Shazam is a mobile-based smartphone application that allows users to identify songs from radio, television and film simply by holding their phones toward the audio source. Though I use it sparingly, I’ve racked up over 100 Shazams in the past couple of years and I felt that it was finally time to pursue some of these artists. As I browsed through my list, I realized that there were several bands and even songs which I had captured more than once. In one instance, I even “Shazam’d” the same song three different times, leading me to conclude that it must have been something special. That song was “Soundcheck” by Catfish and the Bottlemen.
As I listened to the song with a new perspective, I spent the first 0:48 seconds perplexed. I didn’t really like it, and I couldn’t even remember having heard it. Then the chorus kicked in at 0:49 and I was immediately hit with an upbeat punk rock anthem that made me want to head-bang at my desk. The first chorus was short and sweet, and moved directly into the second verse within just 14 seconds. That verse already felt familiar to me and I enthusiastically hummed along while anxiously awaiting the next big chorus. The bridge hit around two minutes in and was as sparse as it was haunting. It built into an emotional and tense guitar solo which evoked scenes of chaos before returning to the familiar verse structure and a huge double chorus before ending abruptly.
The rest of my data was equally enlightening, as I found eleven artists in total whom I had Shazam’d more than once. Next up was Icelandic folk group Of Monsters and Men, followed by American-turned-English rockers Cage The Elephant. I quickly noticed a pattern in which 45% of my Shazams were indie-rock bands from the UK with California (36%) coming in a close second. At times it can be difficult to discover new music, especially with radio, retail centers and film replaying a lot of the same homogenous drivel. Shazam gave me the opportunity to identify the songs I liked and prompted me to discover and pursue these artists. Many say that technology is hurting the music industry, but with apps like Shazam, technology is only the beginning.
That’s the text message I received back in January from my old bandmate, Tim Waters. He and Stephen Goldstein, our bass player from Someone Like You, rose from the ashes of our defunct easycore band to form We Are The Movies, an alternative pop-punk band based out of Columbus, Ohio.
Without hesitation, I immediately committed; because all I’d been hearing about for the past eight years was Alaska. Tim’s old band, Nothing Less, was a mainstay of the early 2000s Alaskan pop-punk scene, performing at the Alaska State Fair, Sullivan Arena, and the University of Alaska – Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses. Nothing Less went global in 2005 performing with the Vans Warped Tour across the United States and Canada and performing at such famed venues as the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood and CBGB in New York.
I met Tim back in 2008 through a craigslist ad seeking a pop-punk drummer. Before I knew it, we had recorded an EP, had a couple of our songs on the soundtrack of the Best Documentary at the 2012 Mountain Film Awards, and were performing at America’s Longest Continually Running Music Venue, the Newport Music Hall. By the time 2010 rolled around, Stephen and I hit the road working for a magazine on Vans Warped Tour, working on the tour during the day and performing acoustic songs and promoting our album in the early mornings and late, late evenings. That summer took us everywhere from Boston, Massachusetts to the Mexican border in San Diego, California. We learned a lot about hard work that year, and that experience would come into play as we set off to Alaska to kick-off Vans Warped Tour 2016 at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
The reality of having to be somewhere at 9:00 A.M. reminds us that being on the road is no different than having a day job back home.
Day 2 – The Warm-Up
Anger Management books us another show, this time at the Covenant House, a safe refuge which provides shelter for homeless youth in Alaska.
GCI, Alaska’s premier telecommunications provider, co-sponsors the event and provides 50 free tickets to the Road to Warped Tour. This will be the first time many of these kids have ever seen a concert.
I join the band on tambourine and we perform an acoustic set between speeches from GCI representatives and Covenant House.
Afterward, the boys do a signing and photo op while I give away free merchandise and coordinate with GCI. The kids go wild.
Day 2.5 – Wicked Wanda
We hop in the van and head over to Chilkoot Charlie’s, or simply “Koot’s,” a world famous bar and music venue where the band will headline the Warped Tour pre-party. Catering is served and we have dinner and watch the newest Game of Thrones with a band from New York called Behind the Façade. Good times.
The boys take the stage around midnight while the sun still blazes overhead. I sell merch and take photographs. We meet a girl who offers to sell merch for us at the festival the next day and we acquiesce.
