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Who can see clearly


Bonnie Hayes’ email to Bob Lefsetz – and what Bob wrote that presumably prompted her to speak up on behalf of the new generation – has got me thinking today. I didn’t think Bob’s accusation the other day that the new generation only cares about money was fair. But I decided Bob probably had someone specific in mind when he wrote that post. Nevertheless, it did stick in my head and I have rolled it over a few times since reading. So it is worth considering further here. Kudos to Bonnie for writing a thoughtful and impassioned reply.

The fact is, the new generation is just doing whatever they can to afford to make music. If that’s not guts and mission and commitment I don’t know what is.

This is an era of major trials and major errors. We have to undertake a lot of experiments great and small to get to whatever the next world is going to be. We find moments of brilliance in between the tactics. Some that shine bright enough to have halo effects that sustain an artist well into the future, and some that are to be enjoyed in the moment and must feed them spiritually because they won’t financially. We strive to generate enough of these moments that they add up – to something greater – in various ratios creatively and financially. To build a sustainable living and inspiring life work.

It made me feel a little better to hear Lefsetz report that Geffen said he couldn’t get started in the business today. Even if that doesn’t help me, it affirms my roller coaster experience as a manager slogging it out among brilliant independent songwriters and performers in this time. There’s a whole lot of not adding up happening. Fixed and variable costs to operate, low profit margins being spoken for by too many constituents, cost and corner cutting without clear information on what suffers as a result, muddy short and long term impact, hard road mileage (physically and mentally), credit card dancing, sucking it up, toughing it out, keeping the faith, internal dialogue, and exploration of every revenue stream possible just to keep the band eating and the airlines in business, if not the band. High velocity of cash flow, marginal return.

We have a generation of artists, managers, producers and other folks who are insanely talented, driven professionals, eager and commited and good at what they do, but they just can’t always make ends meet. Everything costs money. Everyone deserves to be paid. And everyone gets paid before the artists. The artists are paying everyone.

Bob wonders why the artists think about money so much! If they don’t, there will be no music anymore. They are at the center of the music economy now. We all thought this was such a brilliant idea – break down the record labels and put the artists in charge. And it is, a lovely idea, free the artists of creative control. Reduce the power of the gatekeepers and privatize. But all it’s done (in the short term anyway) is strap the artists even more tightly to the cogs of the machine. Now they are responsible for the art and the business. And they get preached at constantly about how they have to be good at both. And criticized constantly for their deficiencies.

How many of our legendary artists, managers, producers and other ground-breaking creative minds have to admit that they couldn’t emerge if they were just getting started today before we do something to CHANGE it??

The “before generation” is clinging to whatever is left of their fiefdoms, readily crapping on anyone who tries, stomping on anyone who comes close, and completely forgetting that at some point somebody gave them a leg up and believed in them. My mentors casually refer to when people took them under a wing. To when someone showed them the ropes. To the good old days when things were so clear. Well I don’t believe things were ever really all that clear – and I don’t think we have it so much harder than the generation before (every generation hoofs it). But I do think we have been given a great responsibility without any of the resources or mandate we need to succeed in our task. We have had to fund ourselves, teach ourselves, build our own businesses, re-invent the industry that our predecessors botched, AND then fight them every step of the way for any tiny bit of support or inkling of endorsement or investment.

Bonnie is not far off when she says it’s no different than our political, economic or social landscape. I absolutely agree. In America, Social Security and Medicare are shot, and now it’s up to us to both build the new economy and support the retirement of the very folks who screwed it up royally in the first place. Really. Sound like the music business to you? It does to me!

Bob always says you just gotta be good, but I think he knows it is more than that. We are all learning and honing our craft. We take our lumps – we are in it for the music. We are believing in our dreams, getting music out there to the world in every way we know, making lemonade out of lemons, seizing every opportunity, weighing each chance against our beliefs – pursuing the ones we think will feed us one way or another, passing on ones that do not fit with what we are aiming to do in the world. We are keeping our chins up. We are music entrepreneurs.

We are damn good at what we do. But I have to say, just like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, there’s also a certain $ investment level, a certain number of impressions of meaningful exposure, and a certain amount of consensus industry support required to gain critical mass. I am a specialist in social media, but even I know it is not the answer to our problems. I don’t care who has a million Twitter followers. That is not the answer. It’s hours (becoming an expert at the craft), investment, impressions and support. Everything has to be aligned. The notion of it happening organically is just an illusion – jazz hands – smoke and mirrors held up to keep wishful thinkers busy trying while the real acts are really giving ‘er. It’s not magic. It’s time, money, exposure, coalition.

