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September 23, 2007

The Hard Road to Music Success: Local Band Hotspur Struggles On

  Video compliments of the
  Washington City Paper.

Is it harder to be in a rock band than it was a generation ago? Or put another way, is getting signed to a record deal still the best outcome for a struggling band?

Washington City Paper tackles that question this week,  covering a local Rockville, MD band, Hotspur, trying to make it in the music business.

A couple of facts and numbers cited from the article:

  • Bands are making the same now as they did in 1979.
    • Numbers suggest that pay for local gigs has declined
  • ComScore data shows only about 100 blogs reach audience of >100,000 U.S. users in one month
    • Only two of 100 focused on music, (hip-hop music, 630,000 uniques) and (alt-indy-rock, 208,000 uniques).
  • Arbitron ratings for now defunct Bethesda-based station (WHFS) were 86,000-120,000 radio listeners each week in 1985

There are a couple of problems with the new metrics (either downloads, MySpace page visits or friends, or web hits) and problems with comparing historical radio numbers to the present metrics.

First, website hits or MySpace friend popularity doesn’t translate into direct income numbers, like it would with radio ratings numbers (which, although the radio royalties were always low, meant you were getting some small check in the mail). But online popularity and more importantly, having your rabid fans spread your name and mp3s online, virally and through word of mouth recommendations, is priceless.

The question then becomes translating online popularity into a living for the band. If local shows are on the decline, as the article suggests, because you can’t reach a mass audience via the radio (I’d argue that you shouldn’t want to reach a mass audience anyways, focus on reaching the hardcore niche audiences wherever they are), then be creative about how to have a “show” over the web or through some other, non-traditional venue. How can a band in the digital age aggregate these loyal yet disparate fans for “shows”?

Second, comparing the website hits to the Arbitron radio rating numbers doesn’t make sense. There’s no doubt that the days of commercial radio success (and shouldn’t be any nostalgia for it) is now over, long live the death too. I’m not arguing that all radio should or will die (because it won’t) but the mass appeal of the old days of radio is over: there are too many competing channels now and more importantly, these other channels have content that we actually want, rather than the lowest-common denominator BS music that commercial radio now plays endlessly.

You don’t want to reach a mass audience in fact, because the days of trying to sell a gazillion records is over, it will never happen again. Ask Paul McCartney or Kayne about that, with their recent albums not replicating the huge sales success of their earlier records.

  Originally uploaded by

More importantly, I disagree with the idea that the ComScore data suggests that music or information about bands won’t spread very far online.

For me and from what I read on both the techie and music blogosphere sites, it’s that online sharing of music (information or mp3s) is huge and growing tremendously. In fact, rather than buy albums (which I never did anyways, I was late to the whole music obsession in high school so when I got the music bug in college, Napster started and I’ve been downloading ever since) I discover new music online from blogs, personal recommendations (e.g. or Pandora) or from friends online (e.g. blogs that I love and trust for their recommendations, Fred Wilson primarily) or from traditional media (NYT Sunday’s artists picks section or Wired Magazine’s suggestions). Rather than buy their albums, I attend shows and then tell everyone I know about these great bands.

What would you rather have, an anonymous DJ who’s forced to play the bubblegum crap dictated by the major labels (payola anyone?) or have a personal recommendation from a friend that’s passionate about music and shares your musical tastes?

So I’m not supporting artists by buying their records, but I market them by word of mouth, via my blog, via my or profiles, and most importantly by buying a ticket for their shows.

“We’re in a period where CDs are clearly dying,” says Donald Passman, author of the music biz book, ‘All You Need to Know About the Music Business,’ “but there’s nothing to replace it.”

That's crap again. Even if you argue that downloading has made it harder for new bands to get a record deal (which I’m not sure is true), why should the immediate goal of new bands be to land a record deal? I don’t think that it needs to be, why not build the following first and then let the record deal come later—or do the recordings yourself.

To get a coveted spot on the Warped Tour, Hotspur, the band featured in the story, had to pimp themselves out to in order to win their online popularity concert. Is that really the smartest way to get ahead in the new digital music world?

If I were Hotspur or any other band trying to break into the music industry, here are the questions I’d be asking myself and asking fellow bands:

  1. If local gigs are down, then even with the reasonable or even great MySpace numbers, how can you aggregate these loyal yet disparate fans for profitable “shows”?
  2. Is doing whatever it takes to get a record deal that best strategy for success in the digital music world?
  3. Are you thinking of yourself as a business? (The days of being able to think of yourself solely as an artist and forgetting or delegating the business side of everything to someone else are long over, just like the days of huge national record sales)

What are the answers?

I’m not sure, but I mentioned some possible solutions and some do have positive suggestions (please keep reading, just a little but more). And no, I’m not in a band, just a devoted music fan that’s giving the fan’s perspective. You could argue that being a techie and business person, I really don’t have any idea what I’m talking about and you might be right…But you can’t ignore these trends.

If you think I’m wrong, read the amazing Bob Lefsetz blog (which I recommend to everyone even if you’re not interested in the music industry). He’s worked as an “entertainment business attorney, majordomo of Sanctuary Music’s American division and consultancies to major labels” and has been writing about the music industry the past 20 years.

If you want to know where the music industry is going, read Bob's Lefsetz Letter everyday:

That’s one of the dirty little secrets of this business. Talent is only fifty percent. Desire and perseverance make up the rest of your success. But NONE of the foregoing are a guarantee.

So, you’re up shit ocean with a paddle so small you’re overwhelmed.

Welcome to the club. You’d better be doing it for a love of the music, because chances are that’s ALL you’ll have, your music and your enjoyment in playing it.

Maybe you’ll gain some traction, you’ll become a pro. But the odds are against you. You need that desire and perseverance and LUCK! And it’s harder to get lucky every day. Even if the radio station DID play your record, what would it MEAN, is anybody LISTENING?

We’ll get some clarity in the future. The gulf between amateur and pro will reemerge. But chances are, only a thin sliver of pros will be like the stars of yore. There will be Kanye, and then the guy who can fill theatres.

That’s the game you’re getting into.

So don’t lay out a plan for world domination. If you’re lucky, you can dominate your DOMICILE! Maybe if a friend goes to college in another state you can make headway there. But there are too many people and too few slots and no pot at the end of a rainbow.

Cry all you want, but this is fact. You’d better be doing it for the love of the music. And this is the key that may grant you success. Those old paradigms, how you look, how you’re marketed…the majors only have a few slots per year, and most of THEM don’t make it. The old game is dead. The new game is daunting.

Now playing: Doves - Walk In Fire
via FoxyTunes 

UPDATE (10/01/07): Greg Robinson, the drummer from Hotspur, was kind enough to leave a thoughtful comment answering some of the questions I outlined and I think this could be a good discussion. I'm even trying to see if Bob Lefsetz might add his opinion.

And since I do want to support artists however I can, here's their song, "Have You Seen This Girl." Please support these guys by checking out their MySpace page and buying their latest album from here or from there (does one of these give you guys a better deal?).


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