How Much Has The Music Industry Changed?

© 2011 Vinny Ribas

Everywhere I go, I hear that ‘the music industry has changed’. Just the thought of that has thrown many artists and record companies into turmoil. Some people, and companies, resist change with every fiber of the their beings! But having been ‘indie’ before indie was cool, I thought I would take a look at what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what has so drastically mutated that it has transformed the industry.

Keep in mind that this is an oversimplified look at the industry from an independent artist point of view. These are also only my personal observations. Your experiences may be vastly different.

  • The Music: I define great music as the songs and recordings that have stood the test of time. These have always been, and will always be the cornerstones for longevity in the industry. It doesn’t matter if you play all originals, all covers or a mix of the two. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what genre you represent or how much money you have made. Your music must be great if you want to stay booked and sell CDs or downloads for years to come. What has changed is the number of genres that have risen to the forefront. This is because technology has given us unlimited access to so many kinds of music and so many influences. Plus, as long as there are creative people making music, there will be innovation. The good news is that technology has enabled us to find a market for anyone and everyone – if the music is good!
  • Performing: Most artists still need to perform live to survive. That will always be the same. There are a few exceptions these days. Some acts have created widespread notoriety via social networks, YouTube, Internet radio etc., but it hasn’t necessarily translatde into adequate income to survive on. Not enough time has elapsed to determine if this kind of marketing will result in long-term success.
  • Booking: Artists still need to book themselves until they are good enough to attract a booking agent. This hasn’t changed at all. What has changed is that there are dozens of great online tools and resources to make this job easier. In the ‘old days’ we simply had no choice but to make phone calls to find and contact venues.  Now you can find the venues online. However, you still need to make the phone calls!
  • Venues: There have always been many more artists than there are venues or booking agencies. What has changed is the number of venues that have opted to hire DJs or Karaoke DJs rather than have live bands. That decrease in venues is a major challenge for artists who need to play live to survive. More acts need to go on he road to make money. What has also changed is the number of venues that don’t pay their acts at all. Many venues, especially in major music cities, have moved to hiring acts that will play for all or part of the door. Others are only hiring acts that are willing to play in the hopes of being ‘discovered.’ Some venues even charge acts to play, citing the great exposure they will receive.
  • Pay: Artists and musicians who work the hardest will always get paid the most. If you create a demand for your services, you can name you price. This hasn’t changed. Yes, it is true that wages haven’t necessarily risen at the rate of inflation. Some gigs still pay what they did 20 years ago. But the bands, singers and musicians that put the most effort into developing their talent, making connections, marketing themselves and diversifying their incomes will always make the most money.
  • Performance: Artists still need to put on a great show if they want to move up the ladder of success. If anything, the competition has gotten stiffer because the public has access to more artists than ever before.
  • Talent: Many stars with limited talent have been ‘manufactured’ by record labels at least as far back as the 1950’s and 60’s. Let’s face it – pretty faces sell records. Nothing has changed. Technology can make just about anyone sound good. However, true talent has always been required to create any form of sustainability and longevity in the industry.
  • Fan Base: Artists have always needed to develop a strong fan base and create a demand for their act in order to command bigger money. The only thing that has changed is that we used to collect physical addresses and send our newsletters out by snail mail. Now everything is based on email and text messages.
  • Publicity: Artists still need to generate publicity. Out of sight, out of mind. Nothing’s changed about that. What has changed is the increase in publicity mediums. In the past we had radio, TV, newspapers and magazines. Now there are also blogs, e-zines, social networks and so much more! In many ways it is much easier now.
  • Marketing: Indie artists have always needed to market themselves. This is a constant and probably always will be. Bringing more fans into venues results in more bookings. Getting more people to hear your music results in more sales. What has changed is that there are more marketing methods. Email newsletters, social networks, websites, EPKs and other digital mediums have been added to the traditional methods such as hanging posters and calling fans to invite them to shows. However, the bottom line is still the same. Get your name and music in front of as many people as possible. It’s a number game.
  • Management: The role of artist management has always been to take artists as far as they can go in their careers. What has changed is what those careers look like. In the past a manager’s ultimate goal might have been to land a major label record deal. Today, artists have a variety of career goals that may or may not include getting a record deal. Some examples are getting major endorsement deals, traveling worldwide, reaching a specific level of income, playing consistently for larger audiences, performing concerts rather than nightclubs etc.
  • Record Labels: The role of the record label has always been the same – make records and sell them! What has changed is that there are many more smaller boutique labels, many personal, artist-owned labels, and less major players. What has also changed is the management of record labels. It is becoming \more and more obvious that the public has gotten tired of cookie-cutter, mass-produced artists and music. Thus the rise and success of the smaller, more flexible specialty labels. In addition, more and more artists are releasing music without being on any label at all.
  • Connections – Connections always have been and always will be king. What has changed is that artists don’t necessarily need major label connections to be successful. They need connections with people who can help them get better gigs, sell more music, license their music etc.
  • Songwriting – Nothing will ever replace great songwriting. Without great songs, even the most talented band or singer is left dead in the water. If anything, there is a greater need to write better songs because of the decline of CD sales. ‘Fillers’ were OK on a CD, but not in a ‘download one song at a time’ world.
  • Publishing – The publishing industry hasn’t changes very much at all. The publisher’s goal is to get the songs in his or her catalog recorded, and preferably by major artists. What has changed is the number of songwriters who are retaining their own publishing and pitching songs themselves. Also, the role of song-pluggers as an alternative to publishers is on the rise.
  • Recording – Obviously technology has changed the landscape of recording, making it feasible for anyone to produce tracks or a full CD at a reasonable cost. However, what hasn’t changed is the fact that it still takes great songs, a good producer, a skillful engineer and a talented act, to come out with a top-notch, enduring record.
  • Business – The business behind your music hasn’t changed at all. The tools have. You still need to market your act, book it, keep the books, pay taxes, hire attorneys to negotiate and review contracts etc.
  • Merchandise – Merchandise such as t-shirts and photos have always been a major source of an artist’s income. What has changes it that it is much more affordable now for artists to have any kind of merchandise made that they wan to sell. Books, jewelry, other forms of clothing and much more can now be purchased in very small quantities.
  • Airplay – With the rise in influence of the super-labels, many large radio stations have chosen to ignore independent artists. However, there are many more secondary, tertiary, college and especially Internet stations that look for great music regardless of who the artist is or what label they are on. Getting mainstream radio in the US may be harder for indie artists, but getting widespread play over stations worldwide has become easier.
  • Licensing – Technology has enabled music to be incorporated into everything from movies and TV to toys, toothbrushes and greeting cards. Thus, there have never been so many opportunities for an artist who own his master recordings to license them
  • Product: Obciously the form of physical product has changed over the years. We have gone from various sized vinyl records through a miriad of other mediums, including CDs and digital downloads. But the bottom line is that it is music recorded onto or placed into a format that allows it to be played anywhere.
  • Distribution – The purpose of distribution has not changed at all. Make music as accessible to the buying public as possible. Of course, the distribution methods have changed. So much is done online now. Digital distribution is imperative for most artists who appeal to the generations that use computers. But the premise is still the same.

Once again, this is a limited list of some of the more profound changes the industry has gone through, as well as the concepts and principles that haven’t changed at all. The bottom line is this: Music success has always been about taking a talented act, having them make great sounding recordings of above-average songs, marketing them to the general public by every means possible, putting them on stage in front of audiences everywhere, developing a loyal fan base and then selling their music to as many customers as possible. In that sense, nothing has changed.

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.