The New Music Economy

The New Music Economy is upon us. Independent artist duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made a guest appearance on “The Colbert Report” to discuss their decision to stay independent and not sign a 360 deal with a major label despite their megahit status with their song “Thrift Shop”.  Apparently, not only do you keep your creative freedom by staying independent, but you can also make more money too.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, instead of signing an onerous contract with a  major, “rented” Warner Brothers to help them get radio airplay. As much as the digital age and YouTube make radio feel obsolete, it’s still a big force in mainstream America—outside of the subways of big cities and Spotify-filled speakers of young company offices, terrestrial radio dictates chart-toppers.

Radio is just one slice of the pie though, so Macklemore and Ryan Lewis really didn’t need the all-inclusive deals the major labels thirst for up-and-coming artists to sign. The successful indie artists now have the leverage in negotiation and major labels aren’t as relevant as they once were. Expect the major label and big studio dominance to corrode even more as artists like Amanda Palmer crowdfund full album recordings and tours on Kickstarter or Zach Braff (“Scrubs”) and Kristin Bell (“Veronica Mars”) raise their own money from fans to create full-production movies.

The answer for all the artists still trying to gain a footing in this crazy industry? You no longer have to ask permission to succeed. The cost of doing business is coming closer to zero, so no more asking big-wigs at major labels (or even small indie labels) to take a chance on you. The world now has to take a chance on you and the best way to do it is to release stuff early and release it often: for everyone to see. Now.

Six Breakout Hits With Attitude

1) “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

This isn’t about buying bling or spending money on Ferraris, this is about going cheap at a thrift shop. And it’s got swagger to boot.

2) “212” by Azealia Banks

If the lyrics aren’t too fast for you to catch, you can tell Azealia Banks oozes attitude but with a smile the whole time.

3) “Gangnam Style” by Psy

With over 1.5 billion YouTube hits, you haven’t tuned in to the Internet or TV in the last year if you haven’t caught on to this track yet. Although it’s easy to be sick of this overplayed track, it doesn’t quite feel dated yet like the past generation’s “Macarena”.


4) “Harlem Shake” by Bauuer

With a  few hundred million hits spanning all the “Harlem Shake” joke videos, this beat is hard to forget. If you listen to the whole track, you might think it’s a bit repetitive, but for some it might be hard to resist a few nods of the head and a shake of the entire body.


5) “Make It Bun Dem” by Skrillex & Damian Marley

Skrillex has the groove, Damian Marley has the rhymes. This track lights up EDM floors worldwide while merging a variety of styles.


6) “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.

A little desert flavor and a beat and lyrical hook to bring you back for more each time. M.I.A. keeps attitude high with “Bad Girls.”

Mad Men and the Soundtracks That Know the Perfect Song

Nothing helps define a time, a decade, or a moment like a perfectly crafted song choice for a TV show or movie soundtrack. The hit show and not-so-underground cult favorite “Mad Men” comes back to AMC for its two hour Season 6 premiere tonight (4/7/13), and I’m sure the music will suit the scenes just as much as the suits on the characters. No one knows how to strike up the atmosphere for a period in time like the writers and directors for the show—song choice included. 

Lionsgate, who produces “Mad Men”,  paid $250,000 to license the Beatles’ song “Tomorrow Never Knows” for an episode in Season 5—by then it was obvious that the show was a huge hit so they could afford such an extravagance, but it shows how important music is to define a necessary aesthetic. Movies have much bigger budgets than single episodes of a TV show, so it’s even more important to get the period music just right. “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Misirlou” made appropriate appearances in director Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction as did “Fortunate Son” and “All Along the Watchtower” in Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump happened to beat out Pulp Fiction for Best Picture in 1994 so I guess that year really knew its period theme music!

What will be the songs that define our current generation? It seems like the YouTube hits come in one day and go out the next, so it’s hard to imagine songs like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” playing in our movies 30 years from now. Perhaps they don’t evoke the necessary atmosphere, but something like Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep” in a drama or Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in an action flick  could very easily make a future soundtrack that wants to wax nostalgia over the as-of-yet unnamed decades between 2000 and 2020. Oh and if the song is about New York, I’m sure Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” will find a way to make an appearance if it’s not a Frank Sinatra with “New York New York” kind of movie.

