THE POWER OF INDEPENDENTS: Discussion for a Digital Era-Part 1

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For two nights this past December under the roof of echomusic-a burgeoning new media company based in Nashville-a group of ten songwriters gathered alongside the American Songwriter staff and other interested observers to witness a significant dialog.

For two nights this past December under the roof of echomusic-a burgeoning new media company based in Nashville-a group of ten songwriters gathered alongside the American Songwriter staff and other interested observers to witness a significant dialog. It was a conversation designed to put in perspective the recent struggles and successes of independent songwriters, artists, singers and musicians; opportunities that exist within web space for both performing and non-performing songwriters; and generally to get a hands-on account of the extent to which the technological changes in the musical landscape has affected independents.

Included in this “roundtable”-formatted discussion were Beth Nielsen Chapman, Sam Bush, Eric Brace (Last Train Home), Adrienne Young, Julie Lee, Brett James, Morgane Hayes, Chris Stapleton, David Mead and Ernest Chapman. Perspectives were beneficially varied and unique: the independent songwriter as artist, non-performer with a publishing deal, seasoned and established writer, and even the newbie on the block.

You should be on the lookout for Part II of this dialog to appear-via Q&A format next time-in the September/October annual “Music Business & Publishing Special.”

Following the desire and/or calling to be an artist/singer/songwriter today presents challenges no matter where you are in your career, but over the last 10 to 15 years we have added to the mix technology and tools that never before existed and-as such-have forever altered the landscape upon which the songwriter resides.

As recent as the late ‘90s, touring songwriters and bands gained initial access to fans and followers with sign-up sheets, transferred them to the likes of an excel spreadsheet, fed mailing labels through a printer tray and applied postage. All of these steps were applied to energize their fan base for the next tour or show where they would hope to sell their latest recording or enthrall the audience enough to make a stop at one of the (likely now to be deceased) record stores before the love wore off. While effective enough, the connection between artist and fan required a fair amount of devotion to keep the fires burning until the next show, tour or CD. Scheduling tours and shows was often a matter of purchasing one of those genius publications listing every small, medium and large venue in the country with a phone number and, hopefully, a current contact name.

While artist/songwriters were conducting homegrown marketing campaigns like these, those songwriters fortunate enough (at that time) to have record deals, were working feverishly to build enough momentum to pay what they owed for the layers of label kin who were promoting their careers.

Web Addresses for Everyone

The biggest change after the turn of the century was the almost immediate escalation of the importance of the internet in the lives of the majority or people under the age of 35. Over the five years following 2000, new and faster communication modes would give (everyone) the access to fans and would-be fans but would require a new kind of commitment (throw out the sign-up sheets).

As the Internet became, undoubtedly, the quickest and most efficient means of reaching out to fans, songwriters and artists had to make other decisions-including how to portray themselves beyond the songs they create and perform. Adrienne Young viewed it as an enormous opportunity but admitted that one could self-promote the day away fairly easily. To add a deeper dimension to Adrienne’s website, which was started initially to promote her music, she uniquely developed a network (Cup & String)through the same site to discuss and bring eyes and ears to an area of great interest to her-local and organic farming. That added dimension gave her fans additional access to who she is.

With the phenomenal increase this past year in the amount of message board activity and blogging on artist sites, fans seem increasingly interested in the connection that was once limited to the live event, letters or email. Some songwriters are, admittedly, not so educated at it and desire to maintain more mystery between their persona and the fan. After all, as one songwriter asked, isn’t that what your songs are for? Other writers, like David Mead, feel the emphasis placed on artists’ internet presence can be a mixed bag. But he feels it has given him the chance to specify himself, as opposed to being placed into the sea of pop artist/writers…and attract those who really have an interest in his music.

Bluegrass aficionado Sam Bush noted that for the bluegrass genre show normally sold the records, not the opposite, which is normally true for pop, rock and country. So he has welcomed the promotional coverage he gets from his website, MySpace and other broadcast avenues like XM and Sirius radio.

Americana songwriter and client of echomusic, Julie Lee, believes that the combination of echotools (echomusic’s proprietary customer intimacy engine) and her dedication to maintaining contact with fans-along with her more recent MySpace presence-helps her to reach not only Americana fans but also the younger contingent and the international audience. “You just have to see what works and then figure out how to bring it all together,” she says.

While many of the promotional efforts required 10 years ago have now been replaced with email blasts, online message boards and even mobile messaging, the investment of artists’ time has probably doubled in a lot of cases-as Eric Brace can attest to. When asked if all of these opportunities for marketing music independently and the time it demands have affected his creative process, he says, “I have written probably three songs this year, as opposed to the 50 I had planned. I spend all of my time on the business of it.”

