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The New Frontier of Music

The New Frontier of Music


As long as they have been creating music, musicians have found ways to make a living doing it. To help the artists’ dreams come true, an entire recording industry and promotional companies, agents, and lawyers evolved, making themselves rich along the way.

In the later half of the 20th century, the music industry expanded and became gatekeepers of what the public listened to. Musicians were swept along in the process, at the whim of corporations, while trying to find ways to get their music to the masses.

As the business grew into a worldwide industry, artists signed multi-million-dollar contracts that looked like golden opportunities. However, these contracts weren’t what they appeared.

A recording company would provide or pay for studios, promotional duties, and even lodging or cash advances. However the fine print of the contracts was usually a lien against album sales. If the records didn’t sell, artists were still legally responsible for the advances or payouts and had to pay them back. Unless the band was The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, these contracts were basically no-interest loans.

The 360 Deals

With the rise of the internet and the streaming of music in the late 1990s, music companies began to offer what became known as “360 deals.”

These contracts encompassed the majority of an artist’s earnings. In exchange for more potential earnings, a company now had a hand in everything an artist did including merchandising and publishing.

These were called “multi-rights deals,” and it wouldn’t be long before musicians such as Madonna and Jay-Z put their signatures on the dotted line to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

For all intents and purposes, if a musician’s name was on the venture, the company got a piece of it. Some of these contracts were even in perpetuity, meaning that if the artist quit music and went into some other field, the record company could claim a share of those earnings. While bigger artists might have been able to negotiate a different deal, often smaller artists just took what they were offered.

Photo by Oleg Ivanov (Unsplash)

Getting people to listen

In the early days it wasn’t uncommon for artists to sell CDs out of the trunk of their car. This was especially common for hip-hop artists. Even without the promotional muscle of a large record label or even on-air radio play of his music, hip-hop artist Too Short claims to have sold 50,000 albums.

In addition to selling albums, artists would beg DJs to play their songs on the radio. In the 1950s, the “payola” scandal emerged from this hustle, with radio stations and other DJs being accused of taking money to play the music of certain artists. While DJs were publicly punished for this, some in the industry claim the practice just went underground.

With the rise of digital technology, musicians had a new tool to get people to listen to their songs in a way that could directly lead to sales. In 2005, Tower Records “Scan and Listen” allowed customers to scan the barcode on a CD and listen to clips from the album to decide if they wanted to buy it. This was a boon to the trend of short, catchy clips dominating the airwaves as opposed to longer songs.

Trumpeter Steve Illich and Dave Flomberg playing with Reptiles and Samurai at the Oriental Theater (Credit: Deb Flomberg-Rollins)

Rise of the Streamers

The newest frontier for exposure of musicians are short-form entertainment platforms such as TikTok. According to an MRC Data study, 67% of TikTok users say they are more likely to seek out songs they heard on the platform. Artists of every level are expected to create short-form entertainment for these platforms.

Musician Halsey shared their thoughts on TikTok: “Everything is marketing. And they are doing this to every artist these days. I just want to release music, man. And I deserve better tbh. I’m tired.” (Halsey uses she/they pronouns.)

Dave Flomberg is a Colorado musician whose career goes back decades. Performing with numerous bands over the years, he has seen the shift of not only musical tastes but the way music has been presented to the masses including the move to social media.

“I think like any other seismic change in music, there’s people who embrace it and people who pillory it,” Flomberg said. “If you embrace it, if you jump in, there’s a market there. You can be successful at if you’re really good at it.”

Arguably the largest platform for getting music to the public is Spotify. Since its launch in 2006, it has grown to nearly 500 million monthly users. The service offers over 100 million songs as well as about 5 million podcasts. While not the only streaming platform, it has a different model than Apple Music or Amazon Music, which offer only pay services versus Spotify’s free use and subscription plans.

Spotify pays artists $.003-.005 per stream on average, but the system for payment is a bit more complicated. The company pays based on “streamshare” and takes into consideration the total number of streams of all music offered on the platform as well as various payout contracts. Every country is going to be different as to rules and approaches, so it’s not as simple as one play equals this much money.

According to an MRC data study, 67% of TikTok users say they are more likely to seek out songs they heard on the platform.

This does work out to about a 70-30 split with the majority going to the artist, however publishers, copyright holders, and others may have their hand in that payout. By comparison, Apple Music claims to pay artists between $0.007 and $0.01 per stream, but that is for a full pay service versus Spotify’s free and pay streams.

According to Spotify, more than 28% of artists who earned over $10,000 from Spotify in 2020-21 were self-distributed. With the rise of home studios and recording abilities, almost anyone can record their own songs without the need for an expensive recording studio. What does this do to the musical landscape?

“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s more democratic now than it’s ever been. All you need is a TikTok account and a means to lay down a few tracks and a halfway decent microphone,” Flomberg says. “So you can produce the music for nothing, and then it becomes about how do you market it. Are you good at marketing? Cream still rises to the top eventually if you’re working hard enough to get it out there, and shitty music will go away.”

However Flomberg admits that there is a learning curve for musicians if they want to be successful in this new reality of music.

“If you’re smart and know how the system works, you can be successful. You can’t change the rules of the game. It’s too big and powerful. You adapt to the rules of what the algorithms will proffer. You figure out, ‘I have to pay to play,’” he says. “I’ve got to get my music out there, and I have to have x number of dollars budgeted for getting my music into the algorithm to get it to other people to hear it.”

Dave Flomberg, Gabriel Otto, Hugh Ragin and Serafin Sanchez in the studio laying down tracks for the Flobots 2017 release NoEnemies.

The festivals

There was a time that joining a festival was the way to fame. Going back to the rock and roll festivals of the 1950s and 1960s, bands would play anywhere they could, hoping to gain new fans and grab the attention of record producers.

In the 1990s, these festivals grew exponentially with the rise of Lollapalooza, Coachella, and others. Promoters even tried another Woodstock, but it became a legendary failure that led to fires, injuries, and even horrific tales of sexual assaults.

“If you were able to get in front of an opener, you basically sacrifice a month of other possible gigs just to play that show to a 500-seat theater,” Flomberg explains.

It really comes down to musicians having to be far more than just artists. With the new landscape of streamers and self-publishing of music, they need to find ways to get people to listen to their songs. They become self-promoters in a way that has never really been seen before.

“You tour and you find ways to get people in the audience to discover you and while they’re captive, if they’re into what you’re doing, getting them to follow you on the spot. Having everyone pull out their phones and hit this QR code,” Flomberg says.

“The artist is no longer just an artist and, whereas you don’t have to be beholden to the label to do the work of marketing you anymore because you don’t really need a label anymore, that does mean that all that work is going to fall on your shoulders. And you’re going to have to become a marketer and a business person.”

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