“I put a dollar in a change machine. Nothing changed”

– George Carlin

It has been awhile since I last sat down to write a post. But the time has come, as the world changes around us and markets collide, changes are coming…

Before diving into any kind of rant about what the future holds, it’s important to reflect on what is going on right now. North America is experiencing a big change from the global economic shift;  job are being lost  and the rich are getting richer. We are in a time of change—and the music industry is no different. The bar industry in western Canada is taking a substantial hit on liquor sales and overall attendance. On top of this, the times of musicians making large sums of money from album sales and having strong label support are long gone.

What does this mean? In the short term, desperation and high expectations; in the long term, tougher barriers of entry. Bands are not selling like they used to. This is mainly because the only way a band can make a buck is by spending long, stinky hours in a sweaty tour bus cruising from one late-night show to the next. As appealing as that sounds, the market is flooded with shows. So what comes up through the ranks? Electronic music. Why? Mainly because DJs can travel cheaper, play a variety of genres and offer musical values that kids can relate to; that is, music that relates not to the emotion, but to the standard of what partying is labelled as. But I wouldn’t suggest hopping on this bandwagon; its trend has already shown signs of weakness, as DJs are often more to one hit wonders than continual success stories.

This trend does not play into the hands of local bands trying to come through the ranks of a market that is collapsing. Money is harder to come by because of a failing venue scene and markets over saturated with tours. Local bands have a hard road ahead of them. How do they get to the next step? My advice is to start off by having low expectations; even local bars don’t have the kind of money they used to have access to. Also, don’t over play to one crowd. As music-industry guru Bob Lefsetz has said, “if you are playing to a room that is not consistently getting fuller each time you play, you’re doing something wrong.”

It really comes back to the fact that being a talented artist isn’t good enough anymore; you need marketing support. Music is now more accessible than it has ever been. This has resulted in huge amounts of material to sort through. You may have a unique musical offering, but “Fred” from Alabama has the same and is willing to play for free, and has all the marketing tools you do not. This has what it has come to. It might not be present in every market, but if you have yet to experience this, you likely will soon.

It’s a nasty reality check. If you used to get paid $500 for your one hour set in a local watering hole, get used to being happy with $250 this time around. Until you can gain a risk-free investment, promoters, bar managers and production companies will be much more cautious of what they pay forward. Sure, you might be able to find the odd bar or individual willing to give you your accustomed pocket change, but it won’t come without cost.

The bands of old are still struggling to get on top of this trend. They can’t understand why a room that used to be at capacity only has 15 people in it now. Or why promoters/bars/production companies are asking to carry less risk. When you’re fronting all of the costs for a show, you have to put a lot of trust into the product. It’s hard to encourage your inner trust to be the same as old when you’re in a time of uncertainty.

Is getting ahead possible? Is making money possible? Yes it is. It has just become harder, and you now have to work harder to get it. It all comes back to the risk associated with the market. If you do not have any overhead for performing the show, then do not expect to get paid based on the trust of your word. Times have changed. Money isn’t growing from blackened livers anymore. If you trust in yourself, offer the bar or promoter a return with as little risk as possible (splits, personal sales, promotion offerings are all options). Instead of focussing on how much you should make, focus on how much you can make — for both yourself and the respected parties. As a general rule, bars want to make at least five times the amount as you, and concert promoters are looking to make at least twice what you are asking for. They are both taking on the costs and risks of having you or your band play their venue. Without each party making those numbers, the business would not continue and pockets would become tighter, not deeper.

True, most artists are in this industry for the music, not the business. But really, if you dove into music thinking you will make a ton of money, GET OUT. The top 10% of bands in the world are taking what could be considered a living — and that has an expiry date. The big players of the production world are old and rich and don’t care about you or your music; they care about how marketing your band can get them richer. Be certain that your music sells not only in the form of dollars, but also — and more importantly — as an impression. Use marketing to create an impression, which can in turn create dollars. Be ready to spend long hours on the road and break into markets that aren’t local with poor attendance. Drive attention and breed positive association, be happy to play and let your part time job pay your rent.

My parting words are: play for the music.

A side note to the BC readers: The slump in the BC (and primarily Victoria, where I’m based) market can be accountable to a few things. One is the downturn in the global economy, which is halting tourism revenue. This means that the service industry (the strongest supporter of night life) have less money to spend on going out. The second is the introduction of HST. This very controversial tax meant the service industry again took a hit and saw a decline in tip revenue. The tax meant folks buying tickets have to pay a 12% HST on ticket as opposed to a 5% GST, which resulted in higher ticket prices and lower attendance numbers. Even though the tax has been voted out, it will take years to phase this price structure out, which means its cost will be seen for years within the entertainment industry. Also, the downturn in job creation has left many searching for employment, creating weaker spending budgets. Plus, the debt-to-income ratio ($1 made – $1.49 debt incurred) is increasing daily and has made buyers weary of spending and more focused on cheaper alternatives to entertainment. All in all, the economics of gaining entertainment-based employment will be a dark cloud for the foreseeable future.

“Without music, the greatest marketing plans in the whole world don’t mean shit.”
–Eddie Rosenblatt, Geffen Records