The Fully Independent Musician – Guest Post by Ashley Morgan

by Jason on September 22, 2009 · 7 comments

in Business, Guest Bloggers, Thoughts

cybertrumpet3I came across Ashley Morgan and his site Upstart Blogger early in my research for this blog. I used his free 30-day blogging course to get me started and have referred to his writings many times since. I was also pleased to meet another trumpet player in the blogosphere, and with his blessing used his idea of Micropatronage to help raise funds for my latest CD.

Ashley is very knowledgeable about blogging and always happy to share that knowledge with those of us who could benefit from it. He’s also in the process of making his latest CD. Today he shares with us his thoughts on record labels and independence.

Lizards in a Tin

By Ashley Morgan

The balance of power has changed. Record labels, with their pack of manufactured plastic faces straining at their collective leash, are sinking.

Sinking fast.

Flailing around in the quicksand like lizards in a tin, desperately trying to find ways to continue to force the public to part with their cash.

And I, as a fully independent musician couldn’t be happier.

Because the record label’s loss is my gain.

When the record label Dinosaurs roamed the earth they controlled what people listened to by the simplest and most effective means available to them – they controlled what people could hear.

File sharing, or home taping as it’s distant cousin was once known, was the spectre that always haunted the record labels. They knew, since they weren’t all fool, that any kind of sharing had the potential to shine a light into the dark corners of their restrictive business model.

Sharing music benefits the artist, since it allows their work to be heard. It also benefits the music lover, the audience and the fans, since they are able to make a choice without the need to gain permission to listen from a label.

A few years pass, the internet arrives, file sharing becomes a wonderful reality for the majority, and the power is, finally, put where it belongs. In the hands of the artist and the music lover.

And when the music lover is able to make an unhindered choice they can choose exactly what to do with their money.

Of course, many music lovers will still choose to take rather than to give. But it is important to remember that the number one reason for a person’s reluctance to contribute financially to an artist’s work is their fear that the money will end up in the hands of a slick record label agent in a badly fitting suit.

As time goes by, and as the music loving public continue to learn that they can connect directly with artists, more and more independent artists will be able to generate increasing levels of support, including financial support, from their fans.

Independence is the key to success in an increasingly intelligent and informed marketplace.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Carey September 22, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I agree with this blog. I do see a downside to all of this though. People may not agree with me but. The good thing about record labels, at least used to be, that they found and produced the best of the best. Micheal, Stevie, Miles, Coltrane, REO speedwagon. At this point, a great artist must promote themselves. This may be a good thing if an artist has a team or is business savy. But I feel like without support, A lot of great musicians get stuck playing for small audiences of friends and family, while a huge section of the population is saying to themselves “why isn’t there any good music coming out these days?” Without a record company, the poplaution gets split up into people who seek good music, and people who take what their given, where people used to be given great music. There is no popular source for new music now days. XM and Pandora are helping, but I feel like more emphysis needs to be put on up and coming artists by the general public and those who control the general public ; )….. someone just needs to find a way to make gobs of money doing it, and it will happen, I hope.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
September 23, 2009 at 10:05 am

Thanks for joining the discussion, Tim! I hope Ashley will chime in here with a reply, but I thought I would too.

The modern-day musician needs to be lots of things. We need to be as good as we ever were at our craft, or maybe even better given the crowded playing field. But we also need to be our own publicist, marketer, tour manager, producer, etc. The jobs that were once farmed out by the labels (all at a HUGE cost to the musician, I might add) are now kept closer to home, for better of worse.

So as I see it we need to take responsibility for all these things. And this is what is going to set apart the successful musician from the struggling one. The days of being able to rely on a record label to make us a household name are nearly over. And really, how many musicians actually had this happen? 1%? 1/2 of 1%? It certainly wasn’t a large number.

Your band Reptet is a great example of this, it seems. You guys have taken control of your career and are methodically widening your reach with each successive album and tour. You guys are doing it the right way. And in this day and age, with the internet, web radio, micro-blogs and podcasting it’s easier than ever to reach a smaller but much more targeted audience that it ever was.

Last thought: REO Speedwagon???? 😉

Emma Fairall September 24, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Hi Jason, I saw your blog and it has incouraged me even more to become a musician, I love music, music is my passion, I play guitar, piano and African drums so I’ve got a wide range of music that I can play, I hope soon that I’ll be where you are now.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
September 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Emma! I’m so pleased that you’ve been inspired by the blog…that’s the whole point! Hope to see you around here again, and please keep me posted as to your progress. Do you have a website?

