The Future Of Music Careers

The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect on where things are at and where things may be going in our industry. A few of my colleagues have expressed their views on “industry trends” and, as usual, their insights were penetrating and refreshing.

As a complement to these contributions, I’d like to offer some thoughts not so much on trends in the biz, but on music career development amid these trends. I will try to open up some of these trends and look at their career implications and applications.

I hope both musicians and industry careerists will gather some guidance for setting their sails amidst the mercurial waves of a transforming entertainment business.

First, some noise from the trenches:

  • Of the 27,000 albums released last year by the recording industry, less than 5000 sold over 1000 units.
  • Since 1988 only 16 classical albums have sold more than a million copies in the United States; five of them were put out by Victoria’s Secret.
  • The source of most music listening hours is neither Cds nor radio; it’s video games.
  • When pop star Sting needed a marketing partner for his 2000 album release he chose Compaq Computer.
  • “Ten years ago, rock musicians would never listen to dance music and dance musicians would never listen to classical music. Now, most of the rock musicians I know own samplers and most classical composers I know also are listening to dance music.” — Moby
  • Worldwide entertainment and media spending will reach $1.4 trillion by 2006, (PriceWaterhouseCoopers).

The New Music Economy

The news is good and bad. We’re seeing nothing less than a global restructuring of the economy. This isn’t a brief shudder; the organizational structures of the last century are being torn apart. Business worlds are deconstructing and reconstructing. Everything is blurred, fuzzy and vague. And the meanings of ‘work’ , ‘career’ and ‘job’ are being re-written.

We’re also witnessing (and feeling the effects of) the end and beginning of the music business. Like humans, industries pass through developmental stages: birth, youth, maturity and death (or transformation).

Our industry grew rapidly, matured, plateaued and is now in the throes of transformation. How successful this transformation will be depends on how creatively the musical industrial complex can dance with the changes.

Unfortunately, so much of the music industry is beholden to corporate owners itchy for corporate-size profits and driven by rigid corporate imperatives. This wrecks havoc with “artist development”; hell, it wrecks havoc with business development, and necessitates high turnover of both artists and employees.

Complicating industry maturation is an event no one saw coming: a new distribution channel called the Internet. The big labels are contracting as a vast Web is spinning around them. The Internet is both threatening to take the rug of necessity out from under vast sectors of the traditional music business AND providing musicians and songwriters with direct access to global audiences.

All of this adds up to a picture today where it is no less risky to “go indie” than to “get signed”, signed, that is, as an artist or as an employee. Choosing to go indie is exploding across all industries not just music. We need only think of indie film or book publishing. Independence is a mark of the times we’re living in. We are profoundly on our own in this milieu.

And that’s the rub.

We’re beginning to accept that we will never return to the more static, less opportunity-rich but also more comforting world in which most of us were raised. The changes we’re living through are both permanent and dynamic. The real social revolution of the last 30 years is the switch from a life that is largely organized for us to a world in which we are all forced to be in charge of our own destiny. That’s the scary challenge.

And also the exciting opportunity.

Today we have three different music ‘industries’ developing side by side:

  1. The mainstream pop/rock business, which will continue to market established stars like Celine Dion and Whitney Houston.
  2. The chaotic illegal record business, involving at one extreme pirates and bootleggers, at another experimental and political artists refusing to accept the restraints of copyright law; and in between the usual variety of pirate broadcasters, home digital distributors, and so forth.
  3. The indie, genre music scenes, local players connected through web sites and digital radio, but commercial in their niche, making enough money to go on making music but not necessarily seeking to play ‘the game” of ever-increasing ladder-climbing success.

The first industry is contracting; the second is and always will be present; and the third is poised for quantum development.

The lesson: Unless you’re seeking Britney Spears-level fame, then avoid the major labels and prove yourself in the independent sphere first. Someday you may want to partner with a major company (record company or otherwise) but, for now, focus on creating your own success, building your value, maintaining control of your career and music trajectories, following your muse and your spreadsheets with utter dedication and focus.


In a sense musicians may be in a better place today than they’ve ever been before. Taking a cue from the cyber-bard John Perry Barlow, I believe we could be seeing a paradigm shift from the domination of the “music business” to that of the “musician business.”

The same forces that are undoing the larger music companies are empowering individual musicians. And as a result, the idea of a ‘music career’ is sprouting new wings as artists and industry careerists begin discarding intoxicating myths and tapping into some new-found powers.

Powers deriving from desktop computers and digital recording gear, from a hyperabundance of entrepreneurial and self-development resources, a segmenting (and reachable) music marketplace, and most importantly, from the Internet – the first tool that puts a global communication and distribution “channel” into the musician’s hands.

