Anyone Can Be a Rock Star

strudelMy mom makes an insane apple strudel. She is the Eddie Van Halen of apple strudel. I can state with authority that, in the world of apple strudel baking, she stands alone at the crest of Mount Olympus. Over the years she has often been asked to share her recipe and she has answered that this would be impossible because there is none. She bakes “by ear” as it were and duplicating her techniques would be on a par with replicating Van Halen’s “Eruption” by reading the notes. What is a slice of mom’s apple strudel worth? Who knows…but if just anyone could make her strudel, the commercial value would surely be diminished.

Technological advances have now made it possible for anyone to produce music at ever higher levels of quality. The ingredients are available by mail order and step by step instructions for virtually any recipe can be found online. At long last the playing field has been made level and anyone can be a rock star. But if anyone can be a rock star what happens to the commercial value of music?

There have always been great musical artists who have labored in obscurity. By the same token (anyone who can explain just exactly what that phrase means will be sent a prize…I just think it sounds pretty good, don’t you?) there has always been a huge amount of very average music produced by very average musicians. As the cost of recording plummets, high quality recordings can now be made by virtually anyone. And, as the sonic quality of home recording approaches professional standards, the value of the term “professional” is losing stock rapidly.

Professionals are recognized by their peers as having a given level of knowledge, expertise and a higher standard of ability than that of the general population. Lawyers go to school and have to pass the bar exam before they are accepted by other lawyers as professionals. Doctors and auto mechanics are also expected to know more about medicine or internal combustion than their clients. But in the field of commercial music, the roles of musician, engineer and producer are fast becoming name tags pinned to the same hat.

Sir George Martin was once asked why the recordings of the 60s and 70s are so well respected. After thinking over the question, Martin answered that, during that mythical era, there were a lot of people who were awfully good at what they did. Professional songwriters wrote for professional singers who made recordings backed by professional musicians playing professionally prepared arrangements in professional studios with professional engineers at the controls. And all of this under the watchful eyes of professional producers assigned to the project by professional A&R managers.

The word “professional” inserted before every job description in this scenario dictates that there were three truths at work. First, there was a definitive division of labor. Engineers engineered, musicians played their instruments, producers produced etc. Second, everyone involved was expected to be an expert at their job, and third, everyone was paid well. Where did the money come from? A professional record company who was not about to put an expensive production into the hands of amateurs. And why would a record company fund such a project? Because they knew that they would have a reasonable chance to make a profit. And why would they think that they could make a profit? Because every professional record company has a professional marketing department and a professional promotions department as insurance that their products will find their way into the hands of consumers. And all of this costs a boatload of money.

The internet record label Sellaband has stepped into the chaos of today’s music recording and marketing landscape holding the carrot of a professionally produced and manufactured album under the nose of anyone with the ability to sell 5000 units at $10.00 a pop. The actual recording budget, less manufacturing and other costs is in the neighborhood of $30,000. To those accustomed to the numbers associated with major label budgets, this is a pittance, while to many unknown and less experienced artists, this budget could could very well provide the product that could launch a career. And when I say “launch” I mean just that. Because the numbers don’t approach what is typically spent on a major label production, there are many corners to be cut, many favors to be called in and many typical label services to be foregone if the final product is to sonically compete with professionally produced recordings.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when having a professionally produced album in hand meant perhaps a great deal more than it does today. One factor in the equation was that a professionally recorded product was, by definition, usually backed by a promotional machine dedicated to making the venture financially viable. In today’s climate the cost of recording music has become affordable to the extent that a $30,000 budget can be manageable. What this means is that a label like Sellaband, which makes no artistic judgements and whose decision of who will make an album is made solely on the ability of artists to raise the required budget, can facilitate the creation of recordings that are paid in full without the cumbersome debt of re-coupable expenses.

But everything positive about a system like Sellaband comes at a price. The relative ease of releasing an album is balanced by the extreme difficulty of creating the demand for the album from the general public. While the cost of making recordings has dropped precipitously due to technological advances and the ability of artists/songwiters to produce and engineer their own music, the machinery of professional promotion has yet to be cracked. Real promotion still costs real money and a label like Sellaband cannot be expected to have the magnitude of required funds available at this early stage of the game.

That is not to say affordable promotional tools are not as available as are the tools to make music. It is remarkable to think that the internet, as Kevin Kelly so vividly describes in his Ted Talk, is only 5000 days old. But the psychology of promotion is still a tool of professionals. The internet offers countless methods whereby an artist can reach a target audience, but in the hands of amateurs these tools have the effect of shotgun blasts loaded with rock salt… plenty of hits but no real damage done. Professional promotion is done with surgical precision. Time is money and energy is not wasted firing scattergun blasts into the crowd. Reaching a worldwide audience is not the issue, but the same taste, discretion and economy of effort that make for notable music and great apple strudel are missing from the arsenal of many self-promoting artists. If attention is the new currency, artists will have to find a way to get and keep attention on their product if they expect to become commercially viable. Every unit sold represents a unit left on the shelves of everyone else with the same access to the the promotional tools available on the internet. There is massive room for growth and creativity as amateurs learn to use these tools with the same skill and precision of professionals. In the meantime, consumers are asked to wade mouse-deep through mega-gigs of homemade websites that feature unreadable red text shimmering on green paisley pages or slow loading flash sites that only the immediate family will have the patience to endure.

Music is an art of emotion. Promotion is not. And this is where artists must evolve if they are to create a marketplace for their products. Music has intrinsic value merely as a window into the heart of the artist who creates it. But commercial value is something altogether different. Creating value for one specific product to the exclusion of others was once as simple as buying cocaine and hookers for radio program directors, renting billboard advertising space, going in debt to the label for tour support and waiting for the money to roll in. Technology has changed all of that and today everyone has equal access and anyone can be a rock star. Getting paid to be a rock star however is the hard part. It’s not enough to be special. Consumers have to know it. The music buying public has to perceive the unique quality that makes a song worthy of a paid download and the work of providing this perception is increasingly being left up to the artist.

One bite of mom’s strudel would convince you of the value of owning a slice. There being only one source makes it a hot commodity. If you could make it yourself, the commercial value of mom’s strudel plummets, unless I could convincingly portray mom’s strudel as being more desirable than that which you can whip up in your home studio. And that is what promotion is all about. It can still cost plenty of money but creative minds thinking outside the restrictions of conventional record label thought could very well break through the money barrier to invent new promotional devices to go along with the exciting new world of music production.

4 Responses to “Anyone Can Be a Rock Star”

  • Carla Zehrt

    by the same token: one buys tokens to use as admission to a New York City subway or like tickets for a carnival ride, so money has the same value as a token… so a token has the same value as the money it takes to buy the token. Thanks again for another great read! How is your Mother?

  • Hi Pete
    Thanks for sharing your massive input.
    However, I still think there’s room for the 1960’s old fashioned model somewhere in this world. All I could say is… Things need to be “reshaped” a little… Wait & see, and act in consequence!


    Have a nice day and thank you again

  • Pete
    Brilliant as always!
    so there’s still some hope….once I find a marketing genius! yey!
    thanx for writting

  • I dont think I could ever be a Rock Star, even tho I play Guitar, and I love it, I couldnt be a Rock Star ever : |