussions and presentations. It could be an opportunity to get stakeholders from across the independent music sector in one space, listening and responding to what one another are saying and suggesting. Everyone could agree to pay a nominal ticket price (maybe £20?) to help cover the hire costs and catering for facilities and the administration needed to ensure it is well organised and curated.

I would be happy to take the lead in organising such an event if there was sufficient interest from across the sector. Equally I would be happy to step back and let others take it on if they felt they could present a strong case for doing so. It doesn’t matter who organises it provided they do a good job. What matters is getting everyone in the room and kicking off a discussion that will continue to ring in the ears of attendees long after they have returned to their daily lives. Perhaps others might reply with their thoughts about this.

I know there are always sceptics who will say they have heard these kinds of arguments before. No doubt they have although how recently? After all there has been significant change even in the past few years. In any case I do not subscribe to the culture of giving up on grand ideas because of battle-weary defeatism. The independent music sector is growing, changing and throwing up new challenges all the time. As I said right at the start of this article, it is a hard place to be. But it is one many of us persevere with because we are driven by an unquenchable thirst to be involved in new music. We can continue to beaver away in our little silos, seeking out whatever scraps of interest we can find from within a fragmented and volatile industry. Alternatively we can make a real effort to work together in our common interest. It might prove to be less difficult than some of us have imagined it to be. Time to live up to my favourite hashtag #NewMusicNewThinking.

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