Everyone is surprised to see the band Sleeping With Sirens in our audience, only to realize that they are only there to shoot pool and probably didn’t even notice us performing. Stephen and I laugh about the time we got into a fight with some of their members in Los Angeles in 2010.
We head off into the night to stir up some trouble in a brand new city.
Day 3 – The Big Day
The sound of an alarm clock buzzing near my head is the worst possible thing I could hear after passing out a few hours earlier on a stranger’s floor.
We arrive early at Sullivan Arena and begin setting up the merch tent. The band performs soundcheck while I coordinate a professional photographer, catering, and freebies from the vendors.
We Are The Movies perform on the main stage. They are the first band to perform at the first Vans Warped Tour event in 2016. I poorly livestream the event over facebook and try to maintain the appearance of professionalism.
We spend the rest of the day hanging backstage with our favorite bands, hustling for enough money to get home, and making new friends from all over the world. Our merch girl turns out to be the best damn merch girl any of us have ever seen. She promises to show us around the city later and again, we acquiesce.
Day 4 – Nature Beckons
The next day is spent exploring Independence Mine State Historical Park in Wasilla. The views are breathtaking. We have a snowball fight in June. We drink water right out of the stream. We experience Alaska.
Later that night, Tim and Mike perform an acoustic set to raise money for an organization that teaches teens how to use multimedia. At this point, the band has made five appearances in four days. We eat our free pizza and drink our free wine as we have become accustomed to do.
The next several hours are spent moving from bar to restaurant to another stranger’s floor. It’s daylight before we blissfully drift off to sleep. We are beginning to get used to this.
Days 5 & 6 – The Tour Guide
Our merch girl turns out to actually be a legitimate tour guide with some serious expertise. We visit Earthquake Park, eat Thai food, see a moose, mistake a pod of Beluga whales for white caps, and spend the evening around a campfire singing Red Jumpsuit Apparatus songs on ukulele.
Day 7 – Home
Eventually we make our way to the airport. I have a layover in Phoenix while everyone else is at LAX. They see Charlie Day, while I see a desert. My girlfriend picks me up and I go back to normal life. Happy ex-mas, the war is over.
**Special thanks to Chris and everyone at Road to Warped Tour, Pat for his hospitality, Chloe for her skills and company, and Rosie for her food, drinks, and floor to sleep on. I will never forget you, Alaska.**
I first met Devin Shidaker of The Acacia Strain over ten years ago when we were both aspiring musicians in the local Columbus, Ohio music scene. In fact, if it weren’t for the ingenuity of Shidaker’s band at the time, I never would have made it anywhere as a musician. They opened doors for my band to perform in Canada, got us to open large shows for touring artists, and always lent a helping hand when it came to borrowing equipment, finding places to practice, and just having a good group of friends to hang out with. I was fortunate enough to run into Devin the other night at our local home improvement store, where we had both made our second respective trips for the day (because we are old now, and that’s how old guys spend their Saturday nights). Shidaker had just purchased a home and was trying his damndest to get everything moved in before embarking on the Summer Slaughter Tour 2015, which begins in Denver, CO on July 28th.
Devin was kind enough to do an interview with me about his current work with The Acacia Strain, his beginnings in Columbus, and what it takes to be a working musician in today’s economic climate.
ZF: You’re getting ready to head out on the Summer Slaughter Tour, which will take you all over the United States and Canada. What “behind-the-scenes” things do bands generally have to do in order to prepare for a tour of this scale?
DS: Right now I’m sitting in our tour manager’s basement in Albany, NY, waiting on everyone else to wake up so we can make the hour and a half-ish drive to western Massachusetts, where our van and trailer are located (at Vincent’s house). Then we get to drive back here, unload some gear at the practice spot we are borrowing for a few days (THANK YOU BORN LOW!), and get our set as tight as possible before our first show on the way out to start the tour. During the week, our tour manager will take a trip down to our merch supplier (who thankfully is local to us), and pick up a bunch of boxes, get them counted, and have things sorted to start selling on the first day.
As far as hotels are concerned, that’s something we generally worry about the day of, just because you never know what kinds of things will change in the time before or during a show. We used to stay at people’s houses a lot to save money, but it’s really a coin toss on whether or not you’re going to stay with somebody who is accommodating and understands that you are tired and need rest, or somebody who wants to have some big stupid party and invite all of their friends over because a band they like is there. Those nights were always interesting, even though we hated them. As you get older while doing this whole touring thing, GOOD sleep becomes much more crucial.
