The Business of Making Music

October 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

© 2016, TerryMercer.com

I'm convinced, after 5 years of being involved with hundreds of bands, over a couple thousand musicians, dozens of venues, and other industry professionals while in the background, behind a camera, that BUTT'S IN THE SEATS is all that really matters; and that one singular point is ultimately the 'hub' of all successful artists making a living doing what they love. It's more important than having 'a label' - or 'great sound' - or 'meaningful' (or funny) songs... or a 'catchy tune.'


The fact is, the worst 'sounding' (to you) group can make the most amount of money, if they can target their fan base correctly... capitalize on their fans well, properly monetize their resources intelligently, learn from their mistakes quickly, effectively (and consistently) produce things their fans are willing to spend money on, and ultimately STAY TOGETHER! If in doubt, pick the 'front person' - and promote that person, making the rest interchangeable (if they really are).


Most of the 'best' and 'most profitable' artists fit in one of two categories: a) the band that plays together, stays together, and works together... and is promoted together... and b) the 'name' is the front man, and the majority of the rest are interchangeable from show to show, album to album. In the first, the 'band' generally 'owns' and controls the rights to their music & words, in the latter the front man or label control the copyrights. This is important if there is to be any licensing for TV, Movies, or other venues in the future. 
 

The most profitable bands are made of up people that get along, complement each other, work well together, AND are willing and able to live in the same geographical area, and can stand each other in the tight confines of vans & buses, and hotel rooms, for weeks and often months at a time. They can travel, together... to save money and time... live together while on tour, and ultimately get along well. They have a similarly strong  commitment and goals FOR THE BAND, and usually some 'skin in the game' (a personal investment, beyond just getting paid for doing the gig(s)). They also share an understanding of what it takes to 'make it' in the music business (and have personal mates willing to support their dreams, allowing them to travel with the band, at what ever schedule it is... and, ultimately keep the drama away, especially while they are 'on the job' (on the road)). Jealousy has no place in a relationship with a band member. You either trust or not, accept or not, question or not. Ignore or not. Because if a band is successful, they will have fans, groupies, and people offering them all types and varieties of stuff... for all varieties of reasons... with a wide variety of claims. Ultimately, it's THE INDIVIDUAL BAND MEMBER'S character, integrity, ethics, honor, and morals that determine their ability to ignore temptation, if they are in a relationship. Few bands can afford to make it a 'family tour' (unless the family is helping work some aspects of the show).
 

Success happens through networking, building a fan base, a PR force, continued, consistent effort, and BUTT'S IN THE SEATS (at live shows) that helps them sell merch, sell songs, get more bookings, and move up the proverbial latter (as their fan base grows)!

 

If they can't build a fan base, a following, and actually get people to want to go to their shows... purchase their merchandise or music, then all their effort is meaningless. It's akin to having the most amazing book, that was never published. The most beautiful painting, covered and hidden in a closet, never shown to anyone else. AUDIENCE is all that matters. More than the music. More than the money. If a band can't fill the seats, and entertain their crowd, grow their crowd, they will forever be playing at dives for pennies, and facing an uphill battle. That's just reality.

 

There are thousands of people with amazing talent, that will never grace a big stage... that most people will never hear or know of. To 'make it' the talent has to entertain; has to amaze, and significantly touch the fans pocket book... via their words, actions, and performance. The successful artists have to clearly define and grow THEIR FAN BASE, and make decisions that WILL HELP that goal.

 

I'm convinced that the 'best bands' have a dedicated group of people OFF THE STAGE... like their tour manager, able to intelligently book the shows, on a path that makes sense, so there is little to no zig zagging around the country. And able to justify what they are making - as an individual & band. The PR firm, pushing and promoting their goals, their music, their songs, their shows... with the goal of getting that radio play, and those fans buying tickets to COME TO THEIR SHOW(s)... and spend more direct money AT THE SHOWS, on THEIR MERCHANDISE!

 

I'm convinced that the band really needs to have good quality merch FOR SALE, and a variety - at their shows, every show... stuff they can easily autograph. They should have an experienced,  dedicated, and trustworthy person willing and able to deal with exchanging that merch for money... and capable of running credit cards, making change, and keeping up with the inventory property... and figuring out what things are the most popular and best, and which aren't.