Piracy Prevention Takes a New Twist in Spain

Spain is now proposing a law that would make it illegal for companies to advertise on sites that infringe on copyright. If the government finds a site to be a major distributor of copyright infringing material, like an mp3 hosting site for instance, they could fine advertisers who pay to advertise on that site. 

The story, reported by Digital Music News, notes that Education and Cultural Minister Jose Ignacio Wert is heading a major initiative to put a stranglehold on piracy in Spain with a bill that puts the onus on advertisers to help stop the lucrative business of Internet piracy. Wert stated: 

“This is about a philosophy of going after large-scale distributors of infringing content.”

Advertisers don’t have to be too worried just yet, as the government wants to put a stop to distributors more so than advertisers. There’s no question that Spain and many other countries want to be proactive about piracy. One-off takedown notices just aren’t cutting it, so governments want to hit infringers where it hurts (i.e. by stopping those who help pay the bills for these sites). 

The FBI in the United States hasn’t been shy about seizing certain website domains, only to find later that the same website has been copied over to a new URL. Of course, awareness is a big part of web traffic, and not everyone will follow the trail to find the new version of an infringing site. Many people pirate music, movies, and TV shows simply out of convenience more than anything. Not all content is easy to acquire legally as fast as people want to consume it so they turn to piracy. 

Should we be punishing the companies who host these files? I’m sure there are many illegal files hosted on Dropbox, YouTube, SoundCloud, and many other popular platforms that host content. It’s inevitable. While I think it’s a bit harsh to put the onus on the advertiser to control where all their ads are being shown online or for websites to be responsible for every file that crosses their servers,  if a site that hosts thousands and thousands of infringing files is complicit in the activity or at the very least takes very few steps to prevent this kind of activity, the government should be able to step in. 

Unfortunately there is a large gray area here where the right answer might not be evident, and we have to trust that technology and government can play nicely together so no one overreaches their bounds both in terms of following the law and enforcing it.

Ultra Music Festival and Concerts From Home

By the time I finish writing this and you read it, it’ll be too late to catch Sunday evening’s streaming of Ultra Music Festival live from Miami. Don’t worry, there is always Weekend 2 of the festival. The live stream is being hosted on YouTube and showcases many of the bigger names of the festival with many different cameras catching all the angles from the DJs to the audience up close and from above. 

Nothing can replace the live concert experience, but not everyone can be in Miami and shell out a few hundred bucks for a weekend of EDM and partying. Because of this, the YouTube live concert series has gained popularity over the last couple of years. But it’s not just about the music, it’s about the video and feeling like you’re part of something. Ultra Music Festival was smart enough to put a chatbox on the right-side of their concert stream on their website so you could talk about set times, what song a DJ is playing at any given moment, or just make fun of the crowd for not showing enough energy. You weren’t there sharing the experience with audience, but you were sharing the experience with others in a completely different way.

While some concert promoters might not like the idea of live streaming a show because they’re going to make money off ticket sales more than you getting a free look into the concert from home, it’s hard to believe that online streaming will cause ticket sales to go down. If people can see what they’re missing, they’ll make sure to get out to the next concert when an artist or festival is in their area.

From a mental standpoint, it would be interesting to find out whether live streaming a concert from home makes you feel like you’re part of the event or an outside peeking in on something you’re missing out on. Even though you might be missing out on the true physical experience of a concert, at least you don’t need to earplugs to save your hearing for 20 years down the road (unless you have a really powerful sound system at home of course and understanding neighbors).

SXSW and Going Where Everybody Else is Going

South By Southwest, aka SXSW, hit Austin with a groundswell of enthusiasm this weekend, with thousands of musicians, techies, and people looking for a party. Everyone is swamped with places to go, bands to see, digital gadgets to use, and new tech startups to checkout. “Who is having the best launch party,” “Who is giving out the greatest swag?” and, “Where can I recharge my iPhone?” are probably thoughts on a lot of people’s minds this weekend.

Many artists and tech startups come to the promised land of digital overload to get a piece of the action. But is this the best place to go right now? Regardless of whether you break out at SXSW, you’re probably going to have a solid time and make some good contacts, but maybe it’s not the time to put your hopes and dreams into the hype. 