ZF: The Acacia Strain signed with Rise Records (now owned by BMG) in 2012, prior to you joining. How has working with one of alternative music’s premier record labels helped you better understand the inner-workings of the music industry?
DS: Working with Rise Records has been nothing short of amazing. I have been on multiple labels in other bands, and none of them hold a candle to Rise. Typically you hear about labels constantly battling with bands over things like royalties, creative control, marketing, recording budgets, etc. With Rise though, we have not once had a single issue. They support their artists 100%, we have the final say on everything we do, and when it comes to our music, not one time have they tried to change or alter our sound. Of course children on the internet with zero understanding of how the music industry works like to say that we “sold out” or that it sucks that we signed with Rise, and they couldn’t be more wrong. I honestly feel like we would have fallen apart by now if it wasn’t for the nurturing environment provided to us by Rise. What most people don’t get is that labels are essentially just a financial institution for bands, much like a bank. They lend you money to make your record or whatever else, and they get paid back through your sales. More successful bands pay their labels back much faster, so they are generally given more attention. What is cool about Rise is that it’s like working with a bank that’s owned by your family who will do whatever it takes to help you be successful. They don’t treat us like we are just a source of fast cash or a loss they can write off on their taxes. We are human beings to them and they do what it takes to keep us going because they invested in us as a band, not just our success. I’m glad to have learned that in 2015 there exists a label like that.
In my last band, all our label cared about was when we were sending them money, even though we were one of their biggest selling acts at the time. They didn’t care if paying them meant that we couldn’t pay our own bills or if we lost our homes. They didn’t care about us. If you know what a “360 deal” is, that’s what we were unfortunately duped into signing (prior to my joining). For those that don’t know, it’s essentially a way for a label to bend you over and fuck you from behind for the duration of your contract. Not only do they own the rights to our music, but they own the rights to our merchandise and a lot of other things. Everything has to be printed through them, and they get paid just as much as the printing costs, which we also had to pay for. That means our shirts are costing us usually more than double what the average band is paying to manufacture them, and that eats into any profit we would have made. That’s an example of a bad label that is struggling to adapt to the 21st century, choosing to drain the life force from young bands who don’t know any better in order to keep themselves afloat. It’s horrible and I don’t want to see any other young bands going through something like that.
“All of your fans are important, and if you can do something for them, even if it’s a small gesture, they will remember that you didn’t put yourself above them and you will have a fan for life.”
ZF: Your debut full-length album with The Acacia Strain was 2014’s Coma Witch, which peaked at position #31 on the Billboard 200 charts. What sort of effort is required of the band and record label when it comes to promoting an album enough to land it on the charts?
DS: I think that to get a record to do really well, there are a lot of things that need to fall into place. Your band, your management, and your label all need to be on the same page, because if any one of those three aren’t happy with something, your record isn’t going to get the 100% push that it needs to get out there. Your label has to be happy with the record you’ve recorded, your management has to be happy with the way your record is being treated by the label, and they have to be happy as well, and your band has to be happy with everything. If you think your record sucks, you’re not going to be motivated to give it the push that it needs, and the same goes for the people putting it out. If they don’t think it’s good, they aren’t going to want to dump a bunch of money into marketing it. I think it’s also very important that you have a fan base who genuinely cares about what you’re doing.
As a band that formed in 2001, we have been lucky in that every record we have released has outperformed the one that came before it, and that’s largely due to our fans and how rabid they are with supporting us. We go out of our way to interact with them without being one of those bands who put themselves above their fans as if they aren’t worthy to meet them. We don’t do the “VIP Meet and Greet” thing because I think that’s it’s stupid to charge people money to meet you. We hang out in lawn chairs outside of our trailer every day on tour, and if you really want to meet us, you can walk over and do it. We will never tell you to go away, and we will never be too busy to say hi. I think that it’s unwise to assume that your fans will be okay with paying to meet you forever. They might do it when they are young, but I think when they grow up they will remember things like that. “Hey, remember that time we had to pay an extra twenty bucks just to meet so and so for 5 seconds? Why did we do that?” All of your fans are important, and if you can do something for them, even if it’s a small gesture, they will remember that you didn’t put yourself above them and you will have a fan for life. That’s why our fan base gets bigger and bigger, and that’s the main reason our record did so well when we released it.