I'm convinced that the most impressive bands have a Meet & Greet BEFORE the show... for the venue, the radio station(s)... to help promote the show that night, and get more people there, talking, inviting their family & friends (when possible)... and giving out those 'warm fuzzies' to their biggest fans, their fan club, their fan base in that geographical area. Yep, it's important... if necessary, BRING SOME TO START IT... and make it seem more 'popular' and 'cool' - but limit it (generally no more than 20 to 50 people). THEN, every band should have an 'after show' Meet & Greet, which they promote (during the show, many times)... that photos and autographs are available to THOSE BUYING MERCHANDISE TONIGHT (during the show). This not only helps promote more merch sales, but limits the after show M&G to people that SPENT MORE MONEY for the band! And never, ever, tell the fans you'll be having an after show M&G and leave them waiting in line for more than 15 to 20 minutes. And dang sure don't 'just drive off' without doing the M&G; as they will feel lied to, cheated, let down, and angry! That latter 'feeling' will cost you a fan. Never promise what you can't deliver, always try to deliver more than expected.

 

I'm convinced that the band should have someone local (or within a reasonable distance they are willing to travel) that is willing to work with them for a reasonable fixed price or percentage deal... to deal with their PHOTOGRAPHY NEEDS - both still images & videos. This can be the venue photographer (for the M&G shoots), But the cell phone images should be seriously limited, and ultimately a professional experienced photographer used when ever possible. Not only will they take better images faster, but often times that shoot is the majority of their income from doing that shoot at that event. Supporting them, ultimately helps support you, because they become an additional PR arm that isn't costing you, out of your own pocket. 

 

The band's front man should understand the necessity of 'doing things right' and CONTRIBUTING TO THE CONCEPT(S)... helping manage all the 'set up' and 'show' aspects. Understanding that 'cell phones' and amateur photos often suck, and should be limited. And all those hands up holding cell phones, trying to share or live stream videos for those 'not there' - doesn't help. And often ticks off the real fans that will be spending money on more than just the tickets, in the future. Simply, cell phones or GoPros are NOT often designed for low and ever changing light, and aren't usually the best way to promote the band. Remember, hours are spent in the studio to capture & create awesome sound, for one 3 minute song... so, producing a quality video should be with a similar goal, commitment, and dedication ...TO GETTING IT RIGHT, and as perfect as possible... yes, that's VITAL, and TIME CONSUMING, and other that 'b-roll' (filler) 'live show video' shouldn't usually be 'the' video for a variety of reasons, sound being the main reason. If you can't have a dedicated person mixing the live sound, or at least properly capturing the live tracks to mix after the show, then just don't do it!

 

I'm convinced that 'the best' or most talented people aren't often who gets the promotions from the radio stations or media... or even labels, and venues. It's rather the people with the deepest pockets and most dedication of time and money, understanding that getting a percentage of something is far better than owning a 100% of nothing! That those .009 cent radio play royalties add up, IF THE SONG IS PLAYED, and the fans AND ADVERTISERS ultimately help drive the play list. SO MUST THE ARTIST... THAT INCLUDES EVERY MEMBER OF THE BAND ON AND OFF STAGE.

 

I'm convinced that far too many bands blindly believe in the 'Field of Dreams' - thinking if they build it, the fans will come. While they have to build it, for there to be any fans... and word of mouth is great... the ultimate combination is PROMOTIONS, MARKETING, FORCING THE WORD TO GET OUT THERE.  BEING ABLE TO REPEATEDLY PRODUCE SOMETHING THAT IS CONSISTENTLY GREAT, that the fans will want to spend money on, coming to see and buying merchandise from.



Having the band, and knowing the material is the proverbial horse... but it's the fans - the money - that is the CART! While a horse can pull a cart, and a cart can push a horse, without the two working together intelligently, the number of wrong things that CAN HAPPEN are nearly limitless. Every member of the band MUST understand their role, both on and off the stage. Their attitude, their public presence, their acts & actions... because those things all absolutely will impact the fan base, the venues, the radio station managers, the reality that it takes a team of committed people to help a single or group of musicians become and remain successful.



Your effort and consistency determines your relevance in an industry where someone is always trying to take your place.

 

To more specifically answer the questions, "Why does an artist need to promote themselves? Why doesn't the venue push and promote them?"
 

I don't believe most small venues like dealing with booking agents because they've had some bad experiences with 'agents' in the past... and when they eventually confront the band, the band claims to not know anything about it or that agent is gone. They generally want to deal with the person(s) that truly and really speak for the artist. Most small to medium size venues want to 'see the horse' (they are betting on)... and know there is both a commitment and understanding. Because until there is are a few positive experiences, this industry is proven fickle more often than not.

 

In reality, the venue usually thinks they are providing the roof, the space, the power, the security, the servers, the clean up of everything after the show, the parking, the liability for nearly everything before - during - and after the show... oh, and lets not forget the stage, lighting, sound system, sound board, often the person(s) dedicated to running to sound (and lighting)... did I mention stage security??



So, it is the artists job is to bring the music and fans.

