As the fallout from the Kickstarter fiasco starts to cool down, a number of valuable lessons have come to the fore.
1. If you’re not ON a label, you ARE the label
A record ‘label’ is just a corporate identity for a series of functions – the funding of the recording process, manufacturing, arranging distribution, publicity, and numerous other business transactions. If you want to have your record available to buy by the general public and are not releasing it through a label, you have to assume responsibility for all of those functions yourself. You’re not so much “sticking it to The Man” as becoming The Man. This will inevitably mean hiring help to deal with these things, which makes you a manager in the business sense. The more you can understand about business and marketing processes, the more likely you are to succeed at what you’re doing. Being able to budget effectively is at least as important as writing a nice tune.
2. Be careful of your brand alliances
I think that Gawker reader Cellowraith sums it up with ‘is it bad that my entire reaction to this is “don’t be mean to Amanda Palmer, because Neil Gaiman!!”?’
The flipside to milking a celebrity connection is that your brands become entwined – what’s his is hers and what’s hers is his – which is also literally true, since they are married. She’s a counter-culture figure who lives in a Bohemian housing co-op. He is a multi-millionaire with several Hollywood hits under his belt. Since he has contributed much to her output recently (artwork, writings, photography), it’s not unreasonable to raise an eyebrow if she says she can’t afford anything shy of a private jet.
This isn’t about celebrity romances, but about business decisions, and how far to exploit a connection is a decision you have to make. It’s the difference between, say, Sophie Dahl needing money and Duncan Jones needing money. Since Jones kept fairly quiet about being David Bowie’s son, he just wasn’t scrutinised in the same way, but if Dad had taken a role in the movie and sung on the soundtrack, you can bet your behind there’d be snark.
3. There’s not always quid, but there has to be pro quo
The music industry does have a barter economy in which people remix songs for free and sing on each other’s records for free. This is fine because it takes place under the assumption that the debt will be repaid in kind at some later date. If you design the sleeve for my album, I’ll sing on one song for your band. That sort of thing. It’s not always laid out explicitly but it is understood. Your budgeting skills need to include time as well as money, so that you know how many hours of your own time that you owe your unpaid helpers.
4. There has to be consistency
I think all of us have done some sort of hobby-related volunteer work in our time. I’ve contributed hundreds of hours helping to look after a friend’s forum. I’ve helped other people maintain websites, or written text for them or helped out in a dozen different ways, and that’s fine. It’s helping. It’s friendship. The only way that would be a bad thing would be if I found out that someone else had been doing the exact same thing and been paid and I hadn’t. That’s where resentment would, quite rightfully, creep in, and that was the crux of the issue with the Kickstarter thing (some musicians were paid and others weren’t).
5. People are finally starting to value musicians
The fury of the backlash indicates one thing: that the idea that musicians don’t deserve to be paid for their hard work is on the wane. People are at last starting to understand that if you work hard on something and someone else is earning money, you should reasonably expect to get paid.
This comes as Google is finally taking steps to control the rampant piracy it has hitherto used to line its own pockets. Google has long earnt advertising revenue from sites like The Pirate Bay, making it as difficult as possible for pirated artists to have infringing links removed from its search rankings. Following this apparent change of heart, it is now dropping the rankings of pirate sites and helping content creators to get bad links delisted.
It’s good news all round for a fairer, more sustainable music world.