The music industry in 2013   Leave a comment

Yesterday we released the new album.

Also, yesterday, Thom Yorke of Radiohead issued a statement saying that he was withdrawing his music from Spotify and other websites that stream ‘music’ free, as the artist gets very little if any at all royalties from these sites.

We were talking the other night about the record industry and the irony of how things have changed.  I was shocked and appalled when I found out the true sales figures for new releases by major artists, both sides of the Atlantic.  CD sales are seriously in decline.

As a teenager starting out writing songs and singing I would have died to have had the technology that is available today.  Instead of using a portable cassette player like I used to use to record ideas on, today you record on Garageband on an iPad and simply upload it to iTunes for the entire world to hear – and buy!

That’s just it though, the world is not buying, certainly nowhere near what they used to.

At the same time as I was using that cassette player I was working in a record store in Cardiff after school and on Saturdays and weekends.  New albums by Zeppelin or Floyd would be ordered in sometimes as many as five hundred copies, and they’d sell in a week, the first week of release certainly.  The same was for Saturday Night Fever and Grease, we would actually sell out of them, despite ordering hundreds of copies and this was the same with many albums.  The albums would also sell for weeks, months, and have a very long shelf life – and this was just one shop, albeit a ‘chart return’ shop, which contributed to the BBC’s Top 40, albums and singles.

Nowadays five hundred copies will get you into the charts.  The debut album of last year’s winner of The Voice sold less than a thousand copies, despite the exposure and the fact that thousands and thousands of people voted for her.  These talents shows are often blamed for the state of the music industry, and perhaps so, but there has always, always, been talent shows.

People stream or of course download but I think even the days of downloading are numbered, but at least you as an artist are paid for a download; not though for streaming, not really.

I think people just aren’t excited about music as much as they used to be.  Before I worked in it when I was a few years younger I remember waiting for my local record store to get the new single by T.Rex, along with a number of other people.

I also remember listening to Johnnie Walker present the new charts on Radio One on a Tuesday lunchtime, listening at school to see who had gone up, and who had come in, who was the highest entry and so on.  All that has changed.  Games took over for a while but I think even that has changed.

Why should kids, or indeed anyone, buy a track or album when they can stream it, free on Spotify or Pandora?  In my personal case, my last single, Telegraph Road, received a lot of airplay, around the world, and secured a lot of ‘friends/fans/followers’ for me, which was wonderful, but they don’t need to buy it, download it, when it is readily available for them to hear for free.  So do you not make it available on say Spotify and lose out on the exposure or make it available and just accept you’re not going to make any money from it?

Myspace, attempting a revamp, allows for streaming, for which they pay the artist for any advertising connected to the stream, not the actual stream itself.   It does not allow for downloads.

Also of course, there is You Tube, where you can watch and listen to videos and music, past, present and future.  Again there is little return for the artist.

The money today for an artist is mainly live shows and merchandise.  Record labels cottoned on to this a few years ago and now present 360 contracts, which mean they get a percentage on merchandise and live shows and indeed any other source of income the artist earns.

Another avenue is sync licensing where your track is featured in a television series or film, but as you can imagine this is hugely competitive.

Some people say all music should be free; I had a twitter discussion a while back with Tim Lovejoy who was saying just that; I asked him if he was giving away his latest DVD free?  He replied that that was different!  No it’s not, how is it?  Would you do your job for free, provide your skills and talent to a company and say, “Don’t worry about paying me, I’ll work for free.”  Most artists would say it’s not about the money, and it isn’t, that’s not the main motive, but it is a need obviously.

So can you make a living today as an artist?  If you’ve got the history and have already got an established following, artists from the sixties, seventies etc., well then yes, if you tour, a lot.  You sell your CDs after a show, and of course merchandise, captive audience, and that income helps you survive.

Up and coming bands though of course can’t command a decent fee, they invest in their career by playing live but losing money initially.  I remember one Welsh band playing for three hundred pounds, four hundred and fifty dollars.  They had had to travel in a van well over three hundred miles to the venue, and then back again and there were five in the band plus a driver, plus the cost of their equipment.

