Two Differing Opinions
“Artists are not good business people; they need to be told what’s good for them.” Those were the exact words that came out of his mouth. And I disagreed with every single one of them.
But let’s back up. Last summer, I was having a conversation with an entrepreneurial peer of mine about the current state of the music industry, and possible avenues forward. He’d had some success with a small company working with a few venues, and with some other music industry professionals (who, as shall he, remain nameless). By all accounts, I thought my peer would have a positive outlook on the future of the music industry as he, like me, had experienced numerous problems that could be solved. And yet, his outlook was dreary at best; and at worst, insulting.
When we began discussing what possibilities there were to build tools to better enable artists to make informed business decisions, his response was terse, arrogant and negative: “Artists are not good business people; they need to be told what’s good for them.”
It’s All About Access to Knowledge
Immediately I knew our opinions on the evolving music industry would differ from then on. First, no, it’s not a true statement to say that artists are “bad business people” anymore than one could make the insinuation about construction workers, for example. In an industry where so much of the business has traditionally been done by a major label or other third party, artists are just now realizing that they have access to the tools to simply learn about how to be good business people, and many are taking advantage of the opportunity. No one would expect someone who’s never had access to a certain type of education to understand the intricacies of said education.
It comes down to simple access to tools and means of learning, traditionally things that have been outside the reach of most artists—after all, educating artists on the inner working of the music business never was in the best interest of the major labels. So if this is the case, why then would one criticize artists for not having knowledge of business dynamics when they have traditionally been denied such knowledge and experience in favor of a more “savvy” entity (a management firm or label, for example)?
Who Actually Knows “What’s best”?
Second, the statement that someone needs be told “what’s best” for them is beyond arrogant: it’s plain insulting. Many of the evolving concepts of business strategy that are popping up in the music industry nowadays I find are coming from the artists themselves. These are the people who are looking to new vehicles of distribution like the internet and new business models such as free or freemium as viable ways to push their careers forward. And from what I can tell, they’re getting pretty damn good at it. I find the things I learn that should have been so obvious to me many times come from discussion with artists themselves, opening my eyes to a reality I may not have previously considered or understood.
So if artists are continually researching and discovering new methods of business strategy to effectively compete in the new digital era, why is there still this pervasive view that they “need to be told what’s best for them?” Perhaps it’s just a difference of worldview, as with between my peer and myself. Whereas he appeared to see the world through a lens that was dismissive—and even bitter—I see possibilities abounding for how the industry can change with the technology available to give artists more power over their own careers. It’s arguable the in the end, the only opinions that matter are those of the artists, as they are the ones producing the material that so many other people are trying to find ways to monetize.
Whatever the next big thing will be (and it’s anyone’s guess in this sort of fickle content market), what I don’t doubt is that artists will begin to step out from behind their guitars and amps to shape their own futures (much like programmers are being encouraged to step out from behind their keyboards and aspire to roles in management). I wouldn’t be so quick to underestimate the artists out there. In fact, just the opposite: they know what they want, and now they’re beginning to see how to successfully get it. For me, my bet’s on the artists
Thanks to Mom and Dad for reading early drafts of this.
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