by Bob Regan
(re-posted by permission, copyright in the author)
Our band was heading out for a 6-week tour of the Northwest. We had gigs booked in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Spokane, and lots of points in between. We’d spent the past month hunkered down, recording new songs (recent advances in technology had made it possible for us to cut great sounding tracks without breaking the bank). We had them pressed up on our own indie label to sell at gigs and to promote ourselves at radio. We’d had a few hundred T-shirts designed and printed up, (although a homeless guy had stolen a box of 50 out of the back of our truck. When we saw several worn by his buddies downtown, we wrote ‘em off and called it exposure). We used all the latest technology to connect with and expand our fan base. We tried to think outside the box to come up with new and different income streams, anything that would help us do a little better than break-even.
The year? 1977. The more the music business changes, the more it stays the same.
I know, I know, I’m out of date and out of touch. How can I have a valid opinion if I’ve been doing this for 35 years? (Copyleft types may insert demeaning comment here, I can take it. I have, as Thom Schuyler once said of song writers, “the skin of a rhinoceros, the soul of a dove.”)
Like most bands, then and now, we never hit the big time. When we called it quits, I pushed on alone to L.A, signed a solo major label record deal, had one chart flop, then got dropped (the evil bastards did put up a 100K to make the record—red ink from which I walked away).
As it turned out, I, like a lot of young musicians who survive by touring, was pretty good, but not great. I was an OK singer, not a bad guitar player, but I wasn’t a star, didn’t have the ‘it’ factor. After my stint in LA made that clear to me, I bailed on my artist dreams and, along with my wife and two babies, moved to Nashville to see if I could find a niche behind the scenes. I played guitar in studios and on the Grand Ole Opry, while I pursued my real calling, songwriting. I eventually wrote one hit, then another, then several more for some of the biggest acts in Country Music.
I now made my living solely from royalties from licensed, legal uses of my songs.
I no longer had fans. (Well, maybe my publisher and the artists who recorded my songs, but they expressed no desire to buy a Bob Regan T-shirt.)
I bet it all on Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, which gives authors the “…exclusive right to their respective writings….” I wish.
These days, when I read articles about the ‘new’ music business in technology oriented magazines, sites and blogs, (most recently the “Emily from NPR” dust-up, where she stated she had 11K songs on her Ipod, but had only purchased 15 CD’s in her lifetime.) I’m invariably told that it’s now all about the ‘artist/fan’ relationship, not about sales or royalties. I’m instructed that if you have good content, an ability to connect with fans, and a good business model, you’ll succeed. I’m presented with examples of successes of forward thinking DIY (do it yourself) bands. Types like me are scolded for not emulating them. Hmmm. Thought I’d already been there, done that.
Folks, here’s the reality of the music business I inhabit. It is made up almost entirely of former DIY artists and band members who beat up the road for God knows how long, honing unique talents that eventually led them not to stardom and the stage, but through the side door into the studio, the vocal booth or the writers room. Here, they no longer have a direct ‘artist/fan relationship’. Here, they use their talents to support the ‘stars’ that do. Their days are mostly spent using those talents, not amassing facebook friends, stapling flyers on telephone polls or promoting a Kickstarter fund.
Maybe it’s a drummer who has killer time and chops, maybe a guitar player who looks like a bridge troll but who can come up with licks that make other’s songs come alive. Maybe it’s a songwriter with a tin voice but a golden pen, maybe a former sound guy who now sits behind a recording console because he can hear the difference between a 10 and a 20 millisecond reverb pre-delay. It’s the programmers, producers and background singers, all of the amazing talent who make a living, not a killing, in an incredibly competitive corner of the music business, the one that helps create 90%+ of all music heard, purchased–and stolen. When songs are P2P’d, stars still have gig and merch $. We get zip.
Yes, I receive an advance from my publisher, and studio guys and girls get paid by the session, but since revenues from music sales are down by over ½ in the last decade, there are correspondingly less dollars and far fewer opportunities. Royalties are in the tank. In Nashville there has been a 2/3 reduction in staff writer positions over the same period. If our music were not desired or if it were bringing in less money overall, I’d say it’s time for us all to pack it up and go home, but that’s not the case. The desire and demand for music has never been greater, (Think Emily and her 11K songs) but a large % of the money it generates is now diverted to entities that have no stake in the creation of that music, who have no interest in seeding the next generation of artists and the talent that supports them. Think Kim DotCom.
Does anyone reading this remember or realize that the Beatles gave up touring in 1966 to be a ‘studio band’? With their time freed up, they went on to create Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road, etc.? Would that happen in a model where it’s all about tickets and T-shirts? (I would pay top dollar for a George Martin beer cozy.) Maybe the animators who worked on Avatar, the most P2P’d movie of all time, should go audition for bit parts in summer stock, get with the new fan-based model.
I’ll bet that as I type this there is a tech savvy, DIY band embracing the new model, gearing up for a tour of the Northwest. I hope they make great music, great money and lots of new fans. I also hope that if, God forbid, their band eventually breaks up, one or two of them has the audacity to keep going, to see if there might be a place for him or her off the road, out of the spotlight, where they might make a living using their unique skills while being home often enough to coach a T-ball game or two. If I’m still around, I’ll welcome and encourage them, and do all I can to make sure they are compensated in accordance with those skills and contributions, even if, especially if, they don’t have a facebook band page.
Thanks for your time. This DIY-nosaur is going to lumber off to the tar pit…er I mean studio. Crazy as it seems, some still mistake me for a fleet-footed, highly adaptable mammal.
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