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Making sense of it all

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Which wayIt’s been a hectic fall. I attended my first Musicians for Music 2.0 meet-up, found my way to Music Hack Day Boston, tapped into some super smart brains on Twitter, started writing about what I was seeing and hearing, and read seemingly a dozen articles a day on the business of music for about 4 weeks straight.

And all the while I’ve been hard at work on the new Longwalls EP; recording, mixing, and wondering… wondering what the hell we were doing! Everything I was reading and hearing was having a real-time impact on what I thought about promotion, distribution, making “records,” managing a little label, and being in a band. It got pretty overwhelming at times and a fair amount of sleep was lost. But as I get ready to finally unplug for a week, I realize all the thinking has lead to a bit of clarity. Some things I’m thinking about heading into a new decade of music making…

ROI is the new DIY
As the great management consultant Peter Drucker famously noted, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, and how it pertains to musicians working today. The DIY music culture, born largely out of the late 70s punk movement, is a quaint memory–and little else. Going DIY isn’t really a choice anymore, and it‘s not an end in and of itself. DIY––with help from like-minded allies––is table stakes, a necessary means to (ideally) a sustainable and profitable endeavor. As Andrew Dubber has commented, recording a song doesn’t necessarily mean there’s “ready-to-go” demand for that song. Businesses can’t get away with this line of thinking, yet many musicians expect to. So given that we all do probably deserve a bit more compensation than we get, how can we make the most of evolving DIY tools and ethos to create enterprises around our music that are valued, sustainable, and profitable? It’s certainly something to strive for.

Bands are brands
Not a new concept, but it seems increasingly relevant. Those managing a band’s efforts should view their role, in part, as brand manager. In my day job as a brand strategist with (mostly) nonprofit clients, I’m often in the position of asking pointed questions like “who are you, for whom, and why should people give a damn?” Often, I’ll get responses along the lines of “well, we do x, y, and, z.” To which I counter, “So?” The exercise is ultimately about connecting “whats” to “so whats,” and if I can help an arts organization answer these questions and communicate from more of a constituent/value point of view, the more likely they’ll be able to raise funds and deliver on their mission. It should be the same for musicians. Who are you? For whom? And why should people give a damn? And guess what? The answer can go far beyond the music

Music is only the beginning
CD or not CD isn’t really the question. Instead, I’ll spend a lot of time in the new year thinking about how to build value around––and beyond––music. Recording and distributing music via MP3s, CDs, vinyl, (whatever) shouldn’t be the endpoint of a musician’s creative contribution. That thinking needs to be deprogrammed. Playing live is of course a big part of this, but what else can one do? I’ve been thinking a lot about Suzanne Lainson’s writings on audience participation concepts. How can a community be built around music? And with the perceived value of physically packaged music decreasing (save perhaps for vinyl)  I’ve been contemplating the notion of “experience” as “packaging.” What can one “wrap” around their music beyond paper, plastic, and cellophane? What’s the greatest thing one’s music can be the center of?

Finally, be awesome
Given all of this, two thoughts keep rattling around in my head. The first is the old adage,  “The quickest way to kill a bad product is with great advertising.” The thinking being that the wonderful advertising will encourage droves of people to try the product, all whom in turn immediately find that it sucks. I also remember a panelist on a “How to Get Signed” panel (remember those?!?) back in 2001 exclaiming, “Look! You want to get signed?!? Be awesome!! The Pixies were awesome! They got signed!!” Love that. So yes, marketing, branding and business thinking all matter more than ever, but if you’re going to hold attention and sustain a presence you gotta be awesome. So much of what’s been written lately has been about music as commerce, but let’s not forget music as culture. And culture should represent our very best.

These ideas, among others for sure, will likely cause more sleepless nights in 2010. But as long as the wheels are turning I’m OK with it.

Cheers, and happy new years!

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