Real Beauty Has a Name (It’s You)

I may be alone in this but I find the approach antiquated and outmoded—and I’m not even the target audience. What I mean is, I find it bewildering that marketing shame tactics for beauty products remain after all this time.

If you’re not familiar with the approach, it basically goes like this: “You are flawed. You are lacking. You do not look the way that others look and you should be extremely frightened of looking older. But if you buy our product/procedure, you can escape your predicament.”

While I understand the leveraging of pain points in marketing, I’m also willing to bet real money that women do not enjoy being told they are fundamentally not beautiful as they are.

So for today’s copywriting project, I decided to produce a beauty-product message that says, “You are already beautiful just the way you are, and our product simply supports your decision to be the best version of yourself.”

If this message were to be produced as a real ad for a real beauty product, I would simply fade up the product image at the end and say little else.

Hope you enjoy it. Oh, and happy Easter! 🙂

Copyright © 2019 Xristopher Bland for the script and original soundtrack (“Absinthe”). All rights reserved. Royalty-free and CC0 video clips/still images adhere to all non-commercial usage guidelines.

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Save a Noun Today (World Wordlife Foundation)

With near-daily posts about the decline of spelling and grammar, it occurred to me that words may be an endangered species. This copywriting project is a word-conservation video (done in the style of the World Wildlife Fund) for a fictitious organization called the World Wordlife Foundation, encouraging businesses to save a noun (and lost revenue from poorly written content).

For more information, visit https://abmcreativeservice.wixsite.com/copywriting.

Are You Signing Away Your Rights to Email Privacy With Your Music Site?

Royalty-free image courtesy of Wix.

I’ve done what you’ve likely done. With so many companies emailing out notices about revised terms and conditions, I stopped clicking through to read the revisions and just sent them to the trash.

However, something told me to click through the other morning to read the revised terms and conditions of a leading music website where artists can hire “top music pros” to get “great-sounding release-ready songs,” and I was shocked to discover that the revised terms included releasing my rights to privacy in any email correspondence with them, and let me tell you. The scope of what they were asking me to release was mind-boggling.

Before I go any further, though, let me assure you. As a journalist with many years of experience writing for newspapers, national magazines and websites, I can tell you that the normal rules and rights surrounding email correspondence are clear to many individuals and companies, and they follow them.

Where comments on social media and other public forums, for example, are the same as someone saying something in front of a crowd (meaning such people have released their rights to privacy through public declaration, and their words can be quoted and re-used by others), email correspondence falls outside of public channels. As such, people have not made a public declaration in anything they write and thereby have not released their rights to privacy. In order for someone to secure the rights to quote something from a personal email or use ideas contained within it, an individual must personally contact a sender and formally request such rights, and the sender always maintains the right of refusal.

The exceptions tend to be instances like sending emails (or actual letters) to newspaper editorial departments, where senders are well aware that their emails may be re-published (commonly under Letters to the Editor), and the act of sending an email releases rights of privacy. Beyond such instances, the confidentiality of personal email correspondence has always been implicit to countless people in all kinds of professions, even if they’ve felt constrained by such rights. And perhaps that was the impetus behind the website’s revised terms and conditions.

Although the company encouraged its users to send emails, the company (to its credit) gave users fair warning. All emails and communications sent to them, “including, but not limited to, feedback, questions, comments, suggestions, and the like,” came with the right for the company to freely use “any ideas, concepts, know-how, or techniques contained in your communications for any purpose whatsoever, including but not limited to, the development, production, and marketing of products and services that incorporate such information without compensation or attribution to you.” All of this (and more) was declared publicly within their revised website terms and conditions.

Now the people behind the website may have felt that they had good reason to ask for such rights release. If a user wrote to suggest an improvement to the website, for example, the company could make that change happen quicker for all users without spending weeks or months entangled in negotiations about ideas and rights and who can do what. If the website is providing a basic free service (which many music websites do), and a user is availing that free service, then free use of their idea by the service provider may feel like a fair exchange.

The downside for anyone sending them an email was that, in wording their terms and conditions to cover every possible contingency, the company had given themselves carte blanche. The company could lift a quote from an email and use it as an endorsement. They could take someone’s knowledge, include it in a blog and post it as their own, and if someone gave them an inspiring idea, they could develop that idea into a product and sell it without giving a dime to the person who gave them the idea.

The irony of all this, of course, is that where many music websites have billed themselves as the heroic alternative to record companies, streaming services and other companies popularly vilified as being evil rip-off organizations that ask artists to sign away most or all of their rights, the evidence is that at least one music website is seeking the same.

The worst part is, you don’t even have to sign such agreements to agree to them. Many agreements simply kick in the moment you log back into a website.