 

Seems pretty reasonable, really. Few venues do a whole lot of promotion... unless there is really something in it for them, and that ultimately depends on the number of seats and amount of 'sales' (food & drink) they can reasonably expect... especially if there isn't much of a ticket price. Most have an idea of what number of 'regulars' will frequent their place, and what those people usually spend. Most know that if they charge at the door more than $xx then yy customers will pass them by for the next club that doesn't have as high of a price, UNLESS it's a well known name that they are coming to see.

 

Your big venues, like the Bridgestone, in Nashville, have a real good clue what they did in PRE-SHOW SALES... and what it costs to power and staff the place. They often know their profit isn't going to be a whole lot on the concessions for most concerts, unless they have some reasonable intermissions (most true fans aren't going to leave to get something unless they have to also go to the bathroom). So their ticket prices are MUCH HIGHER.  Any extra on the back end, after paying for the concessions & personnel, is gravy... which varies from show to show. Some events have the concessions a completely separate third party business entity that paid to rent the space, and gambles upon people coming to buy stuff from them to make a profit, so concessions can't always be factored into the profit for all venues.

 

Another example: the concert photography my wife & I do... some venues pay, most do not. It doesn't matter if it's a musical concert or sporting event. Different events have different rules, and it really depends on the 'known' profitability and 'gamble factor' for the venue owner(s).  In general, we make money ONLY when we capture images the fans, the artists, label, or PR firms wish to purchase - either the downloads or prints, or license for commercial use. photos.TerryMercer.com/concerts  If we don't capture images that sell, we don't make a dime.

 

Thankfully we have a sponsor, www.VetSupplements.com, which allows us to shoot more events... by helping fund our out of pocket gas & food expenses, and enabling some of our other expenses that venues don't pay for. But our time is still THE GAMBLE FOR US. Some times that burger flipper at Micky-D's makes more than us, other times we do well. It really depends on the event, the number of committed fans, and the ability to get the images that stand out enough people are willing to pay something for... either a download, print, or license. It really is a double edge sword, because on one hand the venue generally has some expectations that they are going to 'get' some free images and/OR that we are going to help promote them or artists (helping put some butts in the seats in the future) just because THEY ALLOWED US THE ACCESS TO SHOOT THE EVENT.  The reality is we are invited back, because we captured cool photographs more regularly, more often, and more consistently then whom ever else they've allowed to try in the past. We are still, and always, subject to their whim.

 

Another interesting and frustrating thing is that I often capture some video footage of the show(s)... but because of the music copyrights... I CAN NOT do anything with that footage, legally, unless I get the artists permission. Which is another double edge sword because I don't want to take the time to process the HD video I captured for free... but most bands don't want to pay - or even necessarily work something out that allows us both to potentially profit. Since most bands don't stay on a click-track, and ad lib the footage can't easily be used for anything more than b-roll, but it's usually some pretty good HD footage. Mind you, when I'm focused on shooting video, it's even better than stationary footage from a camera merely focused toward the stage.

 

Remember that everyone you meet COULD BE A SOMEBODY in the industry. If you disrespect, put down, or shun them... THEY MIGHT GET EVEN passively down the road. They could be married to, siblings of, the family, or long time friends with someone that really matters in your future. Play nice, be responsible, and keep pushing forward positively... consistently with good product, and you'll go far.

 

Anyhow... expecting a venue to promote you outside of their doors, aside from a few social media mentions is - in my experience - something that only happens when a venue can consistently pack their doors with YOUR FANS, that are coming there & spending money TO SEE YOU! Look at every mega star... EVERY ONE of them has their own PR team, PUSH THEM in every geography they have a show, as well as in every nation (trying to get more shows & bigger shows). They STAY in the media. They PROMOTE their BRAND (not always their music, though it's usually combined in the background) in virtually everything they do in life They ARE THE MACHINE THAT DRIVES THEIR SUCCESS!

 

In the mean time, it's YOU - that needs to develop the 'street team' - the promotional engine - the push - the hype - the press - the coverage - the radio stations that play your music and talk about you - the media talk - ALL TO GET FANS THROUGH THAT VENUES DOORS.

 

Do all that, do it well... and soon you'll have the big venues offering you the big bucks, and investing their own money in HELPING YOU promote you. Notice, I said HELPING YOU?!?! That is because ultimately and forever, PART OF YOUR JOB (or that of your label or manager) IS TO PROMOTE YOU... your music, your sound, your ideology, your ability TO PUT BUTTS IN THE SEAT!

 

Remember it will never be anyone else's job, unless YOU ARE PAYING THEM!

 

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Comments are welcome.  I'll try to add more, as I see and learn more...


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If you have any questions about photography, please feel free to ask. I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but odds are I can either help you find the answer or know someone that knows the answer. After nearly 45 years of playing with hundreds of different cameras, both film and digital, I probably don't know specific 'make and model' info... but I UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY, and the PRINCIPLES & CONCEPTS of capturing and creating good to great images.
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