“We certainly don’t care whether or not our music is accepted by mainstream society, because this music isn’t for them, it’s for us.”
ZF: With the rise of streaming and resurgence in vinyl record sales in recent years, have you noticed a shift in the way fans consume your music?
DS: Streaming has done nothing but help us out since it became so mainstream. I feel like less people are downloading music illegally because they can stream it from any of the services out there that are reasonably priced. I personally use Spotify and I love it. I have access to the majority of things that I want to listen to, whenever I want to. And when I listen to music on there, it’s helping the artist, albeit in a very small way. Before that, bands didn’t get anything from downloading, and it hurt. You have some people who just don’t care, they just want it for free, and then you have people who try to justify it by saying things like “oh I’ll support them directly by buying a shirt”. It’s a little better, but it’s kind of like going to the grocery store and stealing all of the ingredients for spaghetti, but paying for the garlic bread. You’re not really helping out the grocery store that much. With streaming, now we’re at least getting something from a lot of those people. I usually make enough from streaming each month to cover my car insurance or something, which isn’t much, but it’s something.
With that being said, I think vinyl has had a big resurgence because people like how collectible it is. A record comes out and you have this big, beautiful artwork that you don’t get with a CD, and in addition to your standard black records, there are usually a lot of color variants that are extremely collectible. People like knowing that that record they bought only has 99 others in the world that are that color. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something. On top of that, I think that streaming and digital downloads go hand in hand with vinyl, because now you can buy that record without needing to actually play it on your record player (although you should!). Most vinyl come with a download card or a CD so you can put the music on your phone or iPod and listen to it wherever you want. So that to me makes vinyl the ultimate format right now. As a music fan, vinyl is like the coolest thing you can own.
ZF: There has also been a change in recent years with metal music becoming more accepted by mainstream society. Do you think this has altered The Acacia Strain’s fan-base over the years?
DS: I think people are slowly coming around to us, they just need to see us live to get the full picture. A lot of people will listen to your music and their first reaction is “I don’t even know what the fuck this guy is saying”, but then maybe they read lyrics or they start to get an ear for it and they can make it out more. With us though, the music and lyrics aren’t the full picture. A lot of people will read lyrics and take everything said literally, and not look any deeper. A lot of our lyrics are metaphorical, and if you look at them from different perspectives, they can paint a completely different picture than what you may have originally thought. Then if you come to one of our shows, you will realize that this band is about living your life with no compromise, not letting anyone but yourself dictate who you are going to be, and having fun. We aren’t trying to be more “brutal” than any other band, we aren’t trying to be flashy on stage, and we certainly don’t care whether or not our music is accepted by mainstream society, because this music isn’t for them, it’s for us. We play what we want to play, how we want to play it, and luckily for us people like it. If they didn’t, we’d still be doing it the way we want to.
ZF: If there was one thing you could change about the way the music industry operates, what would it be?
DS: I would really like more bands out there to bet on themselves. Too many bands that pop up today are just variations of other bands that already exist. There are a lot of talented people out there who will never reach their full potential because they want to play it safe and do things that have been proven to work by other bands. When a band comes out and does something new and exciting for the first time, other bands go “hey, we should do that!”, and then you end up with a bunch of clones that are talented, but they usually get overlooked or eventually fizzle out.
ZF: When you were an unsigned musician, your most popular band was 1931, which was hardly local. You toured the United States, Canada, and even had interest from across the pond. What were some of the struggles you faced as an aspiring artist which made you a more experienced musician?
DS: In 1931, there were a lot of opportunities we missed out on because we didn’t have the experience to know any better. We would get approached by brand new labels who also had zero experience, and we would be pumped because we thought “holy shit we’re going to get SIGNED!” Of course these “labels” would fall apart within a few months, and nothing was ever done by them to help us out while they existed. I think that 1931 was a learning experience more than anything. It taught me how to improvise on tour when bad shit happens, because as a young band with no money, you can’t afford to fix your van, you can’t afford to eat, you can’t afford to sleep, you can’t afford to do anything. So you have to learn to improvise to stay alive and stay on the road, and I think we did that pretty well for what we were. We lasted from 2004 to 2009 which I think is a pretty good run for an unsigned touring band.