As venture-funded dotcoms rose, crashed and burned, a quiet revolution has been slowly but surely mounting; one that threatens to turn the music industry on its head.

In a peculiar way, the computer sets the music industry back 300 years. Consider: Musicians of the past performed songs for royal and religious “patrons” and received support (patronage) in return. It was a direct connection between musician and audience, as small as it was.

Today, with the Net, musicians are capable of galvanizing global audiences, nurturing them through generous communications, and building support models to help them earn a sufficient living.

In other words, the Net allows the patron model to re-emerge only this time, rather than having one exclusive patron, a musician may have thousands. It’s a slow-growth strategy but with a pace and quality entirely in the hands of artists and their teams.

“Patrons” subscribe for a reasonable price ($30-40/year?) for access to the artist, first call for all new tracks, and extra values like discounted tickets, fully-packaged recordings, posters and exposure to any other works of the artist.

Musicians and bands like Jonatha Brooks, Scooter Scudieri, Maktub, Christine Lavin and Aimee Mann are all using the digital channel (alongside recordings and performances) to grow and nurture supportive fan bases in this way.

Again, slow but sure.

If you’re putting out awesome music, then build it and they will come.

The lessons: Accept your new power. See yourself as an entrepreneur – one who creates forms to hold and deliver creative works. Befriend technology and rigorously apply yourself to understanding it. Throw out the “quick fame” idea and commit yourself to long-term career success.

Every Business Is A Music Business

Every business is becoming a “music business” or, more accurately, an entertainment business.

Management guru Tom Peters claims that “it’s barely an exaggeration to say that everyone is getting into the entertainment business.” Peters counsels his corporate clients that “the bottom line in commercial life is the sum total of conjured-up dramas created by our customers.” The new operative words, says Peters, are myth, fantasy, and illusion.

It’s no mere coincidence that other industries try to model the way the entertainment industry is organized. What do the cultural industries – including the recording industry, the arts, television, and radio – do? They commodify, package, and market experiences as opposed to physical products or services. Their stock and trade is selling short-term access to simulated worlds and altered states of consciousness.

The fact is, they are an ideal organizational model for a global economy that is metamorphosing from commodifying goods and services to commodifying cultural experience itself.

Companies way outside the orbit of the traditional music business are waking up to this all around the planet. As a result, you are no longer beholden to traditional “music industry companies” to achieve music success.

We’d mostly agree that the major record companies served their purpose well: they made recorded music available to us on a fairly vast scale for seventy-plus years, instilling an insatiable appetite for music in the process.

As a result music “sells”. Music has accompanied just about every product that’s come to market since the thirties. In fact, today some of the most interesting music is heard more readily on TV commercials than on the radio.

Wherever we go we hear music. Why? Because we love it and we want it. We want it when we drive, eat breakfast, shower, work, make love, shop for stuff — it’s the aural landscape of our lives.

We hear music on recordings, at concerts, on commercials and at the airport; we listen to music over the phone and in our video games, Walkmen, iPods, Rios and cell phones. The global demand for music is chronic and ever-growing.

We’re purchasing music just about everywhere too. 25 years ago you bought records at record stores; today you can get them at record stores, grocery stores, drug stores, book stores, consumer electronic stores, department stores, plant stores, tattoo parlors, bars, gyms, museum shops, thru the mail, over the Internet, at kiosks, at the airport, at MacDonalds, at Starbucks, at Victoria’s Secret, thru 800#s, and hundreds of other places– MUSIC IS EVERYWHERE!


Because it’s a universally loved value and activity, and companies across the board are looking to associate themselves with music and its fans.

The lesson: These trends require a new way of thinking about the “music business” and “industry careers.” It’s time to stretch our minds and get outside the box of traditional music business models. The “digital common” brings all kinds of non-music businesses into a space where creative partnerships can develop. Non-music partners are fresh and unjaded and excited about associating with musical and entertainment arts as a way of adding value to what they’re offering.

We should reflect on where musical skills are used rather than on where music has traditionally been sold. Think of companies you personally resonate with and then focus on those that may have an affinity with the kind of music you produce. Make an alliance and use that alliance to market your music. Consider Craig Dory and Brian Levine of Dorian Recordings who get their recordings played on all the new hardware at consumer electronics shows. Smart alliances.

Remember, the economic structures of the last century are being torn apart. The rules are being rewritten. Anything goes in the business world today.

Therein lies your opportunity.

