Jazz as a business model

OK, let’s face it. It’s not easy making money as a jazz musician. As a matter of fact, today it is probably more difficult than it has ever been. The audience is understandably small because the music is sophisticated. It requires the listener’s complete attention and an inherent interest in the format. Nonetheless there are two things the mainstream music industry can learn from jazz:

  1. The artist and the music are the central focus rather than the particular revenue stream or distribution vehicle.
  2. The music has to be truly extraordinary to differentiate the artist and attract an audience.
Look at the big guys. I’m sure Keith Jarrett has done very well selling CDs over the course of his career yet there are myriad ways he can make money because it’s all about who he is and what happens when he sits down at the piano. No one else can offer the world what he can.
Ask yourself, how many mainstream pop artists pass that test? There are entire genres of music that are intentionally imitative and mediocre; trendy, lightweight, stylized fluff. 
Let’s get our perspective straight. Sure, if the sugar water industry suddenly collapsed it would be a huge financial adjustment for many people, but let’s not forget, this stuff is not actual food. It’s unhealthy for regular human consumption.
Since the traditional record industry is collapsing why don’t we think about rebuilding our business models on something substantial, something that really matters and adds value to the world. 

Taking care of business – We’re all self-employed

Reading Paul Resnikoff’s essay this morning it occurred to me that the ‘vehicle’ for the future of the music business will be a completely individualized start-up mentality. Everything has changed; what it means to be a performer, a recording artist, a songwriter, an instrumentalist, a composer, a music publisher, a record label… As long as we hang on to the old paradigms we won’t see opportunities for the future.

Apple dropped Computer from their name because they’re about something bigger; challenging the status quo and and building things that empower individuals. They practically own the word, “i”. Computers, smart-phones and music downloads are manifestations of their larger identity. Think like a start up or a game-changing company. Why do you do what you do, how do you add value to the world, and how can you make money with the gifts you give?

Professional musicians have always worn multiple hats and been less dependent on CD sales as their primary source of revenue. Ask yourself what your favorite musicians stand for. What is their vision of music and how have they organized their lives around that commitment?

CDs are a by-product of something much bigger. If we continue to focus on the rapidly shrinking ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the past we’ll miss the opportunity to do something exceptional today. Get back to why you make music. Forget about how the music business is supposed to work and visualize creating something unique, powerful, and profitable.

Career Tracks: Killola

Photo by Thaddeus Bridwell

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the excellent folks in Killola, a four piece “Hardpop Altcore” band formed in 2003 and based in Los Angeles. Consisting of Lisa Rieffel (lead vocals), Mike Ball, (guitar), Dan Grody (drums) and Johnny Dunn (bass), the band’s indie work ethic and unique blend of garage rock, punk, and pop/electronica has created a devoted international audience. The band tours regularly in the US and UK and has a strong Internet presence.

Killola were early Myspace adopters; they had songs posted on the site in late 2003. They have been consistently on the front edge of digital distribution and marketing, successfully deploying many innovative strategies including free tracks, USB flash-drive bracelets and Dog Tags, and a diverse, synergistic media presence. Lisa Rieffel is also an actress appearing in the upcoming feature film/rock-musical “Girltrash: All Night Long” (all the film’s music by Killola) and an original cast member of The King of Queens. In 2007 Lisa and Johnny began hosting a weekly radio show (on Dave Navarro’s personal Internet Radio Network ‘Spread Radio Live’) featuring a mix of music, interviews, fan interaction, and general mayhem.

The band’s first 4-song EP was released for free on stencil-screened CD-Rs packaged in hand painted sleeves. Their first formal record, “Louder, Louder!” was released in January 2006. It was recorded frugally and sold well on both and 7” vinyl, particularly in the UK. They released a live DVD/CD, “Live in Hollywood” in October 2006 and self-booked a UK tour in the summer of 2007. Their second album, “I Am The Messer” was released in April 2008 on CD and USB flash-drive wristbands which also included extra songs, photos, videos, and hidden ‘easter eggs’. The album was made available for free download in August of that year through sponsorships with DW Drums and Skullcandy. The band has self-funded their own videos and has a killer iPhone app. Their website, blog and mobile presence are all seamlessly connected, keeping the engagement with fans strong. Their new album, “Let’s Get Associated” was announced in March 2010 and is available on USB flash-drive Dog Tags which include their entire CD back catalog.

