Musicians Are Never Just About The Music

from the welcome-to-the-modern-world dept

Recently, I wrote about how musicians need both good music and marketing to be successful. That was in response to Bob Lefsetz’ recent complaints that too many musicians with neat business models these days seem too focused on the marketing side, rather than promoting the music. But I think it’s unfair to play down the importance of the marketing side. While not specifically jumping into that discussion, Hypebot’s Bruce Houghton is making a very similar point by debunking the myth that there was some era when musicians could just focus on being musicians:

I’m sorry if this comes as a surprise, but it has never been enough to just make great music. Every generation of musicians has had to face their own challenges which forced them to go beyond creation and recording.

Frank Sinatra made movies to reach a bigger fan base. Elvis’s hips and haircut were as much a part of his success as his recordings were. David Bowie learned that image and imagery could propel him to greater heights. After Saturday Night Fever, dance steps helped propel many live shows and for a time MTV made being visual an important component of success.

Whether it’s getting in a van and giving an endless string of memorable performances or sitting on the phone for hours talking to journalists, there have always been skills beyond just making music that, if not required, certainly made success more likely

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Comments on “Musicians Are Never Just About The Music”

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Jim O (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Are you daft? Sinatra and Elvis were shred managers of both their image and their business. They were both wildly successful in original ways precisely because they took control of their own careers and fought against the grain of their handlers. Had they not been innovative in the way they sold themselves you wouldn’t know their names today.

Bruce Partington says:

I really have to question the ability of non-musicians to define what constitutes music. Mr. Houghton is apparently part of the pop music industry, where what they make is called product for a reason, and perhaps believes that music (as seen through his examples) did not exist before it was recordable and could be sold for profit, as I think Mozart, Ives, Cage and Feldman, to name a few classical composers of note, had significantly different concerns than maximizing sellthrough at Kmart. And there’s tons more music where that doesn’t come from.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Re: Classical Composers

A lot of classical music was created under a patronage system where someone wealthy (e.g. royalty or high ranking clergy) paid for compositions up front.

Those composers were no doubt *very* concerned with making sure their patrons remained happy with them (not to mention having to make a name for themselves in the first place in order to *attract* those wealthy patrons).

So, no, it wasn’t just about the music even then. Although note that those composers weren’t in the business of selling music – they were in the business of selling the service of creating *new* music at a patron’s behest. Each new piece then acted as an advertisement of their abilities in seeking their next patron (or in retaining the interest of their current one).

AC's long lost brother says:

Re: Re: Classical Composers

“A lot” is far overstating it. Mozart was not a full time court composer and pissed off his benefactors on several occasions. Ives was a part time composer and a full time insurance salesman. Gustav Mahler composed in the summer when we wasn’t conducting. Yes, very often music was commissioned, but a lot of the time there were very strict guidelines on the structure and content of pieces. Also, with a lot of the great composers who were also court composers, their masterpieces were usually NOT commissioned as they had the freedom to write however they were inspired.

one of the great unwashed... says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know if you can cut out the non-talented portion of the audience from the equation.
It seems (to me at least) that it’s the Audience that decides if it IS “Music” and not just some random collection of sounds. A person may have a desire to learn an instrument, to learn how to sing. They may have the desire and drive to perform…. but unless there are people willing to listen (paying or not) then I’d argue that it’s not music that’s being made, and if you’re not making music, I don’t think you can be called a musician.

RecycledBottle says:

Re: Re:

Mozart, Ives, Cage and Feldman were paid by patrons of the classic definition. Their exposure was limited to the region they lived. Nor was there a music recording industry, or video recording industry. Even the newspapers were limited to illustrations if any images … and there was no mass production of widgets. Nor was there any viable means to distribute the widgets satiate a fad. Nor were there chains of stores to distribute the widgets to. The only marketing they could partake in was a promoting a local concert. To use these guys’ careers as a litmus test to modern entertainment industry is absurd since the modern sense of marketing didn’t exit on any level.

reboog711 (profile) says:

This isn't unique to the Music Industry

As a business owner for about 10 years, and a programmer for even longer; I can honestly say that being a better businessman means more to my bottom my line that being a better programmer.

Being able to communicate effectively in sales calls, being able to negotiate price, contract, and payment terms, Being able to instill the confidence in the client that I can do what I promise, and being able to solve the customer’s issue is all more important than producing good code.

