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Monday, 25 April 2011

Monday Musings: My Report And Frothing Rant From MusicConnex

This post can also be read at

The critic smirks.
I was lucky enough to spend three days of last week representing the fantastic DIY musicians’ resource Live Unsigned at the MusicConnex conference in central London. This was an event targeted primarily towards musical artists seeking to develop their careers through the use of digital resources. This covers a lot of ground, and the conference included masterclasses on technical subjects such as audio mastering, but the focus, understandably, was on social media and making money.
The headline description on the website is of an ‘event for artists, music industry professionals, and digital media experts to come together and explore new and exciting DIY routes to market’. That, for me, raises a lot of questions. Surely routes to market are plentiful, and open: will the conference have anything useful to say about what to do there when you get there? What do the organisers mean by DIY, and is it the same thing that I mean?
Essentially, the widespread assumption was that the DIY route was pursued by people who are ‘looking for a deal’. This to me is a fundamental misapprehension: obviously anyone who takes responsibility for generating their own income is always looking for deals, but for DIY musicians, it’s a case of looking for a deal with each individual audience member. Like my stuff? Help me make more.
The really exciting, empowering thing about the new digital environment, is that there is a living to be made for artists going the DIY route: the (anecdotal) evidence is that if you do the right things to connect with an audience, they will put some of their capital your way, in the interests of supporting something they value. That may be in the form of CD or download sales, investment and pledges, merchandising sales, gig tickets, direct donations or whatever. What’s needed to motivate that kind of generosity is a sense of engagement: it’s about having a relatively deep and specific relationship with a certain number of fans, rather than a superficial relationship with a certain (larger) number.
I attended the conference with my usual open mind, but not without an agenda: my primary interest in each session was to see exactly what its usefulness was to the independent musician, intending to build, keep and capitalise on their own audience.
The first session I attended at MusicConnex was entitled ‘Meet The New Platforms’. This was ostensibly an opportunity for a variety of emerging digital platforms to make a pitch, and for artists to find some new channels for reaching an audience. There were some interesting tools on offer. Buy My Playlist offers a new way to structure download purchases, with site users assembling playlists, the contents of which they can buy for a certain sum, and other users can buy for a slightly larger sum. The usefulness of this depends, obviously, on the music you want to use being on the site: I searched for a few of my favourite things released in the last year, and found none. The reason for this is clear: they’re on tiny labels, or no label, and the site gets its music through big licensing deals. The relevance of this to a truly DIY musician is difficult to see.
StreamJam is a genuinely interesting platform, which takes video streaming technology, and contextualises it in a 3D virtuality. Video streaming in itself is a pretty empowering thing, enabling musicians to perform live from their studio/ kitchen/ local venue/ bedroom/ wherever, for a global and potentially huge audience. The wonderful Cafe Noodle integrates this with a chatroom, so the audience can interact, but StreamJam goes one step further and integrates a browser based 3D venue, where audience avatars can mingle. I’ve experienced a similar set up in the virtual world Second Life, but the difference there is that the technology is continually on the edge of failure, and the learning curve is as steep as the north face of the Eiger. This is the first implementation I’ve seen that anyone can just jump into, and it’s actually the only time during the conference that I felt I was looking at the future.
There was some other interesting stuff, including a communications and workflow tool for bands, BandCentral, but the majority of the pitches were predicated on bringing some properly hoary old models into new media. The prevalent assumption seems to be that the best way to make money from a creative endeavour is to reach a very large audience, and then skim a tiny percentage off the revenue stream that enables. Some pitches were really from middlemen who wanted to interpose themselves between artists and their audience, with no appreciable benefit to either, but one particularly hilarious example was a service which offered to aggregate demographically weighted reviews to help artists produce the most generic music possible. 
Almost everyone assumed that musicians aspire to reach a huge audience, and their business models were based on their already having done so, or being on the brink of it. While many people do have those aspirations, and there will always be a number of performers who do reach those large numbers by one route or another, this is a bit like putting a lottery win on the income side of a business plan. Musicians are doing music because they love it, and if they can make a living at it they will live a happy life (all things being equal). Making a living entails having a certain level of income, but also having a certain sense of security, and here’s the rub: it’s better to get £1000 by persuading 100 people to pay you £10 each, than by getting £1 each from 1000 people.
