Cautionary Tales For Creative Artists

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Cautionary Tales For Creative Artists

Today, I hopped on to Twitter and invaded a discussion about the music industry.

One person was illustrating how little musicians make from streaming services and the like. Another person was saying that that’s part and parcel of the music business, and musicians make all of their money based on touring, selling merchandise and other stuff like that – basically using their music as an exposure device for all the secondary merchandise.

I always find this topic somewhat interesting, because the music industry is basically an example of how to run an industry into the ground within about ten years or so.

It’s an example of what not to do and how not to go about business as creative artists.

History Lesson

It’s the 1990’s. Music is hugely profitable. If you’re a star, then you’ll make millions. Even if you’re only slightly talented, the trickle-down effect of the entertainment pyramid scheme means that you can earn a living. Life is good.

Metallica sues Napster, drawing everyone’s attention to the fact that you can download music for free, winning a battle but losing the war just like if the United States Air Force had have said, “Hey… why don’t we drop the A-Bomb on ourselves instead?”

Not knowing where to turn, the fat cats in the Big 4 recording studios signed a Faustian Pact with the new kids on the super-rich block. Many events were held where Silicon Valley kids basically said, “Yeah… about profitable music. It’s our way or the highway.”

In reality, Apple played the most awesome checkmate move they could. They built a device which allowed people to keep thousands of songs in their pocket, and then told the record labels, “you can either get $.70 per song or see what happens with this whole torrenting business.”

Add in a few marketing campaigns using major artists to demonstrate how with iTunes and Myspace (rest in peace) you didn’t need any business moguls or business sense anyway, and we almost get to the present day.

Throw in the idea that most musicians were getting 10% deals from their music publishers originally so they wouldn’t miss the 90% they never had, and you have the modern music industry.

Why The Current Music Industry Model Is Stupid… And So Are Most Creative Artists

Back in the present day, the music industry has decentralised and splintered into multitudes of obscure genres and aside from the odd manufactured pop-princess, everything is a lot more niche than it’s ever been before.

That’s great for the consumer, and it’s great for the artist; consumers get the exact music they want and artists get to create the music they want for those consumers who like their product.

There’s a problem though; the Myspace + iTunes trend – especially when you add in YouTube, free streaming and the general proliferation of every form of other-entertainment-option known to man, means that musicians don’t earn much money from their music.

The general advice then is, “Use your music as exposure. Get those fans to buy tickets to see you live and get them to buy merchandise.”

This is a stupid business model, and I’m going to tell you why.

The first lesson you learn in business is that you have to target a customer that wants what you’re selling. Immediately we see a problem here. Music fans don’t want to buy T-shirts or mugs. The cross-over of music listeners to t-shirt buyers is going to be horrendously low.

Also, “getting people to see you live” is a weak business plan when your music is targeting people globally (on YouTube) and any local fan base is going to be tiny because of the massive array of different options available.

The “Go to see it live” model is a bygone relic from a time where everyone went to the bar on a Friday night to see the one rock band in town because it was either that or do cave paintings or whatever old people did back in the day.

It’s Also Completely Counter-Productive To Give Stuff Away

As a musician, you’re probably going to spend the majority of your time creating music. At least, you’d hope so.

But if you’re going to spend most of your time creating music and then make the most of your money selling t-shirts, then you have just wasted all your time. You might as well just be a better t-shirt salesman and be done with it.

If your business model is using your music as a free opt-in to get people to buy t-shirts, then you’re effectively spending 90% of your time on burning through advertising money. It’s simply backwards as a model.

But What Are They Supposed To Do?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already got a good idea of where I’m going with this.

For those of you who’ve randomly strolled across it and are thinking, “Yeah… but if this smartarse is so great, why’s he ranting and not giving actual advice? Nobody has an answer!” let’s get to the good part.

What should you do as aspiring creative artists in a world where nobody wants to pay for anything?

Firstly, if you’re aspiring creative artists, you should read this article again to see why giving your primary art away for a secondary income source is a backwards idea. Once you understand this, you need to realise that you should ignore most creative artists’ advice.

Anyone who suggests doing things for free “for exposure” is blind leading the blind. Anyone who says, “Create art and success will find you” is an idiot and anyone who doesn’t make money from their art might be a great person, but you probably shouldn’t take money-making advice from them.

Once you’ve internalised that, you need to put together a simple plan:

  • Who pays for the type of art I create?
  • How do I make stuff that that market will pay for?
  • How do I ensure that marrying those two things will be profitable for me?
  • Can I get Product A into Market B’s hands and still retain that profitability?

I suppose you could include some question about artistic integrity or “doing what you love” as well. When it comes to music, if you really look into the above questions, you’ll find some truths aren’t exactly what you think they are.

This process is true for all creative artists, not just musicians… and this brings me to the conclusion.

Final Thoughts

Regular readers will think, “Why is Jamie ranting about music?”

The processes above – and the truths of the above – apply regardless of your creative pursuit.

The publishing industry is going through the same process that the music industry has – the parallels are pretty striking. Visual art has it’s Myspace and streaming problem, and other forms of art have exactly the same.

Hell, I’m a commercial writer and I still get asked to “do things for exposure.” I had one person tell me that if I loved writing I’d do it for free.

Essentially, if you’re involved in some form of artistic creation, then you need to be wary of what I’ve said in this article and if you want to make money from your artistic creations, then you need to have a plan to avoid the profitless creative art economy.

P.S. For an actual game plan as opposed to a rant, you might want to check out my article on How To Be A Professional Artist. I wrote that one when I was less grumpy and had more time.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!

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