The Music Business – Yesterday and Today
by Terry Selders
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Everyone knows that the music business is radically different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but changes were already in motion early in the career of The Badlees. Soundscan started tracking record sales in 1991. The next year, radio airplay monitoring services moved forward with advances at Mediabase and the establishment of BDS (Broadcast Data Systems). Also in 1992, Congress changed radio ownership rules allowing companies to own more stations, within limits (deregulation happened in 1996 which led to much more consolidation). In 1993, AOL moved from DOS to Windows, making it easier for bands to communicate with their fans via email. And so on.
Within the last 10 years we’ve seen the explosion of digital downloads and file sharing, leading to a continual decline in music sales. Rock music in particular is way down, and rock radio is rarely in the top five rankings in markets across the country. People are using music now more than ever, but they’re not paying for it like they used to. That is, there are less and less recording studio contracts being procured by musicians. With CD sales and airplay down, musicians must rely more heavily on live show income, t-shirt sales, licensing deals, etc. Some bands that would never consider taking corporate money for advertising in the past are now actively seeking sponsorships or buying plays.
So obviously, a band has to do things differently these days. However, the same general rules about running your business remain the same. A band is a business if you want to make a career of it. One of the biggest mistakes I see musicians make over and over is that they don’t look past their current recording. They release a CD and ride the excitement for a month or so, and then they get discouraged and don’t know what to do next. With The Badlees in the early 1990s, prior to the major label deal, we released an album every 18 months, spending 12 months promoting it, releasing several singles and expanding the fan base and radio reach each time. Then we would have 6 months to prepare for the next release. Radio play was tough to get back then but it was still attainable, especially at stations in small and mid-size markets. We’d get a few more stations with every single we released. We also developed a good relationship with local retail and eventually got a national distributor that did a good job getting CDs into other markets as needed.
The club scene back then was different in that there were a lot more places to play – The Badlees played as a full band 4 or 5 times a week. Most places only wanted cover bands, but they overcame this because they were entertaining and could draw a crowd. By comparison, Pan.a.ce.a’s members currently sometimes play as often four or 5 times a week, but mostly not as a full band – those dates are usually on the weekends. During the week, the individuals do solo or duo gigs. The weekend clubs are still mostly cover rooms, but Pan.a.ce.a can pull it off as an original act just as The Badlees did back in the day.
With radio, many of the people who were at commercial radio in the 90’s, and who were really in it for the music, have moved over to non-commercial stations that feature the triple-A format (“Adult Album Alternative”). That doesn’t help with Pan.a.ce.a since they don’t fit that format, but it will definitely be good for the The Badlees, should they decide to do a radio campaign at some point in the near future.
It has become extremely difficult for an indie band to get airplay on current modern rock stations, but not impossible. Earlier this year for example, Shaman’s Harvest, an unsigned band from Missouri, got play all across the country on Active Rock stations with their song “Dragonfly”. A station in Utah started it and others began falling in line. But even though the song took off and labels were flying into their hometown to see them, their local rock outlet wouldn’t play the song because the Georgia-based company that owns the station wouldn’t allow it. So it’s more difficult than ever, but not totally impossible.
Just like everything in business, you still need to give people a reason to support you. With radio, it’s a great song with all the right pieces in place (a great singer and good timing helps too). For clubs, they need to make money if they book you. Record stores will stock you if the CDs will sell. Anyone considering doing business with you needs to know that you are in this for the long haul – they aren’t going to put their efforts and reputations on the line for a band that won’t be around next year. Many times these places have gotten burned when they took a chance on a local, unsigned band, so one has to be mindful of that and keep moving forward so that they eventually see that your band is different from everyone else.
Every release is a set-up for the next one. I remember right after The Badlees were done recording River Songs, Bret Alexander starting talking to me about ideas for the next CD. Pan.a.ce.a’s plan is a bit different, but it all works toward building for the next recording. We just released an acoustic EP which will be promoted locally. At the same time, we will start working the main CD, We the Broken, to national radio. Several other things are in the works to build excitement with fans and on the Internet as we look ahead to the next major release in the fall of 2011.
Fan involvement has always been extremely important. What’s different now is that the Internet is no longer just another promotional tool, it’s everything. Except for live shows, it’s where all your fan interaction takes place. Plus all the web-based press outlets, blogs, radio, social networking – it’s all important. The Badlees used to mail out hundreds and hundreds of monthly schedule cards. No one does that anymore, it’s all email and social & music networking sites.
Now that so much information is available with just the click of a mouse, it’s much harder to embellish the details. When a label’s A&R guy puts your CD into his or her computer, they go online to see what’s happening with the band – what are people saying, what are the actual sales numbers, what radio stations are playing the music, is there a real buzz happening, how do they look in their videos, etc. In the past, some bands were able to manufacture excitement, or at least the appearance of a buzz. Now with Soundscan and radio tracking that cannot be manipulated, and an uncensored Internet where anyone can say exactly what they want to say, it’s much easier to get a read on what’s actually happening with a band.
The Badlees were popular before the internet was so important, but we benefited from the sales and radio information services, such as Mediabase and BDS, that were fairly new at the time. In early 1995 I sent River Songs to all the record companies and they all passed. Several months later, the Soundscan numbers were there and the radio monitoring services confirmed that we were for real. The same labels that turned us down at the beginning of the year were offering us deals 6 months later.
So things are much different now than when The Badlees first got started. You can argue that the internet has leveled the playing field between major and indie artists. To a certain degree it has, but it also means that anyone with a tape recorder or computer can put out their own music. Now you have to wade through a lot more crap to find the good stuff. But the important things â€“ the music, the live show, the looking forward and being in it for the long haul, fan interaction, etc. â€“ those things are still key. It’s just the way you market the band and how you capitalize on the group’s successes that are constantly evolving.
Terry Selders was The Badlees’ manager from 1990 through 2000 as well as the former owner of Rite-Off Records and Susquehanna Entertainment. Mr. Selders also freelances for Hal Leonard and Cherry Lane Publishing, and is a contributor to Guitar Edge Magazine.
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