What you need to know about today’s music business if you’re returning after a long break

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What you need to know about the music industry“I haven’t put out an album in 15 years. What’s changed?”

If you’re asking this question, let me say congrats on getting back into the music world; welcome to a brand new game. Limp Bizkit and Creed are no longer feuding (or making music). Will Smith has stopped rehashing 70’s disco hits. And most kids these days think that “Everlast” is the name of a battery.

On the bright side, a few things will feel familiar. Eminem is on the radio. Evil corporations rule the large live event and ticketing infrastructures. Most music is made using any combination of the same 12 notes. And artists still create music wanting people to hear it.

Lastly, the size of that artist’s audience (as always) depends on some combination of talent, charisma, smarts, hard work, and luck. That part of the music biz should feel familiar too.

But here are ten big things that HAVE changed about the music industry over the last fifteen years:

1. Monetization is about experience, not sales

A decade ago, monetizing music was still mostly about CD sales and publishing royalties.

The formats have changed, of course, and we’ve seen the dominant trend shift from CD sales to MP3 downloads to streaming (via services like YouTube and Spotify) — but the central point is this: monetizing music is no longer about convincing a fan to purchase something.

For many people, ownership is old news. Today it’s about the social aspect of music. Now you make money when you enable your fans to do something WITH your music, such as:

* sharing it with their friends on social media

* adding it to a Spotify playlist

* creating a video on YouTube that uses one of your songs

* and more

The lesson: Don’t be stingy with your music. Let people have it, love it, share it, and use it.

2. Media ain’t monolithic

Years ago, it really mattered if your music got written about in Rolling Stone, SPIN, The Source, etc. Those outlets had a big impact on how music listeners responded to new artists and new releases. Nowadays, there are far more outlets (online and off), serving every niche and genre; so you have a greater chance of getting press coverage. That’s the good news. The bad news is that reviews don’t matter as much.

Because there’s a bazillion bands and a bazillion blogs willing to write about your music, any single review, interview, or story won’t reverberate through the music industry or amongst a larger community of listeners in the same way it might’ve 15 years ago. Even big online review sites like Pitchfork don’t wield a magic wand; many bands they’ve celebrated have had little success to show for it (in terms of sustainability), while many acts they’ve skewered have done just fine.

The lesson: The music press is more diverse, and its power is more diluted.

3. “Radio” can mean something else entirely

Turn on your car radio and, yes, music still comes out of the speakers. But corporate, terrestrial radio (over the airwaves) is no longer the only option for listeners who want to discover new music programming. The most exciting and innovative music in almost every genre is being played elsewhere: satellite radio, online stations, customizable music services like Pandora, podcasts, and more.

To get significant radio play on corporate radio as an independent artist, you’d need a miracle, many tens of thousands of dollars, the right radio promoter, and another miracle. In contrast, not only is it possible for you to get your music onto community and college radio, as well as satellite and online radio, it’s fairly easy to do! But just like my point about media, radio play on any of those other outlets won’t be nearly as powerful as a successful commercial radio campaign.

The lesson: You probably won’t be the next Katy Perry without the help of a major label, but unlike 15 years ago, you CAN get meaningful plays and build a fanbase through NON-commercial radio.

4. Labels are a last resort

15 years ago, almost every band that was serious about reaching a larger audience wanted — even needed (unless you’re Fugazi) — a major label deal. Now most bands understand that you can actually do better financially by staying independent, owning your master recordings, keeping your publishing, and determining the course of your own career.

Savvy indie artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were able to build professional teams around them for distribution, publicity, booking, and such — all without having to sign a traditional major label contract. Nowadays, the artist IS the label.

The lesson: Being your own label is hard work, but you reap all the rewards.

5. Email is more important than social media

If you were making music 15 years ago, you may’ve had some experience building a list of your fans’ email addresses. But you’ve missed (at least the on the music biz side of things) the rise and fall of MySpace, as well as the surge and decline of interest in Facebook as a music marketing tool. Both these examples demonstrate that social media trends come and go, internet habits change, but email is forever. That’s why building your email list should be your #1 music marketing goal. And one of the best places to begin building your email list is your own website, a place where YOU control the user experience.

The lesson: The relationship between you and your fans should be owned by… you and your fans — NOT somebody in Silicon Valley.

6. Your fans can help you fund your recordings, videos, and tours

… and I don’t mean by simply buying your products, concert tickets, etc.