Even famous acts get their career longevity from the minority of fans that spend a lot of their money on them, rather than the big numbers that give them an income spike around a major release. A fundamental engagement with a small number of people will give you an audience that will stick with you, will want to hear everything you put out, and will feel inclined to pay for it. Unless you become insanely famous, the industry’s traditional big numbers route will furnish you with a following that will buy a lot of product for a while, and then move on to something else.
This was a dichotomy that I saw repeated throughout the three days of MusicConnex: DIY musicians need to earn a high percentage of a relatively small revenue stream, but the industry predicates everything on a lot of parties skimming a few points off much larger numbers.
This disjuncture between industry assumptions and DIY musicians’ realities was most pronounced in the panel discussion ‘Artists & Brands’, where we heard from a panel of experts from the world of brand synergy. These were people who spend their days putting artists together with brands for their mutual promotional benefit, or to put it another way, associating musical brands with other sorts of brands. The panel’s view was that this was not something artists without a public profile should be looking at, as none of the major brands they represented would be interested in working with unknown artists. This was later directly contradicted in a seminar led by Eric Sheinkop of the Music Dealers licensing agency, who regularly places unsigned, unknown indie acts in major campaigns, and gave one of the most honest and enlightening presentations I saw.
One of the panelists in the ‘Artists & Brands’ session, while discussing the potential negatives of an act’s association with a brand, questioned whether it was still valid to talk about an artist ‘selling out’. This was a question I saw repeated in the Twitter feed, and seemed to be a little bit of a theme. We live in a commercial world, the argument seemed to run, therefore it is necessary to engage with the players in that world, in order to make a living: it’s unrealistic to resist that, and naive to question its morality. This pissed me off, to be honest. It’s one thing to say that it’s ok to make money, and another entirely to deny that there is an ethical dimension to the decisions you might make. So I’m going to spell it out for anyone who might not be clear on this: if you associate yourself with a brand that exploits child labour, you are endorsing child labour. If you associate yourself with a brand that uses environmentally destructive manufacturing processes you are endorsing those processes. If you associate yourself with a brand that climbs into bed with an authoritarian regime, you are endorsing that regime.
I’m not preaching to anybody: I wear clothes and buy products without looking into the ethical record of the companies that make them, and I’m well aware that the stuff I get is so cheap for a reason. The difference is, that I at least know this: I’m not denying that there is an ethical dimension to my purchasing decisions, and also I’m not advertising anything by any means beyond wearing its logos on my obscure and un-influential ass. Whenever this sort of issue became uncomfortably close to being even near the fringes of the agenda, the response was a frankly sickening denial of responsibility. Now I’m not about to claim a scoop for noticing that there’s a moral and ethical vacuum at the heart of the music industry, but seriously! It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone to acknowledge that these issues exist.
I sat in a lot of panels and seminars over the three days, and made a lot of pithy notes, enough to write an entire blog post about each session in fact, but obviously I need to summarise things. That I am so overflowing with material when I look back at my notes is a tribute to the organisers, and the interesting group of people they brought together. Given the ostensible DIY focus of the event it would have been nice to see some more DIY artists on the panels, people like Zoe Keating, Steve Lawson, She Makes War or Matt Stevens, who could actually speak from experience about the process of building an audience through social media and making a living through self-released music. There was however, an eye-opening session from Mike Rosenthal, who handles ‘Digital and Online Strategy’ for OK Go, a band which is well known for having gone DIY after some years with a major label. His insights and experiences will certainly inform what I do if I end up seriously pursuing any musical project in the future.
Much of what I’ve written may seem critical, but this was a well run and very interesting event. My principal reservation is that it is unlikely to have discouraged any young artists in attendance from pinning their hopes on getting picked up by a major player and promoted into stardom. There was, however, a lot of informative and often inspiring material, that will be of great use to any attendee that is actually serious about building an audience for themselves, and it was also a fascinating snapshot into the state and psychology of the industry in this exciting transitional era.
I think it’s worth remembering that DIY is not a new thing: it’s just that in the past it was something of a counterculture thing. Bands like Black Flag and Cardiacs went this route before there was an internet, let alone Facebook. They did it, and those that are doing it today do it, on a shoestring; they accept a low income as a fair exchange for spending their time doing what they love under nobody’s control but their own; they don’t need to be able to buy a lot of stuff, because their art gives them far more fulfillment than a nice house full of nice things ever could. These people are not about to spend £199 on a ticket to an event like this: they might stretch to £50 if it was jam packed with genuinely, specifically relevant material, about how to mobilise your audience through pledges, or how to improvise a replacement head gasket for a Ford Transit. Fascinating as it was, the main thing that MusicConnex highlighted for me was a gap in the market.

