opinion

How streaming has created the real retail long tail

Merry Christmas! No, don’t worry, I do know what day it is. And while I’m sure we all miss those now far-off days spent facedown in a vat of eggnog and Quality Street, while a festive Olly Murs TV appearance ...

Why musicians have to build technology into everything they do

Adaptation. Innovation. Creative destruction. Whatever you call it, the constant change needed to stay ahead of evolving trends and technologies is not a new concept, even in an industry as firmly established as music. The problem is that, while adaptation may be at the forefront of minds and often conversations, I feel both as a musician and a businessman that the idea is still not taken seriously. We all know that earning a living as a musician is difficult and, mostly, we are not complaining. After all, we do this primarily for the love. However, the reality of the new model is that it is not only hurting artists’ bank balances, but also affecting the quality of music that can reach the global stage. In effect, good music is harder to come by. How does this happen? We should probably start by looking at how artists make money. During my time running a label and managing Fearless Vampire Killers’ finances it became clear to me that music itself actually makes up a small portion of an artist’s income. This can vary based on the audience, but though we took care to nurture relationships and always ended up doing better than average, this alone would never have been enough. The rise of streaming, while great for listeners, has destroyed an entire income stream for independent artists. It is well known that many labels receive greater compensation from streaming services for access to their extensive catalogues, but independent artists sadly don’t have that carrot to dangle. Either we accept the familiar 0.00000001p (slight underestimation) per-stream on our monthly bank statements, or we miss out on an essential promotional tool. It’s hardly a choice. You are left with merchandise and touring as your bread and butter. For a band with a global profile this might seem enough, until you take into account what it takes to build that profile. You need to support other bands for no money and invest thousands into travelling the world, in the hope that you can get in front of new people who might possibly like your music. Radio is not the powerhouse it used to be, buzz only goes so far and online is throwaway unless you pour money into promotion. Touring is your only real option. And therein lies the problem: the relentless touring needed to secure your following and capitalise on any buzz requires a huge investment that comes from a supportive label or a rich patron. Not every talented musician is lucky enough to have either of these, and we are predominantly left with artists that have been selected by a limited financial elite and given the means to rise to prominence. This is nothing new, but over the past decade this financial elite has largely had the originality scared out of them by imposing venture capital firms not looking for the next Bowie or Prince, but for return on investment. Even the financial elite have someone to answer to. The issue has only been magnified since the financial crisis hit: their pockets are not as deep as they used to be. So what can we do to deepen the collective pocket of our music industry, just enough to loosen up and take a punt on something special? The lazy answer: find more money. It has to have gone somewhere, surely? The gaming industry is exploding, AI is about to revolutionise tech all over again and people have more spare time than ever, so how can we get them to fill it with music? The better answer: we adapt. Because it’s not just about finding more money, or new ways to make money from music. It’s about pushing the boundaries of what music can mean to people, how they can consume it and what eventual value we can attach to it. It is up to all of us, musicians and industry alike, to get creative, to look to other industries and trends, to learn from them and get really bold with what we do next. Unless we take our chance and weave music into the future make-up of technology then it will become as cheap and as dull as water. In fact, cheaper than water. People happily pay £30 a month for that. Story By: Kier Kemp, Inklings

Meet sync king Jamie N Commons

For a musician with a hangover, Jamie N Commons sure talks a lot about destiny. He’s up early to chat to Music Week, fuzzy-headed in his Los Angeles bedroom after a late night at a major label party. That’s how the 28-year-old rolls these days, and he puts that largely down to the D-word. “I decided to shift over to the publishing thing because you can really affect your own destiny there, it was a good change,” he says. It’s no wonder he thinks so – Commons was named Sync Artist Of The Year at 2016’s Music Week Sync Awards and his Not Gonna Break Me was used in the BBC’s Rio Olympics coverage. The Universal Music Publishing Group signee is hot property. The Olympic accolade followed his collaboration with X Ambassadors, Jungle, being used in a Beats By Dre advert during the 2014 football World Cup. The track has also featured in trailers for Orange Is The New Black, Pitch Perfect 2 and Horrible Bosses. Added to that, Levi’s picked up Rumble And Sway for a global campaign, Timberland did the same with Marathon and the singer’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song was featured in Game Of Thrones. So how does all that come down to destiny? “The company briefs go out and you can either pitch for it or not,” Commons explains. “You can make it [the song] as good as you can or you can half-arse it. If you try hard, you’ve always got a chance.” Commons – who was born in Chicago but grew up in Bristol and studied classical music at Goldsmiths College alongside James Blake and Katy B – argues that it’s possible for musicians to work tirelessly on their own material and get nowhere. “Some of the most hardworking musicians are still busking on the streets, but this [sync] shows results for working hard. You get a yes or a no quickly and then move onto the next one. Every project is different, you work with different genres and there’s always a new challenge. It’s quite a fun way to create.” Commons also recognises the practical importance of his sync work, emphasising that it’s increasingly important “to have as many fingers in as many pies as possible, that’s really the modern game”. At the same time, he’s wary of “spreading myself too thin”, conceding, “there’s no one way to do it”. But for now, he’s finding that “diversifying and trying a bunch of shit” is proving a good way of keeping busy. His move into the sync world – potentially a brave step from the deep-voiced hipster bluesman he first emerged as – hasn’t resulted in any detractors either. Commons puts that down to the idea that “other musicians know that if you see a rope you grab it, they respect keeping busy above anything else. You’ve got to keep running, or you’ll get overtaken”. And the key to staying ahead when it comes to sync? “Never being boring! You’ve got to make sure the pace, tone and main lyric all work. The only person it matters to is the commissioning editor.” Commons believes his music works in a sync context because, “it’s not trying to be anything other than what I do, full-on rock songs and Michael Bay explosions”. As he says, it seems to be working. “[It’s about] finding your own thing that people like to use on their products and then attacking that”. Even so, cushy and successful as his sync-based career sounds, he has no plans to abandon Jamie N Commons the artist. Because, while he admits focusing solely on sync may be viable in the future, he’s focused on his debut album finally seeing the light of day after much wrangling over his “vision”. After three EPs (2011’s The Baron, 2013’s Rumble And Sway and last year’s Jamie N Commons) his debut is due this year via Fiction. Commons, who appeared on Eminem’s 2013 track Desperation, won’t divulge anything about collaborators, but says it will combine “the more rootsy stuff” familiar to long-time fans with “some more modern stuff”. But the most intriguing point Commons makes about his upcoming record is that it will blur the lines between sync and recording artist. “I don’t know if those things are disconnected,” he says. “Obviously the music and sound I make lends itself quite well [to sync] and there’ll be a lot of that on the record, probably taking old songs and rearranging them. I think the two worlds will sit quite nicely together.” If he can manage that, Commons really will be the master of his own destiny.

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