Now I’m not in the habit of emailing music websites too often. So an outside observer may wonder, “Why then are you worried about email rights?” And my answer would be that the website did not tell me which specific sections had been revised in their terms and conditions. They simply sent out a few vague sentences informing me that they’d generally made changes. They left it to me to sift through reams of obfuscated paragraphs within their website terms and conditions to discover what those changes actually were, which naturally led me to think:

“If this website has asked me to sign away all rights to email privacy in deference to the normal rules and rights surrounding email correspondence—and did not make it easy for me to see the specifics of their request—what will they ask for next? Moreover, what have I perhaps already missed?”

Although the website’s email notification informed me that I “didn’t have to do anything” in response to their notice, I felt there was something I needed to do. I didn’t log back into my account and ditched the service altogether.

So I suppose the point of all this is caution. If you’re an artist signed up with a music website (or thinking about signing up), I encourage you to read their terms and conditions carefully, and if you don’t like what you read, you may wish to consider switching to another site whose terms and conditions do not include carte blanche over any personal correspondence with them.

Failing that, you can simply choose to never send an email.

Sure, many websites advertise themselves as being your best possible chance for fame and fortune, but there are plenty of music websites around with fair and equitable terms and conditions, and if you still don’t find one that suits you, don’t worry. The music business has been around for decades and will be around for decades more, meaning another music website will be along soon.

Are You “World-Class”? (You Just Might Be)

Royalty-free photo courtesy of the awesome folks at Wix.

You hear it all the time: “[He/she] is a world-class artist”—a term that denotes some elusive shining realm where only the steeliest of hearts dare to tread.

But what does the phrase “world-class” actually mean?

The term certainly has a history of arbitrary assignment. When I was a kid, for example, I knew a guy whom people swore was a world-class pain in the ass. Yet as far as I could tell, he’d never traveled much beyond the borders of his hometown. So technically speaking, he could only be called a local pain in the ass. Was “world-class” just about reach and numbers?

Though people tend to use fan numbers and music sales to bestow the mantle of “world-class,” such measurements have never made much sense to me because numbers do not change the innateness of something.

Here’s what I mean.

After Queen recorded Freddie Mercury’s six-minute song “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975, record executives felt the song was too long, too weird and would never be a hit. Queen ignored all that and today, “Bohemian Rhapsody remains one of the best-selling singles ever produced and was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the #1 song of all time.

Now by the numbers of people who love the song, and by the sheer dollars generated by song sales, there’s little question that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is nothing short of “world-class” by how people commonly gauge it. But here’s the important bit.

Queen never listened to the those record execs and changed “Bohemian Rhapsody” before releasing it, meaning the song already had the innateness of world-class potential before anyone heard it, and the resulting numbers had nothing to do with creating that world-class-ness.

The numbers were a result. They were not a cause.

There are plenty of similar stories spanning all kind of fields, but I think you get the point of all this.

If someone ever tells you that your music is too long or too weird and will never be a hit, just ignore them.

Ignore them even if you’re not a musician but your passion is for something else.

You know your innateness. You know your artistry and value, and the simple fact is, you just might be world-class.

Music Versus Fake Job Security

Royalty-free photo courtesy of Wix.

“You’ll never make money at music. It’s a fool’s pursuit. You need to get a real job.”

Sound familiar?

If someone has ever told you something along these lines, let me share a heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring true story that will show you the real truth:

As well-meaning as such words can be, they’re also complete twaddle on multiple levels—and just may leave you regretting your decision to buy into such misconceptions but with little time to wipe your regrets away.

Sound too dramatic?

If so, I’m glad, because if this wakes you up and compels you to spend a moment reading this story, it may spare you from what my father experienced.

Back in the 1930s, my father’s first passion as a child was to be a musician. So he sat down at the family piano one day and started teaching himself how to play cover songs. However, when his father found out, he roundly proclaimed, “No son of mine is going to be a musician!” My grandfather saw any musical pursuit as not only impractical but effeminate as well. In fact, my grandfather was so threatened by the mere whiff of not being seen as “manly” that he literally went to his grave having never told his son that he loved him.

Now you may be wondering why my grandfather had a piano if no one was supposed to play it. Well, back in the 1930s, owning a piano was a social status symbol, like owning the latest iPhone today. Yet granddad didn’t have much use for a piano beyond that, and when he found out that his son was actually playing it, the tool sold it.

I can only imagine how much that impacted and hurt my father, or what anger he buried because of it, and the only way he could enjoy playing the piano was to do so in secret at other people’s houses. But he couldn’t last long under the Inquisitional eyes and steady pressure of his father to become a doctor, and God love him, my father tried and spent a year at medical school.

Trouble was, the sight of blood made my father sick to his stomach, and after he mustered the courage to tell his father that he couldn’t continue, his father expressed profound disappointment before shuttling my father off to become a foundry patternmaker—someone who engineers industrial forms used to make molds into which metal, resin and other material can be poured to make anything from machine parts to toothbrushes. And my father was great at it. While history does not record it, he invented one of the first methods for plastic mold injecting (which makes things like plastic iPhone cases possible today), and from there, he went on to become a machinist and quality control professional—all in the trust that such jobs would guarantee him a steady and secure future, just like his father had informed him.