Thanks to Wikipedia for parts of this history. You can read the full entry here.
Oh… did I mention that their website kills?

Tell me a little about your musical background.
All 4 of us are all self-taught from a young age.  And Dan (drummer) attended the LA Music Academy. We learned songwriting by trial and error, gauging what works through incessant home-demoing – and re-demoing, and rehearsing.  We like a brisk pace… for us, Songwriting Faster > Songwriting Slower.  Less time to question things.

Can you describe what makes Killola’s music and vibe so engaging?
That’s probably better answered by fans/listeners…I suppose we try to be personally accessible, and ‘real’…. A lot of bands really try to shine themselves up, in their bios for example, to be angelic or plastic, and that truly comes off holier-than-thou. We tend to reveal ourselves in more realistic light, and show people that we’re just regular folks who just happen to have this outlet for making music in a band.  I think that lends to the accessibility.

How would you describe your fans?
Our fans are unique. Snarky and sharp, and dependable. We do a weekly radio show (Monday nights, www.killola.com/radio), and while the weekly listeners flux and grow… we can always depend on the core-group of listeners to be there, hanging in the chat room, reliably for years now.
You’ve been doing innovative DIY marketing since 2003. Your first EP was delivered in hand painted sleeves and you gave away copies. How did that work to for you?
I mean, it was rough guerilla distro of a realllly-rough DIY demo… there was no way to precisely track anything. We’d leave stacks of these cool-looking, hand-painted CD packs in various places around LA… we’d often get curious, and come back later that day and the stack would be down to 1 or 2… sometimes gone completely. And the boring-looking CDRs that were there next to our stack would still be there, untouched.  That was at least indicative that ours were standing-out from others. And when we had an upcoming show in town, we’d tuck a flyer inside… and sometimes we’d meet a few people at the next show who mentioned the demo they’d picked up that week at Amoeba, or somewhere else.

Are giveaways driving fans to your shows and triggering sales?
Absolutely. We gave away our last album (digitally) to more than ten thousand people. Within 6 months, our CD inventory was totally depleted from online sales. We toured to cities that we had never played before… and people were there, singing along. I have to assume that’s at least partially due to all the freeleased music.

Is the business picture different in England and Europe?
Totally different. People buy singles there, physical/tangible singles, in anticipation of an album… and those purchases vault bands into the mainstream. Also, rock music still dominates a large portion of the industry…. and the radio plays a lot of rock music there.  Also, newspapers/magazines still trump blogs… and on and on. Its a highly media(magazine/newspaper)-driven industry there. Plus, touring an album through the UK is a piece of cake, compared to the US.  The entire UK is about the size of Oregon, so you can loop the entire UK, many many times, in a few weeks. One US tour takes one month, minimum… and that’s a long, hard drive.

How often are you touring?
We do a west coast/Southwest tour every couple months… a full US tour every 12-18 months. We’ve only done the UK once, however we are needing to get back there again, badly, soon….

I love the USB flash drives. How do your fans like them? Are they making you money?
We decided to ‘pre’-release our new/latest album via USB Dog Tags. So, this currently is the only way to get the new record. Obviously, the biggest fans are going to jump on this, in order to get the new music right away.  However, I’m certain that CDs are still preferred, because of car stereos, and the nostalgic vibe of the new-CD-process (open, listen while reading liner notes, a defined listening track-order, etc). So, there’s a lot of people asking for the new album on CD.  Are the USBs making us money? Oh yes.

How important are mobile apps?
I don’t know how important they are… but they’re awesome, that’s for sure.  The internet is a wide open click-a-thon.. stream of consciousness, and unconfined, distractions abound.  Good apps are internet-based, but they keep you ‘focused’ on a task. I love that. Want to browse for pets? Open the PetFinder app. You’re going to see the same pets that you would see on their website… but that’s it. The URL bar isn’t lurking there, temping you to read The Onion…  I like having that focus as an option sometimes.

How many people do you typically get at shows?
Depends on the city, and what day of the week… LA is packed. NY is packed. In-between is a toss-up. Tuesday night in Lincoln, Nebraska… hm… not sure.

