5 Takeaways from “Welcome To The Music Business…You’re F***ed”

Martin Atkins has recently released a new e-book called “Welcome To The Music Business…You’re Fucked”.  If you’re in a band and have never read his last book, “Tour: Smart”, just stop what you’re doing, get the book, and start reading.  His point of view is a slap in the face as well as the most practical information you can find on running a band.  So, when I saw that he released something new, I immediately downloaded it and read it in just a few hours.

Since every page of this book is worth reading, I will cover just  a few points that stuck out for me.

1. Treat e-mail addresses like money

Though not stated explicitly in the book, I realized from reading that getting a fan’s email address is just the same as getting paid from the club.  Better, actually, because you can now build a relationship over a course of years.  The realization occurred reading the section on “Give, Get, Make”.

“GIVE shirts away at a free concert
GET e-mail addresses in exchange
MAKE money the next time you play…”

In my previous band, we went years without having an e-mail list, instead relying on MySpace to accrue fans (Ooops).  So, MySpace is dead, about 70 to 90% of the fans on MySpace were bogus, and, now, no contact for any of those people that actually liked us.  My band finally got an e-mail list going, but we poorly maintained it, barely pursued it, and treated it as more of a useless chore than what it actually was: an investment that could pay dividends.  If we actually collected those e-mail addresses from the beginning, we would probably have ended with a much stronger fan base.  Hell, we may not have broken up.

To that extent, I will now treat an e-mail address exactly like it’s money.  I will give you a t-shirt and a CD for free, but you will need to give me your e-mail address in exchange.  Martin’s “Give, Get, Make” philosophy helped put into context what “free” means for a musician.  That leads to the next topic…

2. Free Is The New Black

Giving away your stuff for free is a contentious issue in the music marketing community and in the music business in general.  Martin argues “Be prepared to give away anything or EVERYTHING that you have made.”  This is a scary proposition for a broke-ass musician who just spent their last $100 to get that order of t-shirts.  “Free” can also mean, “Fuck.  How are we going to afford new merch, eat, and get back home?”

I gave things away for free in my last band:  mp3’s, CDs, t-shirts, stickers.  I’m sure it made quite a few people happy, but I’m not sure what the end effect was for the band.  Reflecting on this, I don’t think it was just about giving things away for free; it was giving things away for free without a strategy.  In the e-book, many other topics cover having a strategy, so “Free Is The New Black” cannot be taken out of context in this regard.

To think about strategy and “free” in a different light, consider Google.  You get search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, and a large number of other products “free”.  Hell, a friend of mine just got a free netbook for signing up as a beta tester for the Chrome OS.  Now look at how much freaking money Google is making.  With all these “free” products and services, they have gathered a staggeringly large user base.  Once they have something to sell, it only takes a small percentage of that user base to make them a fortune.  The main difference here with “free”: strategy.  There is an end goal and reason behind giving something away for free.

So, giving away your merch for free should have an attached strategy.  Gave your t-shirt away for free?  Well, now you have a walking billboard for your band.  Give away a CD?  That person may turn on 5 friends to that cool band that they saw the other night.  And, my favorite from Martin, you just gave away a giant “GUILT BOMB“.  Being so generous, people might actually buy your other shit out of guilt.  They might even pay to see you at your next show because you were so nice.

But, being the skeptic that I am, I would need to experiment with anything “free”.  As part of the theme of this blog,  I can’t accept any technique at face value without experimentation and recording of results.  The problem here is that the value of giving something away for “free” may take years to evaluate.  I don’t doubt Martin, but, as he said in other sections of this e-book:  “Fucked! by: listening to someone else’s agenda”, “Fucked! by questionable advice”, and “Fucked! by not listening or by listening too much.”  Or, as we say in the software testing community, “Trust….but verify.”

3. Do The Opposite (D.T.O.)

Do The Opposite of what every other band is doing.  Martin doesn’t actually go into much detail on this point, but it stuck out in my head because I’ve said it to myself so many times.  However, I never acted on it.  To not do so is shooting your band in the foot.  Think about it.  Every band in the universe is trying to record a full album, get the interview in their weekly rag, and play all the cool venues while blasting their shows on Facebook and MySpace.  Why is your band any different?  How do you stick out from the rest?

