Getting Past The 'But Artists Should Just Be Artists' Myth

from the it's-designed-to-keep-you-down dept

At Monday's excellent SF Music Tech Summit, there was a really good discussion in the final panel of the day, that crystallized in my mind why it's hogwash when some repeat the refrain that "artists should just be artists" and not worry about business models, connecting with fans or social networking. It's a claim that is made over and over again -- sometimes by musicians themselves. In the past, we've pointed out that this is fine, if artists just want to be artists then they need to do one of two things: either not expect to make much money or partner with someone who can focus on the business model and social networking side of things. Dave Allen, who was on that panel, used his manifesto on why artists needed to stop whining and start taking charge as a kicking off point, and brought up his concept of why all bands needed "a fifth Beatle" to manage that side of their efforts. In many ways, it reminded me of Andrew Dubber's recent manifesto that pointed out that if you wanted to make money as a musician, you had to become a musical entrepreneur.

But, two other comments on the panel made the point even more clear. First was Sebastien Keefe, from the band Family of the Year, who talked about how the band (more his bandmates than himself, actually) did a really good job connecting with fans online, including a special private concert that only Twitter followers found out about, and a cool postcard promotion, where people would pay $5 for a postcard, and the band would send it back to the fans from their tour. When the question came up of artists claiming that they didn't want to spend the time on social networks to connect with fans, he noted first that it wasn't that much time, and second that an artist unwilling to do that was "selling themselves short," in not really building up their audience.

Though, what's really cementing the myth of "artists should just be artists" was Tim Quirk's comment. Quirk, of course, got a lot of publicity recently for revealing how major record label royalty statements are often total works of fiction, using his own royalty statements as an example. On this topic, however, he noted that the people who tell artists that "you should just focus on being an artist" were almost always "feeding them bullshit" in order to gain more control over the artist. That is, it's a line you often hear from record labels or managers who want more control over a musician's business. So all three of those musicians (Allen, Quirk and Keefe) highlighted how the claim that "musicians should just be musicians" isn't just a myth, but it's often used to limit the potential of musicians.

Right after that panel, there was a short (and very sparsely attended) talk given by Stephan Jenkins, of the band Third Eye Blind -- and without realizing it, he put the exclamation point on this particular discussion from the previous panel. While he said he was grateful for his major label experience, he also talked about how being on a major label actually made it harder for the band to really focus on their music and artistic ideals -- because the label started dictating everything that the band should be doing. From that, he felt like the band really got away from the sort of music that it wanted to create, that had helped make the band big in the first place. He talked about how piracy has given the band "a second chance" by letting a new generation of fans discover their original music, and that has resulted in the band's most recent album, which he felt was much more true to the band's musical roots. He noted also that, now that they were out of the major label system, they were making a lot more money, even if they were selling fewer units.

All in all, it really helped solidify the idea that the claim that "artists just need to be artists" and shouldn't be concerned about business models or talking to fans is really just a line used by record labels to try to gain more control over artists, at their own expense. That doesn't mean that artists shouldn't try to find that "5th Beatle," to help them when it becomes necessary, but that they should make sure that whoever that 5th Beatle is, he or she is really aligned with their thinking in where they want to go with their career.

Filed Under: artists should just be artists, business models, dave allen, music, musicians, sebastien keefe, stephan jenkins, tim quirk

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  1. icon
    Mr RC (profile), 10 Dec 2009 @ 12:44am

    I am a '5th Beatle'

    I am working with a young band as far as marketing, distribution, merchandising and everything else goes, I even contribute to the songwriting.

    Music will be getting released under a creative commons license (and yes I will let you know when when they are releasing it so that you can download/listen/share).

    As far as money goes, 60% goes to the band fund for better instruments, custom merchandise, accommodation etc (basically invested into band and to cover costs).. the remaining 40% is split 5 ways.. we all get 8% each.. values will change when there is more money.. but all shares will remain equal .. and as it is.. we will have to make a total of 250,000 euro's per year in order to quit our day jobs (we all have an average income of approx 20k euro's currently) .. Obviously this isn't going to happen overnight, but they all love making music.. I love writing and the challenge and their music.. we don't see that happening any time soon.. maybe in a few years though..

    The band didn't know how to market themselves, or how to do the merchandising or anything like that. I work with one of them (he's actually sitting at the desk next to mine) and was asked for help putting together their website.. being a regular reader (but irregular commenter) on techdirt ... I put forward some of the ideas that Mike has suggested (as well as a few other ideas) and was asked to manage them.. they have embraced 'free' and know that they are going to have to do a bit more than just 'make music' .. they will have FB and Myspace pages.. their own forum for fan interaction.. twittering.. etc

    By not signing with a label, sure they miss out on those resources offered and early money... but they OWN their music.. they can take their music in any direction they feel without oversight.. and aren't locked into a contract to produce x albums in y time.. they'd rather produce quality, rather than quantity.. music that they are proud of, rather than forced to produce something that they aren't happy with.. it's their music.. not the industry's..

    Music will be offered free to radio stations (terrestrial and web) and special deals offered to businesses 'hey, you can play our stuff as often as you like, to an unlimited amount of people in your store/school/club for X per year' with a letter of exemption from ASSCRAP and their ilk around the world.. the value would be low, we do want to make some money.. and people (shills) would probably say that we are undervalueing our music.. but who can put a price on free promotion and a little cash on the side?

    They don't want to be rich (though they wouldn't complain LOL, they can focus more on music then) they just want to be heard and enjoyed.. isn't that what music is supposed to be about?

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