Yet my grandfather hadn’t been some diviner of seer. He hadn’t owned a crystal ball, and if he had, he probably would have sold that too. He’d lived his life like the rest of us, mucking ahead as best he could while buying into beliefs of certainty because that always feels better than admitting that life is just one big unknown. He couldn’t foresee how technologies and economies would change, just as he couldn’t foresee that patternmaking would one day be replaced by 3D printing. So his “assurance” of job security was just a guess that became a starkly different reality for my father.

Jobs came and went over the years. Sometimes the bills were easy to pay. Sometimes they weren’t, and when times were extra lean during periods of unemployment, there was little in the fridge but powdered milk and bologna sandwiches. Up and down it went, always on a budget to buffer against rainy days and downright torrents until my father realized one day that for as much as his father had convinced him that he could never make ends meet in music, he’d barely fared better at a “regular job.”

Then something remarkable happened.

He decided to stop worrying so much and embrace a balanced life that included his love of music, which had never really left him.

Jobs were going to come and go. He couldn’t control the shifting economic tides or shortsighted corporate decisions that caused companies to go out of business and rendered the idea of job security as a little more than self-medicating hope. That didn’t mean he didn’t always work and study to be the best at what he did. Yet where he’d watched others consume themselves in such pursuits at the expense of everything else whispering from their souls, my father realized that such lives commonly ended with people lying on their deathbeds in shattering realization:

You don’t regret the things you’ve done in life. You regret what you didn’t do.

So in his 60s, my father re-taught himself to play the piano, and he taught himself to sing too. He performed with barbershop quartets at large and small shows. He also spent years performing at retirement homes around Southern Ontario while making enough money along the way to support touring and even finance a few recordings, and sure. He played “old folks” music, but he didn’t give a flying funk because it had never been just about the notes and chords. From the first time he’d placed his hands onto a keyboard and felt that calling and connection to something higher than himself, it had been about his soul, so easily sold.

My father played and sang until the end of his days. Even after his health failed and he could no longer sit behind a keyboard, he still sang—even when his voice was failing—and when they buried him, they did so in an urn of my father’s choice: a gold box fixed with a gold treble clef, wrapped in his favorite sweater as a final message to everyone that the constancy and warmth of what lives in your heart is the only real steadiness and security you’ll ever have. And while he arrived late to evidence the practical and arguably mundane matter of making music pay, he thankfully didn’t miss the opportunity to sleep within the grace of knowing that the price of playing or not playing music involves far more than fleeting dollars.

7 Things You Should Give Up to Be Successful in Music

There are those who would have you believe that, in order to be successful in music, you must have or get certain things, but this is only true to a degree. Sure, if you want to learn how to play a guitar or the drums, having or getting a musical instrument is undoubtedly a must. Yet beyond such simple, practical matters, success often means giving up some things.

  1. Give Up on the Idea of Having to Be Perfect

“Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin forever on their axis, advancing nowhere.”—Thomas Carlyle

Not too long ago, I watched a young band win an important music competition in downtown Kitchener, Ont. They weren’t the best band on the list that night. They didn’t have the best instruments. Their timing wasn’t prefect, and they even flubbed the odd chord. So by technical standards, they definitely weren’t perfect.

However, they were enthusiastic. They showed visible joy and passion about what they were doing as they bounced around the stage. Their energy engaged the audience and drew them into the performance, and that translated into thunderous applause and a trophy. So give up on the idea of having to be perfect. Focus on the joy of playing and performing music and other things like winning competitions will take care of themselves.

  1. Give Up on Whatever Picture of Success You May Have Been Sold

“Success must never be measured by how much money you have.”—Zig Ziglar

Success will always be a matter of personal perspective and definition. The problem is, it’s easy to lose sight of this in a world that commonly measures success in dollars and possessions.

Yes, it would be fun to be driven everywhere in a stretch limousine or have room service deliver exquisite meals three times a day. Yet if someone has sold you on such transient materialism as the only measure of success, the pursuit will likely work against you, planting the weeds of unhappiness and infecting your joy of playing music.

Success is far broader and more personal:

  • If you can pay the bills and keep a roof over your head by playing music, you are successful.
  • If you have the time to spend one or two nights a week playing at clubs or small festivals, you are successful.
  • If you have the freedom to spend one afternoon a week jamming with friends, you are successful.
  • If you finally manage to record that song you love, you are successful.
  • If you give yourself permission to love what you’re doing, you are successful.

There are many different definitions of success. You alone know which one is right for you, and you’re right in whichever definition you choose.

  1. Give Up Thinking You Need to Know How to Read and Write Music

“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.”—Keith Richards

Musical notation came after musical creation. Here’s what I mean.