For those artists though who don’t tour or play live consistently, the need for hard copies of CDs is negligible – other than perhaps for promotion.  You can end up with nearly a thousand copies of your latest release in your attic.  Where are you going to sell them these days anyway?  There are hardly any record stores left, not here in Tennessee or in Kent, just used record stores.  Grimey’s in Nashville supports new music and I only know of one store in Kent that sells new CDs and that’s in Whitstable, (where you should find a lovely guy called John working) – the rest are again used record stores, which I love but without accounts with distributors they don’t stock new releases.  You can always drive around and leave them CDs on a sale or return basis and the stores I’m talking about are very supportive – they’re music fans themselves, first and foremost.

Sadly there are very few indie shops like Spillers in Cardiff anymore, (Spillers is still open, moved into an arcade behind the original shop that was on the Hayes).  The supermarkets, (Target and Wal-Mart in the US, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s in the UK), are the place to buy chart CDs, but space and therefore selection is severely limited and by deciding which CDs to stock represents surely a vicious circle wherein they dictate successful CDs?  If you want to buy a CD from a brand new artist locally, well good luck!

There is revenue to be earned through airplay and through the songwriting royalties; publishing has always really been where the money is.  I’ve mentioned before the Spandau Ballet case which perfectly highlights the situation, or perhaps better still East 17 – songwriter Tony Mortimer lives in a mansion along with his classic car collection, whilst the others rent flats and have returned to other jobs.

I write this from Nashville, where the songwriter is still needed, as many artists in country, unlike other genres, do not write their own material.  Most songwriters though would tell you that they are treated like dirt.  They have to give away points, or a percentage, of their royalties to the artist if they want that artist to record their song – long time practice, Elvis is a prime example – Heartbreak Hotel.

The main reason given for that is that here in the States artists themselves do not receive a royalty if their track is played on the radio, unlike in the UK for example where stations have to pay the artist (mechanical rights) and the songwriter, so the argument is that by the artist recording your song, you’re going to make money from the airplay, and the artist isn’t! (I wonder if Thom Yorke therefore is going to stop airplay of Radiohead tracks in the States as the band don’t get a penny from that airplay, only the songwriters.)

How this was ever made law in the States in the first place and accepted industry practice I don’t know; how the record companies allowed it again I don’t know why.  The radio stations, and then television stations such as MTV would argue that they were ‘advertising’ the artist’s new release, that the single was a ‘trailer’ for the album.

This view though might be the answer to today’s industry.  An artist provides a single track to the websites that stream but not the full album.  That album can only be downloaded (or bought), and only from selected sites.  People have always bought albums on the strength of purely hearing a single or just one track.

As for radio stations, well rotations are smaller, you’ll hear the same track twice within hours, with the station’s playlists across the country dictated and controlled by a very small handful of people.

I remember sending in a tape to John Peel in the seventies – it was three months later when he played it, but at least he played it – twice!  Very, very few presenters on mainstream radio can pick what they play, certain presenters on local BBC stations in the UK can, to a degree, which is wonderful.  Local UK commercial stations, such as Heart, well, you don’t stand a chance really as a new act.  Internet stations are different, I’ve had a number play my songs but of course the audience is small – but supportive and greatly appreciated.

If you go looking, you’ll find some great music out there, is a great place to start.  Americans ‘surf’ far more than any other country and this is reflected in feedback and sales.

The times they are indeed changing, they’ve changed even in the eighteen months I’ve been promoting my own work, and adapting to the changes is paramount to survival.  Today’s artist has to be an everyman – songwriter, musician, record company executive, promoter, publicist, photographer, social networker, you name it, and most do it.  There are so many sites that a new artist has to cover apart from them main obvious ones – Reverbnation, Myspace, Bandcamp, It is a full time job, networking all the time, and the songwriting almost becomes incidental. Press releases, twitter tweets, Facebook status updates, mail outs to stations, to venues and more, sometimes there aren’t enough hours in a day, but I think most artists, like myself, would prefer it to be that way than no way at all.

What makes it all worthwhile is when a person you don’t know messages you and says that they love your music – that is priceless.


Posted July 16, 2013 by Jon Johanson in Uncategorized

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