Music Blogs

How to avoid the music industry snakes

  • By Trev@circlestudios
  • 7 September 2013

Recording Studio BlogThis week our insider, Trev from Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, explains how to avoid the music industry snakes while climbing up the ladders.

"The music industry is a cruel and shallow plastic money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.  But there's also a darker side..." 
Let's be honest.  This industry has never had a very good reputation.  The quote above has been attributed to the journalist Hunter S Thompson.  And it would be funny if it weren't so sad.  Since broadcasts began, snakes, often dressed in sharp suits, have utilised their (sometimes) better knowledge of the music industry for their own gain (often to the detriment of the people they suggest they are 'helping').  
Of course the age of the Internet has begun to bring information to the masses. And with information becomes transparency.  But there are still some very dark corners in this particular industry.  On the bright side, for at least the last fifteen years of this Internet era things have been changing very significantly.  Whether those changes are actually for the better, however, remains to be seen.  
You'll remember that way back in my very first blog here (http://www.supajam.com/blog/article/So-you-want-a-recording-contract-3) I said " The days of winning a record deal just because you are great musicians with a catchy tune have long gone".  Let's think for a second about why that might be. If we look back to what might now be considered to be the best days for record labels, the 1970s, 80s and 90s, we'd find a world where record label profits were at an all-time high.  And companies are really just like people.  When they feel well off, they are more likely to invest some of their money.  But in 1999, a little company called Napster changed all of that. Because what Napster did was a bit like lending your mate your favourite band's new album to copy so he didn't have to buy it himself.  On a mahoosive scale.  And as so-called "peer-to-peer sharing" took off, record label profits slumped. As a result, instead of investing in the development of new acts coming up, they went into survival mode: much more of the money they did have stayed firmly in their pocket. 
So what we are going to try to do over the course of the next few blogs is to bring some of the insights, that used to go into the development of bands, to this very blog. So that you can learn for yourself.  Reading this blog and implementing everything in it is certainly not going to guarantee you a place in the rock and roll hall of fame, but it should give you some ideas on approaches you might implement to help you avoid the snakes and, occasionally, climb up the ladders.
In addition to just avoiding the snakes, the tips I'll provide (if thoughtfully implemented) should even make you look more like a brand that record labels might be prepared to invest in.  (In business terms implementation should make an investable product). So let's look at one way you can take a step closer to becoming one of these 'investable products'.
Now if you've read my earlier series of blogs "So you want a recording contract?" you'll understand how much importance is put on having a clear brand that reflects who you are and what you do.  Just for a moment I want to touch on how your brand and music might fit together.  Because I've noticed in some other blogs recently that their seems to be a bit of a debate ranging between those that say "to be successful you need to be malleable" and others who say "to be successful you need to ignore what everyone else says and do your own thing".  
As ever, in my view at least, the answer lies somewhere in between.  It's absolutely true, of course, that your music needs to be original (unless of course you are riding the wave of the 'next big thing' - whether that's the punk scene as it hit in the 70s, the Seattle grunge scene a couple of decades later or, coming right up to date, the 'Btown scene" that Peace Forever/Swim Deep/Jaws are currently forging.) But if you are too malleable your music may end up being too 'safe'.  And record labels usually at least think that they want 'edgy', 'fresh' and 'modern' (even if they then spend time trying to suck all of the edginess out of you to conform to their expectations - more on what these expectations look like another day...)
Given this, if you are an original music band in a particular genre and you want a record label deal where do you go from here? If you aren't about to invent a new genre or move the market, the least you probably need to do is to develop the one you are in.  So at this point it's probably worth taking a look at some long-revered marketing approaches.  How, for example, can you appeal to a popular band's audience while differentiating yourself enough not to be seen as just another clone?  How can you be seen to be 'fresh' while still appearing to be a 'safe' investment proposition?  Maybe a better way of thinking about this is to start by asking "how you would describe what you do if you were speaking to someone who had never heard of you?"
Marketeers long since worked out that people buy:
1. because the product is differentiated
2. because the product is cheap or 
3. because it's like something they know for another reason.  
So if you can use the differentiation point I mentioned above, and at the same time show, in a clever way, that you are ‘like x meets y’ (like Noah and the Whale meets the Arctic Monkeys, for example ) then you could not only double your appeal by grabbing a couple of different audiences but you might also push a record label A&R guys buttons by being seen to be 'fresh' and 'modern'.
A good example of this is a band I recently worked with.  They aren't the world's best musicians to be frank, but let's consider what they have done at the conceptual level for a minute.  Fundamentally they sound like almost any other indie rock band out there at the moment.  Except their lead singer kind of chants. Not quite a rap tbh.  But close enough to attract rap fans while not turning off the indie rockers.   Why is this so clever? Well, given the difficulties the music industry is facing, as we discussed above, and the fact less people are buying music, not only can they appeal to the fan-base of two different bands, they can appeal to the fan-base of two whole genres! A bigger fan base means increased sales.  Increased sales could mean a chart entry.  A chart entry could mean greater exposure.  Greater exposure could mean a bigger fan base.  A bigger fan base could mean more sales and so the spiral continues upwards.  Not rocket surgery.  Conceptually anyway.  
Of course, it's the application of that concept in practice that is the tricky bit.  But as I've said before, if you're not willing to put in the work, you're in the wrong industry.    
So the moral of this week's story is this:  if you are 'like X', you need to think hard about what your 'Y' will be.  And then, as the old saying goes, JFDI.
The author of Machiavelli's Guide, Trev, is a record producer and Chief Engineer at one of the UK's top studios, Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham.  Check it out at www.circlestudios.co.uk. He has worked with clients from major and independent record labels across a range of genres from metal to hip hop.  This week he has been mixing the debut song for a blonde bombshell called Rozii Chaos.  Go follow @circlestudios on twitter if you like the kind of inane rambling you get to read here. Alternatively, look up Circle Recording Studios Birmingham on Facebook.
Post script:  big thanks to Iain @IndiVidStudios for the design of the header photo (and thanks too to @KathrynEMarsh of @RIDtheband, Ronan of @Nervecentrebrum and the eponymous Dave Lee for their submissions!)