The Music Is Not Enough

You’ve got to have an identity.

And around that identity you build culture.

And when people adhere to your identity, buy into your culture, you have a cult. And then you can sustain, which is what the music business is all about. The money’s in the long term. That’s the streaming paradigm. It’s not what you  make today, but what you make over the life of the copyright.

This is anathema to the major label. No one working there has skin in the game, no one working there will be employed long enough to reap the rewards of long term investment.

But it’s even worse. The major labels are all focused on one thing, image, and that’s a bygone paradigm.

You remember the MTV era, right? Or maybe you don’t, but it was all about a pretty face. The classic rockers were up in arms, believing it should be about the music. They reluctantly made videos. And they were ultimately left behind. You found the person, then you built the act around them, via stylists, via high end production, it was all about the image.

But if you want image today, you go with the Kardashians, the rest of the model elite. That’s all they are selling, they’re inherently two-dimensional. That’s not artistry, that’s business. And by going into competition with the Kardashians, et al, the music business loses again and again. As for all those brand extensions… The Kardashians are about makeup, fragrances, clothing, that’s their essence. For an artist that’s the penumbra. It cheapens the so-called brand and is an also-ran to the Kardashians, looking bad in comparison.

Notice that there are no movie stars anymore? Because they sell image, not identity. They’re different in every film/TV show/production. And in the internet era, with so much information available, most can be seen to be nincompoops, or narcissists focused on plastic surgery to achieve an image that is fake, but palatable to Hollywood, which has lost direction too. Sure, there are blockbuster high concept movies, featuring comic book characters. But the only other avenue of success is story, and that’s exactly what the studios don’t want, because it’s a risk, you’re starting from ground zero each and every time and you could experience complete failure. But streaming TV is all about story and risk, which is why it’s triumphed, supplanted movies, because people can relate to it, can be wowed, can be intrigued in a way the big screen has abdicated.

So if the music is not enough…

I’m not saying the music is unimportant, it’s still the most important thing, but in the old days a hit record could have its own life and build a career, but that was back when everybody was paying attention to the same stuff, and those days are through. Today everybody is on their own. If you’re making music you are truly not competing with anybody else. No act is keeping you off streaming services. This is not MTV or radio, where there were only a few slots, now there are unlimited slots, how are you going to gain attention?

By having an identity.

This is why young teenage acts rarely sustain. They’ve got nothing to say, they haven’t lived enough. And this is also why older acts, like Jason Isbell, are triumphing today. It’s no penalty to be older today. No one is keeping you out except yourself. You don’t need a record deal. If you think somebody is holding you back…if you investigate you’ll find it’s just you.


Work on the music.

But when the music is ready to hit the world…

Well, it’s great if the music itself has an identity, if you’re saying something. Platitudes work against you. The more edge you’ve got in the lyrics, in the music, the more you express your inner self, the greater a chance that people will be hooked. You don’t want to be me-too, you want to be unique. Not so unique that no one can relate, but different enough that people will be intrigued and adopt you as a cause.

All the rules are wrong. Weigh in about politics. Did wonders for Jason Aldean, he had his first big hit in a decade. Illustrating that not everybody has to like you, just a group of people have to like you.

I’m not saying you have to pontificate willy-nilly, maybe politics is not even your thing, but something must be. The younger generations are all about ecology, global warming, they’re anti-waste. If you feel this way, say so, it’ll help align people to you. And, I hate to say it, but you can be the opposite. Against battling climate change, denying it. Standing up for something draws like-minded people to you.

And your everyday life. What is important to you? Talk about it. I don’t care if it’s cornhole or cooking, tell people about it. That’s what social media is for, don’t think about it as sending your career into the stratosphere, but as evidencing your identity, bonding people to you. Maybe you love to play volleyball… One of the reasons people love Rachel Maddow is her love of fishing. Makes Maddow different from the usual talking head, who tells us they work so hard, spews about their family. It’s not that I love to fish, but that Rachel has another life other than newscasting. I don’t care if you abhor Rachel Maddow, that’s not the point, the point is what are you into? Tell people.

And once you gain traction, have career momentum, in today’s seemingly unlimited landscape of no context, where there is no true hierarchy dictating to consumers, your identity/career is inherently us vs. them. It’s you, and you’re unique, and those who adhere to you feel not only that they like you, but that they and you are different from the rest, and this makes them feel good.

TV singing shows can’t mint stars anymore because they’re about image. That kind of TV is inherently phony. And passé. And the contestants are vocalists, not writers. If you don’t write your own material, how are you going to build an identity? Your songs say who you are. As for cowrites and remixes… Forget all that, that’s polishing the turd for mass consumption and that no longer works anyway. As a matter of fact, rough edges and mistakes make you human, and bond people to you. Don’t comp the vocals. I’m not saying make the audio bad, but the recording should be about capturing magic, not delivering something so inert that no one can really relate to it.

The major labels don’t want to hear any of the foregoing, because it would mean they have to retool, put in a lot more effort for few initial returns. The major labels want moonshots, they think they’re in the movie business. Find something, invest in it, polish it, promote it and…either the public buys it or it doesn’t. But the public has rejected this, which is why the majors can no longer break new acts. The majors have to go back to the old days, of finding unique talent and nurturing it. And the success of these acts almost never happens on the first album. There’s an investment of time and money with no guaranteed return.

Look at Zach Bryan. Tell me who he’s like, what scene he’s a part of. Oh, you can try to categorize him, but really Zach Bryan is in the Zach Bryan business and that only. And it’s not about hit recordings, the recordings are just fuel for the live show, which lives and breathes every night, which has no dancing, no click tracks. This is what the public hungers for.

As for Morgan Wallen’s faux pas… They helped his career. They gave him an identity. He was drunk and used the n-word as a term of endearment. Should he have done this? Of course not. But haven’t you been drunk and made mistakes? Have you never said anything wrong? That’s for politics, hewing a line, in artistry it’s about going your own way.

Who are you?

That’s what I want to know. And then I can evaluate if you’re a friend of mine, if I like you. And if I do, I’ll tell everybody about you, because I want to hip people to you, that’s human nature, telling others about something great. If it’s in the news, if the public can’t own it, if it’s overhyped, you’ve killed it. It’s got to be more organic.

Is the above the only way to have a hit? No. But this is the future for the music business, own it.

But deep down inside you know.

Of if you don’t, it’s time to wake up!

Comments are closed