How big is your mailing list these days?
Above 7,000. The only reason I know that is because we recently had to upgrade our mailing-list provider to the next tier in monthly mails-allowed… it costs us more now to send-out one newsletter. Yay?

How have you funded the band as you have grown?
Basically, if its gonna cost us… we need to learn how to do it.  That outlook saved us 90% of the costs that most bands just swallow.  Learning exactly what outsourced-services DO gives us more insight into the cogs of this machine… and also makes us keen to what price we WOULD pay, if we were to outsource.  We have lots of music in TV and movies… and that’s a fantastic way to raise money for the stuff we wanna do.

Your web presence is really strong. How much of your biz is coming from web sales and how much from live gigs?
Our online store is pretty deep, so its a steady well. There’s enough variety on there to pretty much please anyone, so I’d say that’s the lion’s share of income… unless we are out on tour. On the road, the gigs pay, and the merch sells at the gigs, so its a self-fueling machine.

How much music and merchandise do you typically sell at your shows?
I have no idea. We have a dedicated merch guy, and a credit-card machine, and he has a computer there to track it all, so I imagine all that stuff is called-for…. I just try to mention the merch-table from stage one time per show, and we try to hang out there for a while, post-gig. There’s usually a group of people picking stuff out throughout the night… and I know we’re constantly re-ordering new merch, because I design the artwork. So I guess it moves steadily.

How have you learned the business side of music? Did you take classes, read books, talk to people in the biz?
There’s no better way to learn it than getting out there and doing it.  We manage ourselves (something that we are more and more eager to offset), so we’ve dealt with 7 years of business/issues first-hand. We’ve skinned our knees on contracts, and fended for ourselves in negotiations… and we all fairly headstrong in both business, and common sense. If something smells strange, 99% of the time its because it IS strange… don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions and usually the source of the odor is revealed.  We also picked a lot of people’s brains over years of coffee.

Who are your partners? Mob Agency handles your bookings… How about personal and business management, attorneys and music publishing? Are you handling the Internet marketing drive yourselves?
We work heavily with Aderra (a digital/music technology company), on both strategies and tour-support. And MOB Agency is a fantastic company for booking those tours. We will soon be putting out feelers for a good manager, because we have a full movie coming out next year (a musical, in which Lisa is the lead-role, and Killola wrote all the songs… Lisa and I co-produced). And so far, we are self-published. All marketing has been from within, however we did work with a PR company (Reybee) on this last tour they were great. We will be sticking with them for future press campaigns.

How did you vet your partners? How did you know what questions to ask?
If you’re friendly to people, they’ll introduce you to their friends, and so on… for years. In 2008, we played the ‘wrap-party’ for a big movie (hint: Nakatomi Plaza part 4)… a guy we met in 2006 (who worked on our video for “I Don’t Know Who”) did special-FX for this movie, and he asked us to play. People from MOB Agency were there, and a few weeks later MOB contacted us for a few shows… we hit it off with them as people, and have worked together since. We didn’t have a TON of questions for MOB, because their work ethic and track-record spoke volumes.  Similarly, we met Aderra through a friend of the band, and Killola ended up as the first band Aderra ever recorded live. Aderra now tours with some of the biggest bands in the world, recording live shows.  We’ve worked with them since that first show.  We want to work with people who 1) we get-along-with as human beings, AND 2) they do good work in the music business….  This industry is saturated with people who are only good with one or the other.

How much of the web and app development do you do yourselves? It all feels really well integrated and personal.
I’m a web designer by profession, so everything you see out there is all from within the band.  The Killola iPhone app was built by an app team, but we designed the graphics/skin so that it rightly matched our existing look.

How much time do you spend each day communicating with fans and updating your social media network?
We’re mobile as crap.  So our iPhone keeps us socially synced throughout the day.  All the sites are tied-in together, allowing one single update to propagate throughout our network.  But sometimes we just turn everything off for a day or two.  That helps with sanity.  We stream live video from our phone, to the web, from rehearsal, from the van, from parties… anywhere. It keeps us connected to fans, and keeps it fun.