(Thanks to Matt Stevens for the sanity maintaining convo throughout, and for any good turns of phrase or bits of analysis I may have unwittingly stolen)


  1. Very Interesting , especially to someone like me who is currently 'in the market' for a lot of the services you discuss. It's certainly true that there is an independent&ethically based-shaped hole in what's currently availiable in download services for artistes. -At least as far as I'm aware.

  2. HI Iain, thanks for commenting! If you mean audio hosting sites, that people can stream and download your music from, I would recommend Soundcloud, or if you want to charge for it flexibly, in return for a very modest percentage, Bandcamp is excellent, and extremely good from the purchaser's perspective.

  3. Did you go to the Spotify talk? I asked him some sticky question regarding transparency and how much revenue the artist gets - didn't or couldn't give me answers. Think they need to look at this aspect of their business, if the artist doesn't get a clear idea of revenue, how is that attractive to the artist

  4. Thanks Oli, just the kind of recap I want to read. Interesting to know how up-to-date (or not) presenters are. And thanks for the evaluation of the new platforms -- going to check that out.

  5. Part of the problem, I think, is that we're so used to the old major-label system of doing things that, now that these music corporations are fading slowly, is that so many musicians are waiting for the next model to jump on that will make them at least semi-rich.

    I don't think we're going to see very many artists selling millions and millions of records, at least not as a normal, regular thing. Major labels are suffering more because fans have access to so much more, and are less inclined to follow whatever trend the companies decide is "hip" at the moment.

    Since DIY became a noticeable trend, the idea was that you sacrifice the financial backing of a major label for a better connection and more control of your own product. It's only recently that much has been said about having a more solid, direct connection to your fans, something that can be a benefit to the DIY musician's income and personal satisfaction.

    I think that now to the near future, the important question to find answers to redefines what we as musicians consider "success" in music. I would settle for making as much in one year as I do at my regular job, because if I have 100 fans, and they're all communicating with me and giving me just enough of a revenue to be able to focus full time on that relationship, that to me would be a musical success. But I don't think dreaming of being a global rock star is really realistic at this point. If you want more than a small group of fans, then you have to balance your art with your promotion. Become a local Rock Star first. Then push out and become maybe a Regional Rock Star....who knows? We need to see this example happen, and not established acts saying "fuck you" to their labels and going it on their own (good on them, but hey....they've already got the money). -- jason m norwood

  6. @Anon: I didn't get to the Spotify session, but my understanding is that their (mysteriously variable) per stream revenues offer a worthwhile result only to artists with a huge profile. If you can get your music in there as a DIY artist that's still a good thing though, on the basis that people hearing your music is never a bad thing.

    @James: there were so many new platforms that I could have easily written 5k words giving a brief summary of each. Mostly they were just offering to take your money though... By the way, I took your advice on the blog theme!

    @ Jay: McDonnell you crazy bastard! Thanks for that very thoughtful response. I agree that those big numbers are going to be much harder to come by in the future, and i certainly hope that's the case because all that adulation and craziness has never been good for music. Like you say, it's easy to go DIY if you already have a profile: I'm on the lookout for the first generation of acts to build a good income from the ground up.

    Thanks for commenting everybody: keep 'em coming!

  7. Interesting read Oli - sounds like a good event.

    The problem with new platforms is that they're not really of any use unless there are enough people using that platform to make it worthwhile. When it is popular enough, it very quickly becomes over-crowded and anonymous.

    It seems that there's an increasingly limited window where a platform is popular enough to make it worthwhile and useful to musicians and music fans but isn't too spammy - MySpace was the perfect example of this.

    As a general rule, when the corporate world starts to catch on to something, it's probably the beginning of the end. The other general rule in my experience seems to be if anybody is asking for money for involvement in a platform, the platform itself is either on the way out or too much in its infancy to be of any real use.

    After taking it all in at the conference, where would you advise musicians to start online with self-promotion of new bands/projects these days?

  8. I think online platforms can remain useful to DIY musicians when they hit big numbers; of course it depends on the specific platform and artist, but volume is definitely a good thing with hosting sites for instance, because it means a) that it's unlikely to wither and die under you, and b) end users are likely to find it familiar.

    Spam is obviously an issue with MySpace, but my biggest issues with it are a) how badly it works, b) the way my entire computer slows down when I have a profile open (ok that's a subset of 'a' really) and c) the blatant way they shove ads at you right in front of the player controls. The whole site could be made so much better without having to do a great deal, but they have obviously become completely disconnected from their users.

    I think what I learned at the conference was not to expect any platform to really do anything for you: they're just like your local pub, a potential place to get heard, make some fans and sell some merch. But it's still all up to you. I would advise bands starting out to:

    1. get their music hosted somewhere good (Bandcamp is ace because it has a clean easy interface, and can be used to distribute for free, for a donation of choice, for above a set minimum or for a set price; you can also sell your physical product off the same page as your download, and anyone can stream your music without downloading. They take a cut, but it's orders of magnitude less than iTunes)

    2. start where your fans are, most likely Facebook in the first instance, as your friends and family will be your first fans. If you have an established following but no online presence (unlikely but possible these days) you just have to make sure you promote your online profiles at gigs.

    3. DON'T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET! BY which I don't mean get on every single site out there, you'll just kill yourself keeping up. I mean, don't leave yourself unable to cope with any one platform folding, because they all will eventually. If you use Wordpress to power your main site, then you can migrate it to another host easily: if you use a proprietary profile somewhere, it might offer a lot of advantages, but you're at the mercy of its owners.

    4. This is a big subject and I've never done it myself, so don't take my word for it, go and read shit on the intarwebz! Ask people! Go to and marvel at the sheer diversity of marketing and merchandising strategies one woman can implement!