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The New Millennium and
Changes In The Music Business

by Christopher Knab - Fourfront Media & Music - September 2000

Back to Music Business 101

Note: In late 1998, I wrote a column about the changes facing the independent musician in the late 1990's. Well, things are evolving and changing rapidly these days, so I felt it was time once again to update some of the significant changes going on in the music industry. This month's column then is a revamped version of my earlier column. But, as I write this introduction, what is happening today that could be added to my list of developments? That is for you to keep up on. I suggest subscribing to the daily free email newletters available from www.mi2n.com and www.webnoize.com


As the new millennium begins there are many changes facing musicians when it come to marketing their music. Even more daunting perhaps is how difficult it can be for musicians to keep on top of all the changes and challenges taking place in today's music industry. But, for any musician wishing to grow their career from the start, or gain a wider acceptance from their existing fanbase, keeping up on new technologies and changes in music business practices is a necessity for one and all.

Beginning in the latter half of the 1970's a trend began, which has slowly evolved over the last twenty years, and has proven to be the most effective way to attract Major Label attention. Releasing your own record simply is the most realistic method of establishing your music career, or getting a label deal, as well as the best way to prepare for any contract negotiations. The more successful an act becomes the more say they can have a say in any contract negotiations

A surprising number of artists and bands are enjoying the benefits of owning their own label these days. Ani DeFranco, for example, would not have it any other way. Once the economics of the Major Label contracts are studied, a homegrown independent label is more appealing every day to many musicians.
The artist, who is 'shopping' a bunch of songs to a label without any experience of making and selling their own independent releases, is an artist waiting to be exploited.

Let's take a look at some examples of artists and bands who developed their own careers over the last decade, got signed, and if they have something in common with each other.

Before signing to RCA, The Verve Pipe released 2 independent records that sold over 40,000 copies, and they spent over four years touring and securing a strong fanbase who bought those CDs. Mojo Records recording artists Reel Big Fish, built their solid fanbase on playing only all-ages venues, and working up to securing better gigs with bigger name ska bands in Southern California. Ben Folds Five worked the live gig scene as well as courting the underground press, and then releasing their first record on Caroline Records, before signing with Sony.

From 1986 to 1995 Country artist Michael Peterson traveled the U.S. singing 200 nights a year at clubs and schools, playing any kind of venue that would pay him to perform. He didn't choose to sign with Reprise Records until he felt his songwriting was strong enough. That meant he had some work to do if he was going to impress a publishing company, and impress them he did by making and selling his own CD, and selling them at all his live gigs. His reputation as a songwriter grew so that he eventually got an offer for a deal with Warner Chappel Publishing, which eventually led to the Reprise deal.

After releasing their own Indie record 'Fush You Mang' San Francisco Bay Area based Smashmouth got lucky when the song "Walking On The Sun" got to the ears of an L.A. radio station programmer, and the rest is history; as Interscope Records turned that record into a mega hit.

The list goes on. Whether or not all these artists remain in the public eye is beside the point. What matters is that these acts got a shot at success by taking command of their careers.

Rewards For Developing Your Own Career

Once an artist has the attention of the record labels, there are other benefits to controlling your own destiny. According to many entertainment law attorneys the deals once given as 'standard' deals to new artists can change significantly when a band is being sought-out by a label, The following recording contract issues are more negotiable than ever, if an artist has done some development of their own:

  • Better royalty rates: Artists are paid for the records they record from a percentage of the sales of that record, based on a percentage of the list price of their records. A high rate just a few years ago for a new act was 14-16 points whereas 'Buzz Acts' (the name given to acts that are in demand by labels,) can get up to several points higher, if they are in demand.

  • Ownership of masters: When an artist can buy back the master recordings they made for a label after their contract has expired, or after the label drops them, they are more in control of their destinies than artists who cannot do this. It can be easier to negotiate a speedier reversion of master ownership if a label wants the artist.

  • Creative control issues: Many artists are concerned about labels deciding key issues regarding selection of material, producer, graphic images etc. If these issues are important to you, take the time to develop your career.

