What does it take to make it in the music industry (or entertainment industry) in today's environment? Is it raw talent or is there more? I would love to say hands down that raw talent is what will allow a person to make it, but that simply is not true. There have been a lot of articles and studies done about the American obsession with beauty. I personally do not think it stops with America. In a day in which information is so widely available online, I believe other parts of the world are also obsessed with beauty and image.
I want to make it clear that I do not see anything wrong with presenting yourself in a professional fashion (much like my heavy metal dude in the photo ...uh yeah, let's forget about that spandex - or drug - induced style). I believe that people in various industries do need to present themselves in a professional manner. But dressing the part doesn't necessarily make you a professional in your field. A nice looking man could dress in a really nice suit, and call himself a Wall Street investor, but he could actually be fresh out of college with no skill in investments. On the outside, this handsome and sharp dressed man, could be very believable, but in all actuality you wouldn't want him to handle the funds in your piggy bank, let alone your stock portfolio.
The same is true in the entertainment industry. A lot of time it is an industry that is driven by how you look instead of how well you play or sing. I have to admit that I have fallen victim to this many times. I remember a young handsome guy, who looked like a rock star, that approached me with a demo CD. The first thing that came to mind was that this guy must be a good artist since he looked like one. I told him that I would check out the CD and get back to him (you know the standard answer that music industry people give to hopefuls). I was totally impressed with his rock star do and trendy clothing. I was excited to play the CD until it started and I heard his voice on it. I realized, at that moment, that I had been buffaloed by image. It wasn't the first time, or the last, that this would happen to me.
There have been many scientific studies on what people find attractive in other people, and documentaries, as well. What scientists have found, is that there are key factors in a person being attractive from certain smells to certain face dimensions (the face dimension study can be read here from the BBC). So naturally, as a race, we gravitate toward beautiful people. But gravitate and obsess are two very different things. Gravitate says that we naturally are drawn to beautiful people while obsess means we are constantly preoccupied with beauty. We are preoccupied with whiter teeth, hair color, latest make up trends, manicures, pedicures, weight, clothing trends, eye glass styles, boot cut vs. slim jeans, fitted T's vs. regular, shoes, boob size, face wrinkles, gray hair - oh my, and the list goes on and on and on. This obsession dictates in our minds what successful entertainers should be - or what they should look like.
The TV show "The Voice" is my hero. Why is it my hero? If you notice, when a person comes out to audition, the chairs are turned backwards so the judges are not able to see the person, but are forced to listen (all audio, no visual). I vote that everyone is required to do that when listening to music from now on. A person's talent should be solely based on how good they are, not how good they look. I know of a very popular artist (actually more than one) who does not look, for lack of better words, very appealing. He would not be a "catch" according to our very high standards, nor is he anywhere near tall, dark and handsome. He is tall, but is missing the last two. Yet, when he sings, it sounds like the voice of angels are channeled straight through him. On a personality side....one of the most humble and amazing humans. He may be able to date a super model but I guarantee you it isn't because of his looks, rather from his popularity and money. He deserves better than to be judged by his looks.
Recently, CNN ran an article titled, "Has Image Overtaken Music?" One quote that I love, in the article, was this:
"The stuff used to be about something, dammit, not a soundalike drone of manufactured robots, lip-synching amid falling tinsel."
Such a true statement of the gimmicky way in which we present music now. In the YouTube video of Jay-Z (that I posted yesterday), he reminisces of a time when a person would sit on a street corner playing an acoustic guitar for 5 cents a day - long before there was a "music industry". He also (my paraphrase) said that musicians were in it for the enjoyment of music, and not for the fame or money of today.
We should be playing music because we would die inside without creating it. When I am at home, I get so anxious and antsy to create. When I can't create, I get annoyed, mad and a bit of an attitude (ask my wife). At this point in my life, I could care less about money, fame and throngs of fans. What I do care about is creating this awesome thing called music. It is my love, my passion and my life. Even when I was working in hell, also known as, retail management, (that will be saved for another blog) all I could do was think about creating, writing and recording music. Whether I make a living from music or not, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that I am able to play, write and create. Don't get into this, or any entertainment industry, to become a star, do it because it is part of your soul. Don't worry about your image, or your looks....it doesn't matter. Just because some fickled record executive is shallow, doesn't mean the whole world is that way - does Susan Boyle ring a bell? Don't buy into the lies of beauty - it is truly how the saying goes..."Beauty is only skin deep" - and let me add, true beauty comes from within and makes it way to the surface. Stay passionate and beautiful.