What our community needs are more champions and fewer shit talkers. We need leaders – not watchers. We have a whole lot of smart, experienced, connected professionals just watching what happens from the sidelines instead of leading. Waiting for the next baby band to stumble on something newfangled that saves their ass, instead of turning their 10,000 hours into something meaningful. Thinking about how they can stay safe long enough to retire comfortably instead of wrestling the monster they fed for so many years that is attacking us now. They justify this attitude by the fact that they have been in the business so long, that they have supported so many artists, that they did their part. Remember that concert? Wasn’t it awesome? Oh you weren’t born yet? Too bad. You know what I say? Stop wasting our time. If you’re not going to be part of the solution, get out of the way.

Sound like the banks bailouts? The mortgage crisis? Health care reform?

It’s a generational mentality meltdown.

“We did what we did and you young people are smart and can figure it out. We had to.” And whenever we try we get… “You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not doing enough. You must not be that good. Why don’t people know who you are? Why aren’t you famous yet?” They raise the victory flag for the few bands that manage to squeek through the clutches of negativity and reach some form of momentary spotlight. They put them on the pedestal as example “see? it’s still possible to break thru…” But they take no responsibility. They have no idea what it takes today. And within 12 months those bands fall apart. The spotlight moved on.

You know why? Because the songs didn’t actually change the world or tell us anything new about it! We ought to support the artists who have that mission.

Who is going to start talking about the FUTURE?

Who is going to start talking about the next music economy? (And I don’t mean bullshit panels of people who aren’t actually in the business.)

Is everyone blind? Has no one done the math to see that we reached the point of diminishing returns years ago? That the long tail of music is not the rise of opportunity for independent artists but rather the failure of an industry to focus? The failure of our community to invest in research and development? The rise of the great wall of musical weeds strangling and inhibiting the growth of the talent of our time? Mediocrity is jamming up the works, eating up our resources, distracting brilliant people and wasting talent.

Last year I sat in an audience full of the new generation of the music industry and listened to Lefsetz talk about how we’re never going to get anywhere – because we’re not good enough. With all due respect (and I do have a great deal of respect for him), we just thought he was completely missing the point. Because we don’t care about getting to this fictitious place called “somewhere.”

We care about people who listen to music. And think about music. And live with music around them in their daily lives. We care about songs that help us live to be our best selves. Through introspection or flat out body shaking celebration. We really don’t give a damn about stardom. We just want to find our tribe, make music for them, and we hope it will be sustainable. We don’t see how it can be, but longer odds bets have been made and won. We want to be in the game when it turns back in our direction.

You see, we’ve seen all the stars we admired become pitiful. They don’t know how to survive either. We love them anyway. We want to help them. But why would we want what they have? Stardom is so 80s. It makes you operate defensively, out of fear of not having instead of enthusiasm to conquer. We are conquerors.

Today, it’s true. I suppose at some point we all make decisions between financial success and creative success. I made the decision to prioritize creative many years ago, figuring if it was going to be possible to have both, the creative would have to lead the way. I still believe that.

We have to break some myths to survive this next period.

Bonnie is doing that in her class at Berklee, and it’s truly inspiring. I had the privilege of visiting her class last week. She talks about art, but she also preaches multiple revenue streams and real music life skills. The myth she is breaking is that one thing will be the road to success. There is no one thing anymore. I can’t think of a more relevant lesson for young musicians to learn. And anyone who knocks these students for wanting to learn is ignorant of what it really takes for these kids to survive today. They need to get educated any ways they can – in the classroom and in life. No time problem solving the equation is wasted.

Yet it also worries me. Our most creative people are expending so much energy on marketing and social media and how to pay the rent and afford to get to gigs and have a place to stay and eat… So much energy spent on travel and tweets… I am certain we are only experiencing 50% of the creative potential of this generation. At what loss?

I debated this very topic last week with a traveling professor from a prestigious business school in Barcelona, Spain. He wanted to ask me questions for research he is doing about marketing and music, and how we can use different marketing techniques to make our band known, such as using internet media marketing, logo key chains are a popular option as well, since is something people carry around everywhere. He reacted when I said, “Unfortunately, artists have to be great business people, CEOs, in order to survive in the creative economy today.” He was surprised to hear me say “unfortunately” given my profession as a manager and marketer. I explained to him that business acumen is a survival skill for musicians today – not a source of creativity or inspiration.

I find myself a manager – no longer young and not yet old. I’ve been gutting it out alongside so many gifted artists. Always experimenting. Always trying. Keeping the faith. I’ve experienced a lot of things – seen what musicians today are willing to do for their art. And seen what trials they are put through, sometimes unnecessarily – because on the business side we just plain haven’t gotten it together. We talk a good game about being in it for them. About supporting great work. But it is time for leaders, not talkers.

I can’t believe the number of people at executive levels at labels, agencies and promotion companies who claim they don’t know what to do with a talented act. Who readily compare new artists to acts they broke in the 60s, 70s, 80s, even 90s, but they don’t have the guts to put anything on the line to break a new artist today. I’m not kidding, and I’m not talking about one conversation I’ve had with one person. I’ve had this conversation with nearly all of the people I looked up to for so many years. People I thought were mentors, but in the end have turned to me to figure out what to do. I get the same answer