Message In A Bottle

At a recent retreat for indie artists and songwriters, I asked Hillsong writer, Mia Fieldes to teach on lyric writing. Her class entitled, Message In a Bottle, was quite inspiring and, I believe, helpful to the artists and writers attending.  She began her talk with this:

If a bottle washes up on the shore and you find an interesting message inside, it’s something quite special.   But if a bottle washes up without a message, it’s just trash.

Mia’s point of course, was that the music is your delivery vehicle for something really special, so don’t waste it.

You can find many helpful tools in this blog for lyric writing.  Check out blogs on Alliteration, ApostrophePersonification, Repetition, Anaphora and more, at the links provided or under the Lyric Writing category.

Why Doesn’t My Music Sell?

This is the question of the decade that even the biggest artists and the major labels have been asking.  There are many theories as to why, from file sharing, to a flooded market, to increased bootlegging.  And of course, there’s the possibility that nobody likes your music.  But my blog today is for you songwriters who are also indie artists that are trying to sell enough music to make a living …

Let’s start with this.  The good news of eternal life through Jesus, is something everyone in the entire world needs.  And it’s FREE!  But why do so few buy into it?  Paul answers this question in Romans 10:14-15, and I think his answer is applicable in some sense, to our music sales issue.  Here’s what he said,

… how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? …

Have people heard your music?  A lot of people?  If  they haven’t heard the music, then why would they buy it?   This is probably the most basic principle of the music business.  In fact, it’s really how the music business began.  People heard a specific composition or artist live, liked it, and wanted a copy for themselves that they could play over, and over, and over again – on their instrument or on their stereo.  Live performances from Beethoven to The Beatles, created desire or “demand” for the printed and/or recorded music.

As sales of music have decreased over the last decade, more artists are hitting the road.  Some artists are even coming out of retirement to tour again.  Why?  Why does Foreigner need to go on the road today?  Why is Queen auditioning a new, young band (Queen Extravaganza) to tour their 30 year old music?  Because sales are down and people must hear it, in order to buy it.  Why did Journey’s sales increase recently?  Because a new generation of music buyers heard a Journey song on television (Glee), that they otherwise might have never heard.

People buy music because they hear it, and decide they like it.  But today we’ve almost turned things around backwards, to be quite honest.  Young artists sit in their home studios creating new music, take it to a distributor (physical or digital), release it before anyone has ever even heard it, and expect folks to buy it.  Many of these artists have never been on the road and play very few concerts.  They are waiting for someone to make them a star, so they can then go play concerts.  We have evolved to a place where we actually record songs without testing them with the public so that we truly know if anybody really even wants them.

So, if hearing music creates demand (whether before or after release date), then how do we get people to hear?  Typically, this has been done through radio and touring, and these two continue to be the primary marketing focus and financial investment of most record labels.

I spoke today with a worship leader who has just been signed to a Christian recording label.  He asked me for advice here at the release of his first album.  I had two questions for him … Question 1:  Do you have any singles?  (i.e. songs that fit into the very small “box” of requirements for Christian radio to play it).  Answer:  I think we may have one.   Question 2:  Where are you playing live?  Answer: We don’t have a tour lined up.  We’ve not played out a lot yet, because I need to be home to lead at my church on the weekends.  Question 3:  Then, what’s creating demand for people to go out and buy your new CD?  Answer:  Advertising? … I’m not sure.

Unfortunately, that about sums it up.  The people that will buy his album will primarily be his church family and friends, because they are the ones that hear the music regularly.  If he has one radio single, then that’s great.  Hopefully, it will be a big hit that stays on the radio more than a week or two, because he has no second or third single to follow it with.  Will advertising help?  Yes, it may help for the extremely curious, or the die hard Christian music fan, who will see an ad and then go to their computer, look it up and take a test drive.  But how often does that happen?  More often, it’s about people hearing it, falling in love with it, buying it and then playing it for their friends, who will then go buy it.  Hearing comes first!  Ads work best AFTER someone has heard the music and is reminded by the ad that they previously wanted to buy the music when they heard it, but forgot to.

So are there not other ways to get songs heard besides radio and your own live performances?  Well, yes.  You’re in luck today with the popularity of YouTube and Facebook.  This is where the indie artist can win, because this is where most of today’s generation hears new music.  Consider YouTube and Facebook part of your live performance schedule.  If live performances can be captured on video, then place them on these social sites so that more people can hear.  The great benefit of social sites is that your music can reach audiences that you could never reach in your physical concerts either because of cost (i.e. most indie artists can’t tour the world), because of time constraints (you can’t play 24 hours a day), and because you can’t physically perform in more than one place at a time (thousands can watch you online at the same time from various locations).

I realize this all sounds quite simple.  But it’s a basic principle that we often forget … or worse, turn around backwards.  However, if we can remember the scripture above, things come into perspective.  How will people know, if they don’t hear?  Make sure you’re creating demand for your music by getting it out for people to hear.  Play, play, play, live.  Give your music away for free, before you expect people to buy it.  Seed the market.  Then once people have heard, let the fans be your “preachers” to help spread the word (and the links).  Have your recorded music ready, build the “straw” (the distribution pipe) and then play it for folks to hear.  That’s what creates suction on the other end of the straw.

Do It Yourself

So, what’s the big deal about a deal?  I mean, in today’s market do you really need a publishing deal?  A record deal?

I’ve been a music publisher for 25 years and I can tell you that yes, there are serious advantages to landing a publishing deal (a record deal may be a different story).  And I’ll go through those with you.  But at the same time, I want to make one very important statement …

Publishers are looking for hit songs and hit songwriters.  Period.  They are not looking to find amateurs to develop into superstars.

Why, you say?  Isn’t that the way the music business has always worked?  Then, how do I get my start?  Well, let’s begin with the the first question …

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