Platforms like Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, RocketHub, and IndieGoGo now enable artists to more easily raise funds for their projects. Here’s the concept: many fans make small donations that add up to a significant amount of money. Sound like a form of glorified begging? Think again. Crowdfunding (particularly when it comes to funding recording projects) is basically a pre-order process where your fans, friends, and family have the opportunity to buy your music in advance. In addition, they get to demonstrate their support, feel a sense of satisfaction that they’re helping you bring your music to the world, AND receive cool things from you in return.

The lesson: You don’t have to go into debt to a label (recouping your advance, tour support, and recording budget) in order to get your music out there. Now your fans can help you foot the bill — and you get to keep your copyright.

7. People are making albums on their computers that sound as good as studio albums from the 1960’s

Technology! You no longer need a big room, top-of-the-line outboard gear, and a $5000-mic in order to create magical recordings. Sure, nothing replaces the ears and experience of a great audio engineer, but now affordable digital tools are at your fingertips that can help YOU develop those engineering and production skills yourself. Sometimes all the tools you need can even fit into an iPad, so you don’t need to pay rent on a huge studio space either.

The lesson: home-recording still requires great ears, but if you’re willing to put the work in, you can make an album on your own that sounds just as good as anything else you’d hear on the radio (except for maybe a few classic albums from the early 1970’s which will never be surpassed in terms of sound quality by anyone, anywhere, ever ; ).

8. You can actually get your music used in films, TV shows, commercials, and video games

15 years ago, it was pretty much unheard of for big film, TV, and game producers to use independent music for their projects. Now it’s the norm. Sync licensing has become one of the best ways for an independent artists to make money, gain a following, and establish credibility. The downside to this, like all new opportunities, is that EVERYONE is trying to do it — so you’ve got lots of competition. And when supply is high, the amount you get paid per placement is usually lower because there are a million other acts who’d love to get the exposure. However, in the case of television, you stand to earn more money in the form of performance royalties every time a show that uses your music airs.

Another consideration for sync licensing is that how old your music is doesn’t matter. Unlike radio where DJs usually favor new releases or proven songs from the past, music supervisors who choose songs for film and TV productions don’t care about the age of the music (or if it was ever commercially released in the first place); all they care about is that the song is right for the scene.

The lesson: Your entire catalog of recorded songs can earn you sync fees, so it’s a good idea to get ALL of your music into a sync licensing catalog.

9. YouTube might be more important than anything else in your music career

… besides the music itself, of course.

YouTube has become the #1 search engine for music. It’s also the #1 preferred listening platform for younger music fans. Plus, YouTube videos are highly sharable via social media. As someone who’s been away for a while, you’ll want to get all your songs onto YouTube; otherwise you’re missing out on another chance to make money from your music (in the form of YouTube ad revenue). You don’t have to make a dozen fancy music videos, but you should think about at least uploading album-art videos for every song.

The lesson: CD Baby has paid out well over a million dollars in Youtube ad revenue to independent artists (some artists earning as much as $40,000); you should be earning money from YouTube too.

10. For today’s artists, many revenue streams form a river

As I said above, monetization, more and more, is about experience — and social music sites like Spotify and YouTube are making it easy for your fans to share your music. The more your music is shared, the more money you make.

That being said, there are still billions of people on the planet who prefer to buy CDs, and many millions more that prefer vinyl (yes, vinyl — it’s back), so you obviously want to continue offering your music in physical formats — especially if you’ve got any leftovers from your last pressing all those years ago. In addition to revenue from digital and physical music sales and streaming, you should be collecting your global publishing royalties (including mechanical royalties), trying to find sync placements for your songs, touring, crowdfunding, and seeking out sponsorship/endorsement opportunities with like-minded brands.

The lesson: To quote an investment cliche, “diversify!” As an independent artist, you have MORE opportunities today than ever before to make money from your music. But there’s no single path to success; there’s no single way to finance your career. You need to be taking advantage of every possible source of income. Altogether, it can add up to something big. 


I’m sure plenty of other things have changed too, but that’s just a little crash-course to get you back into the music world sooner than later.

If it seems like a lot to wrap your mind around, don’t worry: CD Baby is here to make it easy for you.

You make the music; we’ll take care of the rest — including CD and vinyl distribution, digital distribution (to iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Beats, etc.), YouTube monetization, sync licensing, publishing royalty collection, website creation and hosting, and much more.

And if you have any questions about the way music is being created, distributed, marketed, and monetized these days, ask away in the comments section below.

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