Less Precious, More Valuable

Some fear the devaluing of music simply because of its ubiquity and, to an extent, this may be true. “We are teaching a generation of consumers that plastic costs money and music is free,” Albhy Galuten, VP of Interactive Programming at UMG once famously said.

And it’s true. By placing the value of the musical content in its pretty package and not in the music itself, by reacting with lawsuits instead of evaluating the validity of their current business models, by focusing their efforts on how to prevent piracy through content protection schemes rather than remove the motive to pirate instead – record companies are indeed teaching a generation of consumers that music is free.

More choice of music should, however, increase consumption and lower price. The business of music should grow and music can be more integral to one’s life with less limitations on how to consume it. Music will get more valuable but less precious (in terms of a ‘collector mentality’) and less expensive. We may need to regard our recordings increasingly as a promotional expense designed to provide access to other arenas for our talents.

Seven Navigational Clues For Setting Your Sails

How can you best position yourself for optimal career development in a transforming industry?

Here are seven ways:

1. Brace yourself for crazy times.

The transitions we’re living through aren’t ending any time soon. We’re in an entirely new game, but we don’t quite know yet how to update the rules. Our situation offers tremendous opportunities for individual fulfillment and self-expression. But it also requires that we expend a great deal of energy making what were until recently fairly routine and straightforward decisions.

As the Internet morphs into the Evernet – turning our personal computers, electronic notebooks, PalmPilots, and wristwatches into the equivalent of perpetually open T-1 lines – the institutions that we have come to know will continue to change shape, crumble, or disappear with a ferocity we can only now imagine. More instability and more opportunity, more dislocation and more choice, will be the result.

And so we have a richer environment today, but a far more daunting one as well.

The job picture isn’t any better.

Higher. Bigger. More. Not so long ago, that’s what getting promoted was all about. The aim was the top. The way to get there was by climbing the ladder, accumulating the badges of power: a bigger title, a bigger office, more people reporting to you. Everybody knew how to win at this game. You got ahead by climbing over the backs of your coworkers. And by kissing the…hand of whoever was in charge.

The game has changed.

Try: down, sideways, and sometimes up. Try: smaller, less. The career ladder’s been hacked to just a few rungs. The new path is full of switchbacks. Plan on zig-zagging in your career. You’ve got to meander – taking different jobs so you can learn more skills. The size of your office? Who cares? You’re never there anyway!

You need to be an “ambiguity survivor” in these times, that is, you need to have a high tolerance for confusion and may even relish it because you know that it’s a close relative of change. You’ll need to be able to live within the paradox of past comforts vs. your vision of a more fulfilling future. And you need to know that the greater the spread between the past and future scenarios, the more your creativity will flourish.

If all of this sounds vague, get used to it.

2. Size yourself up.

If you want to create work that suits your individual needs and talents, you must not only be aware of the forces reshaping your world. You must also develop a through knowledge of yourself and an understanding of what you have to offer. Only then can you set about finding the point of intersection between your opportunities and your gifts.

Know our priorities, values, temperament, character, and ambitions. Understand where your blocks lie, what emotional legacies might be holding you back or pushing you forward. Understand what you fear, what makes you feel stuck or overwhelmed.

The well-known motivational theorist, Abraham Maslow, once commented: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.” Many of us are walking around today with outdated toolboxes. New challenges call for new tools. If we are to re-create our careers and businesses for the twenty-first century, we must release our outdated beliefs about the way the music industry works and replace our time-worn hammers with a radically new tool kit.

Know your strengths but, more importantly, know your weaknesses and blind spots too. Are you a master player but a marketing dunce? Can you blast out a song in five minutes but find it hard to make friends? Playing and writing are crucial skills but in today’s business world you’ll need to also practice the arts of self-promotion and networking. Find a way to get what you need.

Also, don’t sell yourself short! Be sure to make visible those skills that lie under the radar of your memory. Those swim classes you offered at your neighborhood YMCA contain a rich palette of skill colors: student assessment, curriculum development, customized instruction, group facilitation, etc. Don’t sell yourself short as you inventory what you can offer.

3. Think “skills security,” not “job security”.

In many ways, “job security” is gone. We’re seeing a shift from corporate loyalty and identification to enlightened self-interest. All across the board there is an increasingly prevalent attitude among workers that, in the face of increased uncertainty and a shifting, constantly re-focusing economy, they have to become “free agents” – highly-skilled “units of one” not necessarily attached to a particular company, loyal to “projects” and individual teams rather than organizations, and always looking out for new opportunities.

Think “skills security”.