How do you balance practicing/writing/recording, etc. with the business stuff?
Usually (when not on tour) we get together once or twice every week or two, just to hang out, and we often do that at our practice space.  Music often ensues.  Things were super hectic earlier this year, as we shot a full-length feature movie for nearly 3 months.  This took us out of our ‘normal’ band mode, and sort of inserted 40 new band members into our life…  there was no balance, just two gears: Learning, and Go.

How would you chart your growth? In other words, when did things kick in and what was the sequence; gigs, Myspace, YouTube, CDs, website, giveaways?
I’d say we were adolescent at the exact time Myspace hit adolescence, in late 2007… our numbers and fanbase popcorned in parallel with that site, and we sort of rode the Myspace mechanism into 2008 with our first full US Tour.  Once that site starting losing efficacy, we had already rendezvoused with our fanbase at more intelligent websites, we had tours in place, and were able to convert the web-presence into real-life encounters on tour.

demo>Myspace>giveaways>CDs>website>tours>other_sites      That formula lacks the underlying “extremely hard work” ingredient, but that’s to be assumed.  🙂

In what order did you add partners, and why?
MOB (booking) was our first partnership.  Good booking is the only situation that is almost entirely shut-off to independent bands.  Clever and hard-working independent bands can do ‘almost’ anything that labels can do… however booking agents are still absolutely powerful and necessary.  Aderra offered an outlet to technology that no other company offered; we wanted to work with them because it’s a fresh, new medium (live recording distro) and the people behind Aderra are fantastic people and smart cookies.

How involved are you in music publishing? Are you making money with synch licenses, and performance royalties?
For non-radio-bands, and independent acts, music publishing and synch licenses are the quickest way to BIG checks in this business. Placing one song in a movie or commercial can totally change your entire year/decade.  And the pretense factor in music licensing is surprisingly low. Record great songs… movies don’t seem to care what band you’re in, what label you’re on, or what blogs are saying… they tend to buy music that works. Which is refreshing.

What are your thoughts on making a living in music?
All the successful musicians I know are a highly skilled jugglers, in the professional sense.  If you want it bad enough, you can make art/music work without a ‘day job’. I wouldn’t recommend trying it outside of a major metropolitan area… but if you’re smart, and flexible… and humble…  it works because there’s always a need for determined artists.

Are you interested in moving to an indie or major label? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of working with a record label?
Certainly.  We’ve only gotten to where we are by listening to reason.  If a label provides something desirable, then there might be reason to work together.  A record label has the built-in power of a catalog.  If Label X has a successful back-catalog of great releases…. that label’s ‘newest’ artist is almost immediately granted ‘credit’ based on the past-successes of that label’s catalog.  Labels can mean great exposure in the proper scenario.

Thanks for sharing all of this great stuff!

Making a profit by adding real value..

If we learn anything from the Wall St. crisis it should be this:

Sustainable businesses make a profit by creating and adding value to the world.

Windfall “paper” transactions are unsustainable and eventually lead to financial disaster, and/or the degeneration of industry.

Take a look at this heated debate between 37signals principal, David Heinemeier Hansson and Mahalo founder Jason Calaconis. The good stuff starts 47 minutes into the clip. Calaconis represents the classic tech approach to business: raise capital, build your model, and sell for a huge windfall…if you don’t go under first. Hansson tears his argument apart and advocates building sustainable businesses that generate real profits. He describes profit as: “A measure of success of the impact you are having on the world…”

Jason Calaconis vs.  David Heinemeier Hansson on This Week in Startups

What does this have to do with music?

Well… In the early days of the record industry the business was much smaller and broken into niches that served specific audiences. Music was served up in neighborhood clubs and record stores. Impresarios and label owners were hardcore fans who understood music and their audience. Sure, they wanted to make money, but they did it by making great records.

In the sixties people got greedy and very quickly the business became about selling as many records as possible to the lowest common denominator. The huge sales generated by international hits underwrote the enormous losses created by bad business practices, greed, and stupidity. Large labels were more concerned with grooming an “overnight” show-biz sensation, than discovering and developing the next Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris. It’s always been a tough racket, but the business people with a true passion for music, who have made this their work, keep pushing to stay afloat and find the balance between profit and value.

