Living for a good decade in Washington, DC, I was very familiar with the “do it yourself” music culture. In fact, I was an avid participant in a community that was constantly putting on shows, releasing records, silk-screening t-shirts, making our own packaging, and supporting each other. I loved it.
But DIY also created a big problem. There was simply too much work for a normal human being to do in a given day. Oh, believe me, Jenny Toomey and I tried to defy the natural laws for years, running distribution out of the back of our minivan on tour, teaching ourselves Photoshop so we could do our own graphic design, doing 4000 count mailings every two months out of our living room (any Working Holiday subscribers reading?). Heck, we even wrote a book(let) about it! But it was too much, and we were too idealistic and naive to figure out how to hire enough people to increase our capacity without breaking the bank. In 1998, we made a serious and conscious decision; we stopped putting out records.
In the intervening years, we’ve learned that the right teammates make a huge difference in a person’s ability to get stuff done. And, we’ve learned it can be done in a way that doesn’t contradict an interest in protecting artistic integrity or a business’ mission.
Zoom ahead fifteen years. The DIY meme is stronger than ever, facilitated by a cornucopia of services and technologies that make it infinitely easier for individual musicians to promote, sell or distribute their music, and connect with fans.
But the last fifteen years — just like the 50 before that — are also littered with stories about bad partnerships. About deceptive record labels. About ineffective managers. About artists who sign contracts that they regret later.
Given these conditions, it’s no wonder that musicians struggle with decisions about teammates on a daily basis. How do they juggle all of this work? Who should musicians trust to help them with their career? Who should they hire, and when? What should they retain control of?
On April 10, FMC’s Kristin Thomson and musician Erin McKeown tackled this topic head on at a lunchtime lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Titled All You Need is Love…(and a manager, an accountant and a web designer). Making it as a Musician in an Increasingly Networked World, Kristin and Erin talked about musicians and teammates: how are musicians building their teams, and which teammates have the greatest impact on a musicians’ earning capacity? During the presentation, they referred to some data collected through FMC’s Money from Music survey, as well as their personal experience as musicians and community members.
Kristin presented survey data based on the answers to the question “Who is on your team?”. She started with the data of all respondents, then showed the same data through a handful of filters: the team members of survey respondents who said they had a music industry or conservatory degree; of those who are earning more than $100,000 from music; and of full time musicians who have different career lengths. Kristin has posted the presentation and slides on our Artist Revenue Streams site here. You can also watch a webcast archive of the lecture here.
Perhaps the most striking is the high earners slide.
Survey respondents who are high earners — making more than $100,000 a year from music — are twice as likely to have a paid or contracted relationship with an accountant, attorney, booking agent and graphic designers as their musical peers who earn less. The next obvious question is…does the high earner have an accountant because she makes $100,000, or does she make $100,000 because she has an accountant? The survey data can’t tell us that, but other data points from this research also suggest that team members are important.
They also examined the impact of certain team members on musicians’ earning capacity. Comparing aggregate revenue data for all survey respondents against the revenue data for those who said they had specific teammates presented some striking differences. For instance, looking at income earned by compositions, the top bar shows that, in aggregate, income derived from compositions accounted for 6% of our survey respondents’ income in the past twelve months (N=5371). But respondents who said they had a paid/contracted relationship with a publisher, or an attorney, or a record label were deriving twice to three times as much income from compositions.
Erin McKeown added some much needed context to these numbers. She explained her current team structure, and how it has evolved over the past ten years. She told audience members that she continues to manage her website herself because she thinks it’s part of her output as an artist (plus, it’s fun). And she talked about the nagging frustration and exhaustion of trying to do it all, and how this presentation was a lot like her life right now — trying to figure out who to trust, and how to make it all work, especially financially. Watch a webcast archive of the lecture here or learn about Erin’s team composition here.
Can artists do the DIY thing? Yes, they can. There are all sorts of technologies and services out there to facilitate it. But this might be your new job description…
So, what about the opposite scenario: should musicians simply farm out all of this work so they can focus on the music? The data above suggests that some teammates make a positive difference to some artists. But take these findings with a dose of reality — there are many instances where musicians have been either deceived or led down the primrose path by potential partners. Choosing the right partners and teammates takes research and a full understanding of the risks and benefits. And, even then, there’s no guarantee that good partners will make you successful.
A couple of final thoughts based on this team data:
- Technology acts as a double edged sword. Technologies have empowered music creators. They have created efficiencies, and given more music creators access to the music marketplace. But, they’ve also created new work and additional responsibilities, whether it’s managing an online presence or self-releasing your music digitally.
- Many musicians need – and benefit from – teammates, but they need to be chosen carefully. Though it varies from artist to artist what’s important, the survey data suggests the difference in career structure and earnings that specific team members can make. Yes, doing it all yourself is technically possible, but artists need to be smart and understand where team members represent a net positive, or can increase an artists’ capacity. The equation will be unique to each musician, but understanding that various teammates could have an impact on earnings is important.
Readers: who is on your team? Which team members make the biggest difference, either in increasing your capacity or your earnings? Is it a booking agent? A label? An accountant? A publisher? Tell us in the comment section below.
We encourage you to take a deeper look at our Artist Revenue Streams findings, and sign up to receive word about future data releases where we will continue the conversation about how musicians and composers’ revenue streams are changing in the 21st century.
Kristin and Erin will be presenting even more data at the ReThink Music Conference in Boston on Tuesday, April 27. Musicians can register for a special rate of $179