With time management for artists and songwriters being such a prime issue, it is important that all this new technology prove efficient and easy to manage. Most of the participants in the interview work with echomusic, whose business it is to help the artist build and maintain their fan base relationships; they offer tools that give artists the power to manage their online communities and keep themsleves ahead of the game. echomusic co-founder Mark Montgomery states, “It’s our job to stay ahead of the curve so artists can maintain the advantage technologically-where their online community, fan club, website, online ticket and music sales, etc. are concerned.”

Changing Players and Pieces

The means of “doing business,” which usually equates to being heard and selling one’s music, has changed the prerequisite-or priority-of having a recording deal for the performing songwriter. With all of these new tools available to almost anyone, being versatile and multitasking is key, with a few exceptions. Music Row songwriters Brett James and Chris Stapleton don’t care so much for all that multitasking. With a publishing deal and a string of hit songs, James says it is now possible for a songwriter to write a song in the evening, email it the next morning, be changing somebody’s world soon thereafter-via radio, mostly-and still stay on track with your craft. Stapleton, who has been in Nashville for five years now, has certainly proven that being internet and computer-savvy isn’t a requirement for achieving a No. 1 single.

The resulting changes for the songwriter, from all the new technology and possibilities over the past 15 years, can definitely be observed through the long and fruitful career of Beth Nielsen Chapman, writer of songs like “Down on My Knees,” “This Kiss” and “Strong Enough to Bend”-not to mention six successful albums. “I was on a major record label for 10 years, had deals with three major publishers, and I now finally own all of my publishing and songs, am completely independent and finally making a living that I couldn’t before,” Chapman says. “…this [new structure] allows me to sell an eighth of the records I did with a record company and still be able to make money.” But with the new structure comes a tremendous responsibility to ensure the legal and ethical protection of songwriters’ rights. As Chapman notes, “The internet has been a blessing and a curse…with the new generation lacking a concept [of basic intellectual property], all of the money that is floating around needs to be assigned correctly so that songwriters gets paid for their work.

With all of these new open spaces to put your music into (enter satellite radio, MySpace, ring tones, youtube…), protecting the songwriter requires a lot of “framework building,” which is now being taken on by the likes of NSAI, the Songwriters Guild of America, as well as independent songwriters themselves.

Take note that several months ago, MySpace partnered with SNOCAP (digital licensing) to enable musicians to upload, sell and get paid for their music per song. The MySpace phenomenon, integrated largely into the lives of those 30 and under, has also become an important element in viral marketing and fan development for artists and writers. And it is being used, by some, as an extension of their website. Hit songwriter Morgane Hayes, who uses MySpace in lieu of a website, adds that because it’s so accessible and easy to upload new material, it makes for a pretty addictive promotional outlet; even so, she maintains that’s it’s truly valuable to helping create a buzz for people’s music.

Ernest Chapman, the group’s youngest member, spoke of his reality being rooted in these advancements and opportunities created over the past decade. “Growing up in the Napster generation,” he says, “I think all of this provides me a tremendous opportunity starting out to define myself…to an audience I deal with directly.”

Dealing directly with an audience and maintaining that buzz over the lifespan of an artist’s career, however, requires staying in the game. Social networking sites will come and go, but if artists continue to grow, maintain their online community and communicate regularly with their fan base, they have a stronger foundation on which to build their business. This is why artists benefit from their own presence and work with companies who can help them build a strong strategy and model to sustain over a long period of time.

Technology will continue to change and develop at a rapid pace, but it all comes down to relationships; if you have great content, make sure you know who wants it and get it to them. The delivery mechanisms will take care of themselves. Songwriters and artists are content developers, and technology is there to serve them-given that they know how to use it and are equipped with the right tools.

The Wrap

With a concentrated group of artists and songwriters brought together in one room to discuss the effect of technology and not [solely] to discuss their passion, songwriting, the presence of optimism should be noted. After years of the music business’s struggle to define a workable model for itself in this sea change of technology, the independent artist/songwriter/performer, etc. seems to have skipped most of the drudge and embraced all this rapid change that seems only to be coming faster. So maybe it is noteworthy to say that it’s not so outlandish to believe that so many creative types have also been at the cutting edge of successfully creating their own business model and branding themselves-something once left to record company marketing.

At this point and time, artists and songwriters have never enjoyed so much opportunity for control, ownership and success for their futures. And, undoubtedly, there is more to come. As a community, we hope to keep the conversation going…

echomusic is an innovative company who specializes in working with artistic and creative visionaries in their field. For more information, visit echomusic.com.

JulieLee.com
AdrienneYoung.com
LastTrainHome.com
RedBeetRecords.com
BethNielsonChapman.com
SamBush.com
DavidMead.com

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