Your Music Is Worthless, But That’s OK: A Guide To Making Money From Music Online

Your Music Is Worthless, But That’s OK: A Guide To Making Money From Music Online

This talk about the future of music and audience was given today by Gizmodo Australia editor, Luke Hopewell, at the Australian Institute Of Music’s Tomorrow’s Ideas Leading Today (TILT) Forum (now with video!). Enjoy!

The future of music is a tough question, but at the end of the day, no matter how much recognition, fame or notoriety you attract from making music, old-fashioned money still pays the bills. We’re going to talk about how to get some for yourself in this new internet economy.

I’ll start with a little story about a girl named Violet: Violet is a country girl who travels to New York City with hopes of becoming a big star. She mails her demo out to a bunch of labels in the hopes that she’ll be the next big thing, but alas, nobody signs her. She’s behind on her rent, and gets a job at a bar where she can sing and dance to get attention, and eventually comes out of her shell and finds success, as well as a road to possible fame and fortune through hardship.

Now, admittedly, this is the story of the movie Coyote Ugly starring Piper Perabo, but it’s an important lesson: this story is a fiction. No. Worse.

It’s a lie.

It hit the nail on the head that nobody really discovers acts via demo tapes and cold calls these days, but it lied to you by telling you that everything has a miraculous happy ending through being in the right place at the right time.

There’s one general rule that I think everybody should live by, and that is: there is no fairy-tale ending.

If you’ve read He’s Just Not That Into You, you know where I’m going with this next bit.

The rule applies to all of us, but we automatically void the rule for ourselves when we see someone who embodies what is known as the exception: the perfect story.

In the context of music, the exception rides off into the sunset with a record deal in one hand and all the loot/swag/attractive people he or she can carry.

A good example of the exception is emo-rock electronic group, Panic! At The Disco.

Panic actually started out as nothing more than a blink-182 cover band hailing from some garage in the ‘burbs of Las Vegas, Nevada. The members started concentrating more and more on their music and neglecting their education which led to a falling out with family members and they struck out on their own.

They used LiveJournal to reach out to Fall Out Boy-bassist, Pete Wentz, who drove down to Nevada and signed them to Decaydence Records after hearing just two or three demos. A fantastic story full of drama, hope and success, but it’s ultimately the exception to the rule.

The exception phenomenon can also be viewed when it comes to talent contests. The X Factor, Australian Idol and Australia’s Got “Talent” are all engineered to sell advertising while thriving off of premium call rate revenue from voting lines.

The secondary objective is to find someone marketable to give a record deal to before pimping them all over the country in the hopes of whipping the last few dollars out of this horse before the next season’s casting calls start.

PHWOAR. Heavy stuff. Nothing like a bit of cynicism to get you going.

Don’t let my tales of woe depress you, however: success in the music business of tomorrow is still possible, but just like losing weight, there is no magic tonic you can take that will work overnight. This isn’t Alice In Wonderland.

The key to success is knowing your audience.

Before self-distribution via the internet was possible, the only real way of getting your music out to a mass market was to sign with a label for a record or two, put in some time in the studio, on the road before rinsing and repeating until your hand was played out. At that stage, you might be able to go on a world tour if you’re really successful and play to a million people.

But a million people isn’t cool. You want to know what’s cool? Billions of people.

At this time last year, there were roughly 7.4 billion people on the planet. This series of tubes that we call the internet now reaches 2.4 billion of them, with the highest total users coming from Asia, Europe and North America. Right now, the internet reaches just over a third of the people on the planet, and it’s a number that grows everyday thanks to iOS and Android devices.

Australia in particular is an insanely lucrative market when it comes to internet penetration: we have a population of about 23 million people. Over two thirds of those people have ready access to the internet, and as far as devices subscribed is concerned, there are now about three data-capable services or accounts for every man woman and child in the country.

Aussies are rabid for content, and every single one of you is a content producer. If you’ve put something together in your lunch break or because of insomnia or because someone dumped you or whatever, there’s a fair bet that someone on Earth will fucking love it if you put it out there.