I think that music is very similar. Making sure people have fun at your shows is more important than being a technically complex musician.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

too many musicians… seem too focused on the marketing side, rather than promoting the music

Did you mean “producing the music” or “promoting the music”? “Promoting the music” doesn’t make much sense in context with the rest of the sentence. Promoting music is not much different from marketing music.

However “producing” music sets up a contrast between the creation of music and the marketing of music.

herodotus (profile) says:

“Those composers were no doubt *very* concerned with making sure their patrons remained happy with them (not to mention having to make a name for themselves in the first place in order to *attract* those wealthy patrons).”

Of the names he mentions, only one ever depended on aristocratic patronage. Ives had a very successful insurance agency and made his music for himself in his leisure hours. Cage and Feldman have both received grants, but if you listen to their music, it will quickly disabuse you of the notion that they were ever trying to make sure their patrons were happy. Nor did they ever make music at their patron’s behest.

Really, there have been musical artists who had honest to goodness integrity. Who were genuinely original. Who followed their muse wherever it led them.

It’s just that no one really gives a shit about such artists. That’s what makes the constant talk about ‘originality’ in the context of singer-songwriter X or hiphop act Y so fucking grating. No one really wants originality. They use the word in a positively Orwellian sense: to convince themselves that the pablum they consume isn’t as vacuous as they know it really is.

stinson (profile) says:

The Team

I just want to add (and this is probably implied already) that I think it’s important to have a talented and forward-thinking marketing team around the visionary artist. This “team” could simply be one person, or it could be a lot of people. But just like talented artists take the stage with other talented musicians in order to perform music, it’s important to pair the artist with talented, creative, and forward-thinking marketers to “perform” the marketing strategy.

Otherwise I think you would too often end up with an unfocused strategy. Kind of like a guitar player trying to play drums. They could probably come up with some cool ideas, but a true drummer could turn that idea into a truly great performance.

I do think that artists have to be visionary and have a knack for this stuff themselves. But I also think achieving a significant level of success requires the pairing of a visionary artist with a visionary marketing team.

Jim G. says:

My feeling is that the second somebody pays me to play I have a certain responsibility as a performer to deliver the goods. This is true whether I am playing on an album, at a wedding, or just tips at a restaurant. Among other things, this means I usually play pieces that people already know rather than my own material.

I personally have little patience for musicians who feel they should only be pursuing their personal muse and that they should get paid for doing so. I also find those folks are generally not very good musicians. You have to listen to a lot of music and imitate a lot of music before your personal muse has much talent. I’d much rather jam with somebody who can play in a wide range of existing styles than someone who is busy following their muse.

roxanneadams (profile) says:

Singer/songwriter Janis Ian is a master of marketing and reaching out to her fans. She was one of the first musicians to hook up online with her fans, and she also wrote a widely-circulated (and highly criticized) email article years ago about free beer, as in why online music should be free. Ian makes a living touring, although at the end of one concert, I saw her loading her audio equipment into a cargo van – she is her own roadie, and this is a woman in her mid-fifties. You can’t help but insanely love an artist who lives this way.

herodotus (profile) says:

“I personally have little patience for musicians who feel they should only be pursuing their personal muse and that they should get paid for doing so.”

Well if they have a sense of entitlement then that is childish, sure. But if you have a vision, not a childish simulacrum of a vision, but a real live artistic vision, developed over years of training and apprenticeship and study, then setting that aside to write jingles might lead to unhappiness in the long run.

I mean, should Tolkien have written advertising copy, or was he better off following his muse?

“I also find those folks are generally not very good musicians. You have to listen to a lot of music and imitate a lot of music before your personal muse has much talent. I’d much rather jam with somebody who can play in a wide range of existing styles than someone who is busy following their muse.”

This is a spurious dichotomy. You don’t have to be a silly poseur to believe that there is more to art than making a roomful of drunks say ‘that was great!’

And I agree, it takes years of work to have a muse worth listening to. Most people who claim to have one are lying. But not all of them are.

Anyway, sorry for the threadjack. Back to discussing business models for the new millennium.

Tony E (profile) says:

Maybe it's the love of the music...

…that drives these musicians to be self-marketing businesspeople. [For the tl/dr crowd, skip to the end] You’ve got your musicians that do it part time (have a day job), you’ve got your musicians that “sell out” and make the music they’re told to, and you’ve got musicians good enough to do what they want and still make money.

Musicians that do it part time either aren’t good enough at the business side, aren’t good enough at the music side (or both), or aren’t willing to sell out to let someone else handle the business side.