Long ago before the invention of musical instruments, no one walked up to their fellow villagers and said, “I’ve written down all these strange symbols called notation. I have no idea what they mean but we should invent some musical instruments to find out.” After instruments were invented, people played what came to them or what they heard others playing. Only much later was musical notation created to record music, and the systems were many and varied between cultures.

From fragmentary, instructional-based notation discovered written on tablets around 1250 BC to the text-symbol notation of ancient Greece, early music notation also included medieval plainchant, Korean jeong-gan-bo, Indian sargam, Russian stolp notation and Japanese kunkunshi.

Today, musical notation still exists in a variety of forms. While sheet music using staves and noteheads stands as a fairly universal method of notating music, country musicians still rely heavily on the numeral-based Nashville Number System created by Neal Matthews in the late 1950s. And thousands of musicians worldwide still use informal tab systems to capture their music as effective instructional material for other musicians.

So give up on the idea that you need to know how to read and write music to enjoy performing songs (either yours or songs by other artists). Guitar legends Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan never learned to read or write music. They simply played by ear and followed inspiration and passion, so follow yours and always remember.

Back before recording software, musical notation was originally created to record music, because that’s all the technology anyone had. So if you really don’t know the names of the notes or chords you’re playing and all you do is record your music using music software, you can relax knowing that you’re actually writing your music down.

  1. Give Up Believing Everyone Should Like You

“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”—George Orwell

Few would argue that the Beatles aren’t one of the greatest bands the world has ever known. Yet that’s exactly what legendary record producer Quincy Jones did.

In a 2018 interview with New York Magazine, Jones called the Beatles “the worst musicians in the world” and singled Paul McCartney out as “the worst bass player I ever heard.” Jones also slammed Michael Jackson and Bono, but refused to acknowledge his own character and talent as anything but pure unfailing gold.

In other words, you’re never going to please everyone with your music (or anything you do). No one is capable of that. So abandon the migraine-inducing, soul-debilitating, self-flagellating idea that everyone should like you, especially if someone leaves a negative comment about you or your work on some comment string somewhere. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but don’t forget. That includes you and your opinion that someone else’s opinion doesn’t serve you and is best put out with the trash. And then you move on to play and record more music and connect with people who do like your music.

  1. Give Up Thinking Success Has a Cut-Off Date

“It’s never too late for a new beginning in your life.”—Joyce Meyers

Before releasing her 1993 breakout hit “All I Wanna Do” at age 31, Sheryl Crow worked as a music teacher, wrote advertising jingles and worked as a backup vocalist for Michael Jackson in the 1980s. At age 47, Susan Boyle won over cynical judges and the audience on Britain’s Got Talent and went on to release six albums and garner two Grammy nominations. Singer Michael Fitzpatrick was 32 before he started taking piano lessons, and was 38 when his band, Fitz and the Tantrums, released their first album in 2008. Debbie Harry was 31 when Blondie released their self-titled debut album in 1976, but wouldn’t see worldwide success until the band’s third album, Parallel Lines, in 1978.  Guitarist Andy Summers was 35 when he was asked to join the Police, and Bill Haley (described as the greatest musical pioneer of the 20th century) was 30 before Decca released his recording of the Max Freedman-James Myers song “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” in 1955, earning Haley the title of the man who first brought rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream.

So give up on the idea that you have to “make it” in the music industry by a certain age. The only cut-off dates that exist are those that you create in your own mind.

  1. Give Up Believing You Need Expensive Gear

“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f—king drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll f—king start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and then all of a sudden, they’ll become Nirvana.”—Dave Grohl

If you’ve ever encountered the musician who sneers at you as a “lesser artist” for playing a Squier guitar or CB drums, you’re not alone. Just like people have long shopped for the same clothes as their idols to feel cool, musicians have long emptied their bank accounts in the belief that owning an expensive name-brand instrument instantly makes them “real musicians.”

While top-end instruments certainly have a lot to offer, no price tag trumps artistry, passion and the most important element of all: a good song.

  • Joan Jett played a budget Gibson Melody Maker with the Runaways and later with the Blackhearts on their hits, from “I Love Rock N’ Roll” and “Bad Reputation” to “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”
  • When asked why he seemed to favor the low-end Fender Mustang guitar, Kurt Cobain said in his last interview with Guitar World, “I don’t favor them. I can afford them.”
  • Jimmy Page and George Harrison started out by playing a Resonet Grazioso, the Czechoslovakian option to the pricier Fender Stratocaster.
  • Seasick Steve made it big playing his trademark Three-String Trance Wonder guitar.
  • In the opening of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White plays a riff on a guitar made from a few hunks of wood and a strand of wire before turning to the camera (in a cow pasture, no less) and asking, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”

So shoot for the stars in your musical aspirations, but don’t let the lack of any name-brand instrument stop you from hitting the launch button.

