An Ode to my Walkman

When it comes to technology we all have a style. Some are tastemakers and early adopters, the ones who bought iPods back in 2001 and listened to Fun. way before “We Are Young” hit the airwaves (and will never let you forget it). The masses usually catch on soon after, but there are also the stubborn ones like me.

You know who we are, the ones who are ever so slightly behind the times, who hold onto things a bit too long. This isn’t hipster kids going back to records because they’re cool. It’s also not the grandma who watches VHS tapes and has no idea how to navigate the internet. This is a twenty-something who still has a flip phone three years after most of her friends got iPhones and continues to subscribe to Netflix for the DVD’s.

Now that you know a little bit about the kind of technological dweeb I am, allow me to wax nostalgic about my good old Walkman disc player. Received as a present when I graduated from elementary school, I fell in love at first sight. This sleek, sunshine colored device was a step up from my dinky portable radio that I listened to on the way to school and soon I was strolling around the neighborhood with my new toy nestled in a little denim purse strapped across my chest. After exhausting my parents’ classics, I started building a CD collection for myself, developing a broad musical palate including Bach, Destiny’s Child, Evanescence, Aerosmith and more. Next came burning disks on my computer and trading albums with friends. I still remember the Simple Plan album my crush made for me on Valentine’s Day and listening to the Spiderman 2 Soundtrack (my favorite) over and over on long car rides.

By high school the player was a bit worn, but still beloved. Some of my more well-off friends had fancy new MP3 players, yet I never felt the slight bit jealous. “Who needs more than ten songs at a time, anyway?” I thought, looking down on their yuppy sensibilities. But one fateful Christmas the fates decided for me.

I remember opening the iPod Shuffle my parents bought for me and feeling conflicted. It was shiny and new and I was curious about it, but it was also threatening. It stayed in my room, untouched, until I finally decided to download iTunes. At first I only used it to burn my own mixes that I continued to enjoy on my Walkman (yes, I really was that ornery), but eventually I gave in. These days, I’m still a bit behind the times; instead of streaming music I generally listen to my own, well-worn playlists. And I suppose that’s as it should be. That’s what my Walkman taught me, that nothing sounds better than music you’ve lovingly collected yourself.

Image Source: Amazon

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5 Ways to Expand Your Fanbase

As a musician, it can be hard to be heard these days. There are more avenues than ever to get your music out there, but getting people to love it so much that they buy it, share it and come to your shows is a different story. Here are a few tips to help recruit a loyal fan club:

  1.  Shore up your internet presence

We know you’ve probably got all the basics already: a website and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Soundcloud. There’s also the all-important email list, which you should ensure has a prominent sign up link on every page of your website. Also make sure you’re making it worth people’s while, offering free music, exclusive offers and minimal spam.

  1. Engage, engage, engage

Constantly interact with followers on social media and get them involved. Answer questions, listen to feedback, get creative and challenge fans to design your next album cover or write a parody of your new single. Make sure to share plenty of behind-the-scenes photos and video footage of you and your band and keep everyone updated on recording sessions, touring and shows. Tumblr is a great platform for reaching out as well.

  1. Be hip

Be current on the music scene and get to know key music bloggers who can get you exposure. Consider making and sharing playlists on platforms like Spotify and 8tracks that both feature your own music and shows off your impeccable taste.

  1. Stop, collaborate and listen

While you’re sick of hearing it, networking is invaluable. Get to know as many people as you can in all parts of the industry, from producers to engineers to venue operators. Work with other musicians by recording covers, collaborating on projects or inviting them to open for you in your hometown and vice versa.

  1. Quality over quantity

 Be real and authentic with your people, build relationships and remember that one real fan is worth one hundred casual Facebook likes. It might take a while, but if you cultivate a solid base they will continue to support you and spread the word.

Image Source: Baltimore Sun

The Music Industry is Dead, Long Live the Music Industry!

If you’ve read any news lately concerning the music industry, you’ve likely encountered severe doom and gloom. With titles like “How One Generation Was Single-Handedly Able to Kill the Music Industry” and “The Music Industry is Still Screwed: Why Spotify, Amazon and iTunes Can’t Save Musical Artists,” it all sounds positively apocalyptic.While no one would deny that the landscape is changing dramatically, it’s not in fact the end of the world as we know it. No one knows exactly what the future will hold, but there are plenty of possibilities.

 Subscription

Streaming is the elephant in the room when it comes to music these days. Everyone’s listening and it seems to be a great way for up and coming artists to reach new fans and bypass the traditional radio rigamarole. While this all sounds popular, the business end is running into issues. No one, not even the behemoth Pandora, has figured out how to make the model profitable and current plans to do so ignore realities about what people are willing to spend for music. Even worse, the meager profits these services make aren’t going to the artists and songwriters.