This comes pretty easy for most musicians who are already wired for flexible works arrangements and are used to wearing several hats at once. In fact, musicians are optimally suited in may ways for the new world of work. Through their diverse activities they’ve learned to “multi-task”, “build coalitions among diverse groups” and use “whole brain thinking”. They quite naturally demonstrate that “flexibility of being” so valued in today’s quick-changing environment. The key is to have confidence in your skills, continue to develop them, and watch for opportunities that beg for them.

This means:

  • Writing your own script rather than waiting for someone to write it for you
  • Being vigilant on your own behalf, identifying and preparing for opportunities, rather than expecting anyone else to guide you along or do reconnaissance.
  • Becoming an independent agent, defining yourself in terms and concepts that are independent of your job title, your organization, or what other people think you should be.
  • Changing your mindset from selling to solving.

4. Become a corporation of one.

Telling is the marked increase in the number of actual freelancers, independent contractors, and temps in today’s workforce: now roughly 1 out 5 workers falls into one of these categories. Again, pretty familiar territory for most musicians.

Think of yourself as a corporation of one, with a number of different departments, and you as the product:

  • Research and development: What are the areas in which you’re going to learn and develop? How are you going to keep your skills on the leading edge? Now as ever a lack of information – about a new position, a new company, a different location – is the root of most job seeker anxiety; in the end, I feel, the informed careerist is the happy careerist.
  • Production: What services or products are you going to offer? How are they linked to you personally? What processes will you employ to develop them efficiently and effectively?
  • Marketing: What key assets do you have to sell? What market niche can you exploit? What opportunities can you take advantage of? Do you have a marketing plan? What is your product worth? Have you developed creative and effective ways of selling your services?
  • Promotion and public relations: How are you going to promote your product? What are the stories behind your work? How do you plan on penetrating a dense media culture with these stories? And what “affinity partners” will you link up with to mutually expand your visibility?

5. Be a meaning-giver.

Futurist Paul Saffo talks about the different “scarcities” the world has experienced over the past hundred and fifty years. First there was a scarcity of “conduit” (that is, pipeline). Then electric wires were strung coast to cost and conduit was hyperabundant. Then there was a scarcity of “content”, that is, information and programming to fill the conduit. Then content became hyperabundant too until today we’re drowning in information.

The new scarcity, according to Saffo, is “context”, that is, giving meaning to all this information. The increasing flood of information calls for “filters”, “editors” and “portals”. The need for context is so strong that Saffo sees a time when people like Opra Winfrey and Peter Jennings will be licensing their “worldviews” to software companies to create products that screen vast amounts of information and present digestible info-bites in an acceptable framework for users!

A clear example of providing context in the hyperabundant field of music is the compilation. Once a mere afterthought of the recording industry, these “variety packs of music” have emerged as a vital force in the market. Have you noticed all those compilations on the counters of lifestyle retailers Pottery Barn, Structure, Williams-Sonoma and others? One man – Rock River Communications’ Jeffrey Daniel – usually chooses the music. If mixing tapes is an art, then Daniel is the most popular artist you’ve never heard of: his branded compilations have sold nearly 5 million copies. Rock River’s annual wholesale revenue is about $8 million, on par with a midsize record label.

How might you, in your area of expertise, be a meaning-giver in the world of music? Are you an expert in the use of ProTools or on 70s soul? Is bluegrass your passion or is it music education for kids? Are you highly informed about microphones, roots reggae, or lyric writing? How can you put that to use using channels like the Internet and other digital tools?

6. Own your niche.

The times call for focus. Mass customization and a segmenting marketplace encourage the development of products and services of a “niche” nature. Since few of us have the time, money or energy to mount national marketing campaigns, it is in our best interest to discover and concentrate on a niche that we can explore towards successful enterprise.

Niche is an architectural term referring to a special place that’s designed to display or show off an object of some kind, like an ornament, that’s placed in a recess of a wall or an arched area of a room.

And that’s just what a niche can be for you. Finding your niche will set you off from others who do something similar and draw the best possible attention to you and what you can offer.

Examples of niche marketing abound in the world of music:

  • Chris Silvers, a Dallas trumpeter, used to take out every Latin music recording from the Dallas Public Library and play along with them, until he mastered the horn lines. As a result, he became a first-call musician and horn arranger for all latin bands passing through the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond.
  • Chicago native Joycie Mennihan was always drawn to music’s power to heal. She took this interest and turned it into “Sound Health”, a company providing workshops, seminars and books about music therapy and its health benefits.
  • Lee Jason Kibler (aka DJ Logic) turned an interest in sampling and a love of multiple music styles, into a unique production sound so that his chops are some of the most in-demand from top recording artists.
  • Boston’s Rosie Cohen, took a love of singer songwriters, a passion for adult literacy, and tireless devotion, and turned it into Big Girl Records’ first release, “Can You Read This Boston?,” a compilation album of singer-songwriters, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Boston Adult Literacy Fund.

