Discussion following the Big Sound Conference 2008

A new business model for musicians

A Report on Big Sound 2008 - a music industry summit and showcase

by Dr Michael Whiticker, Artistic Director, The Music Centre North Queensland

Heralded as “one of the most respected and fastest growing music business events in the Asia Pacific region”, and now in its seventh year, this annual event is produced by Q Music in Brisbane and funded by a range of industry and government agencies.

Having now attended this conference on two occasions (2006 as well this year) I feel in a reasonable position to comment on its relevence for local musicians and the music industry in Townsville. Firstly I should confirm that the conference is directed toward the commercial music industry, however it does recognise all styles of music, and certainly the showcased entertainment (30 acts in 2 nights on 5 stages) covers styles as diverse as rock/pop - including metal, punk and hip hop, to ambient electronic, jazz, blues and folk. That said it is preferable not to categorise styles today as the industry is recognising that style no longer determines commercial success. Audiences are becoming more open-minded in their tastes and catering for that by searching out what interests them rather than what the major record companies are able to sell to them.

The themes of the 2008 conference included:
*Today’s tastemakers are no longer the major record companies and music magazines. The internet is providing a whole raft of alternatives. It has created a much more level playing field.
*Digital downloads of music have transformed the industry.
*Peer to peer dissemination of music, or file sharing, is here to stay. The music industry is beginning to accept that fact and is even finding means of capitalising on it.
*New business models for the industry for everyone from record companies to individual musicians, need to be explored.
*There is the opportunity of many revenue streams for musicians today, and they all need to be considered.
*Does a musician need a recording deal for their music today or can they simply bypass that and go straight to a music distributor.
*Touring artists. The importance of touring for musicians and live performance if they hope to make sales of their music in this day and age.
*After years of focussing on the US and UK markets Australia is beginning to acknowledge Asia and especially Japan on our doorstep as a potential market for our music.
*There is a huge base of music fans out there who are over 40 and the commercial music industry has not been paying enough attention to it.
*Tips for musicians on a range of issues including better making connections with the film and advertising industries, and negotiating publishing, licensing and management deals
*With the demise of the pub as the most likely place to hear live music today, how important have festivals becomes to the music scene.
*The art of music journalism. Where is it being practised today?

Big Sound confirmed for me that musicians today need to be technology savvy if they hope to any sort of career. This of course extends to music administrators, teachers and music organisations. Let’s be honest, there are few industries that are not dependent on technology today. It is reaching the point where we are running short of excuses for why we bury our heads in the sand and hope that all this technology will go away. It is here and it is going to play an even greater role in all of our lives. One simply can’t say that playing the piano or violin is enough. There is more to a career as a musician than playing your instrument 6 hours a day.

Some important points that came out of this conference and which can be taken on board by us here in North Queensland include:
A model was presented of a career for a musician, or musical act, that involves them building a fan base of 1000 people and from that fan base or membership, deriving a reasonable income from music and merchandise sales and performances. With this new model the fans/members have the satisfaction of investing in the career of the musical act and having a more direct and even personal relationship with them. Via the act’s website members, after having paid their, let’s say $100 subscription, can log on and access the personal email and blog of the act and receive a range of recordings, videos, concert tickets, and merchandise such as t shirts and posters. All in hard copy. It was proposed that such a membership base would be the basis of an income for the act. The rest would come from downloads of their music and live performance. The point was that supporters of musicians want hard copies of their work. Downloads onto their computer, even free ones, are not as important as having a hard copy. Initially to develop this level of interest in their work, the musicians offer free downloads of their music. Once a fan has some free music and begins to come back for more, they are ready to invest in you.

These sorts of ideas were being proposed at Big Sound by the people who made all the money from the traditional record company model. Other stories that came out included one about a major company selling a supposed bootleg or pirate recording of a major band’s live concert on the internet because they knew there was a large public out there who want to think they are able to get something special that not everyone has access to. These people will pay good money for special merchandise. Enter the small independent artist who has something special – and let’s face it, everyone has their own story, their own sound.

So how does a musician in Townsville stay ahead of, or at least in step with the trend or current movements in the music industry? Well for start they are well placed being in a city/region which is reasonably big. Basing yourself in Townsville and travelling up to a few hours in each direction opens up many venues for live performance. The internet means that an audience exists for them everywhere, but their best chance is with people who can go to their live performances.

Practically, the two most important things they require are a good sound when performing live, and good management. So if you are being let down on one of those areas reassess it. Don’t play performances that don’t allow you to sound good. And if you are not a good manager of your career, find someone to do it for you. Make them an equal partner on the team and work out what their responsibilities are. Will they build and maintain your website? Organise your performances, recordings and videos, and organise the distribution of your music through an aggregator/distributor (such as
www.musicadium.com)? Will they just allow you to get on with your music? If you can find a manager this good they are worth their weight in gold and certainly should be an equal partner in your business! As was made clear at Big Sound, a good manager is the hardest person to find. There are a lot of people who want to play music, but very few want to be managers, even for the 20% most managers ask.

So, assuming you have your management and good sound in place. What else do you need?
1. Talent, or at least your own story and an original way presenting it

    Talk to us at the Music Centre. We don’t have any plans yet as to how we can assist, but someone has to help get this revolution underway. There are others in Townsville and on the web who can assist. Talk to them all and help us put together a data base to pass on to people such as yourselves.

    Here’s to live music, creative artists and alternative solutions to life’s many challenges!