Derek Sivers

Interviews → Justin from Berklee

Berklee College of Music interview about the music business

Date: 2009-03

If you were starting or promoting a band today, (pretend you’re back at Berklee) what would you do to spread the word? What tools would you use?

The most important part is deciding what to do! You don’t just make any old music, then decide how to spread the word.

You decide BEFORE you make the music: What could we create that would be SO noteworthy, SO remarkable, that there’s no way it could be ignored?

If it were me, I’d probably make some freaky Blue Man Group type band, and we’d often do michevious publicity stunts to give the media something to get worked-up about.

As for tools, I’d try to find ones that aren’t already saturated with music. Maybe an artistic use of Twitter. Or Improv Everywhere.

But really I’d make sure that I was always in a real three-way conversation with my fans. Encourage them to talk with me and with each other. Make my success their success, like Obama.

What are your feelings towards the major record labels today? Have they completely missed the big picture as far as how to market artists and distribute their songs?

It’s easy to look at them as buffoons (like we do politicians), but most of them are surprisingly smart.

If you just look at results (the current biggest-sellers), they’re almost all on major labels, so it’s just bad logic to say that the labels are doing everything wrong. Many things wrong, yes. But not everything.

This last 10 years has been humbling for them. It’s shaken out the people that are only in it for the money. So most of the people at labels today are in it for the right reasons, and are more entrepreneurial.

Why is the indie scene alive and kicking while the major labels are suffering?

Most indies can profit off of 10,000 sales, but majors can’t. Their different expectations change their costs.

The music business might be like the poetry business some day. Which means: almost no profit, and people do it because they want to, never for the money. I’m sure there are some companies making money off of poetry, but not many. Not making millions. So labels still have to get incredibly lean and efficient, so they can actually profit off of something that sells only 10,000 copies.

Since lots of indie musicians make their livings primarily on touring, what do you think the proposed Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger will do to indie artists trying to play big venues? Will there be enough smaller venues left to support the smaller artists?

Every trend has a counter-trend. Video moving to bite-size bits on YouTube? At the same time, the super-long narrative (Lost, Sopranos, 24) is more popular than ever.

So if big venues are gobbled up and homogenized, there will be a counter-trend of tons of small places offering small concerts. Whether small businesses or house concerts.

Did you sell CDBaby because of the decline of recorded music? Is the recorded music business among indie labels still thriving?

I only left CD Baby for personal reasons. I like to challenge myself to stay immersed in the unknown. I had been doing CD Baby for 10 years. It was too familiar. That was enough.

Recorded music is definitely still thriving for indies. They’re on more of a level playing field than ever. Sales are up.

I’m not sure what your experience is with agents, managers, promoters, etc., but you have talked to numerous successful (and probably unsuccessful) musicians over the years. What is the general consensus on how musicians feel about those people? Do they feel that they need a manager to get gigs? Do you think independent artists need managers today?

Well... Most musicians feel if they just had a good manager/agent/promoter they’d be “all set”.

But most managers/agents/promoters will tell you “most artists aren’t ready yet”.

I agree. I’m a hard-ass when it comes to talent, because I was a hard-ass on myself. I wrote, improved, recorded, and perfected over 100 songs before I ever released one! Produced and engineered those 100 songs, playing all the instruments myself. I practiced my vocals for 2 intense hours a night for 5 years before anyone heard me sing. I would write twenty verses for every song, to find two good ones. I’ve performed over 1000 shows in 10 years, to all kinds of audiences. 8am in the cold to kids. 2am to a drunken southern bar. Learning how to win over every kind of crowd under any situation.

So if I were to invest in an artist, I’d expect nothing less than what I’d done, as just a basic entry-level way of showing they’re serious about this, and are going to commit at least 10 years of non-stop diligent self-improvement to it.

In other words, I think it’s the artist’s responsibility to develop themselves to the point where they’ve proven their persistence and ability to make music that people love - to put on a show that people love.

Then yes, once they’ve got more bookings than they can handle, it’s a good time to hand that job to an agent.

As for a manager, I think that should be like a business-minded band member. One person in the band whose sole job is to handle the business and marketing. It doesn’t have to be a professional manager. But yes, someone of that mindset should definitely be included always. Don’t go too long without one!

If I could take away just a few things from what I’ve learned about you, they would be: 1. Be true to yourself. 2. It’s all about the music! 3. Don’t do it (start a business, band or anything) for the money or some other material motivator; do it because it helps you, it helps other people or because it’s what you love to do. Is this accurate? Is there anything you would add?

Cool. There’s a great quote: “If you can learn music, you can learn anything.

Making music is a great vehicle for self-improvement.

To be a great musician, you have to learn how to focus. You have to observe yourself objectively to notice what needs improvement, and have the dedication to improve that, even when you think you can’t.

To be a successful professional musician, you have to learn how to look at yourself through others’ eyes. You have to understand why the venue owner is really booking artists, why this person really signed your mailing list, and why people really go out to a bar at midnight on a Thursday.

It’s an amazing learning experience, and as you’ve noticed, I’m endlessly fascinated in this side of things.