The news gets more depressing every year. What news? The "death of the recording industry". The RIAA would want us all to believe that the music industry is a sinking ship, and we are all doomed. The truth is that it is not a sinking ship, and we are not all doomed. We just have to rethink the way we do business. As long as there are living, breathing human beings there will always be music, and music soundtracks for our life. Music touches our soul like nothing else can. Music can transport us to a specific place in our own personal history. Music can make us dance like there is no tomorrow - or cry like there is none. Music is life.
If you think about music - and not in the sense of radio or CD - then you will learn that music surrounds our life. Television shows, movies, mall walks, ringtones, the elevator, our favorite restaurant, retail stores and video games are just a few things that remind us everyday - with sometimes little thought - that we are constantly surrounded by music. Indeed music is not dead or doomed, but is very much alive and surrounding us in ways that we do not even realize. I was shopping at Staples yesterday when I overheard one store clerks say to the other, "Wow they are really playing some great music today". She was referring to the overhead system, which at the time was playing Kathy Trocolli's "Everything Changes". The other store clerk said, "You know I wasn't even paying attention. It's probably because I hear it everyday and ignore it". If I could, I would love to perform an experiment at that store, and unplug the overhead system for a few days to see if they would notice. My guess would be that everyone would. Can you imagine being in a retail store when it is dead - and then being silent too? I think it would get noticed fairly quickly - and resolved. Music makes our blandest days better, go by faster and gives us a good distraction while we work (especially on the factory or retail floor). No, music is not dead, nor dying.
Music is not dead or dying, but the music industry is changing at a rapid pace. Notice I said the music industry is changing at a rapid pace, and not the record labels. Record labels have been changing about as fast a a snail crossing a busy highway. Labels have been resistant to change due to the fact that they feel they will lose control of an industry that they have tightly controlled since the late 40's early 50's - and onward. Instead of embracing the new technology, and figuring out ways to distribute the music in this brave new world, they still hold on with a death grip - and send many music fans into a court system for litigation. In the end, many people are being tainted toward the big labels. Technology is rapidly changing every business, not just the music industry, and some industries are thriving in the midst of the change while others are taking a beating. The music industry is one of the industries taking a beating due to corporate "red tape" and major control issues.
When I am teaching my students at Houghton College, I am always telling them not to pursue the "normal path" in regards to the recording industry and engineering. The normal path is getting trained in music, recording and engineering then finding an internship with a studio or label followed by an attempt to get a full time job in the main stream music industry. At one time that may have been a good path - circa 1979 - 1994ish - but in today's digital age that isn't necessarily the best path. Today video games are outselling movies - and outselling just about everything else. Instead of focusing on a job in a recording studio or music industry, I strongly encourage my students to learn the skills that will land them a job at a good video game company (they normally have in house recording studios). This same advice could apply to musicians - look for work outside of big record labels. Work on becoming a well respected independent artist, and find your niche. I have many friends making a really good living (not millionaire level, but comfortable living) being an independent artist.
What I am talking about here is a morphing process - a change. It is a rethinking and reprogramming of the mind - basically approaching your career "outside the box" (and I hate that phrase, but it is so true in this scenario). I am part of a forum where all of these well respected engineers and musicians are very bitter about what is happening in the industry. They are stuck in their thinking, and are unable (or too stubborn) to morph. These are guys who have played, produced or engineered some of the best albums out on the market. All they really need to do is think about the jobs that require their skill set outside of a recording studio - or big record company. Jobs like radio stations, TV stations and shows, churches, video production houses, video game companies and software companies that all require sound engineers and musicians There are jobs "out there" for everyone, but you have to be creative in researching what industries are currently on the rise. Last year a study was posted that sound recording, engineering and music jobs were up on an average of 28%. Notice I didn't say recording studio hiring or label signings were up 28%, rather the industry as a whole was up 28%. This is good news for anyone wanting to get into the industry.
