Not Making Enough Money On the Road? Try Selling Underwear

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If you wanted lots of direct-to-fan tips, there was no better place to be last week than CMJ.

But is any of this really healthy for musicians?  Showcases have always been a crapshoot, though the daily panels featured endless amounts of ‘expert advise’ that steered away from the most serious issues affecting musicians today.  In fact, it could be causing musicians to steer their careers in the wrong direction entirely, and ultimately compromise their most important asset – their music.

We covered about ten different panels and talked to lots of people, and the underlying thread often made little sense.  Make no mistake, CMJ was stuffed with artists, many at a college level (from NYU) and totally early-stage.  These were bands mostly trying to make it on their own.  And throughout, the message from the experts was that if you just Twittered smartly enough, responded to every Facebook message, got WiFi-connected in your van, and properly collected emails at shows, you too could make a living off of your art.  Or, become a mythical ‘middle-class musician’ (or better).

But the depressing statistics on this stuff were largely ignored.  And the music itself was rarely discussed, part of the ridiculousness of what ‘DIY’ or ‘direct-to-fan’ teachings have become.  When’s the last time someone recommended something to you because of a clever Tweet, crazy scavenger hunt, or well-crafted Facebook campaign?  Isn’t that like recommending the box that the cupcake comes in?

On top of that, the worsening crisis of fan distraction also received scant attention.  But getting people to stay engaged with your music and image has never been more difficult.  Instead, most of the advise getting thrown at artists came from people with vested interests in selling books, monthly direct-to-fan accounts, touring consultancies, or social networking services.  These people have every interest in getting artists hyped up about making it through digital networks, and far less interest in honestly discussing the critically important blockades to real artistic success.

But here’s where it gets complicated.  Most of these tips actually made a lot of sense – for marketers – and some ideas were quite innovative.  For example, on the merchandising end, one interesting tip (from Jake Szufnarowski of Rocks Off) was to put branded underwear on the table – boxers, thongs, whatever.  Does it really work?  Sounds like a fun and probably worthwhile experiment that could boost sales – but how much time should an artist spend making creative briefs?  Designing the pieces, selecting and managing a vendor, dealing with shipments, overseeing inventory?

Another panel delved into the details of targeted internet marketing – CPCs, CPMs, CPWhatevers. The discussion surrounded the endless methods for analyzing responses and keeping costs under control.  You don’t need to spend a lot, but you do need a lot of time to sharpen the marketing knife on these platforms.  It’s an entirely different discipline.

Which is exactly the problem.  “I’ve been listening to all of these panels, and I’m on information overload,” one musician-on-the-brink admitted in front of the assembled audience.  “I just want to make music, I want to do that.”

And what happened next was almost heartbreaking.  Instead of addressing that critically important issue, the panel shot straight back into methods for managing smart search-driven, targeted campaigns.  One panelist told the artist just to start small, and expand from there.  Don’t be intimidated by this stuff, and see what works.

In other words, missing the real issue that aspiring artists are really dealing with.  Suddenly, artists have been handed the biggest blessing – but also the biggest curse – imaginable, and most artists are struggling with how to approach the beast and manage their creative time properly.  In fact, there was absolutely no discussion about properly managing the artist’s limited time – how much to dedicate to music, how much to dedicate to marketing, how much to touring.  But every artist walked away with marching orders to do about five times as much stuff as humanly possible.

And let’s face it – really doing it all by yourself is ridiculous – there isn’t enough time, and the musician should focus more on art than marketing.  So, just find a team?  As the industry has collectively reflected on the impracticality of pure DIY, that has become the next mantra.  In fact, ReverbNation CEO Mike Doernberg recently called DIY “crap,” and at CMJ, talked about the evolution of team-building.  “Most everyone who is successful started themselves,” Doernberg relayed.  “Over time, you’ll look at your team and it’s people you’re paying.”

Actually, that panel was called “Take a Left at the Label,” but should artists more realistically be considering label deals – or tie-ups with more professional managers and marketing teams?  Perhaps developing some initial traction while seriously searching for a more professional marketing and distribution partner at an earlier stage?  Giving up a piece but trying to grow a bigger pie?

One artist actually asked this very question of the panelists, simply because he was having problems getting his audiences and revenues to ramp to a more serious level.  He needed a team that really knew what it was doing – not his college roommate, girlfriend, or cousin.  In fact, he wanted a major label to help him out, and felt ready to make the associated compromises.

I asked another question: is anyone really achieving non-label, direct-to-fan success?  Is this really a path that is working on any reasonable level?  In response, executives from ReverbNation, Hello Music, Nimbit, and Topspin offered the usual handful of success stories – Metric (originally signed and a really bad example), Ellis Paul, and maybe a few others.  Oh, and a bunch of artists playing the Music Box.

Certainly, some artists are going to pull it off – but we’ve talked to a lot of artists with far different stories. They’re not making it, not quitting their day jobs, and having difficulty getting reasonable levels of traction.  Most are not surviving on their art, while drawing ridiculously low paychecks from services like ReverbNation (or, pick your direct-to-fan platform).

And for the losers in this mix, it seems like direct-to-fan success is mostly a fantasy, something more theoretical than real.  Who knows, maybe they’re listening to the wrong people, or believing in something that doesn’t really exist.  Or chasing one too many tips, while missing the bigger strategic wins.  But that wasn’t a popular thread at CMJ.  In fact, it wasn’t even mentioned.

Paul Resnikoff, Publisher in New York.  Written while listening to Keni Burke, Johnny Gill, Bobby Caldwell, Shirley Bassey, Lou Rawls, Keith Sweat, Imogen Heap, deamau5, Lovage, and LCD Soundsystem.