ZF: After the breakup of 1931, you toured with Cincinnati-based band Rose Funeral, then eventually settled into playing with Earache Records band Oceano. How did it feel to finally be a part of an established and consistently touring/recording band?
DS: At first, it was awesome to be in a band that toured constantly and actually played in front of people. As time went on though I realized that I was on a sinking ship due to the treatment of the band from our label, the money we weren’t bringing in, and the time we didn’t have to work on music. The thrill of being established eventually wears off if things aren’t working out the way they should.
ZF: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that it was pertinent for you to tour as much as possible, something you weren’t getting from Oceano. In an industry as unstable as independent music, how did it feel to make the jump from leaving one band for another?
DS: Making the decision to leave was not an easy one to make. As I said before I could see that the ship was sinking for me, and if it got to a certain point I would have to quit the band and get a job at home. I can’t sacrifice my well-being to go on tour and make no money just because it’s something I love doing. Luckily I got the offer to be a part of TAS, and after a lot of deliberation in my head everything fell in to place and I’m where I am supposed to be right now. It was a difficult decision to make because I consider everyone that was in Oceano with me family, and it’s hard to leave your family. But they all understand and thankfully things are on the upswing for them. Their new album is fucking awesome.
ZF: Do you think it’s possible for aspiring musicians to juggle a day job with their music career?
DS: It’s possible but it’s extremely difficult. Most places don’t want to hire somebody who is going to leave constantly. They don’t see you as being reliable. If you can find a place that will let you tour, hold on to that job for as long as is humanly possible. TAS is by no means a huge source of income for all of us, so when we aren’t on tour I still struggle to make ends meet, and it’s something I wish I didn’t have to do, but such is life.
ZF: You and your wife live in Ohio, but the rest of The Acacia Strain are from Massachusetts. What is it like balancing family life and coordinating practice, writing, recording, touring, and general band business from several states away?
DS: It’s kind of a headache. We are actually spread out all over the place. I live in Ohio, Vincent lives in Massachusetts, Kevin lives in New York, Griffin lives in Iowa, and Richie lives in California. We don’t have our own practice spot because we’d be throwing money away on something we never get to use. We have to meet up a few days before a tour starts so that we can rehearse, and if we’re writing, we have to all go to a central location so we can work on things together. It’s a headache because nobody wants to be away from home when you aren’t making any money, but we do what we have to. I miss the days where 4/5 members of my band lived in the same neighborhood and I was able to have band practice whenever I wanted to in my own basement. Life was way easier back then!
ZF: You’re slated to spend the entirety of the month of October touring across Europe. What are some of the barriers for bands to play in foreign countries?
DS: If you’re somewhat established, a lot of the things like visas and gear rentals will be handled by the agency bringing you over to play, that being said, it’s still a headache. There are a lot of things that can really fuck up a tour that people don’t realize. For example, if you have any sort of criminal record and you try to get into Canada, chances are you are going to be denied entry. I have lost count of the number of friends I’ve had over the years who couldn’t get in because of something stupid from their past that comes back to bite them in the ass. The same kinds of things can happen going overseas as well. It’s not as strict with getting in, but if you’re bringing any gear over, be prepared to have it scrutinized and be ready to get screwed by people at the airport saying that you have to pay extra money to transport it or that you have to pay customs fees. I’ve been lucky so far, but luck runs out. Language barriers are a pain in the ass so if there isn’t somebody with us who can speak the language, I don’t even try. I took German for three years in high school, and it hasn’t helped me once in Europe.
“People in this industry respect people who respect themselves.”
ZF: Do you have any words of wisdom for current aspiring musicians?
DS: Anyone can “make it” if you work hard enough at it. The industry is all about working hard, who you know, and how they know you. What I mean by that is that somebody who knows you as a hard worker who will bust your ass for them is going to be the most willing to help you succeed in whatever it is you’re trying to do. The music industry is built primarily on relationships between people, and you want to have good relationships. Don’t burn bridges that you may need to cross in the future. With that being said, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel you’re being taken advantage of. People in this industry respect people who respect themselves.
The Acacia Strain are currently on the Summer Slaughter Tour which will make an appearance at the Northland Performing Arts Center in Columbus on August 3rd. Tickets can be purchased here.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: musicians earn the most income through touring. Earlier this month, Billboard released their list of the 40 highest-paid musicians in the American music industry from 2014. This list took into account album sales, streaming royalties, publishing royalties, and touring revenue (to understand Billboard’s methodology, see the asterisk at the end of this article). Topping the list was British boy band One Direction, whose annual revenue totaled $46 million. 1D was ranked #13 in last year’s list, having since skyrocketed to fame, fortune, and infidelity.