I was watching a video of Jay-Z and the future of the music industry. He had some great insight into the problem and some great insight about the future of the industry. I love when he says that, "the internet was a way of the music business purging itself". The internet has changed the game, but not in a bad way. The internet makes access a lot easier and allows people to find out if something is actually good or not. There were so many bad albums out on the market that the music industry needed to be purged. A lot of industries go through purging or pruning processes with most coming out stronger. I believe that the music industry - as a whole - from the artists to engineers will thrive once all the purging has been completed. Here is the video of Jay-Z on the future of the recording industry.
Last week the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) held a meeting talking about SOPA/PIPA , the future of being able to curb piracy and illegal downloading . What the RIAA didn't expect was that their PowerPoint would be leaked to millions, and expose them for exaggerating the truth in regards to P2P and illegal downloads. Many of us have known that those who have the most money hold the most power. But what if those with the most power abuse that all under the guise of piracy? That is what the RIAA has been doing for a long time now. I don't want to come off as being anti-RIAA because there are some thing that they do right in protecting the industry, but the area of piracy and illegal downloading is one are that they have blown it tremendously. When you summon a single mother and sue her for damages totaling over $260,000 or claim that LimeWire owes you the laughable sum of $75 trillion dollars for damages (a sum greater than the gross domestic product of the entire globe), then you should probably take a step back and rethink your strategy.
The RIAA have powerful allies in the congressmen and woman of Washington. Now you have a powerful corporation teaming up with the lawmakers in Washington - and that makes for a very bad combination for the rest of the world. The USA has become the United States of Corporations, and our representatives who are suppose to be representing our interests as the people are now passing laws to benefit lobbyists like the RIAA. The RIAA should be sued for abusing their power and should be put under new management. After all, they fought the new digital age of music instead of embracing and working with digital distributors. To me, they come off as being like my grandma who never embraced any of the new technology and still owned her rotary dial up phone right to the end.
So, back to this PowerPoint ordeal. I have included one of the photos of the presentation- and here it is:
What the chart shows is that P2P file sharing has actually declined by 6% from December 2010 to December 2011 and paid downloads have actually increased by 3% in the same period. This chart presented by the RIAA goes contradictory to what they have been telling the American public and congress. The stunning part of the chart is the line that shows that most unpaid music comes from people letting other people borrow a CD or ripping it for them. That is not what the RIAA have been saying. They have been claiming that illegal downloading has been the culprit and that it is ruining the industry.
What this concludes is that maybe the RIAA should be rethinking its business model and stop exaggerating the truth - or maybe they should stop being hypocrites. In December of 2011, (at the same time the RIAA was putting this PPT data together) it was revealed that the same company that sues everyone for illegally downloading music was in fact illegally downloading episodes of Dexter to the tune of $9 million (you can read about the RIAA's illegal downloading activity here). Maybe they should have included that on the PowerPoint.
A while ago I was riding in the car with my wife and made the comment that I felt today's music is a lot more boring than yonder year's before (namely the 80's and 70's). I have known as a recording engineer that record companies have been pushing the loudness on CD's, and songs, for quite some time now. The theory is that if a sound is louder on the radio than the song before it or after it, then that song will be remembered by the listener. All I can picture is some record executive with too much time on his hands coming up with that stupid idea one day, and then deciding to put the plan into action. In our industry, attempting to make your artist's music louder than the other guy's is called a "loudness war" - and if you doubt that it exists (which there is way too much proof otherwise), then just take a look at this wave form graphic comparison of Michael Jackson's song "Black and White" from the original release in 1991 to the 2007 re-release.
Cool photo, huh? 1991, was the year "Black and White" originally released, and for those who care to listen I was a young impressionable wanna-be musician, producer and engineer living in Philadelphia. I can recall the minute I heard this song on the radio for the first time. I was driving down City Line Avenue listening to the morning show when they announced that this was Michael Jackson's new song "Black and White". My mouth dropped open as I heard sonic perfection coming from my car's speaker system. I then went out and bought the CD immediately. Over the various releases of that song, I felt that something was changing as they re-released each version. I thought that my mind was playing tricks with my ears, but then I came across the image above. Voila! I wasn't crazy after all....the record companies are literally sucking the life out of the original release with compression and limiting to make it louder. Which brings me to the original point of this blog.