Conventional wisdom (even a part of Martin’s advice in the book) is to play a ton of shows and slowly build up that fanbase.  Maybe years from now, you’ll be playing that nifty stadium to thousands of adoring fans.  That’s what EVERY band is trying to do.  A shinging example of “Do The Opposite” that flies in the face of this convention is Pomplamoose.  They don’t play live shows.  Instead, they make a YouTube video of them recording their music and present it in a compelling way.  Occasionally, they’ll do a cover song.  Guess what?  I just saw them on a Coke commercial.  They sell thousands of albums online.  Seriously.

“Do The Opposite” isn’t just random advice, it should be a part of every band’s strategy.  If you see something where every damn band is in line trying to do the same thing, maybe it’s time to stop and think of something completely different.  Are you trying to get an interview with that awesome magazine or newspaper?  Heh-heh!  Good luck!  You’re about the 10,000th band in line to do the same thing.  Instead, it’d probably be better to create an intersting story on another subject and approach a gardening magazine.  While the other 9,999 bands are trying to get into that cool paper, you suddenly have a bunch of gardeners at your show and media coverage.  And gardeners probably have good weed and mushrooms…

In practical terms, doing the opposite takes a lot of work, a lot of research, and a lot of courage.  My hypothesis is the first time you D.T.O., it won’t work.  You will fail.  You will probably fail ten more times.  However, that failure gives you insight in what to do next and helps you hone that sense of doing something different than everyone else.  So, the 11th time, maybe it will be your band selling stupid shit on a commercial and laughing in your rivers of money.  Those ten failures will just look like an investment into success.

4. Playing a venue that’s too big.

I’ve learned this one the hard way.  The worst thing you can do to your ego is play a 400+ capacity club with only one person in front of the stage while the booker is sweeping up the club during your set.  Pure depression.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, I’ve played a small, dive bar in Seattle where 20 people makes you feel you’re playing an arena.  20 happy, drunk people having fun listening to your music.  All the while, the band gets free beer, all night, from the bar.  The bar is too busy to sweep until after they close.  Pure ecstasy.

Martin puts it into perspective.  If you can sell out the smaller venue, do it.  Everyone is happy, and you make money.  If, instead, you go for that giant venue and can only get it filled to 20% capacity, you will probably receive no money, and the staff will hate your band because they didn’t get the tips they wanted for the night.

Plus, I think the smaller shows are way more fun!  I’ve played basements that were packed and just insane.  I played in someone’s garage where I saw girls get naked, got photographed by a professional photographer, and got fed for free at the BBQ.  It’s not just me.  I saw a documentary of The Murder City Devils playing an arena one night, and the next night playing in someone’s living room.

So, from personal experience, I can back up Martin’s claim to always choose the smaller venue.  It’s way better to sell out a show at a dive bar than to play to 5 people in an arena.  To do this, though, you need to really research the venue you’re booking at.  Make sure to ask what their capacity is and how many people make a good night.  Then ask yourself, “Can I do that?”  After you say “Yes”, go smack yourself, sober up, and ask again.

5. Don’t rely on anyone else

There’s quite a few passages from Martin on this subject:

  • “Fucked! by: yourself” (multiple sections on this)
  • “Fucked! by: relying on anyone”
  • “Fucked! by: lack of members of TEAM YOU!”

If only I could count the number of times other people said they were going to do something for my band, just to see absolutely nothing.  Even from my own friends and BANDMATES.  After spending hours, daily, for months, booking a West Coast tour, I couldn’t rely on a bandmate to send out fliers to those clubs I booked, couldn’t rely on another bandmate to contact radio stations and papers, and definitely couldn’t rely on any of them to research anything on touring and promotion.  At the end of that tour, I relied on a friend to make fliers for the club back in Seattle where I had bands from Oregon joining in.  I got to the club and not one flier.  Not only that, the friend had no recollection I even asked him to do it.