The lowest earner in the top 40 was vintage rocker Tom Petty, whose greatest hits CD I was devastated to have lost in Germany in 2006, with a total earnings of just under $6.7 million. Perhaps Mr. Petty will see a fatter paycheck in 2015 after being awarded 12.5% writer’s credit for Sam Smith’s hit single “Stay With Me.” Taking into account all 40 artists, the average (mean) total revenue was approximately $14.7 million per artist. Looking at the chart below, you can see just who performed close to that average and who was well above or below.
Based on the above data, if you’re a white, female pop singer, you’ve got a good chance of earning about $15 million per year (see: Gaga, T-Swift, Hannah Montana and Cher). If you’re an old man pop/rock band, (see: Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, James Taylor and Elton John), you’d be lucky to break half of that. Fortunately for us, we can break down these data and truly determine where the most money is being earned, and who exactly is earning it. Out of the collective $586 million earned by these 40 acts within one year, 80% of it was earned through live performances and package tours. The average tour earning per act was around $11.7 million, with an outlier of T-Swift who for some reason earned a whopping $0 (which I find hard to believe).
Just like our total annual revenues, pop music scored another win raking in a total of $156 million in touring revenue. Pop music accounted for about 28% of the artists on this list, which is no surprise given that the genre got its name from the word “popular.” What is surprising, at least to me however, is that #6 on our list of not only highest touring revenue but highest earners in general, is truck-drivin’, dip-spittin’, beer-chuggin’ bro-country/pop sensation Luke Bryan. Country has definitely made its mark in recent years, with its fun and relatable lyrics (not my words) and live performances which are akin to music festivals with their own unique culture. These live country ho-downs have drawn almost $104 million in touring revenues, putting country just behind rock and roll (which is still $20 million less lucrative than pop music).
American music is dominated by mainstream caucasian artists, which is understandable considering 78% of the population identifies as white. Don’t be so quick to judge though, as historically black-dominated hip-hop and R&B accrued a total of over $72 million dollars, and latin music earned $27 million between just two performers on this list. The Latino community is one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, and with stars like Bruno Mars on the rise, we can expect to see them make up a much larger demographic in American music throughout the next decade.
One of the more technologically interesting aspects of this article is how much money was earned through streaming services. Companies like Spotify have been in the media recently due to their poor payment practices and royalty rates, with artists as high-profile as Taylor Swift proudly boycotting their business model. Ms. Swift earned just over $600,000 from streaming services before removing her catalogue late last year, due to Spotify not appropriately valuing her “art.” In her defense, however, T-Dog was the highest paid musician when it came to album sales, reaching almost $10 million in revenue. The least paid streaming artist was an old hippie group called Phish, whom most of you youngins have probably never heard of. Phish earned a grand total of $7,200 from streaming, likely due to their fan base being too high to understand how to properly use a computer.
In all seriousness, we should be excited. People are buying music again, and the industry is on the mend. Remember when your only option was choosing between an expensive CD and iTunes download or pirating the album and risking your computer? I’m not saying that streaming is the best solution, for the artists or the fans, but at least it offers a better alternative for artists to get their music distributed. Streaming accounted for about $12 million in royalties between only 40 artists. That’s a lot of money once you think about it. If these guys can become millionaires writing the same recycled pop tunes, then maybe someday you can move out of your parent’s basement. Maybe.
*BILLBOARD METHODOLOGY: Money Makers was compiled with Nielsen Music and Billboard Boxscore, 2014 U.S. data only. Revenue from merchandising, synchronization and sponsorship is not included. The following royalty rates, minus a 4 percent producer’s fee, were used: album and track sales, 22 percent of retail revenue; streaming revenue, 22 percent for current acts and 50 percent for heritage acts. Publishing royalties were estimated using statutory mechanical rates for album and track sales and the Copyright Royalty Board streaming formula; for labels’ direct deals with interactive services, blended audio and video rates of, respectively, $0.0075 and $0.0045. (A 10 percent manager’s fee was deducted from each category.) Touring revenue equals 34 percent of an act’s Boxscore.