Choosing a niche will open certain doors to you while closing others. But just as you’ll never get to see the world if you can’t decide which destination to head for first, so it is with committing to one focus for your career and business marketing. The doors that will open to you once you fully commit to one endeavor will present new opportunities you may have never imagined.

On the other hand, the 21st century musician should remain flexible and be ready to re-purpose when the time comes.

When asked about what advice he had for young players, pianist Ahmad Jamal once said: “Prepare yourself to have options. Many of the greats were lost because they didn’t have options. If there is one exit door when a fire breaks out chances are you’re going to get trampled to death. You can conduct, perform. Teach, arrange, produce, go to an institute of higher learning and get the options, and avoid the exit door”.

7. Use the Force

Nothing speaks louder than something creative. No one can define “creative” but we all know it when it’s present.

Unfortunately, most of us traffic with societies demanding little in the way of creativity. We can get by, and even be very “successful” with partial participation, re-cycling culture and conversation ad infinitum. Studies show that a child’s creativity plummets at around age 5. What usually begins at that age? Right.

Though the word “education” comes from the Latin ‘educare’ (meaning, ‘to draw out’), our systems betray a fear of human nature and instead pour in reams of information that a committee somewhere decided we should know.

In the process, the multidimensional child-artist is flattened and “de-programmed”. To make room for all this intellectualizing art, music and drama are pushed to the margins of education and are often the first activities pegged for budget cuts.

Few of us get any training in how to tap our inner creative. The last few centuries were outward-oriented to the extreme and much of the ancient knowledge about human power went underground. As a result, we hear that humans use only 10% of their brains.

There are two responses to this: accept it as the expert opinion, or push on to the other 90%.

Beginning in the 1950s a more inclusive consciousness began to spread, and people experimented more readily with new ways of thinking and acting. These “new ways” were, of course, often old ways rediscovered and renamed. They included a more appreciative attitude about the body, the environment, and different lifestyles.

Another was a “turning inward” and the power of thinking to affect reality. In its most basic form, it says, ‘you are what you think you are.’ Today we all have the chance to compose our own lives. It’s a liberating prospect, but also daunting, because it requires a high degree of self-knowledge. If we don’t start at the core – if we instead accept reflexive, inherited, or half-thought-out definitions of who we are and what we have to contribute – we run the risk of being overwhelmed by the possibilities that we face.

To break through to those other parts of ourselves that sit submerged beneath our everyday consciousness demands courage.

There is nothing more brave than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be someone you’re not. There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice.

In his 1994 inaugural address Nelson Mandela spoke these profound words: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

Well that certainly turns it on its head, doesn’t it? The poet Robert Frost similarly observed: “Something we were withholding made us weak, until we found out that it was ourselves.” Tapping into the creative means first understanding the qualities creative people share: keen powers of observation, a restless curiosity, the ability to identify issues others miss, a talent for generating a large number of ideas, persistent questioning of the norm, and a knack for seeing established structures in new ways.


The only way to lead in the new world of music is to deconstruct the ruling dogmas of our industry (like, for instance, that records are the best vehicles to convey music and they should remain the chief support pillar of the industry), to generate heretical ideas to challenge that dogma, and then to build strategies around those ideas.

There’s a new dynamic in the biz today, one that flies in the face of all received wisdom. It can be said the first phase of the music industry (c. 1935-70) was music-driven, new sounds came up from the treets and clubs, and entrepreneurs responded.

The second phase (c. 1970-1995) was business-driven, lawyers and accountants ascending to decision-making posts and corporate imperatives dictating “hits”.

The third phase (1995-now…) seems to be market-driven, consumers themselves are taking control of their music consumption. There, of course, are elements of all three approaches at all times, but one has dominated each era.

Moving forward to individual audience empowerment brings music back into a more purely aesthetic relationship again, which is good for the art itself, and better for artists too. Artists may never recapture the kind of control of their relationship with their audience that they had in the past (except live, in concert), but a genuine aesthetic interplay with their audience is much better than being beholden to the least common denominator of the average of a mass audience’s taste.

The current difficult climate serves as a form of reckoning. The tougher the times, the more clarity you gain about the difference between what really matters and what you only pretend to care about.

No one knows where all the cards will fall in this industry-wide shake up, but the good thing about radical change is that, during those times, the little person has a chance to make a big difference. It is the time when big ideas are brought to life, big names are made, and, yes, even big money is made.

The power’s in your corner.