Scientists in Spain used a huge archive known as the Million Song Dataset, which breaks down audio and lyrical content into data that can be analyzed, so pop songs from 1955 to 2010 can be studied. And here is what they found out:
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."
They also found timbres have become poorer. The same note played at the same volume on, say, a piano and a guitar is said to have a unique timbre, so the scientists found modern pop has a more limited variety of sounds. This shouldn't be too surprising on the timbre front since most modern music utilizes synthesizers and drum machines instead of real wooden (organic) instruments. On the other hand, we can also blame the timbre becoming poorer on over use of compression in both the recording studio/process and the reduction of sound quality in MP3's - which utilize compression to reduce the original file size, thus reducing quality in both the purity of the music, and timbre of it.
What does this mean? Like the scientists, many of us in the music industry have been saying that music is not as "musical" anymore due to the loudness and over-compression. Anyone who works with music for a living, and understands dynamics, can tell you that if you over-compress anything it normally brings out extremely ear fatiguing harmonics, thus making the music sound harsh and brittle. The flip side is that if I were to play one CD for you at a lower volume and then play another at a louder volume your ear would naturally gravitate toward the louder CD. Our brains associate loudness with being better, but it is an auditory illusion. Now, if I were to put you in a room and you listened to both CD's from start to finish with a small break in between, then you would say that the quieter CD was a lot better. The reason is that after so many minutes of listening to the louder CD your brain and ears get tired - or fatigued. With the quieter CD, and more pleasant dynamics, you could literally listen to it three times in a row, and come out wanting more. The reason is that our ears now perceive that CD as being pleasant, warm and non-fatiguing. And that is the reason why modern pop music sounds more bland and less pleasing than pop records from as little as eight to ten years ago.
So what can we do about this? A lot of engineers are fighting this trend against both the record labels and the artists who have bought into the nonsense. Louder is not better. As consumers of music it is all of our right to demand a better product from the record labels - and the artists we love. Personally, I gravitate toward older music (no, not because I'm old), but because the sonic quality is so much better and pleasant. A lot of 20-somethings down to younger kids have grown, and are growing up, in a time where MP3's are the normal format for music listening. I want to challenge anyone reading this to take an hour out of your day, sit in a quiet room or mom and pop record store with a quality speaker system or high quality headphones (no white little spawn of satan ear pods) and LISTEN to music. Close your eyes, open your ears and take in the sonic perfection - just listen to the music. I will leave you with this...if you do not feel that there is a difference in quality, then I ask you to read this article where a 20 year old discovered the beautiful sound of a vinyl record for the first time. Let's take back the industry with a sonic revolution!
I was reading an article recently that mentioned Bruce Springsteen not using any kind of track in his live performance. I then kept reading and found out that Bruce and the E Street Band plays 3 hours of material any given night. It was mind rattling, to say the least. I remember the 90's (yes, I lived through some great rock n' roll eras), and the start of the lip syncing phase. Does anybody out there remember Milli Vanilli? If so, do you remember how big of a news story it was when they were "busted" for lip syncing? It was scandalous "back then". So much for scandal when 99.9% of the artists now use tracks in their live shows. Oh we talk about it how tracks are not legit, and complain about it (to some extent) - but then shrug it off as "entertainment".
I want to just put it out there....the best shows are live shows where musicians are sweating over every note. Where musicians and singers are striving to hit every beat and every note the right way. Where the singers come off the stage exhausted, and the crowd leaves amazed. What we have been (and are) producing are lazy musicians under the guise of "entertainment". Who drives this mentality? Let me point one finger (though there are a few to point at various entities)....the big record companies. There was a time (I know when anyone starts with that it sounds "old skool" but who cares "old skool" was "good skool")....so, there was a time when record companies signed - get ready for it - talented musicians AND singers...GASP! Yes, you heard me right. Here is a question, and answer this truthfully, would Bruce Springsteen or a talented person like him get signed in 2012? I will answer that for you - no.