One of my earliest musical memories is watching Michael Jackson videos on TV and begging my dad to tape them and painstakingly write down all of the lyrics so I could sing along. He didn’t hesitate to buy me a guitar, and didn’t scold me when I never touched it and asked for a drumset a year later. I ended up playing drums in various bands for about ten years before I picked up guitar and vocals around the year 2008. I remember telling all of my friends that I was going to release a solo album, and I honestly really tried. I’ve probably written 20 – 30 songs a year since then, but have never really been satisfied or had the time to pursue releasing a proper album.
All that changed a couple of years ago when I woke up in the middle of the night in a tent in the mountains of West Virginia with a tune running through my head. I had fallen asleep the night before listening to Rufus Wainwright’s latest album and thought maybe for a second that whatever was stuck in my head was simply a reincarnation of one of his songs. Conveniently I had brought my ukulele and iPhone camping with me, as I never leave home without them, and started demoing this song, much to the chagrin of my neighbors (which is a whole other unbelievable story).
That song turned out to be “Wrecking Ball,” which is my first proper solo release and single which is now officially on iTunes, Spotify, and the like. It’s the first song I wrote where I didn’t poorly rip off Neutral Milk Hotel or attempt to sing high-pitched whiny pop-punk songs just to fit into a mold which didn’t fit me. I also recorded, mixed, and mastered all of it myself, except for the help of audio engineer Ryan Liptak (of Happy Tooth & Dug fame) who recorded the drums and lead guitar.
In the year 2015, I set one and only one goal for myself: to finally release my solo album. I even came up with a fancy name, “Some Things Never Change,” which is spot on considering this has been my great white buffalo for the past six years. I’ve written and demoed the majority of the songs, buying fancy recording equipment and trying to push myself to the outer limits of my comfort zone. It has been rewarding and stressful all at the same time, and when you actually think about everything that goes in to making an album, it can certainly seem daunting.
The first step in creating an album is being a competent musician. In all my years of private lessons, practice, ripping off my favorite bands, and trying to create a niche for myself, I finally feel competent enough as a musician to be able to write a decent song. I usually start with a lyric, or a “hook,” craft a melody based off of that, then pick up an instrument. My go to instrument is usually guitar, ukulele, or piano as of late, and helps me craft the chords with which the song will take shape.
Then I do a free-write to help me fill in the lyrical holes, and basically just journal like a sixth-grade girl until I pull something from deep enough within to be taken seriously as an artist. Being a marketing graduate, I crafted a press kit with the quote “lyrical topics include accepting your past, fatherly advice, marriage and income inequality, suicide, and of course a self-deprecating song about hipsters.” Pretty serious stuff, right? It’s not all bad, I did attempt to write a self-deprecating song about hipsters, but honestly it seems so gimmicky and vapid that I’m not sure it will even make the cut.
So I’ve got the bare bones of the song done; chords, melodies, and lyrics, and the next thing to do is to record a scratch track or demo track. These two are not technically the same thing, but I’ll often demo a song and use it as a scratch track later when I’m recording the master. Many engineers and musicians will tell you to always record drums first, and I’ll have to agree with them. Trying to record drums over anything is a serious pain in the ass, even if you’ve followed your metronome like a robot. But music isn’t robotic. Music ebbs and flows and is rarely static.
I always record drums first, and always close enough to a click that it sounds like I know what I’m doing. I guess I forgot to mention the step where I also have to write the drum part. One summer when I was on Vans Warped Tour I spent the whole two months without access to recording gear, so I would listen to my acoustic demos and tap out drum parts with my hands or think of them in my head. I remember my bass player asking me with a genuinely confused look why I always listen to myself. He must have thought I was extremely self-centered. Well, he wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that.
I write and record the drums, and then it’s off to the races with the rest of the rhythm tracks. I lay down a rhythm guitar, bass guitar, scratch vocal, then I start crafting my leads. I never truly appreciated leads until I joined the band Someone Like You and we recorded our debut EP as professionally as we could afford to. I watched our three guitarists come up with lead after lead and heard them seemlessly melt into the verses and choruses, adding texture, melody, and harmony to an otherwise bland rhythm guitar.