Those that sell out are, I think, viewed as being in it for the money. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but the integrity just isn’t there. To some people the integrity is important, and I tend not to support artists that don’t have integrity. (Side note: this isn’t me making a judgment on these artists or their fans. If you like music that I consider to have no integrity, too bad for me. At least you enjoy it.)

The musicians that are good enough to do what they want either have a label behind them (that they have to fight with and make compromises with like doing ads or compilations) or they have to be their own manager and promoter.

Here’s where I’m going with this long, rambling post: the title is “Musicians are Never Just About the Music.” This struck a chord with me (bad pun, yay!) because I have this naive, fairy-tale notion of artists with integrity (I also believe in people who don’t like to lie, zombies, AND unicorns!) Blah blah blah, point is that maybe the ones who are willing to make calls, schedule their own gigs, answer emails, blog comments, Twitter, Myspace, etc. (be their own manager) are the ones with the most integrity. So I guess what I’m saying is that these are the musicians that are MOST about the music.

For the tl/dr crowd: Maybe the musicians that act as their own label (do their own managing and promotion) are truly those that are most “about the music.”

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Real Tolkien (response to herodotus, Sep 18th, 2009 @ 5:16pm)

J. R. R. Tolkien did not have any significant publication success in fantasy literature until late middle age. For most of his life, he was a university teacher at Oxford. Specifically, he was a graduate school teacher, and quite a good one at that, as measured by the number of his students who eventually became university teachers themselves. When he needed more money, he got a supplemental job grading college entrance exam papers, the way academics teach summer school for extra money nowadays. He was a philologist, who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, but who was best known for his annotated edition of the medieval poem, _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_. Oxford was and is a government-supported institution, so he was, for practical purposes, a government employee. What he was paid for, in day-to-day terms, was conducting tutorials, helping (graduate) students solve problems with their own work.

The hobbit material seems to have begun as bedtime stories while his children were growing up, and it was considered strange enough that publishers were not interested for a long time. He was able to pursue it because it was his spare-time occupation. At the same time, the hobbit books were based on Tolkien’s deep knowledge of medieval literature and linguistics, the product of his “real” occupation. However, it was about thirty years before the hobbit books made him any appreciable sum of money. Many people have attempted to imitate Tolkien, the most recent being J. K. Rowling, but their work is generally second-rate because they are impostors. They are not really medievalists, they know no dead languages, they have made no contributions to the scholarship of the middle ages, and they are not really steeped in the requisite background.

(See: Daniel Grotta-Kurska, _J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth_, 1976. )

In a very real sense, Tolkien was an amateur novelist. He worked at a level where no professional could have afforded to work. A professional writer would have needed to put something out, quick and dirty, to pay the bills. Granted, Tolkien had the advantage of timing. He survived the First World War, and about ninety percent of his contemporaries, the class of 1914, did not. Tolkien’s war experiences formed a major element in his novels, of course. If the war had not come along, he might have wound up taking a job teaching in a good secondary school instead of a university. In that case, he might have spent a lot of time doing things like coaching sports. This would probably not have altered his underlying interests very much. At that date, there were lots of serious scholars who taught at secondary schools. He would inevitably have worked, first, on serious work, such as translating old manuscripts, building up dictionaries of dead languages, etc. The “playful” writing he did after that was done might have gone in different directions than it did.

A lot of the people here seem to want a short cut. They want the kind of literary or artistic success Tolkien achieved at the age of sixty, only they want it at the age of twenty. They don’t want the kind of literary or artistic success which is a distant byproduct of mastering some high profession or other. They want a literary or artistic success which means that they do not have to be good at anything else.

T.J. says:

So much judgement

A fair amount of these posts are rife with judgement and contempt. I know as humans, we are prone to analyze, criticize and measure others, but there seems to be a disproportionate number of artists turned critics. Are we so disenchanted by the success of others?

I wouldn’t say Kurt Kobain possesses the same talent as Bach, but he is still a revered musician. Music is in the ears of the listener. Just as any subjective and relative truth, the majority rules. I’m not a great musician, but I love playing. I love learning more. When I meet someone who possesses a greater skill level, I seek to learn, not to compete. It bothers me when said musician takes a superior attitute towards my “inept” hands (or ears).

Despite the negative comments about “part-time” musicians, I play music for the joy of playing music. Perhaps, because I am not starving, I’ll never be taken seriously, but having a “day job” that ensures relative economic stability is just as important to me as playing music.

Just my two cents.

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