18. June 2014
Ethics In Indie Music Business
By J.P. Kallio
If you are a musician, especially an independent one and in charge of your own career, promotion etc. I am sure you have had conversations where people are more than happy to give you advice on how you should go about your career. I am usually quite open minded about these conversations, as you never know… Throughout all the rubbish you might come across a little gem of a tip. But in all fairness, more often not. What I have noticed though, often some my career decisions gets questioned. People have view of how things are supposed to be done, without looking at the bigger picture. Or their advice might be years out of date. Now that is understandable, as the speed at what things can change in today’s music business can be quite staggering.
But what I had to defend few times lately can only be called ethics in music business. I know it can be a cut throat business and many people would gladly sacrifice their own parents for a bit of success… But I always felt strongly about how I would like to and do conduct my business. I would like to be able to look back years from now and be proud not only what I have achieved, but also how I did it. There has been a lot of talk about ethics in the music business in the past fifteen years, but usually the first thing to point at is the consumer. This always kind of baffled me a bit. I mean of course I try to make ethical choices in my life as an everyday consumer, but I don’t think I would look kindly at my local supermarket telling me where I should or should not shop, or if they would, I would brush it aside as nothing more than advertising. Very little do we hear about the musicians themselves looking at their own “business ethics”.
So let’s start with the most important thing: music. So you are an aspiring artist. You write songs, right? So let’s ask ourselves few questions just to figure out where we can start.
1. Why do you write songs?
2. What do you write songs about?
3. Who do you write songs for?
I think these are important questions. Too often musicians just do things without knowing why. So let’s break this down.
1. Why do you write songs? Do you write songs for yourself to perform? Or do you write songs in a hope that someone else would record your songs? Or do you write songs just for your own pleasure? If so, you might be wasting your time reading this post anyway. If you write them for someone else, you should consider this in your writing process. Even better, if you know the artist you are writing for, you could even try to write it from their perspective. Now if you write songs for yourself to perform, it does not mean they can’t be recorded by other artists as well. But I the writing process is different.
2. What do you write your songs about? I’m not taking any high moral ground here saying what your songs should or should not be about. But if you write about something you know, it will sound more natural, or if you are telling a story, make sure you let the listener in. There is no use telling me about your first true love, if you are not willing to give me details. It is your responsibility as a songwriter to tell the story. It is your responsibility to make sure the listener understands, or can take something away from the song. There is no point writing a bad song and then complain how the world does not get you or buy your music! No it is not the case of you being ahead of your time… if it is a bad song, it will not sell.
3. Who do you write your songs for? Yourself or the listener? If you write songs only for your self, please go back to your bedroom, close the door and keep your songs in there. I do not want to hear them, and apart from your family who think the sun shines from your back side, neither does anyone else. You can write songs about yourself, but you are still writing them for the listener. Let me repeat that, you are writing the songs for the listener!
So you have written some great songs “for the listener” and a stranger you have never met can relate to it, or “feel” the story. You managed to get through the first steps. Now it is time to arrange the music. So let’s assume you are in a band. The song is great! You play it with the band and decide to arrange it with a guitar intro, verse, chorus, intro, verse, chorus, instrumental solo, chorus (you can change that structure any way you want, it’s just an example). The guitar intro is great, and you all want to play it as long as possible before the vocals come in. The drummer wants to do syncopated off beats to “keep it interesting”… The bass player wants to play a melody line, just to get to use the higher register of his bass… the guitar player has this amazing solo, that goes on for a minute and a half… Oh yeah and the riff plays the best in E minor, even though the singer would be much better off singing it in C minor… Time for a reality check. Everyone is just feeding their own ego’s here. None of the above is good for the song, the music or the listener. It’s fine if this is a sunday hobby for you, you get together with the lads and play some songs… You might even have an occasional concert, and that is all fine. But when you don’t “make it”, don’t blame the lack of audience, or opportunities.
Few years down the line you have played some saturday night slots in some local clubs. You had to learn a tight cover set to get the gigs. In the process you recognised what works and what does not, and adjusted your own songs accordingly. Your set of original material also became tight. You learned how to entertain an audience. You started to look like a professional. Now it is time to get the business up and running. You had a Facebook page that you used as your “website”. Now it’s time to get a real website. You hired a web designer, or maybe one of the lads in the band took it upon them selves to learn basic web design. You are also reading everything you can get your hands on about promoting music, you are taking responsibility for your career. You are not blaming others any more. Instead you are making things happen. You utilise all the wonderful online tools and you are reaching people beyond your home town. You have a list of venues that treated you well and you give them priority over the ones that didn’t. You collaborate and help out other musicians in the area. You rock the social media, you reply to every comment and tweet. You thank people who help you out. You try to contribute the music community around you.
You get the drift by now, I’m sure. To me these things are really important. I hardly ever ask other musicians to help me without trying to help them first with something. By now I would consider myself confident using and setting up WordPress websites, Facebook and Twitter. I’m confident sound engineer, and have a decent amount of experience on it. I am still learning video editing, and it is something I like to get better at and I’ve been known to write blog post or two I value my skills highly, so if you come to me asking for help, I will put a price on it. But if you offer something in exchange, or have helped me out in the past, I will go out of my way to help you. I believe in Karma, even though sometimes it can have a long route, but what you give is what you get.
You can also extend the conversation to subjects I tacked here before, Like Art v. Profit and Perfection v. Progress.
None of the above does not mean I don’t have hunger to succeed; in fact, just the opposite. I drive for success, and everything I do, I do it because I expect it to somehow help me to get that small step closer to where I have my sights set on. But as I said before, if I make it there (or not) I’d like to be able to look back and be proud of my journey. And if it does not come from your heart, people will know you are faking it.
The author J.P. Kallio is a singer / songwriter / coffee aficionado
The author J.P. Kallio is a singer / songwriter / coffee aficionado