  1. Give Up Thinking Some Single Performance Will “Make or Break” Your Career

“Life is not about how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you get back up.”—Jaime Escalante

The halls of rock ‘n’ roll are filled to the rafters with artists who lost competitions or suffered frighteningly embarrassing experiences, and still they went on to do awesome things. A few examples:

  • In season three of American Idol, Jennifer Hudson lost in the semi-finals but went on to enjoy a successful musical career, earn an Oscar for her role as Effie White in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls and earn a judge’s seat on The Voice.
  • Similarly, Chris Daughtry placed fourth on season five of American Idol but went on to huge success with his band, Daughtry and stand just behind Idol alumni Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson for album sales.
  • In February of 1992, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante deliberately sabotaged the band’s performance of “Under the Bridge” on Saturday Night Live, but that didn’t stop the band from releasing six more albums.
  • Taylor Swift has been criticized for giving performances where she sounds out of breath and pitchy, but that hasn’t prevented fans from flocking to her concerts like it’s Black Friday.
  • Billie Joe Armstrong threw a toddler-worthy fit in 2012 after Green Day’s performance was cut short at the iHeart Radio Music Festival to make room for Usher, but Green Day’s 2016 album Revolution Radio nonetheless debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
  • And Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose pretty much devoted himself to being an arrogant tool between 1988 and 1993, and both critics and fans villainized him for being late for shows or walking off stage in the middle of them. Yet AC/DC still asked Rose to stand in as frontman at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena in 2016 after singer Brian Johnson had to quit AC/DC’s Rock or Bust tour for health reasons, and critics heralded Rose for delivering a truly killer performance.

I think you get the point. No matter how critical you may think some performance is to your success, it might not be. So enjoy each performance for what it is, and if some show doesn’t go as you’d imagined, dust off your shoes, load up the van and head on down the road to the next show. After all, rock ‘n’ roll never cared what others thought of it, and that’s what made it great.

In other words, for those about to rock, I salute you.

How to Make Money in Music in the Age of Streaming

Royalty-free stock photo courtesy of the smashing folks at Wix.

WARNING: If you’re an artist who prefers to record and/or perform for free and pay for all your own expenses, this article is not for you. For the rest of you, here’s the lay of today’s musical landscape and how many artists are now making money.

Hint: If you’ve ever ordered a value meal, you already have a sense of how some artists are making the most of their hard-earned cash to build bigger audiences and put more money in their pocket.

To start, I should clarify that making money from streaming generally plays a small to microscopic part in this income, because it’s true. Music streaming has changed how people now buy and consume music, and that change has all but killed music sales as a viable source of income for even established artists.

The Rise and Explosion of Streaming

Before the Stockholm-based startup Spotify launched its music-streaming service on Oct. 7, 2008, music streaming was still in its infancy and accounted for just 1% of global music sales. Physical formats (predominantly CDs) still accounted for nearly 80% of global music sales, and according to Nielsen SoundScan, digital album sales in the U.S. totaled $66 million in revenue and accounted for 15% of total album sales (a 5% increase from 2007).

Referencing the growth in digital sales, the IFPI informed artists in its 2009 Digital Music Report that “the music business is moving from a model based on sales to one of ‘monetizing’ access to music.” However, while the IFPI got the “access” part right, they sighted the wrong channel.

By 2013, Spotify had roughly 30 million active users and 8 million premium subscribers. One year later, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, music streaming revenues surpassed CD sales for the first time in the U.S., and from there, streaming pretty much washed the competition off the map like a torrent. From its highest sales point of 943 million units sold in the U.S. in 2000, CD sales plunged annually by 90% to 99 million units sold in the U.S. in 2016, when streaming represented 51% of total music sales in the U.S.. And across the board, sales of all music formats (CDs, LPs and digital albums) fell from 331 million units sold in the U.S. in 2001 to just under 169 million in 2017.

And Still the Steamroller Streamed Ahead

By June of 2018, Spotify dominated the streaming market with 83 million paying subscribers worldwide (up from 57 million in June of 2017), and were valued at $28.9 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. And they weren’t the only company into whose pockets music fans were stuffing handfuls of cash.

According to Statista, competing streaming services in 2018 included:

  • Apple Music (19% of the world market)
  • Amazon (12%)
  • Tencent (8%)
  • Deezer (3%)
  • Pandora (3%)
  • Google (3%)
  • MelON (2%)
  • Others (14% combined)

To paraphrase the 1947 song by the Ink Spots, it was all over for CDs except for the crying.

In 2018, U.S. retail giant Best Buy informed its suppliers that the company would no longer sell CDs, and for millions of people who loved CDs and still wanted them, the announcement felt like the final nail in the CD coffin. Yet streaming fans likely didn’t notice the hammering (or even care) because music streaming companies had captured people and their wallets by delivering the same two attractions that marketers have used for decades to sell everything from Polaroid cameras to DQ Blizzards. Namely, convenience and instant gratification, which made music streaming the biggest source of income for the music industry in 2018.