Many professional musicians have felt disenfranchised from the “music business” for years. It has about as much to do with their day-to-day work as the dry-cleaning industry. If this is any kind of benchmark, we’re not in good shape.

The business is collapsing because the big money train crashed…with considerable help from illegal file-sharing and the general disruption of the Internet. The good news is, people love music as much as ever and there is great stuff being created every day. There are many label folks like Glen Barros, Bob Hurwitz, Manfred Eicher, and John Virant who know how to add value and turn a profit in this industry. I would love to hear what they have to say.

…and definitely check out Rework, a great little book describing the business philosophy that has made 37signals so successful.

Audio quality in the digital age

10 years ago with the introduction of audio compression technologies such as MP3 & AAC, it became possible to shrink digital audio file sizes and enable distribution across the Internet. While there was a distinct loss in audio quality (file sizes were typically one tenth of the original), the average music fan didn’t seem to mind and convenience ruled.

At the same time, sample and bit rates for digital audio recording were expanding as hard drive prices dropped, giving engineers and musicians the ability to work with higher quality digital audio. Since the early days of digital there has been ongoing debate in the professional audio world about the loss of ‘warmth’ inherent in analog recording technologies. Higher digital bit and sample rates make it possible for engineers to approach the sonic ideal, bridging both worlds.

As hardware storage continues to shrink and broadband speeds increase, music providers have increased file sizes, enhancing audio quality for portable and computer devices. Bringing back high quality audio to consumers can create scarcity in the marketplace, which music creators sorely need. A bootlegged MP3 can’t compete with an audiophile, metadata rich, listening experience.

The question is: “Will consumers support higher quality audio?” Engineer, producer, and musician Cookie Marenco, founder of Downloads NOW! says 96kHz downloads (super high quality) are outselling 44.1kHz downloads (CD quality) by 10 to 1 at her artist’s download stores. Last Sunday’s New York Times article, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back examines this issue.

What do you think?

Has the appreciation of nuance and dynamics been lost to the generation that grew up on iPods, and what does the future hold?

Indie music mogul: The net’s great for us.

A nice interview on the state of indie labels and the future of the business with Martin Mills head of Beggars Group.

Read the full article here.

A few quotes:

“The internet has improved things radically for independents…There’s fewer gatekeepers now. We don’t have to knock on a TV station’s door or a radio station’s door and it’s made us far more competitive”

“The 40 per cent of the industry that has gone is almost entirely the cream at the top.”

“We have to make licensing easier and faster, not necessarily cheaper, but easier. We’d like to see some kind of short-term government-endorsed trial structure that we could experiment with for 12 or 24 months, and see the impact of it.”

 – Martin Mills, Beggars Group

Listening to music in the age of digital abundance….

A recent tweet from @slainson, and an LA Times post from Steve Almond has me thinking about how we experience music in this age of digital abundance and endless entertainment choices. Music is everywhere today and largely functions as sonic wallpaper. The stuff is inescapable, whether you like it or not.

I often think about how music was consumed 100 or 200 years ago. The composition and production of classical music was highly specialized and funded by the church or nobility. Only the most elite aristocrats had the opportunity to hear it. It was fancy. It amazes me to realize that people would routinely get dressed up to sit in a room and listen to live performances of music they had never heard before! Keep in mind that the composers of the era (Beethoven for instance) were continually pushing the envelope and writing music people found challenging or disturbing. The premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ caused a riot. Contrast this with life today where you can’t even sit at a stoplight without being bombarded with some distorted sonic artifact. It’s everywhere and we have became anesthetized. As if that weren’t enough, music is continually competing for our attention with countless new forms of digital novelty and synoptic stimulation.

When I was growing up in late 1960’s Chicago, music was the cultural meeting place for an entire generation. There was no Internet, no video games, computers or video. Listening to music with rapt attention was the Big Thing. I remember a company that sold stereo equipment…the last item in their catalog was a roach clip! Music discovery for me involved running up to my room after dinner, putting on these clunky headphones and listening to “underground radio”. There was this DJ who called himself Scorpio and whispered into an echo chamber. His programming was personal, iconoclastic, and would make KCRW look formatted. I would take notes. I remember one night hearing Savoy Brown back to back with Freddie Hubbard (‘Straight Life’). I was blown away. This was the first time I had really heard George Benson. I had no idea it was possible to do what he was doing on the guitar and the soul/funk polytonality of Weldon Irvine’s ‘Mr. Clean’ sent me on a musical quest.

