Tales From The Music Biz: Going Pro

Navigate your way through the hell that is the Music Business.

Posted by Sonaris on Thu Aug 6, 2009

Music News
The music industry is a cold, dark place where you will be put in a cage match with competition from all over the world in a battle to the death. The bad news is, many of your more established rivals have a big advantage over you from the start. This is a tale for those of you aspiring to go pro.

Working with our small label, Addictive Vibe Records, which started out on iDJ a couple of years ago as a friendly place for talented emerging artists to get their start, I've been kind of tossed into the madhouse that is promoting and selling music for the last year or so.

Mr. Michael Bordash, of iDJ, often criticizes the state of the music industry and, while its oftentimes hard to accept - as a daydreaming producer trying to make a name for yourself - his criticisms are strikingly accurate. The sales model in place barely works for big labels, so you can hardly expect it to work for you.

Let's take a step back to when we just launched Addictive Vibe records with four or five iDJ members on board. The goal was to create a small, official label which would then be shopped around to distributors [whom without you are not able to sell on any big online or brick and mortar music shops.] Once the label got accepted by Symphonic Distribution, we were ecstatic, feeling like we finally had broken through into the big music business. The label was now distributed on giant retailers like iTunes, Beatport and Amazon, among many others. So, we must be doing pretty well. Right? Not quite.

Once your label is picked up by a distributor, you must fulfill the distributor's sales quota + the independent sales quota for each retailer as well. For the purpose of this article, I will focus specifically on Beatport, as it seems to be the holy grail for most emerging producers.

At first, the quota for Beatport was $200 worth of sales per quarter. While seemingly reasonable, this was still a pretty scary number for a few completely fresh, and unknown, artists. So, the next step here is promotion. Not being an established label, with virtually no promotional budget, we - the artists - were promoting our music in our spare time in pretty much every way imaginable, short of spending money on advertising. We were posting on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and practically any and every place imaginable. Creating promo remixes to generate attention, networking with industry professionals and posting videos on YouTube is all part of the equation. With most of us having full-time jobs or being full-time students, or both, this all had to be done in our spare time, often taking away from personal life and cutting into the time actually needed to make music.

As our label slowly grew, we handpicked artists which we felt would represent us well and be active in the promotional aspect. It is fair to say that not everyone is able to promote around the clock, and no one is ever expected to do so. Though, I would say that - for a label our size - our promotional effort was substantial.

As a result of our promotion the sales we generated weren't substantial enough for us to clear the quota on Beatport in the first, second or third quarter. We were on "probation" the entire time, while we were working hard to get our name out there, in any way possible. The sales quota increases and rolls over each time you miss it, making it exponentially harder to catch up.

Once we had several releases out on Beatport, the pirates kicked in. Practically every single release we sent out to our distributor was pirated within a week of it's commercial release in the online shops. The amount of effort pirates put into "sharing" music is astounding, because it literally spreads all over torrents like a wildfire. Whether you agree or disagree that music piracy is a good or bad thing, it is obviously a constant presence in the business, and a small label really has no way to prevent it from happening. Suffice it to say, this certainly didn't help our sales any. Of course, one can turn around and say that its also great that the music is spreading so quickly, because it really gets the brand name out there to the general public.

The final blow came recently, as Beatport's quota for labels was bumped up to an astounding $500/quarter! To me, that says "We don't care about good music, only your ability to sell." Its no mystery to anyone that quantity of sales does not equal quality of music. The message, in my humble opinion is simple, "If you're not on an established label with a promotional budget, you have no chance, and are not welcome on Beatport."

Essentially, if you want to stick with the old school music sales model, be prepared to shell out some $$$ money to your label. But, and this is a big but, never sign a deal with a label which asks you for money upfront. The only time it is acceptable to pay out some money is if you are intimately familiar with the owner of the label's intent, and the interest of the label. I cannot say - for a fact - whether advertising does or does not work to increase sales, but I can tell you that without advertising and promotion you have little to no chance of making the sales quota.

The moral of the story is, its a very tough business to be in, professionally. The cost is not only financial, and time-related but also emotional. We all take pride in our work, and not achieving your goal can be devastating to creational motivation. I greatly encourage you to seek attaining a professional level of music artistry, because even little successes and milestones make all of it worthwhile. However, just because you have made it to the pro circuit, don't expect things to fall in your lap. In fact, at this stage, expect to work three times harder than you had ever had to before, and set realistic benchmarks for yourself as a label or artist. Disappointment and struggle are, for now, part of the game.

I should also mention that you should not except to realistically make any money from music for an extended period of time. If you seek a financial reward, pro music is probably not a good place to find it. Generally each and of your songs will sell for around $.79 to $2.49 per song. You can expect that people who are interested in buying your music will shop around and try to find the best deal, hence you will most likely never see a $2.49 sale. [That said, the Beatport $500/quarter quota means that you, as a label, will need to sell 600+ tracks every three months. After the song is sold, the retailer takes a cut, the distributor takes a cut and, generally, your label takes a cut. So, after all is said and done, you will likely be looking at $.10 - $.30 profit from the sale of each of your tracks. If you work with a vocalist, expect to split the net profit anywhere between 50/50 and 70/30. Now it starts to really sink in, doesn't it?

As for us, while we were dropped by Beatport, we are still able to sell through all of the other retailers, like iTunes, Rhapsody, JunoDownload, TrackItDown and Amazon, for the time being. Its hard and unrealistic to expect success on the first try, and going back to the drawing board is part of the learning process.

Of course, the iDJ marketplace is a great place to start off selling your music. With very little commission going to iDJ, you can expect to see a very nice profit from sales. On the other plus side, you don't even need to have a label to sell here. At a real world angle, you can expect that no one is going to buy your music unless you promote it heavily. So, this is also a great way to start learning about promotion and advertising which - in this day and age - goes hand in glove with making electronic dance music.

Another interesting, but possibly cost prohibitive, way to make a nice profit on music is to create your own website, with your own artist domain name, and launch yourself as an independent music production company. With a little bit of an investment, and some time effort on your part, you can host and sell music straight from your website. Today, this is easier than ever to do. Thus when you promote your music, you simply point people to your site and have them purchase directly from you, at a much lower cost to the consumer, which should allow you to recoup the money you spent investing into the site in the first place. Since you are generally unknown when you start out in the music biz, this is a great way to start building your brand name, and you will have to promote heavily either way since - chances are - people on Beatport, iTunes or Amazon are not just going to randomly stumble upon your music and buy it.

There are several interesting opportunities which may or may not open up to you once your professional portfolio has a few notable items on it. If you chose the path of a non-performing producer, as I did, you may find that once you start making some networking connections, labels and studios may approach you for remixes, arrangements and other production work. It doesn't pay much to begin with and can be high pressure, with crazy deadlines, but it will help you get your foot in the door.

One other thing you can do to build your portfolio and make some extra cash is: be a DJ. Spin your own music and slang your CDs at your shows, or find a more creative way to market your music, much as Deadmau5 does very well.

In closing, the music business will test you to no end but, some will see going pro as a personal challenge, while others will give up. What separates the legends from the unknowns is an unimaginable drive, passion and will to succeed.

Thanks for reading. I hope this was an informative and entertaining read, and feel free to chime in with feedback, as always.

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