The geolocation app Foursquare that took SXSW by storm just a few years ago took advantage of the situation in the best way possible. They had a location-based app that allowed people to show (and show-off) where they were in real-time. It was perfect for SXSW because it created value while also making for the best possible launch—a ton of people all in the same location trying to find places to go. In music, Janelle Monae, The White Stripes, Foster the People, and The Strokes all got some extra PR from their performances at the fest.

These cases are all outliers. They found a good thing and took advantage of a situation before it was everybody trying to take advantage of a good situation. Perhaps there’s nothing to lose by going to SXSW, but the lesson might be to strike while things are just about to get real hot because then once the secret is out everyone will be on the bandwagon. Time to find the next hot place and cleverest tactic to get discovered.

There’s More to the Music Industry than Social Media

Many social media critics (and skeptics) are warning people to not rely too heavily on social media or expect it to deliver your hopes and dreams on a silver platter with a nice pink bow. Jon Ostrow of CyperPR notes: “Social media is a conversation tool – that’s it,” and as Wes Davenport claims on Hypebot, social media won’t write your press releases, plot your tours, make your live performances better, or help manage your finances.

All these claims are true. Social media helps spread the word and isn’t the “answer” to saving the music industry from low record sales and pirating. However, there’s a flip-side to all of this. Think about all the businesses and companies that help artists from creative to financial matters that wouldn’t be possible in their current state without social media.

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects. While it is a social network in its own right, it’s first and foremost a tool to help you raise money from an extended audience of people interested in your work. Artists like Amanda Palmer are known in the music industry for raising tons of money to help fund touring and album production, much of it done with the help of Kickstarter’s platform. She leveraged her existing social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to bring fans to Kickstarter. If social media didn’t exist, it would be a lot harder for sites like Kickstarter to thrive because the users of the site are evangelists of the platform itself, bringing droves of people from other social networks onto the funding platform. It’s all a virtuous cycle, and the same is true for many other sites.

Other online services that can do things like manage your finances (think Mint or Betterment) or help you book gigs online (think Sonicbids or GigMaven) are all part of a growing number of services that leverage social media to grow. Without social media, many of these sites wouldn’t exist because people simply wouldn’t know about them. So, sure, as Wes Davenport argues you can’t have your career handed to you by merely having social media skills. However, social media is often the glue that helps the whole ecosystem grow. Of course at the end of the day all these tools that help us get things done also need to keep a sustainable career going, but that’s another discussion altogether.

Avicii is Crowdsourcing a New Single

It might be a little premature to call it a hit single, but lately everything Avicii has touched has turned into EDM gold or at least was met with some fanfare from the Swede’s rabid fanbase. Partnering with Ericcson, Avicii launched Avicii X You to be the “world’s largest collaboration,” a crowdsourcing project that Avicii is using to bring in DJs, fans, and songwriters from around the world to work together on a new song.

The move is brilliant. You can see crowdsourcing with popular remix contests on sites like Indaba Music with famous artists and brands and crowdsourced funding projects on sites like Kickstarter. While crowdsourcing is a valuable tool to invoke the masses from the ground up, it’s also a brilliant marketing tool. It will be interesting to see if the collective minds of thousands of DJs will come up with a track that is better or more diverse in sound than something Avicii would come up with himself. Either way, it’s going to get tons of attention and will get people excited about participating in something that will probably be heard by millions. As he mentions in his YouTube promo video for the project, wouldn’t you like to hear your melody, your beat, or your little synth sound on an Avicii track even if it’s for only a second or two? 

To keep it organized, Avicii is breaking up the project into steps, with the first step as the melody. Nothing gets a song going like a good hook, as many know from Avicii’s summer anthem, ‘Levels’, which hit its stride in summer of 2011. Now Avicii has the fame to really make a huge crowdsourcing project work. However, you don’t have to be famous to try to get help from others. The Reddit community had their own take on crowdsourcing a generic hit single, which got a lot of community engagement. Clearly the tools are there, whether you’re famous or not, but Avicii is making a statement by opening up his creative process to everyone. Who knows, maybe this will catch on as a legitimate source of songwriting, or maybe it’ll just be a fun experiment in music marketing.


