The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. His new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
Fans of chronology will almost certainly have noticed by now that it is a new year.
This is traditionally a time for ablution, scouring the past and treating the calendar as a palimpsest where one can set some goals (some noble, some not always achievable) for the 12 months ahead.
In keeping with that fine convention, here are 22 things the music business really needs to stop doing or to fix before the calendar flips over into 2023.
1. Stop trying to make things “go viral”
Rather than this being a joyously serendipitous by-product of marketing, it is starting to feel like the only setting. It utterly misunderstands (or, more appositely, does not care about) the curious and unpredictable way things hit when they are in the wild. If you are actively manipulating its DNA, it stops being viral and instead becomes void.
2. Absolutely no one wants your terrible NFT
At the start of 2021, hardly anyone in music knew what an NFT was; by the end of 2021, rare indeed was the person in music who hadn’t minted one or at least pulled out most of their hair trying to understand how to mint one. Sadly almost all of them (99.9% at least) were diluted mediocrity. To rework the great Peter Cook line: “I met a man at a party. He said, ‘I’m minting an NFT.’ I said, ‘Oh really? Neither am I.’”
3. Artists need to stop being obsequious around DSPs
We see it hit its oleaginous peak in December with Spotify’s Wrapped when artists giddily post about how many streams and listeners they had in the past year; but it is something that also stinks up social media every Friday when DSPs add new tracks to their branded playlists. “Thanks [name of DSP here] for adding my [inevitably terrible] new single to [boring playlist].” Bowing and scraping before the might of these platforms really is vulgar and undignified; plus it trains them to expect only sycophancy from musicians. Have a bit more self-respect.
4. No more than 5% of your social media output should be sales messages
Of course, if you have a new track/album/tour/merchandise line, it would be ridiculous to not tell your fans about it on your assorted social media channels. But if that is all your social media is then you have a real problem. Think of the founding principles John Reith outlined for the BBC exactly 100 years ago this year: inform, educate and entertain. You’ll notice he didn’t say anything about commercials.
5. Stop paying lip service to “mental health”
Yes, it is great that this is all being discussed publicly and that the wellbeing of musicians and staff members is now a topic of conversation rather than a topic of shame. Loudly proclaiming that you are listening and that you really care is one thing: but it’s somewhat undermined when musicians are expected to do endless promotion and find the time to make “content” for some half-baked marketing idea or when staff, already working 12-hour days, are told they need to put their shoulder to the wheel just a bit more. Your hollow platitudes become shrapnel in a war of attrition against them.
6. Employ more people
Related to the above point, the fact is that most of your staff are doing the work of 1.5 or 2 other people – at least. Budget cuts enacted years ago in The Bad Times seem to have become gamified as companies compete to squeeze the most amount of work out of the least number of staff. Employ. More. People.
7. Releasing music is not an automatic entitlement to make money
Most musicians today do not make a full and comfortable living from music. This is no different to 30 years ago. Or 200 years ago. Or a thousand years ago. The economic odds are stacked against you. They were always stacked against you. Sorry. Just because you make music it does not follow that you can – or even should – roll in clover. Even the House of Medici had limits on how much art it could support.
8. Stop conflating a passive streamer with someone who would, in the olden days, have actually bought your music
Hearing music and caring about music are two very different things and the former does not automatically lead to the latter. It is like a rerun of the P2P arguments from two decades ago insisting that every unlicensed download was a lost sale. What has happened is that person may have heard your music and did not switch off after 30 seconds. That is all. It is a start but we are still some distance from Beatlemania here.
9. Pay artists and songwriters better…
Really. Do it. Whatever you are currently paying them is not enough.
10. … but know that an increase in payments is still not going to fix deeper popularity problems
If listeners do not flock to the artist in sufficient numbers, any royalty increase is going to be like throwing an ice cube at the wildfires of audience apathy. See point 7.
11. Most of you have no business being in the metaverse
You never cared about the metaverse before summer 2021. You never even cared about gaming before. You are the worst kind of arriviste. You are, “How do you do, fellow kids?” You are Kirk Van Houten sleeping in a racing car bed. Stop it. You are only embarrassing yourself.
12. Finally have the guts to increase subscription streaming prices
A monthly subscription to a streaming service still costs 9.99 (dollars/pounds/euros). The same as it did 20 years ago. And 20 years ago you could buy a whole house for 9.99 (dollars/pounds/euros). Maybe. Increase the price of subscription streaming this year to 11.99 a month (at least). Your customers are taking you for fools.
13. Stop jacking up the price of vinyl
Especially “limited-edition” versions of albums that sell for £40 or more when just five years ago you couldn’t have paid people to take them off your hands. You’re treating your fans like spendthrift fools.
14. Watching TikTok is not the same as A&R
Remember Sea Shanty TikTok? That was only at the start of 2021 and yet it feels like eight lifetimes ago: from ubiquity to disinterest in the blink of an eye. It’s like a decade ago when all those people became “Twitter famous” and got book deals and it became immediately and painfully obvious they were incapable of sustaining it beyond 140 characters. It’s almost – almost – like short-form content comes with in-built obsolescence.
15. Accept that not all musicians are making great art and that huge clumps of music released today is not great art
And that’s OK. Honestly. It’s fine.
16. No box set should cost over £100
Make something for the super-fan by all means. Give them lovely hardback books along with the music, but know that after a point – let’s arbitrarily set it at the £100 retail mark – all you are giving them is “posh landfill”. Your customer should not be treated as the willing victim of your callous heist.
17. Stop seeing record labels as solely the enemy
Sometimes they are awful. Of course they are. Welcome to capitalism. But sometimes they – diligently and very quietly – save the artist from themselves and their worst excesses over and over again. It pays to remember this from time to time.
18. You forfeit the right to complain about how little songwriters get paid if you are complicit in normalising a world where 20 songwriters are brought in to craft a hit single
It’s just arithmetic.
19. Stop making verbose excuses for a lack of diversity on your conference panels/festival bills and instead spend that time and energy doing something to fix it
You can start by not releasing a line up announcement that proves absolutely every negative thought that your detractors have ever had about you. It’s like locking all the doors and then crying that no one came to your birthday party.
20. Pay for things
If people in the music business always blag free tickets, subscriptions et cetera then don’t expect anyone else to pay for things. Lead by example. Support the arts out of your own pocket.
21. Go to concerts with uncynical people who don’t “work in music” and catch the support act
Try it. You might enjoy it.
22. Keep digging for the thing that will change your life (again)
If you work in music but are not finding at least one new act or one new record every month to get ridiculously excited about then you are probably no longer fit for purpose. Music Business Worldwide