That’s “big” with a capital “B.”

In the first half of 2018, Universal, Sony and Warner jointly made $3.24 billion from streaming, according to Music Business Worldwide magazine. And according to a June 2018 report by the Merlin Network, the UK-based group that negotiates streaming services on behalf of more than 20,000 indie labels and distributors, the company had paid out $1.5 billion to its member labels.

Said another way, streaming had created a banquet for record labels and companies like Spotify where every course came as a dump truck of money. So it was no surprise that industry press offices and a few journalists had called streaming the savior of the music business. But what about the artists who actually create the music that generates all those billions? How big is their chair at the banquet?

“Musicians are essentially giving away their music in return for pennies.”—Kabir Sehgal

Sure, some top artists have seen major paydays from streaming. Taylor Swift, for example, reportedly earned between $280,000 and $390,000 from 46.3-million streams of her song “Shake It Off.” And according to a June 2017 Music Business Worldwide article, Ed Sheeran generated over $5 million for himself and his music business partners from a half-billion streams of “Shape of You,” the lead single from Sheeran’s third album, Divide.

Music journalists enjoy citing such figures as “evidence” that music streaming is profitable for musicians, and that may be true if you’re a chart-topping artist. Yet for the average artist with even a decent fan base, the music stream can represent a disproportionate trickle by which many artists would be challenged to fill teacup.

“Most musicians won’t generate that many streams in their lifetime,” wrote Grammy Award-winning producer and bestselling author Kabir Sehgal in a January 2018 commentary for CNBC. “Another calculation shows that 1 million plays on Spotify translates to around $7,000, and 1 million plays on Pandora generates $1,650… When people bought albums and even MP3s, there was a glimmer of hope that a musician could earn a decent income on sales. But now musicians are essentially giving away their music in return for pennies.”

Actually, it’s more like fractions of pennies.

As evidence, Digital Music News founder and publisher Paul Resnikoff posted an unsigned band’s submitted Spotify royalties statement to his website in May of 2016 to show that for 1,023,501 streams, the band earned $4,955.90 (or an average stream payout of $0.004891). Resnikoff further urged artists to share their royalty statements from streaming with him to “help other artists and the industry to get a better sense of what streaming platforms are paying.”

So the reality of streaming is that it’s a super volume game that so undermines streaming’s viability for average artists that Taylor Swift pulled all her previous albums from Spotify on Nov. 3, 2014, in public declaration that streaming is not good for artists. Still others cite streaming as evil and would see it torn down or abandoned altogether. Yet that seems unlikely to happen.

With smart speakers making music streaming at home even more convenient, and given the insatiable consumer appetite for new technology, a recent forecast by the Industrial Development Corporation predicts that the market for smart home devices will double in size between 2018 and 2022.

In other words, music streaming isn’t going to go away any time soon, which generally places streaming into the category of unpaid promotions for artists, like giving a free interview to a music journalist. Yes, such opportunities offer important exposure to build audiences, and if artists are lucky, they may even earn gas money for their trouble. Yet for the average artist or band hoping to earn an adequate income in the arena of fickle and marginally invested streaming fans, services like Spotify are simply an unrealistic way to reach that goal.

So how are some artists now making money and even thriving in the age of streaming?

The Niche Business Model

In 2013, Canadian-born cellist and composer Zoë Keating published her recorded music earnings as a public document on Google Drive to show that 92% of her  income that year ($75,341.90) had come from music sales (singles and albums) on iTunes, Bandcamp and Amazon, with $6,380.82 from seven different streaming services adding a bit of gravy to the mix. Keating accomplished sales not by trying to appeal to billions of fans in the dispassionate gladiator arenas of streaming services but by differentiating herself and establishing such a deep sense of connection with a small, focused fan base that those fans were happy to pay more to buy downloads.

The niche business model is just simple math. You can build a connected fan base of 37,500 people happy to pay $2 to download a single (the average price for a single on Bandcamp) for $75,000 in total income, or you can attempt to compel 18.9-million people to pay $0.00397 per stream (the average that Spotify paid per stream in 2018) to earn roughly the same amount of money.

Live Performance

When CDs were king, artists could generally make the bulk of their income from record sales, and live performance was a way to promote those sales and make some additional cash along the way. With the collapse of music-sales income created by streaming, more bands now rely on live performance for income, and ticket sales are growing.

According to the concert industry trade publication Pollstar, 2017 was a record-crushing year for the live concert business. The top 100 worldwide tours alone generated 66.79 million ticket sales (up 10.4% from 2016) and generated $5.65 billion in revenues (up 15.8% from the previous year). Across the board, Live Nation Entertainment (the world’s largest event promoter) announced five consecutive years of revenue growth from 2010 to 2015 (when Live Nation reported $7.6 billion in revenue). The same year, Ticketmaster reported a 12% growth in global gross transaction value, and according to projections by Statista, live music ticket sales revenue will reach $9.1 billion in 2021.