  • Non-recoupable issues: 'Buzz Bands' have more say in what a label can claim as 'automatic' recoupable expenses (promotion costs, videos, % of touring budgets etc.)

  • Controlled Composition Clauses: In a nutshell, this is a clause that labels insert into their contracts with most new artists that reduces, to 75%, the amount of money due to the songwriter and publishers for the songs on the record from product sales. The standard rate, (currently 7.5 cents per song, per record or 'unit' sold) is more negotiable with 'Buzz acts'.

These issues are more than enough reasons for artists to examine their methods of securing recording contracts. The more time an act takes to build a modicum of success on their own without a label's help, the more they secure a position of power when dealing with recording and publishing contracts when they present themselves

Challenges and Changes For Developing Artists

Artists and bands getting into the recording industry today have many new tools to help them on their way to recognition. At the same time, the music industry is a state of flux unlike any other time in history. Change is everywhere, from the choices available to record music, to marketing and promoting it. Some of those changes are challenges to the old traditions that help create the music business we know today. Others are new opportunities that await the enterprising artist/entrepreneur. Check out some of the most important developments that are going on:

  • Like a bullet out of a 38 Special, the era of downloadable music has exploded on the scene. Compressed audio files in the form of the MP3 phenomenon arrived on the scene in the late 90's, and with file sharing technologies like Napster, Gnutella, Freenet and others now available, the business of music will never be the same. Any musician with the goals of making money with their music will have the new challenge of deciding how to survive in an era when the value of music in the eyes of the consumer is changing. Why pay for a CD when you can now download almost anything ever recorded, and either store it on your computer, or 'burn' your own CD in the privacy of your own home.

  • In early 1999, a meeting of the Major Label minds in the form of the SDMI (Secure Digital Music Initiative) was born. The initiative was concerned with finding ways to challenge the threats to copyright ownership by using what is called 'encryption' and 'watermarking' of downloadable music (so that musicians and labels can prohibit unauthorized usage of the music, as well as trace where an illegally distributed song file came from), and developing realistic policies that protect the record labels, the artists, and the distributors and sellers/traders of music. However, while the bigshots were huddled in meetings for months on end, enterprising computer nerds and music fans were ahead of the game, writing the software that became the file-sharing technology known as Napster. There are multi-millions of downloads of unprotected songs being traded and exchanged over the Internet every day now. For all practical purposes if you do not care about owning a plastic box with some paper containing artwork on it, and just want to build a collection of past, present, and future music, there is no reason to buy a record anymore. All you need is a computer with a good sound card, speakers, an MP3 player, and a large hard drive...and preferably, a broadband connection to the internet. Let's face it, these days you can have a free collection of music without having paid a dime for any of it. (I will not be your conscience when it comes to the morality and/or ethical issues involved in copying copyrighted material. That dilemma is for each and every one of us to wrestle with.)

  • In addition to MP3 and Napster phenomenon, other downloadable music technologies have established themselves over the Internet. Liquid Audio is the most successful of these. Their system, unlike MP3, includes protective devices for controlling the copying of copyrighted music. For a while it looked like AT&T's a2b system would contend with Liquid Audio, but they seem to have vanished from the scene rather quickly. Microsoft's Media Player, and Real Networks Real Jukebox have also found favor with many downloadable music lovers.

  • For a couple of decades now the major labels, once known as the Big Six, have had control of about 80% of all the record sold in America. But we live in the era of corporate buyouts, and the big six became 'The Fat Cat Five', when the Seagrams Co. purchased Polygram Records land all it's affiliated labels in late 1998, adding to Seagram's existing ownership of Universal Music. The deal gave them the largest share of the record pie, once dominated by Time Warner's WEA. In 2000, Universal/Seagrams was sold to a European company Vivendi. To complicate matters, Time/Warner recently made a bid for EMD, the distribution arm of Capitol and EMI, and the other members of the cartel, BMG, and SONY are vulnerable to similar consolidation moves. The 'Big Four' are now with us, but for how long?