Subscription can, however, be a viable option once customers can be convinced to invest in music. This shift involves both improving the content and changing the target demographic. As Ted Gioia points out at The Daily Beast, the music industry can learn some lessons from television. HBO helped usher in a renaissance that convinced people to pay for what used to be free, with terrific results in both revenue and quality. His main suggestion is simple: better music for grown-up tastes.

Patronage

The old system demanded that artists sign with record labels to get the exposure and resources they need. The internet has helped democratize the music industry to an extent, allowing artists to get exposure and gain a following independent of middlemen. The problem is that it’s still very, very difficult for indie artists to thrive.

Something’s got to give, but in the meantime artists must figure out ways to make it work. One such change avenue is getting patrons to fund their work instead of only selling the music after it’s made. Big companies like Honda have been shifting money from television to sponsoring innovative music festivals. Another popular option is taking the music to the masses and getting crowd-funded on sites like Kickstarter and Patreon, the latter created by Jack Conte of the band Pomplamoose. As Conte points out in an interview with Slate, “Except for that hundred-year blip [the 20th century], patronage is how it’s always been and that it is how you are going to be. I honestly feel the crowd-funding revolution is the future of how artists are going to make money. People are going to step up to the plate.” So far, it seems to be working for Patreon, with $2 million going to 25,000 artists in one year.

The Live Experience

With record sales plummeting, concerts are now the industry’s biggest money makers; in the past fifteen years profits have grown from $1.5 billion to $5 billion per year. Fans enjoy the authentic experience of seeing a band perform live and it’s a privilege they can’t illegally download.

Artists these days are seeing most of their income from touring, but being on the road can be brutal. Not only do venues and ticket companies soak up a lot of the profits, rising costs (i.e., gas prices) and being away from home for extended periods take its toll.

The current model, however, is unsustainable. Most top acts are in their 50’s or older and charging an average of $60 per ticket, requiring creative innovations in the future if profits are going to continue rolling in. Smaller acts need to connect to their bases better and they need to provide unique, intimate experiences. Cellist Zoe Keating has found great success doing “on-demand” tours and Ryan Lerman offers backstage guitar lessons along with concert tickets at $75 a pop.

Changes, Changes

In the end, the industry will be forced to adapt. This has happened before and it will all happen again. Instead of shrieking about the end times, executives, artists and talking heads alike must stop bemoaning change and start coming up with bigger, better, more interesting solutions.

Image Source: reverbnation.com

5 Easy Tips for a Top Notch Playlist

It’s summertime and that means BBQ’s, beach days, parties and road trips: plenty of opportunities to show off your awesome musical taste. Follow these guidelines to become the one who gets asked to make sure you have your music on hand with you wherever you go.

  1. Know your audience

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it should be at the forefront when you’re compiling your songs. If it will be small shindig with friends who share your niche musical taste, go ahead and bring on the B-side release from an obscure artist. If it’s a big party, try to keep the more bizarre stuff to a minimum. When in doubt (and unless it’s a dance party), the Starbucks rule of thumb usually works: if it’s something you can imagine hearing when you’re standing in line for coffee it probably has the right kind of mass appeal.

  1. Keep things familiar, yet diverse

Make sure you sprinkle some hits from whatever genres you’re emphasizing. No need to go Top 40 Radio, but make sure there are enough well-known songs to be appealing. An easy trick is to use older hits that people may have forgotten about and aren’t sick of hearing. Music from the 90’s or before will give you nostalgia points from anyone older in the crowd and convince others of your classic good taste. Plus tweens will probably recognize some of the tunes as covered in Glee.

  1. Organize using sets of music

Group similar songs together in sets of two or three, and make sure there are no jarring shifts between those sets. It’s also important that songs which sound too similar get a little space between them (“Sweet Cherry Pie” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” might meld into one mindless lump of mullet rock, while ZZ Top’s “Legs” stuck in the middle would maintain the 80’s vibe while keeping things varied). This would also include songs by the same artist.

When ordering the sets themselves, it’s always good to start strong with a few impressive, distinctive songs to catch everyone’s attention and set the mood, ramp up to some solid hits in the middle and then slow things down, wrapping up with a long, satisfying song for the finale. 

  1. Use smaller playlists to tie everything together

Having a few different lists up your sleeve keeps things flexible. Not only does it make your job less unwieldy (30 songs are much easier to sort than a solid 90), you can switch things up or shift according to everyone’s mood. For example, start off a dinner party with some low-key, ambient jazz like Frank SInatra and Norah Jones, move on to more upbeat dance music like Michael Jackson and David Bowie, then finish with some mellow, thoughtful rock like The Beatles and Arcade Fire.

