Music Business Networking on the Decline

Brian Austin Whitney writes about the challenges he's facing putting together the next Just Plain Folks Roadtrip. A lot of our long-time readers are also JPF members (as am I), and the Roadtrip has always offered a great opportunity to network with other musicians all over the country. Unfortunately, Brian can't seem to get very many people excited about coming out this year, so he's scaling back the number of dates:

I think a lot of it is simply a shift in society and I've seen it happen in real time over the last 9 years. It's harder and harder to get people off their butts and out of their houses to do ANYTHING when they can "sort of" do it by surfing the web.

This lines up pretty well with a theory that David Hooper and I have kicked around from time to time. We know that the typical lifespan for a band is about 6-7 years, even though it takes about 8-10 years of hard work to reach "overnight success" status. That's one reason why so many great bands drop off the radar right before their big tipping point. However, that "7 year itch" ripples through our business -- with generations of musicians and music business folks popping up to take the place of those that bail out at around the same time. Because musicians come and go through our industry in similar waves, you can look at the recent history of the music business as a set of seven year-long cycles with striking differences in attitudes.

For instance, if you look back to 1988, when R.E.M. signed their major label deal, that kicked off what I like to think of as that last great feeding frenzy when major labels stalked bands in Athens, Seattle, and anywhere else they thought they could find the next big thing. A lot of people started bands in 1989 and 1990. The focus was on getting signed, so serious artists had to invest in showing up at conferences like CMJ, SXSW, and many of the regional events that sprouted up at the time. Like other college kids at the time, I spent a lot of my time at all ages shows until I turned 21 and could start going to see bands in NYC.

That period ended in 1995, as the real estate market started to rise and college kids turned to the web and to e-mail lists for new music. It's when spinme.com launched, as well as MP3.com, CDBaby, and Just Plain Folks. Clubs started shutting down, because they couldn't make the rent, and musicians found other outlets for getting in front of audiences. For a while, artists were making some decent money just by providing content to startup web companies -- at least until the bubble burst. I was working in radio, and watched lots of bands get sidelined by labels while new indie movements cropped up to fill their void.

By 2002, MP3.com had died off and MySpace was about to enter the scene. September 11 had a huge impact on our community. A lot of musicians put down their instruments and retreated to their day jobs full time. Meanwhile, a new wave of artists decided that "life's too short," and started playing out even if it meant making less money.

In our current cycle, it's almost like there's a total backlash against what we learned in the previous two periods. I often encounter bands that have over 25,000 MySpace friends that can't get ten people out to a gig. The cycle we're in now is one where we like to quantify how we're doing with everything from the number of social networking friends we have collected to the number of "diggs" our weblogs get. A growing number of hobbyist artists don't expect to make any money from their work -- they're happy just to get attention on YouTube. That frustrates and sometimes thwarts the efforts of working musicians that want to earn a living from their craft. At the opposite end of the spectrum are kids who just want to win the lottery by becoming the next American Idol.

So, today, smack in the middle of our current "Web 2.0" cycle, we've developed a culture among baby bands that emphasizes online interaction over offline connection. At the risk of sounding like Gramps on the porch, these baby bands don't understand that the very best kind of connection with audience members happens in person, at gigs.

Networking with other musicians, face-to-face, is always the best way to overcome common challenges and build fruitful collaborations. While online tools and communities are better than nothing, they're still not as powerful as what you can accomplish in one weekend with people in the same room. (2NMC in 2004 was the last really powerful music conference I participated in, and it's unlikely we could get that many people out to another one in today's climate -- despite all the great things that those folks accomplished.)

Brian's not exaggerating when he says that JPF used to offer musicians one of the best ways to network. Unlike many "free" things, especially in our business, JPF offers real, valuable advice and connections. But if today's generation of musicians doesn't see the value in those connections, nobody benefits. I can only hope our next business cycle (which should kick in by 2009) can swing the pendulum back toward more real interaction. Two more years should be enough for us to understand what happens to American Idol contestants who don't create transcendent live experiences for their fans.

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