Now that’s an interesting phrase: “put it out there”. Who has been putting it out there recently?

In 2007, a guy in Minnesota was suffering insomnia after he got home from his job packing Coca-Cola trucks. So he pulled out his laptop and started making music using Propellorhead software and recording lyrics with a crappy little line-in mic. Nothing fancy.

He posted his stuff on MySpace, and grew a following who reposted his content after he continually engaged with them and wrote weekly blog posts telling people what he was working on.

That guy is 26-year old Adam Young, who you might know better as Owl City.

He had a Billboard Number One single with a little ditty he did himself called “Fireflies”

Adam knew where his audience was and worked his arse off to impress them and get them involved in the process of music discovery. In return, they shared his music to their friends and their friends and so on.

That’s an example of hard work trumping the exception.

So what did I mean earlier when I said that your music is worthless? Don’t be offended: I’m not talking about its artistic value, nor am I suggesting that it deserves to be pirated. Nobody deserves either of those wished upon them.

What I mean is that in order to garner the attention of your audience, you have to give your work away for free for a while.

Getting people to part with money on the internet these days is like trying to get the Pope to renounce his post. It’s not impossible, but it’s rarely done.

You can make money online, you just have to follow the steps: Find your audience, inject yourself into the community, make a name for yourself, and get your fan base to make noise for you.

Thanks to the internet, the mass market audience that once was, has now been broken down into hundreds of thousands of sub-cultures.

If you were to give each of the genre categories in the iTunes Store a single rack in a record store, for example, you’d need to borrow several Olympic-sized stadiums just for the floor space.

All of those genres and sub-genres have audiences attached to them, and they’re out there consuming this content faster than any generation before them has ever done. To find success, you need to find where they hang out and gradually inject yourself into the sub-culture with your work.

Take EDM and music mashups for example: you take two great songs that wouldn’t normally go together and you mash them to come up with something different. You’ve got millions of great submissions from dance artists and DJs working to make a name for themselves online who are following these steps. Two geniuses of note include Madeon, a 17-year old French kid who started messing around in his bedroom, only to be flown out to Australia last year to play the Summer festival set and put together an exclusive 30-minute mashup for Triple J.

Another is an Aussie guy who goes by the name of M4SONIC. He started in his bedroom at home in Adelaide and amassed millions of views on YouTube, giving his music away for free.

Now he’s working with Empire Of The Sun to do remixes of their new single, Alive.

He’s a classically trained pianist who one day decided to play with a Novation Launchpad, and now he’s working with one of Australia’s favourite indie exports.

One of the most notable independent success stories is a guy by the name of Joel Zimmerman who you may know better as Deadmau5.

The name Deadmau5 reportedly came from a day when his computer shut down while connected to his favourite internet chat room back in the 1990’s. When he looked inside his computer, he found a dead mouse that had been electrocuted from chewing power cables.

Joel then adopted the deadmau5 handle, started uploading stuff he’d been screwing around with and used that fan base to drive him into several successful albums, millions of MySpace and Facebook page likes, and eventually, a sold out show at Earl’s Court.

In this clip he talks quickly about how he knew he’d have a successful show in London because of the Facebook fans he had there.

These guys aren’t the exception we talked about earlier. They didn’t ride on coattails, get a lucky break or fall victim to happenstance. No. Instead, these guys followed the steps: the found an audience, injected into the community, made a name for themselves, and get their respective fan bases made a hell of a lot of noise for them.

Their music was worthless at first, but now they’re headlining gigs, topping charts and making art.

Audiences are out there, waiting to be found: Reddit, Digg, Medium, Free Music Archive, YouTube, BandCamp. Even MySpace has relaunched to be the new, premier music service for indie artists to connect with a new audience. Staying on top of new social enterprises is great, because if you’re the first one there, early adopters will shout that much louder about you.

Your music might be worthless for a while, but it will always be art, and there will always be someone to pay for it in a world of over 7 billion content consumers. You just need to find them.