See, we have gone from an industry that use to sign talent to an industry that manufactures it based on looks, latest hair trends and clothing designs. Let me be clear, not ALL bands or singers are talentless. I will mention a name here - and do not string me up for saying it - Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga attended Julliard...and if you think that is an easy school to attend, then I would challenge anyone to attempt to get into it. Julliard students are high quality students who are serious about their craft. All of this to say, while we see some talent in the industry, sadly we see a lot of manufactured artists. Does the word Autotune mean anything? "What is Autotune?", you may ask. Basically in a nutshell, it is an engineer's tool that makes singers who can not sing, sound like they can. Nifty huh? For some artists they use it as an "effect" to make them sound "cool". For a lot of other artists they use it as a crutch because they can not sing.
I remember getting into quite a spirited discussion with a producer friend about the relevancy of Autotune, and its use as a professional tool. I am a musical purist. Yes, I have used Autotune on singers - but I loathe and dislike it tremendously. As a matter of fact, about 80% of the software tools out on the market I can not stand because they are being used to manipulate. My friend, on the other hand, was on the other end of the spectrum in regards to Autotune. He made a comment that it must a good thing since somebody made it. To me that logic is like saying cyanide must be OK to mix into your coffee since somebody made it. Just because we have a lame tool to make somebody, who shouldn't be singing, sound like they can, doesn't mean we should be using it...at all (hear me T-Pain. Go sell insurance). The record companies scratch their heads wondering why sales are going down, and then blame it on illegal digital downloading. That may be playing a small part in the decline, but I want to propose a new theory....your "talent" is talentless so start signing real talent again.
My cry here is bring back the real. Bring back the Springsteen's, Aerosmith's and the like. Please start signing more artists like Adele and bands that refuse to use tracks. Create a rule that if a band you signed starts using tracks then each of you get slapped up or your vacation gets taken away - or your dog has to be put into a shelter. For artists, learn how to play, learn how to sing and stop using lame backing tracks. Oh, and hire a new sound engineer. If the one you have can't make you sound great without using tracks, then find one that can (yes, I know this is all based on the fact the artist(s) can play and sing to begin with). It is time to reclaim our industry. So, let's start searching out great artists, and let us start a new kid of musical revolution. In the meantime, I am heading down to a coffee shop to enjoy a latte, bagel and real live musicians.
Recently I was in a talk with my wife and made the comment that I am finding something very alarming which is the lack of promotion amongst my friends and indie artists. When I talk with my friends or various musicians they all tell me how much they want to do the "music thing" for a living, how they get excited when they think about making music and how it is their passion or calling.
When I hear an artists talk like that I get excited and start dreaming with them about the present and future. After my talk, I will often start searching for my friend, the artist, band or musician online. Some I find on Soundcloud, others on Indaba or like places. I search for websites or YouTube channels...basically anything that will point me to the artists and their art. Then it all starts to hit me, many are not promoting themselves.
In the technological age there is no excuse or reason not to promote your music or craft. Soundcloud has given anyone the opportunity to share their music with the world and what I have found on there is just plain sad. Out of all the friends and artists I know (which are hundreds of people), only three had anything to share on Soundcloud. Almost all of them had an account but when I went to listen to their music ....birds tweeting and tumbleweed blowing around their site.
Of course there are other sites as well to promote your music on. Sites like YouTube, MySpace (yeah I know its so 2005 but still a place to point people to your music), Reverbnation, Indaba, Bandcamp and many more offer services so a person can promote their music. So the questions this...if you don't post your music, or promote yourself, how are venues or anyone else for that matter suppose to know who you are or what you are about? If I were running a venue and an artists didn't have anything "out there", I definitely wouldn't be having you play my venue.
So, here are a few tips for promoting your music grassroots style:
Kevin "Danger" Jackson is a New York-based producer, engineer, composer, performer, educator and Berklee College of Music alumnus. He writes, produces and engineers music for a wide range of artists in the pop, hip-hop, rock, R&B, classical and electronic genres. His work can be heard daily on a multitude of albums, radio and television stations worldwide.