  1. Listen and learn

Finally, it’s important to always be expanding your library. Explore sites like Spotify and 8tracks for inspiring mixes. Whenever you download music, organize it based on genre or mood (beachy, indie chill, sultry, dance, folky, etc) so that you have master lists to consult later. And, of course, make sure you double check your own mixes thoroughly so you know they’re perfect. Happy listening!

Photo from equivocality.com

Man vs Machine: The New Trend in Streaming Music

Who’s in charge of what you’re listening to? Unless you’re listening to your own finely crafted mixtape or playlist, someone else is pulling the strings. It used to be the tastemakers: the artists and producers who put together albums, the disk jockeys who played hits on the radio, maybe your connoisseur friend who put together a mixtape. The last few decades have brought us MTV, Pitchfork, iTunes, YouTube, Sirius and Pandora, but instead offering more choices it feels like more noise. So we throw up our hands and just turn something on.

Pandora, the streaming music powerhouse, revolutionized the listening experience with its Music Genome Project. The fancy-sounding system assigns numerical values to different genres and songs, then plugs them into an algorithm. Last.fm had a slightly more human approach, where its labelling information came from user tags instead of professional musicians, and the application kept extensive tabs on all the music you listened to in order to make better suggestions. Theoretically these complicated schemes mean you type in your favorite artist or song, say Otis Redding, and you get a radio station full of other music you’ll like without any effort except pressing dislike when you don’t like a song. In reality it often means you hear the same ten songs over and over, with an occasional Kanye West song that makes no sense. This is what can happen when you let technology reign.

The alternative? Playlists curated by human beings that you can choose based on mood, activity, era or style. Beats and Songza, two streaming services in the news recently for their buyouts by iTunes and Google Music, respectively, use this model and Spotify unveiled its new shared playlist system (which is a big improvement on their mostly disappointing radio service). Apparently people like choice, but not too much, and when they get told what to do they’d prefer another person do it instead of a formula. As Apple’s Tim Cook points out, their newly acquired streaming service “doesn’t ask people what they want to listen to. It tells them.”

Photo from techandinnovationdaily.com

What You Need to Know About Music Legislation RIGHT NOW!

We as casual music listeners take radio for granted. Want to catch up on The Tallest Man on Earth’s entire discography? Need some background music while getting ready for work? Looking for new artists? While everyone knows downloading music for free is illegal and immoral, streaming your favorite songs on your phone or tuning into your local radio station is a harmless way to rock out without buying anything. Except there’s no such thing as a free ride and countless music creators are paying the price.

First, a quick primer on how the system currently works. This article at The Week has a comprehensive breakdown, but basically there are two main groups that get paid for a song: the songwriter (and their publishing company) and the performer (along with their record label, if they have one). Both mechanical royalties (for purchased music, such as CD’s and legally downloaded digital copies) and performance royalties (for live, public or internet/streaming play of music) are set by federal government rate courts.

As far as hard numbers go, the current mechanical royalty fee for songwriters is 9.1 cents per song. Pandora pays out 70% of their revenue in royalties, although most of that money goes to recording companies. A recent ruling kept Pandora’s rate for performance royalties paid to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) at 1.85% of its revenue. Traditional terrestrial radio pays 1.7% to songwriters and nothing to performers.

The two most important pieces of legislation currently being heard in Congress are the Songwriter Equity Act and the Free Market Royalty Act, with hopes for an eventual omnibus bill that would accomplish widespread reform for both songwriters and performers.

The Songwriter Equity Act, as the name implies, applies to songwriters and publishers, who generally get paid less than performers and record labels. It expands the criteria judges could use to set rates and encourages a simpler, more free market standard for negotiating compensation.

The Free Market Royalty Act is more comprehensive but similar. Basically, it requires terrestrial radio stations to pay performers for using their songs (just as streaming and satellite radios do) and opens up a free market between broadcasters and rights holders without government interference in the negotiations.

Proponents feel these changes are necessary to protect artists and ensure they’re paid fairly. This is especially important at a time when traditional forms of revenue, i.e. record sales, are at an all-time low.

A major concern, though, is that removing regulation wouldn’t allow a free market so much as it would allow the two big publishing companies, BMI and ASCAP, to set prices and stifle competition. There is also the fact that more than half of royalties don’t go to songwriters and musicians at all, but rather to publishers and record companies. Finally, if prices get too high they will cripple broadcasters, especially small radio stations and streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, which are barely breaking even as is. If this happens, the entire music industry could suffer and end up making less money as a whole.

Any way you look at it, rules need to change and adapt. Hopefully a flexible, platform-agnostic system can be established that has protections in place for both licensors and licensees, one which encourages technological innovation while allowing artists to thrive.