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A New Book Introduces The New Music Business

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“When things get so big, I don’t trust them at all. You want some control, you’ve got to keep it small.”–Peter Gabriel, “DIY”

If you’ve been reading Blogcritics for any length of time, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the music business has changed radically over the last 10 years, as new technologies such as PC-based digital recording and the Internet itself have transformed not only how music is made, but how listeners interact with it.

The result is that the traditional music business model, which dominated how popular commercial music was sold and distributed for the bulk of the 20th century, is shrinking. In that model, the artist was often at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of managers, accountants, lawyers and all of the functionaries of a record label. It was assumed that the artist knew little or nothing about the business, and would produce product to be marketed and sold by others. While numerous artists have gotten very wealthy using this model, many, many more have been run over by it, and stories of mismanagement and record company manipulation are rampant.

Great Ideas Could Have Benefited From Tighter Editing

In place of the traditional recording industry, Robert Wolff, the author of How To Make In the New Music Business posits a much more entrepreneurial model for musicians to succeed using new technologies and media to make and sell music.

In a way, Wolff’s book feels less like the usual look at the music industry and much more like the sort of self-help publications that entrepreneurs have been reading for decades. And like those books, (many of which began self-published and were later picked up by large houses), it has a sort of grab bag feel to it. It feels more like a collection of interesting magazine articles than a tightly edited publication. There’s something for everybody here, and conversely, chapters that will leave some people cold.

For example, there’s a chapter written by Bob Bradshaw, a leading builder of pedalboards, which are an amalgamation of “stomp box” effects frequently used by electric guitarists. For those who aren’t electric guitarists, this chapter can be quickly skimmed, or skipped.

Wolff has a chapter on PC-based recording products, but I can name at least one major manufacturer whose name is missing from it. A book could be written about hard disc recording alone, and indeed, many have.

There are chapters on songwriting by Diane Warren, as well as chapters on recording and mastering that were written by Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig, respectively, but like the chapter on hard disk recording, these also tend to be much more of a broad overview of the processes involved, than concrete suggestions and recommendations.

(For those of you keeping score at home, that’s three chapters written by men named Bob, and Robert is also the name of the book’s primary author. Men take note: perhaps changing your first name to theirs is your first step towards success in the recording industry!)

There are also two chapters on what’s wrong with the old recording industry model, one by leading session guitarist (and former member of Toto), Steve Lukather, and another a transcription of a speech given in 2000 by Courtney Love.

Courtney Love’s speech is quite interesting: she certainly right that the artist is typically in thrall to his or her recording company. But both her speech and Wolff’s gushing introduction to it ignore how her own self-destructive nature has harmed her career. And Wolff would have been better off quoting from it and interjecting his own thoughts along the way, particularly if he disagreed with something Love said, or at least ending a speech with a summation and his opinion of it and whether he disagreed with any of it.

Both Courtney and Lukather’s chapters could have benefited by having their four letter words either edited out, or abbreviated. I realize I’m about to sound prudish, but I’m no angel in this department: I can curse like a sailor when talking with friends, or when sufficiently angry. But that doesn’t mean I need those words to express my ideas in print, or expect them included when a speech is transcribed, and Wolff coarsens his book’s tone by including them.

Hey Mr. Businessman, You Can’t Dress Like Me…Or, Maybe You Can

There’s an interesting irony which goes unexplored by Wolff: ever since the mid-1960s, businessmen, entrepreneurs, advertising and capitalism itself were frequently derided by musicians, who saw themselves as counter-culture artists functioning on an entirely different plane far removed from workaday self-employed entrepreneurs who have always needed to wear many hats while running a business. While Wolff’s book feels like it could benefit from much tighter editing, it contains some novel ideas that a new generation of entrepreneurial musicians could stand to benefit from. DIY, indeed.

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About Ed Driscoll