What We Can Learn from Gangnam Style Hitting One Billion Plays

“Gangnam Style” was the perfect storm of continuous and monstrous daily and weekly view counts on YouTube as Korean pop-sensation Psy climbed his way to a historic one billion plays, a record for any single YouTube video and all that in less than six months. Other than having an insanely infectious beat and a hook with ambiguous yet highly memorable lyrics, what catapulted Psy to one billion plays? 

You can point to the well-produced video, the catchy song, and a imitable dance akin to the last generation’s “Macarena”, but it’s a little more than that. Psy had no massive presence outside of South Korea before “Gangnam Style” hit its viral stride, but the track met the sensibilities of pop suitable for any culture. Some American pop doesn’t sit well all over the world, and much of the East Asian pop doesn’t make its way overseas to the States. “Gangnam Style” was met with curiosity and was just the right amount of familiar and mysterious. As YouTube commenters joked, what is Psy chanting during the chorus? He’s singing “oppan Gangnam style” repeatedly. As the annotated lyrics encyclopedia

RapGenius points out in a further elaboration of the lyrics:

“Psy is saying in third person he is boyfriend material, or an attractive guy. Gangnam is a wealthy district in Seoul, where the young people are known to be very prim, proper, and professional during the day, but get crazy at night. ‘Gangnam Style’ connotes not just wealth, but the aforementioned lifestyle.”

Psy mixes just the right amount of mainstream pop with silliness and over-the-top theatrics in the video, all the while leaving himself ripe for parody of his unique style. Part of YouTube viral engine of views is the ability for viewers to make reaction videos. Just like “Call Me Maybe” had the perfect lyrics and hook to be parodied ad nauseum, “Gangnam Style” adds the quirky dancing element to it where copy-cat videos can throw in choreography as well as altered song lyrics to suit their parody’s intentions.

Even for artists who don’t expect to hit a billion or even a million views, in their first go-around, there are a number of strategies to attempt the ultimate viral package: 

Mainstream: Catchy song that is dynamic but still adheres to a pop or rock format.
Video: Unique video concept with enough production and slick editing.
Hook: A chorus that can be sung by anyone even if they don’t know the native language.
Edge: Just enough edginess and innuendo while still maintaining a PG-13 rating and a sense of humor.
Parody: A format, in terms of song and video, that opens itself up for parody or strong reactions of some kind.


Should You Give Yourself an "Image"?

With so many artists vying for your ear, it’s tough to cut through the noise. Sometimes it helps to have a unique persona that is not separate from your music, but complements your artistic goals. In the metal world, bands like Slipknot, Gwar, and Mushroomhead use masks and over-the-top theatrics to enhance their live show. For Slipknot, wearing masks is a part of their message but it’s not a defining characteristic—from what I can tell, the music is the most important part to them and their fans. What they gain from the masks is immediate recall from the masses who automatically associate Slipknot with “masks”. When done right, this can be great for viral marketing purposes. Gwar, on the other hand, wears grotesque costumes and shoots random liquids into the crowd while in concert. Part of Gwar’s allure is the gimmick, though I’m sure many like their sludgy riffs and abrasive vocals too.

The question then becomes whether the persona or “image” you create for yourself will define you as an artist, will be a gimmick, or will be a logical extension of the music. When people think of Deadmau5 or Daft Punk they might think first of the onstage attire, but for the most part the two artists have risen to electronic music stardom with popular dance-ready tracks. The costumes merely put a visual stamp on the music. 

Then there’s the name to think about. Regardless of whether you’re going to don the strangest of attire or just put on a t-shirt and jeans for your live shows, a name goes a long way in establishing yourself as someone quirky, weird, funny, or just plain ordinary. When you hear the band name The Tony Tapdance Extravaganza, you can’t help but laugh a little. A play on words like Mord Fustang or Com Truise is a little more subtle, and equally hilarious, but doesn’t connote the same absurdity that a dance dedicated to former actor and “Who’s the Boss” TV star Tony Danza seems to contrive.

Be mindful early on about how someone interprets your name if you’re trying to make a statement or get attention. Ask some friends, some fans, and some random music enthusiasts what words come to mind when they hear your name. The worst thing you can do is attach a certain idea or image to yourself as an artist that is in direct conflict with your intentions. I can’t remember the last time I heard a jazz fusion artist with a band name like Hon Jamm or The Doogie Howser Merengue Party.