I would sit in front of the stereo listening to LPs until the grooves wore out (despite my best efforts to keep them pristine with various exotic accessories). I studied the liner notes obsessively and when I heard something I liked I would track each of the sidemen, trying to find everything they had recorded. I was fascinated with musical family trees and communities. The LA country rock scene took me down a long and winding road and one exceptional musician could lead to a whole string of new discoveries. I moved through the musical channels of LA and New York to Nashville and back. Meanwhile I continued my education into jazz and contemporary classical music. I was learning songs and solos by rote and it wasn’t long before I started doing transcriptions. The convergence of artists like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Buck Owens, Captain Beefheart, The Flying Burrito Brothers, McCoy Tyner, The Beatles, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Bartok, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stravinsky, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Debussy, etc., etc., seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.

When I went to college in Boston I discovered the Harvard Coop record department and thought I had died and gone to heaven. They had these big Schwann catalogs on pedestals where it seemed as if you could look up anything in recorded history. The Coop had shelves of sequentially numbered record label catalogs, big and small. As I discovered new jazz and ethnic musicians I could look up everything they had recorded as leaders or sidemen and 9 times out of 10 find the treasure on these shelves.

I was working for Internet music pioneer Liquid Audio when everything shifted toward the Web. The company was founded and largely staffed by audio pros and musicians and was truly innovative, using the AAC codec (which sounded noticeably better then MP3 and would later be adopted by Apple) and developing a very flexible music player with a full array of metadata, including album credits, an unfortunate casualty of most current digital distribution schemes.  It was a very exciting time. It seemed as if the vast expanse of musical possibilities would soon be available to everyone with the click of a mouse.  Interestingly enough I was never really motivated to buy digital downloads because the audio quality was inferior to CDs which were in themselves an old technology at that point. I liked the idea of subscription services because they reminded me of my hours spent at the Coop. I could find anything I wanted and if the music stuck I would buy the CD.

Today we are exposed to new music through an exhausting number of channels including web sites, Internet radio, video games, television, film and advertising placement, retail sponsorship, and terrestrial radio. We listen on our phones & iPods, in our cars, and on our computers. I haven’t owned a traditional “stereo system” in years. The time I spend listening to music under ideal conditions with my complete attention has become increasingly rare. Of course I’m not the typical consumer. Being in the business you listen to (or play) so much music that peace and quiet is cherished. One of the barriers to focused listening is consolidating all of your music sources. Sonos has a great solution that integrates home theaters, digital music collections and streaming music services in one simple, multi-room user interface. I hope to see more growth in this area of consumer electronics.

Here’s my advice for those who love music and want to cut through the noise and bring back the full experience:

  • Make a special place to listen.
  • Get the best sound system together you can. You can pick up powered studio monitors that don’t sound half bad for as little as a few hundred bucks. Listen to the highest quality audio available to you.
  • Make a plan to discover music that’s new to you….Perhaps checking out a new artist or exploring a musical genre that is unfamiliar. Find your favorite music discovery channels and support them.
  • Set aside time just to listen with your full attention. 
  • Turn off your phone, log off Facebook, etc.
  • Give it up to the journey the music takes.
  • When you hear something that moves you, listen to it over, and over, again.
  • Find out everything you can about the musicians you like and follow their creative path to discover new artists.
  • Go out and find the music live.
  • Write about it…talk about it…support the artists…spread the word!
  • Repeat….

Are you ready for Telegigging and Songles?

Computer scientist, musician, and philosopher, Jaron Lanier, has created a fascinating, intelligent, critique of digital collectivism in his new book, You Are Not A Gadget. This is not the cynical rant of a Luddite, but a serious examination of the dehumanizing potential of technology. Mr. Lanier compares the impact of Web 2.0 paradigms on humanism and individuality to the relationship between MIDI and music. He makes convincing arguments questioning the rhetoric of the digital gurus, and proposes several fascinating new approaches to the cultural and financial conundrums presented by the explosion of the Internet into our lives.