Even small and relatively unknown indie artists are profiting from live performance. In Canada, for example, the National Post reported in March of 2013 that the average indie artist earned $7,228 from playing music 29 hours per week, which National Post reporter David Berry criticized as a ludicrously small amount of money. Yet pocketing $7,228 from part-time performance is a decidedly more profitable investment of time than spending months or years trying to compel 1,820,655 Spotify users to stream some song to make the same amount of money.

Apart from pure economics, the growth of live performance evidences a desire that music streaming can’t fill. In contrast to the dispassionate and de-personalized nature of streaming, live performance offers music fans an authentic, close and undiluted connection with their favorite artists, and the growth in live concert revenue indicates that fans are now craving this more and more.

Advertising

Many artists don’t like the idea of paying to advertise their music for two main reasons (said here with the utmost respect):

  1. Advertising feels like “selling out” their integrity and principles.
  2. They think they can’t afford to advertise, or don’t want to spend a few dollars, but don’t want to say this. So they use the phrase “selling out” as a cover-up.

Instead, many artists prefer to make the occasional post on their social channels and hope to build fans and sales organically, and there’s nothing wrong with this approach. The problem is, social-channel algorithms keep changing, and that dramatically impacts organic reach.

When Facebook changed its algorithm in March of 2018 to prioritize “meaningful interactions” between Facebook friends, family and groups, millions of subscribers were shocked to discover that many posts from friends and family suddenly dropped off the planet. In fact, Facebook’s algorithms have changed so many times since the platform launched on Feb. 4, 2004, an entire industry of consultants and bloggers has evolved to help people better navigate Facebook’s constantly shifting landscape to improve organic reach. And Facebook isn’t the only social channel changing its algorithms. In June of 2018, Instagram changed how its algorithm displays photos and videos in user feeds, and Twitter followed suit in 2018 by changing its algorithm to choose the tweets a user is shown based on accounts with which a user has interacted the most.

Against this backdrop of uncontrollable vagaries, let’s compare two music-income scenarios—organic reach and paid advertising—based on reasonable and real-world numbers:

Scenario 1: Organic Reach

You’ve just finished an album and want to promote sales on your social channels. So you write and post on those channels over 4 weeks. If 2000 people see your posts and 10% (200 people) decide to check out and buy your album for $10 (the average album sale price on Bandcamp), that’s a gross profit of $2000.

Scenario 2: Paid Social Advertising

You spend $200 over 4 weeks to run an ad to gain more exposure past the filters of algorithms and expand your reach on social. If 5000 people see your ad and 10% (500 people) click through to buy your album for $10, the total is $5000. When you subtract the original $200 investment for advertising, that’s a gross profit of $4800.

Here’s why I’m saying “gross profit” at this point.

Your time is worth money. (Yup, it is.) So let’s work out the net profit comparison.

According to Trading Economics, the average hourly wage in the U.S. in October of 2018 was just over $22 per hour. (Your time may be worth more per hour, but for the sake of this comparison, we’ll leave it at $22.) If you spend 4 hours per week either writing posts for organic reach or managing an ad campaign, that’s 16 hours over 4 weeks for a total labor cost of $352. When you subtract this expense from the above scenarios:

  • Net profit for organic promotion of album sales = $1648
  • Net profit for paid promotion of album sales = $4448

Naturally, there are variables in either profit scenario that may increase or decrease your returns. If you’re already a headlining act or getting your songs played on the radio, you may not need to spend a dime on paid advertising to promote sales. Yet for the average band competing against so many others, I think you can see the income difference that paid advertising can make—even if you’re not an artist that performs live. Case in point:

In an April 2018 article by Louder magazine, guitarist Dan Hepner of the UK metal band Kill or Cure said that Facebook advertising was pivotal to kick-starting exposure and interest in the band, which was created as a studio-only project. “We had an album to promote and no prospect of gigging,” said Hepner. Yet by experimenting with small amounts of money and testing the effectiveness of different ads on social, the band built an audience, broke out of the studio and hit the stage so they could promote album sales and expand their audience for future song sales—all from a small initial investment in social-media advertising.

If you’re still with me at this point, you should give yourself a big pat on the back.

Seriously. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I say congratulations for a few big reasons.

First, in a world where the instant gratification of technology has eroded and sabotaged attention spans across the globe, many artists won’t bother (or avoid) spending a few minutes reading an article like this. Instead, they go looking for answers in small, if not useless tweet-size bits and easily fall to any number of quick-fix peddlers willing to prey on their wallets. The fact that you have spent a few minutes reading means you’ve just placed yourself in a more informed position to make better decisions about your music and financial health.

