It's an incredibly creative and destructive time to be a part of the music industry - the entire business model is up for grabs as major and indie labels alike struggle to re-define themselves in an era where no sustainable profit margin exists. Whereas revenue used to pour in from the sale of albums and singles, it has shifted in the last decade towards merchandise sales, touring income, and song licensing, in large part due to the widespread use of file sharing. Even high-profile artists like Nine Inch Nails are taking total control of their careers without the help of a record label in increasing numbers.
While this debate has proved stimulating for pundits, concert promoters, and hyperventilating record label execs, it's of almost no interest to many burgeoning artists and musicians. Whatever happened to that old saying,"It's all about the music?"
Unfortunately for some, that train of thought has gone the way of the pterodactyl as musicians are now practically required to look at their band as a growing brand, just as the record label marketing teams of yesteryear did. Of course, there's a plethora of ways to go about managing your mini-musical enterprise, like asking your socially-inclined buddy to run your street team or pleading with your Art Major roommate to help with web design in exchange for free popcorn.
While making the best, most creative music possible should still be the ultimate focus of any artist or band, the focus in the new era of the music industry is decidedly more "wide-lens" than it's ever been. A band not only needs to write great music, they need to document the writing and recording process via personalized videos and blog posts to YouTube and Twitter. They need to offer unique merchandise like limited 180-gram vinyl pressings or pre-loaded flash drives that cater to a variety of sub-tastes. The fans are in control, for better or worse, depending on your point of view.
So you've already got the "wide-lens approach," so-to-speak. You understand that you'll need to function like a miniature record label if you want to get your songs out there. With so many bands fighting for the same sets of ears, how do you even get heard in this new era of the music industry?
Here's a couple of very extreme approaches.
Situation A :
Suppose you're a real go-getter, eager to sow your proverbial seed. You could write some catchy songs that capitalize on an already-established band's market, take some sharp photos of you and your bandmate's with "emo-swoop" haircuts guzzling a fifth of Jack Daniels, perfect your raucous stage personas, then hit the road for a year in a beat-up blue Astrovan to see what you're made of. Being the savvy professional you are, you could also update your blog regularly with witty observations from the road and videos of your drummer peeing in a Gatorade bottle at 4 AM on the way to Houston. Your mom will watch this video, then she'll call you and ask you if you're doing ok.
Situation B :
Suppose you lean towards the artistic side of things. You could work tirelessly on your music, searching for that breakthrough that will set you apart from the rest of the pack, play a few shows at local dive bars with no promotion, send your music to underground blogs with 10 followers, and know in your heart that eventually, you will be discovered. Being the artistic recluse that you are, you could also create confusing black-and-white videos of tigers morphing into skyscrapers that (obviously) perfectly describe the human condition. Your mom will watch this video, then she'll call you and ask if you're doing ok.
In fact, the gray area between Situation A and Situation B is where most artists fall (extrovert vs. introvert, in the broadest sense). While it's absolutely crucial to write the best music you can, it's a near-futile pursuit if you're not willing to promote it. While some die-hard fans will certainly help you promote by sharing your music with their friends and family, most will not. The music industry is and always will be an event-driven business, and that's the bottom line. So put your money where your mouth is! You've got the songs, now get in the van and make some fans.
On the other hand, watching a bunch of dyed-hair egomaniacs bop around onstage shredding through Creed-inspired hand-me-downs is ultimately debilitating. People know when live performers are going through the motions. You can criss-cross the country in your blue Astrovan three times over, but if you don't have a unique set of songs, you're just wasting precious energy. Take a little time off and spend some time honing your craft. Your audience will thank you by not leaving the front row to buy another Budweiser.
The best of both worlds is ultimately what leads to any measure of success - business sense balanced by artistic sense. Where does that balance lie? It's impossible to know unless you go exploring. In the old music industry, the record labels helped guide blossoming artists towards achieving that fragile balance. In the new music industry, its entirely up to you.