You can’t rely on anyone.  At all.  As Martin says, “Rely on yourself – at least you KNOW how unreliable you are.”  But, knowing this, you can make contingencies.  You can plan on the worst and have a backup plan.  Every time another person is involved, just assume you’re fucked.  If you actually have a band, friends, and/or  associates that are reliable, get down on your knees and thank all that is that you have what you have.  You are one of the few.  And even then….

Conclusion

There’s so much more to Martin’s e-book.  Merchandising, where you should tour, how to tour, and, most importantly, how to “un-fuck” yourself.  As I read, my mind filled with images of how I’ve fucked myself in the past, and, on the productive side, how to not fuck myself in the future.

Though this e-book is a wonderful thing in and of itself, I would highly recommend buying and reading “Tour: Smart” first.  “Welcome To The Music Business…You’re Fucked” is the distilled version of “Tour: Smart” that summarizes the main ideas in an extremely entertaining way.  Martin’s wit and straight-forward way of addressing issues makes this a great buy even if you are not in a band.  For $9.99 (two or three drinks at a bar), you have a great guide that you should force even your illiterate drummer to read.

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10 Responses to 5 Takeaways from “Welcome To The Music Business…You’re F***ed”

  1. Spooky says:

    Pistol Whipped Prophets have given tons of free shit away. When we started out and where playing like hell, we’d always make stickers to throw out there. It resulted in a quicker growth in fans. In fact stickers are great for that, as they are cheap to make and you can make them look cool. When we tour we always try to have stickers to give away, too. Just because someone doesn’t have the money for a T shirt, doesn’t mean they don’t want it! (We’ve actually given away a ton of those, too.) Another technique we have developed is no set pricing on our merchandise (only if you’re buying at the show, online orders-can’t help ya’.) We know how much each unit cost to make- so if you at least get $5.00 for the T shirt that cost $4.25 to make, you are still making a profit and getting the promotion. Sure we wanted $13.00 for the shirt, but the mark only had $5.00. The way to make money is to never let it walk away. 75 cents profit is far better that $4.25 in debt.

    • sethalicious says:

      Hey, Spooky! I definitely agree giving shit away is the best way to promote yourself. But I’m sure you’re in the same boat as me….broke. Heh-heh! So, from what I gather from your comment, the strategy for “free” is promotion? Do you have any examples of Pistol Whipped Prophets gaining money or oppurtunities from giving away stuff for free?

      The “pay what you want” tactic is something I want to experiment with and document here. I’ve heard of bands making MORE money than what they expected. For instance, someone paying $20 for your $10 CD.

      • Spooky says:

        Yeah, Broke is my usual fiscal status. Giving away free stuff never panned out in obvious dollars and being that I never closely tracked it, I’m not sure of the impact, financially speaking. However, everything PWP gave away had our logos and name plastered all over it, so it wasn’t completely in vain.

        We are close to the “pay what you want” scheme with no fixed prices- however our current scheme still forces us to fix a maximum price, potentially lowering our maximum earning power per unit- assuming one can gauge the value of good will among the demographic one markets to. In the next few months, we will be finishing our latest release and with that I will be putting in fresh orders for new merchandise. Maybe I will explore the “pay what you want” tactic for this upcoming release and the associated merchandise.

        • I was thinking of doing the “pay what you want” model, but also make sure there’s higher end merch that requires money. Like a limited edition, autographed CD. Or a box set of a DVD, CD, and posters. I’m actually reviving the toilet seat thing I had with THE THEM. This time, going to put artwork on the seat, autograph it, and bundle it with music, shirt, etc. No one wanted to buy our CD, but EVERYONE wanted the damn toilet seat.

  2. Thom Bone says:

    Wow, this is almost spooky. It’s like this guy got into my head and documented many of my experiences, strategies and secrets.

    I can tell you from experience, he is DEAD ON in what he is saying.

    Thom Bone
    Butt Trumpet

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