Kai Weber
Twitter: fruehlingstag
October 4, 2009 at 6:52 am

Dear Ashley,

I think your view on the role of record labels is a bit short-sighted, even when describing them in the old world. I wonder why people nowadays always think “major label” when they say “label”. There used to be and there still is a big variety of labels out there. Even in the times before the internet labels in general didn’t control what kind of music people had to access to. I’ve been a fervent music lover already in the pre-internet age, and I got only 10% of my music from major labels, at the most. There was a big flourishing independent label business, sided by independent music distributors. All a music lover needed was to become a customer of a specialized distributor. You received wonderully selected, commented and cheaply xerox.copied mailorder lists and short after had the most wonderful music in your mailbox.
But back to the main point: What actually is the role of a music label? Labels are aggregators. What do you think why there are so many people out there who collect the records of a special label? Because people find, that the music of a certain label fits to their musical taste. Back in the pre-internet age I bought some records or CDs solely because of the label name, without having ever heard of the musicians before. So, labels were even more than aggregators, they were guarantor for quality – or at least style.
From (the/my) music consumer’s point of view, the situation is certainly more complicated. This has advantages AND disadvantages. I’m not deploring the “golden” old days, but I can’t also celebrate nowadays’ status. There is a flood of information and ever-availability of music now, but nowadays I also do spend more time on searching for music than really concentratedly listening to it. That sometimes fives me the feeling that the more easily music is available, the less I can appreciate the individual piece of art (be it album or be it song).
And from the artist’s point of view? In Jason’s comment above it gets quite clear, that nowadays an artist has to spent more effort to be heard. From all the thing he lists above, I wonder, if it wasn’t easier for an artist just to convince one specialized little music label to produce and distribute a record and then concentrate on the art of making music? Yep, I know what you could reply: The label was consuming too much money for itself and the artist didn’t get enough out of it. True, that’s the flaw of the old system. But that’s just what I wanted to say: Things are not as simple as you claim them to be, everything has two sides.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
October 4, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Interesting points, Kai. I agree that there are/were certain labels that were wonderful portals for specific kinds of music, and could be counted on to deliver quality. In my younger days I would buy just about any record on the Lookout label, because I knew that they’d be my kind of punk rock. Later on it became Blue Note, ECM, Prestige, and now even ArtistShare. They have such a diverse roster, but all of their CDs have been top-notch. Nowadays I look more to the bloggers/writers/friends that I know have similar tastes to my own.

And as for the artists’ perspective, you’ve gotten two different ones right here on this post. Tim clearly stated that he’d rather make the music and let someone else do the marketing and promotion work. Me, I like all the extramusical tasks that go into getting my music out there. The good thing about todays’ world is that both type of artist can flourish. Some still do find a label or manager or publicist to help out, but never has it been easier for an artist like myself to do it for myself. Maybe I’m just a control freak (!) but I like it that way.

Ashley Morgan October 28, 2009 at 6:39 am

Tim, the money comes when you disconnect the process of making money from making music.

Just a quick disclosure before I go any further. I’m going to share a few links which contain advertising that generates revenue for me and the band I’m about to link to. However, I’m only doing this to show an example of the disconnection principle at work. I’ve chosen to link to a band other than my quartet since Jason has already kindly linked to me in his introduction.

In addition to my jazz career I play in a band called Enormous. I also administer their blog for them (the songwriter writes the bulk of the blog posts) and handle the business side of things.

On their blog they have a free EP that is streamed and available for full download. No signup, no hoops to jump through, just a single click to a zip file. No DRM, no tricks, no traps.

Here’s the link

Download it if you fancy listening to something while you read the rest of this comment and enjoy the rest of Jason’s blog. It really is a free audio lunch.

They also have an album that streams and is available to purchase, and a single that streams and is available to purchase.

They have a Twitter account @followenormous.

And, as you might expect given the thrust of my disconnection argument, their blog carries advertising.

It works. The combination of free music, a reasonably popular Twitter account and a blog attracts a good online audience. And, with that healthy online audience, the advertising pretty much takes care of itself.

How much money do they make? That’s not for me to say. Let’s just say that they make a lot more from the advertising than they do from the record sales. A LOT more.

Kai, the problem is that the labels, even the ones that I used to love, have screwed us over. I agree that things have 2 sides but I am finding it increasingly hard to find a label, any label at all, that isn’t trying to feather the nests of the executives at the expense of the artists.

Blue Note has a great history. But now that they have been swallowed up by a major label they are something totally different. I’ll give you an example. I recently bought some Blue Mitchell remasters. On the way home from the record store I put 1 of the CDs in my car stereo and it wouldn’t play.

Got home, put it in my mac which is hooked up to my home studio, wouldn’t play.

Put it in my at home hi-fi, and it played. But it popped at the start of the first track, probably because of some clandestine DRM.

Even after I had purchased the record at the standard price Blue Note still treated me like a thief.

I had supported the store and the label. And I still got treated like a thief.

Blue Note used to be a guarantee of quality. Just like some of the indie labels you refer to. And they were, you are right, aggregators.

But as things have developed and the internet has provided artists with new ways to promote and aggregate themselves the labels have reacted in a way that treats the honest consumer, the honest music lover, like an idiot. The labels could have taken the lead but instead they have tried to lock down the old methods, forcing them on people that don’t want them and, unfortunately for the labels, don’t need them.

Jason hit the nail on the head here – “Nowadays I look more to the bloggers/writers/friends that I know have similar tastes to my own”

Music lovers don’t need or want to be told what to listen to anymore. That’s why radio is on its knees. Because the labels control what is played and music lovers can smell it a mile away.

ECM are one of the few labels that I respect. And I buy many albums happily from artists on their roster.

Trouble is, as more and more major labels act like fools (EMI are a prime example here – Google EMI lies and see what happens) the labels that still have some musical heart get tarred with the same brush. And that, I agree with you Kai, is a shame.

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