  • Artists wanting to sell or promote their CDs over the Internet have many choices these days. One of the most innovative and effective methods is the www.amazon.com/advantage program mentioned above. Artists can have a strong presence on this leading e-commerce site by joining up for the free program and creating their own selling page with graphics and CD information on it, plus sound samples from the record. In addition there are over 50 other e-music retailers online who will help musicians sell their music over the Internet. This does not mean that an artist should not consider selling their music from their own websites through a secure service. That is a very valid alternative. ( For a deeper discussion on e-music distribution, read my August 2000 Indie 2000 column)

  • While it is getting harder for independent artists and bands to get commercial airplay for the reasons already mentioned, the Internet has hundreds of new Internet radio stations playing a wide variety of music. Streaming audio software has made it possible for anyone and everyone interested in being a DJ to broadcast their favorite music as a web radio station. This is great news for developing acts that have a strong niche following of one kind or another. Stations like www.live365.com and www.broadcast.com are just two of the many websites that host Internet stations.

  • The disturbing trend of major corporations buying out other major companies is not relegated only to the record labels. Radio station ownership continues to narrow, as more and more big media companies continue to buy up more radio properties. In Seattle, Washington for example, in the mid 90's, there were around 25 commercial radio station general managers in town representing 25 different owners. Today there are 6. Companies like Entercom and Infinity own several stations each in that market and in most radio markets in the U.S. This affects the aspiring musician, because one company now owns the stations that once were in competition with each other, and the music and program directors at these stations work together to decide what artist or song is right for their stations as a whole. Prior to the mid 90's a label could play one competing station off another. That is no longer true.

  • 'Pay For Play' is here, and the chances of getting your music on commercial radio are getting slimmer by the hour. 'Pay For Play' is the ultimate Radio Station General Manager's dream-come-true. The Sales Department can now play a significant role in determining what gets played on some commercial stations, because now record labels can legally buy the airtime to have a song played for a certain number of times, or pay for announcements right after the airplay of a song. With the revenues available to radio ownership groups, like Chancellor, they can sign 'Pay For Play' contracts with labels for over $25,000,000 a year. Break into your piggybanks aspiring musicians!

  • The corporate merger syndrome has also infected the live performance industry. SFX Entertainment sold its radio station holdings in the mid 90's to get into the concert venue ownership business. They now have control of over 60% of the largest regional concert promotion companies (PACE, Delsner/Slater, Bill Graham Presents etc.) As one industry pundit put it: " We are now dealing with the Wal-Mart of the concert business". So, want to open up for some touring major act in your hometown? Sit back and take a deep breath. Or, how about getting a tour once you are signed to a label. Will your booking agent and manager be walking arm in arm with SFX? If not, what could happen to that national tour you were hoping to get?

  • When it comes to music marketing issues, there are a lot of 'dots' finally being connected regarding who buys music and how to reach them. It took the better part of one hundred years for the industry to realize that a person who reads a book might also enjoy music, and visa versa. When Borders Books and Music connected that dot several years ago it unleashed a waterfall of creative thinking about where to sell music. Today you can buy music at sporting good stores, coffee/espresso shops, grocery stores, clothing stores, airports, hospital gift shops, alternative health care provider locations, shoe stores, and just about any other retail type store you can imagine…in fact an artist has to, if they really want to saturate the marketplace with their music.


Challenges and change are here to stay for the independent musician, however, any dedicated musician can benefit from the bevy of ideas and new opportunities being introduced almost every day. No one ever said being a successful musician would be easy. With every bad news that comes along regarding the control of the media and the exposure of music, there is some good news for those curious enough to explore where few have gone before. So, what unique ideas can you think of to get your music in front of a potential fan?

Open up your imagination...there are countless ways to expose, promote, play, and sell independently produced music.


Christopher Knab is an independent music business consultant based in Seattle, Washington. He is available for private consultations on promoting and marketing independent music, and can be reached by email at: chris@chrisknab.net

Visit the
FourFront Media and Music website for more information on the business of music from Christopher Knab.

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