The new rules
Lessons to be learned from Adele, Talib Kweli and Sandi Thom about ripping up the music business rulebook
With all due respect to our feline friends, there’s more than one way to skin a cat in the modern music business. You may think that there is only one rulebook, but that’s not the case at all as we increasingly see. As Adele has shown over the last few weeks, you can set and follow your own rules when it comes to releases and tours if you have the audience and widespread appeal which means everyone else has to fall in and roll with you. She’s sold millions of albums already and hasn’t bothered about playing nice with Spotify or Apple Music or, what’s the other one called, the one with the A-list superstars, Tidal, that’s it. Instead, Adele and her manager (and old A&R pal of OTR) Jonathan Dickins have done what feels right and got on with things.
Those are the Adele rules, but acts who’re not on the same scale can also set their own guidelines too. Talib Kweli has written a fascinating, lengthy, articulate piece about the ups and downs of his career over the last few years and why he has decided to go it alone away from the major label system. There’s no vitriol or whinging or fuming in here, just the facts.
He writes about radio promotion for a track called “Come Here” which featured Miguel, the business of marketing new music and especially making a living and paying the bills. “How do you monetize cultural relevancy?”, he asks at one stage. “It’s generally agreed that this is a problem for the artist, not the consumer of art, to solve.” He also talks about collaborations, the hunger to release new music, the new platforms and ventures he has got involved with and the excitement he now feels about what he does.
“Right now I truly appreciate the space I’m in”, he says. “There are no guarantees when you make art for a living and the unknown can become your inspiration. I have no idea where the next dollar is going to come from and it’s exciting for me to try and figure it out. I feel like I’m on the frontier, panning for gold. Not knowing where the money is coming from makes it all the more sweet when a plan comes together. This makes me work harder and surround myself with like-minded folks who see the vision.”
It’s a hugely positive and affirmative piece of writing from an artist who, like all artists, has known his share of ups and downs. Kweli isn’t complaining about his lot in musical life but rather talking about what happened to him, how he came through it and the encouragement he has taken from what has happened. As with any piece of writing when someone talks honestly and candidly about their life and career, there are lessons to be learned here for people in sectors other than the one the writer works in.
Contrast this with the recent tantrum thrown by Sandi Thom when she found out that BBC Radio 2 would not play her new record. Thom is an artist that most of us had probably forgotten about before this story surfaced. She had a hit in 2006 with a song about wanting to be a punk-rocker with flowers in her hair and she was also the one with the PR yarn about how she put on a world tour by webcasting performances from her south London basement flat. The fact that she had heavyweight publishing, recording, management, PR and tech teams on her side at the time to help with this rags-to-riches tale – and the fact that the webcasting would have cost her a small fortune – was left out of the narrative for some reason.
When her new song “Earthquake” didn’t make the BBC Radio 2 playlist, a song she believed was written to be perfect and right for radio, she decided to fume. She went on Facebook, made a teary video and gave out yards about “these people” who made a decision not to play her tune and how it was not right. “I am done with this industry and its bullshit”, she says. As far as Thom is concerned, not getting played on radio is the end of days.
Contrast this with Kweli who outlines the money and effort to get played on radio and how it didn’t really have the desired effect. Instead of giving out to his fans – who probably don’t really care all too much about this, to be honest – Kweli found another way to get his music out there and build his audience. You don’t use radio to build an audience; you use it to embellish and amplify the hardcore audience you’ve built up by playing live, writing great new songs and building solid relationships.
By pandering to radio rather than her fans, Thom got the equation back to front, insideout and upsidedown. As Adele and Kweli know so well, you don’t get anywhere by putting someone else’s priorities between you and your music. The rules you’re supposed to follow work for some people, but don’t work for everyone. The trick is to realise this and get on with making your own rules.