(This is where you give yourself a loud, “Booyah!”) 🙂

Secondly, it’s easy for artists to buy into the tired, biased and purely situational notion that “there’s no money in the music business,” often regurgitated from the mouths of people who have never been in the music business, or gave up, or aren’t even musicians.

None of us live in a world of absolutes, meaning there’s no one “truth” by which absolutely all of us live and die regardless of how we feel. There are only common truths based on choices. People like to believe, for example, that certain professions guarantee a comfortable income and life, like being an accountant or civil servant. Yet if an accountant makes $100,000 a year but pays out $100,000 a year in bills and mortgage payments, then the argument could be made that there’s no money in the accounting industry. And if someone manages to put $50,000 into savings each year but hates their life, that’s the worst possible form of poverty that no amount of money can cure.

Joy in playing music is always a paycheck.

Yes, the naysayers are always eager to dismiss the idea as foolish, and enjoy dolloping out their “sage wisdom” by saying things like, “Well you can’t pay the bills with happiness!” So let’s return to the financial world for a moment longer and say that, by all the clear third-party evidence you’ve just read, you undoubtedly realize that you can make money playing music. It’s always a matter of the choices you make to realize that income, and one of the easiest and most effective ways to do that is by carefully managing your budget and expenses…

…which brings me to why I started this article by mentioning the value meal.

Consumers the world over take advantage of value meals every day for one reason:

They make budgets go farther.

If a customer was to separately order a burger, fries and drink at some food franchise, for example, and that franchise sells each item for $5, the consumer would pay $15. If the franchise offers the same three items value priced as one group order at $10, the customer saves $5.

The practice is called bundling—the same practice widely offered to people by car companies, computer sellers and the smartphone industry.

Record labels essentially offer bundling to artists as well for recording, promotional service, music distribution and/or sales. Yet in contrast to other industries, labels commonly offer their options in a costly and restrictive way to artists, which is why many artists avoid record contracts or struggle to break free from them. They choose independence for creative freedom and the potential for greater income through entrepreneurship, meaning that bundled services outside of the record-label system would greatly benefit indie artists, helping them get to where they want to go easier and faster by maximizing budgets and reducing expenses.

Here’s a simple scenario to illustrate.

You’re an artist who’s decided to capitalize on a niche market and perform live to both earn money from that and prepare to record and promote an album. So naturally, your first step is to secure a proper rehearsal space to practice songs and have a place to securely store your gear and save yourself (and any band mates) the time, trouble and expense of moving gear back and forth from a friend’s basement or garage every week.

Next, you Google local rehearsal spaces and manage to find a decent space with security and a few amenities like amps and a drum kit. You settle in and start rehearsing, and three months later, you’re ready to start gigging, but a few basics remain.

  • You know you need a website with graphics and regular content.
  • You know you need a social-media presence, also with regular content, images and other assets.
  • You know you need press releases for music journalists and online magazines, and you know that you need demos, band bios and other material for club owners and concert promoters.

You know that all of these things are essential marketing tools for discovery, engagement and promotion for all future musical endeavors, but you also know that they take time and expertise, and even if you have that expertise, you know that time spent working on all that marketing collateral is time you’re not working on your music. So you search for an agency or individual who can cost-effectively handle it all for you, and what you find is what exists—or rather doesn’t really exist in the indie realm. Namely, companies offering cost-effective, bundled services to artists that serve a broader range of needs from rehearsal to gigs and beyond.

There are many music marketing agencies out there, for example, who’ll send out press releases and content on behalf of a band but can’t hook artists up with a good deal on a rehearsal space. Conversely, there are plenty of rehearsal spaces out there happy to take a band’s money and rent them gear but don’t have the creative staff or equipment to help bands with writing, graphics and other marketing essentials.

By and large, indie services for indie artists offer stand-alone pricing for a small range of services that, while often bundled within this small range, do not offer the convenience and savings of bundled services that cover the broader spectrum of artist needs from rehearsal to marketing support in all its forms.

As a result, the untenable nature of combined stand-alone costs forces bands to settle for less than they need and deserve to see the most from their work and music. It makes life more complicated than it needs to be by managing it all, and it even causes bands to give up when expenses stand too high and budgets don’t go as far as they could.

The good news in all of this.

Just as any industry tends to evolve to serve the changing needs of customers, so too is the music industry. Just as Spotify announced the formation of a new department in January of 2018 to oversee marketing and promotion on behalf of artist and label partners (without announcing any changes to its fractions-of-pennies-per-stream policy), rehearsal studios and other artist services around the world are slowly beginning to broaden their scope of offerings to help artists lower expenses and maximize budgets.

Simply put, the more services you can find under one roof, the faster and cheaper things get done for you. You have more time for your music and the stronger you align yourself with artists who are actually making money in the age of streaming.