Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

How to survive and thrive in the music business in 2013

The original idea here was to take a leaf out of Chief Keef’s book. You may already know the bolshie Chicago teen rapper with a propensity for trouble, a fondness for weed and a great naggingly infectious tune to his …

Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 10:00


The original idea here was to take a leaf out of Chief Keef’s book. You may already know the bolshie Chicago teen rapper with a propensity for trouble, a fondness for weed and a great naggingly infectious tune to his name called “I Don’t Like”.

In the tune, he lists the stuff he doesn’t like, such as snitches, fake shoes, counterfeit jeans, ugly girls, poor weed and people dissing him behind his back. You may need Rap Genius to help you decipher the tune, but that’s the idea in a nutshell: the stuff Chief Keef and his mates don’t like.

You could write a lengthy list of dislikes about the music business without having to talk about footwear as 2013 begins to rumble. There is so much to detest about an industry which is still running for cover in much the same way as it was a decade or more ago when Napster kicked it in the nuts.

Since that point when the goose that laid the golden CD eggs was decapitated, this has become an industry which has veered from one crazy get-rich-quick scheme to the next in an attempt to keep things like they were in the Eighties and Nineties.

Memo for those at the back who didn’t get it the first, second, third or fourth time: you can’t go back. You can’t return to an age when vested interests dictated what was going on. You can’t, as the cliché goes, put the genie back in the bottle.

Yet the attempts to emulate Marty McFly never stop. Those of us who work the music business beat seem damned to write the same copy year in and year out, as we watch a risk-adverse industry hell-bent on protectionism continue to hire the same lawyers to fight the same old battles.

You can understand the record industry’s pre-occupation with, for example, online piracy from the point of view of the financial bottom-line, but where’s the eagerness to try something different or new now that the old business model is broken? Music fans have had no problem moving on and embracing new innovations, yet the professionals and vested interests still fear change and fail to see beyond the here and now.

Perhaps that’s the curse of incumbency. Over Christmas, live music big cheese and veteran manager Irving Azoff announced he was stepping down as chairman of Live Nation. Speaking in the wake of his exit, Azoff expressed frustration about how he was unable to use Live Nation’s standing in the live business to fix such problems as high ticket prices and touting. When the man at the top of the biggest name in the live music game can’t get things done, you know there are problems.

But this also demonstrates why you won’t find the answers to this particular pickle at the top. When you’re at the top, it’s all about holding onto your position and not giving ground. You use your clout and legal team to protect what you already own.

Thus, the real innovation, bright ideas and interesting solutions come from the outside. Those who want to shake things up and who can see a better way of doing something are always those with nothing to lose.

It’s no surprise then that the most seismic and constructive changes to do with the music business over the last decade have been brought about by outsiders having a go. No surprise either that the changes which annoy music fans the most, such as the lack of transparency with Ticketmaster charges to geo-locked steams, have been introduced by insiders.

Yet the ground is moving and here’s where it starts to get interesting. Not only has music never been more popular, but the industry has also never been more open in terms of access. The democratisation of the recording and distribution process removed previous barriers to entry. You don’t have to record in an expensive fancy-pants studio or rely on a label to get your music out there.

Both popularity and ease-of-access explain why we’ve seen so many tech plays around music in recent years. You can jump in and try things out very easily without having to work with the permanent music business establishment. Sure, you’ll need to engage with them if you want to work with acts with established audiences, but you can start without them. If your idea is a winner, they’ll come to you. And you’ll know your idea is a really big winner when the cease-and-desist letters start to arrive.

So rather than emulating Chief Keef with his list of meh, it perhaps behoves us to be more positive and optimistic. There’s a schism in the industry and that’s good news for those who want to see if their ideas have any traction. Sure, most ideas won’t fly but some will and some, like Spotify or Kickstarter, will have major, long-term implications for music, musicians, music fans and the music business. They’re the ones to look out for.

And, if all else fails, remember the power of a song and the element of surprise. This week saw David Bowie returning to the game after a decade out. No advance warning, no insider tittle-tattle, no social media viral campaign; just an elegant, autumnal song “Where Are We Now?” and news about a new album “The Next Day” coming in March. Now, that’s something we like.