From SXSW: Strategies for working musicians 

Keeping up with the ever-changing music industry

For Lisa Simpson of Boise band Finn Riggins, Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, was itself a stage for the many talented buskers she saw during SXSW.

"I saw a guy hula hooping with an acoustic guitar balanced on his chin, slapping it with a maraca," she told me over a cup of coffee. "It wasn't really a song, it was a spectacle."

Beyond spectacle, the 2,200 bands that played official SXSW showcases (and the hundreds more that showed up uninvited in search of exposure) regularly employ all kinds of strategies to reach fans. Finn Riggins not only sells CDs on tour, but also offers handmade tote bags, screenprinted T-shirts and even onesies for rocking tots.

In search of merch during SXSW, I discovered 10 independent record stores are still open in Austin. Dan Plunkett, co-owner of End of an Ear, doesn't feel the sense of doom many other retailers are experiencing around the country.

"We don't have to make thousands of people happy, we have to make a thousand people happy," he said. "When you love a band, you want to have a physical copy."

Casey Rae-Hunter of the D.C.-based nonprofit Future of Music Coalition wishes more people had the attitude that "authenticity is the thing." Over a plate of tacos, he said that when artists come to that conclusion and consumers buy directly from artists, we'll get a healthier music ecosystem.

"Even download sites are still transitional," he points out, referring to iTunes and Amazon. "Who decided the 99 cent price point was sacrosanct? Some artists are getting their music on as many digital services as possible, and then selling 'scarce goods.' Increasingly, artists can still retain their copyrights and still sell a physical object that might not be music, or sell an added value item or keep making new peripheral products like videos and remixes to get people returning to the source."

Smoking a cigarette, PR wizard Leeor Brown said, "Overall what I find to be working the most is ultimately something that has a story. If everyone can get your music for free, you better make something interesting. 'Added value' is now just value. Music is half the battle. It used to be more top down, where major labels dictated what you heard and shaped the image of musicians. But now people have the ability to choose for themselves."

His day job is at Terrorbird, a boutique music marketing company known for hooking up college radio stations with music from new artists. But recently he started his own label, Friends of Friends, which focuses on creating unique products. For FOF's release of the new Ernest Gonzales record, Been Meaning to Tell You, that meant 180-gram white vinyl and an accompanying art book.

"It's all about signifiers now," Brown said. "Carrying Ernest's vinyl around SXSW under my arm, people are coming up to me asking, 'What's that?' We need cool physical products to be able to say, oh that's what music is. With digital, you can't do that."

There is no denying, however, that digital is a new frontier, one which has led to a new infrastructure to help ensure artists are compensated fairly. Sound Exchange, which collects and distributes digital performance royalties, has paid more than $360 million in royalties to 45,000 artists and sound copyright owners since the nonprofit was created in 2000. According to VP of new media, Bryan Calhoun, Sound Exchange held money for more than 450 artists and 200 labels at SXSW.

"Almost $1 million in royalties are sitting in the bank that want to go home," he said.

Those royalties are generated by laws that require satellite radio, Internet radio and cable radio to make payments for the music they stream.

Rae-Hunter thinks popular Web-streaming services like Pandora, Rhapsody, LastFM, Mog and Spotify could become more viable due to economies of scale. More users equal more revenue, and possibly lower prices for the service to consumers.

"It seems that consumers have been trained by the Internet to believe that they can get anything they want whenever they want," he said. "The key is to make sure that the creator is getting paid somewhere."

For British label Warp Records, popularity means their catalog is highly pirated. According to U.S. label manager Priya Dewan, a reputation for cutting edge packaging only goes so far. So they set up Bleep, an online retail destination.

"On the digital side, we include apps and bonus tracks, games and stuff like that," she said. "A lot of the rips are low quality and all of our digital is 320 [very high bit rate], which Warpheads care about."

Independent Online Distribution Alliance consultant Sergio Flores, whose business is global digital distribution for independent music, said that while budgeting and marketing can be easier with a label, it's easier to do DIY than 10 years ago. DIY is no longer about going it alone but assembling a good team.

"If an artist is somewhat connected, has a little money and is willing to put in some effort, at the end of the day who is going to care more about the music, the artist or the label? The artist."

"Get active," Brown said. Bands can't possibly still think that, "if I'm good enough, I'll get signed and it will all be OK. That's bullshit. If you have a few fans, get more. Work hard."

With six performances in five days at SXSW, Finn Riggins has a handle on "work hard" but are also a good example of the new DIY. Their label, Tender Loving Empire, works with IODA to sell their music digitally. Burnside Distribution has their CDs in about 50 independent music stores and Riot Act Media handles their PR.

The consensus at this year's music panels was that musicians have to be perpetual content producers, which takes a lot of work. Dave Allen, founding member of seminal post-punk group Gang of Four, summed it up, saying, "It's all work. Nothing ever changed."

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