Once I have all the leads written, I record the main vocal, add some harmony, back-ups, and listen to the song on repeat enough that if it were on Spotify I’d be rich by now. The next phase is mixing and mastering, which is honestly so much of a science that I wouldn’t do it justice by discussing it here. I add some compression, equalization, reverb and delay, adjust the levels, and once all that is sorted out I start the mastering phase. When mastering, I always refer to the phrase “Radio Ready” to compare my final mix with what one might hear on the radio. Is it loud enough? Have I panned appropriately? Is it clipping anywhere? What about unwanted noise, or even sounds getting lost in the mix?
Mixing and mastering is probably the hardest part of the whole album process, as you can never truly be done mixing. I learned early on to realize when something is the best it’s going to get and just roll with it. Once I’ve got the masters, I can start uploading them to bandcamp, SoundCloud, YouTube, and get my wavs sent off to iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and other digital retailers. At this point in the game, I’ve spent practically no money on recording as I already own or borrow the instruments, have cheap home recording gear, and most websites and retailers are free. I’ll spend about $20 getting CD Baby or TuneCore to put my music on iTunes, but it’s not a bad return on investment.
Artwork and photography are a very important visual representation of your music. I’ve got a decent camera and some free editing software, and can easily come up with some promo pics and album artwork. In the day and age of digital purchases, artwork is less important, but it’s not difficult to create something professional on your own in one evening. Next I’ll take my camera and make some YouTube videos, lyric videos, or promotional videos, throw them up for free online and publish them to my social media accounts.
I went to school for marketing and public relations, so it’s easy for me to come up with branding, distribution, press releases and media kits. I work in business administration so I’m able to stay organized and within budget. I’m just a kid from a small town in Ohio, so trust me when I say that if I can do this, anyone can. Getting out and playing shows is the next step, and honestly networking is key. Music is all about community and one of the most valuable lessons I learned playing in punk rock bands is that we all look out for each other. Trading shows with bands or getting added at the last second is common, and concerts are one of the most important means of keeping the momentum of your music going.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. You’ll likely have to invest some money before you even get started, and be prepared to make a lot of personal sacrifices (sorry babe). I can only imagine that I won’t earn much income with my music, and having a day job and a personal life can hinder that even more. The important thing is having fun, not putting too much stress on yourself, and sharing one of the most basic human rituals with others. That’s why I’ve decided that in 2015, I’m finally going to release a new album for a new year.
I think it was in Texas in the spring of ’06 when I bought the Arctic Monkeys CD Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not; which went on to become the fastest selling debut album in British music history. I also picked up an Anti-Flag CD, Coldplay’s live album, and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes that day. I’ll never forget the smirk on the cashier’s face when he said I had an “interesting” taste in music. I had actually been introduced to Arctic Monkeys a year prior when a friend gave me a mix CD with one of their songs on it. Remember those? I found some of my favorite music through mixes.
After reading this article on The Guardian, I was very impressed to learn that in the UK, the Arctic Monkeys’ latest album, AM, was “the biggest selling vinyl LP of 2014.” The article also mentioned that vinyl has become “an attractive format for object fetishists and committed fans.” Now object fetishists and committed fans are two completely different types of people, so I had to find out: who is buying vinyl records?
I don’t have a Facebook account and as you get older your friends generally start to move on with their lives, so I posed a question to an online vinyl record forum: “Why Do You Buy Vinyl Records?” I didn’t expect to get much of a response, but the one that I did get was not only qualitative, but quantitative. Perfect strangers opened up to me over the internet detailing exactly how they listen to records, their childhood, what their hobbies are, and what kinds of music they listen to.
You can probably guess who the majority of vinyl consumers are: 20-something men in major cities with enough disposable income to afford the average $20 record. If you guessed this, then you guessed correctly. What astounded me however were the vast lifestyle differences and reasons for purchasing that varied by respondent. Approximately 76% of my audience were males between the ages of 25 and 39, with all other respondents being female (obviously) and/or between the ages of 18 and 24.
Sound was first recorded in 1857, which was over 150 years ago. The tail end of vinyl record sales slowed in 1996 with just over one million units sold, so what does that say about the staying power of vinyl? The majority of my respondents were still teenagers when vinyl “died out,” yet somehow still find themselves drawn toward this mysteriously popular format.
So what caused this shift back to traditionalism? Was it Napster, KaZaA, or SoulSeek? How about iTunes, Zunes, or CD players? Or maybe it was the final nail in the coffin: YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. I can’t say for sure, but after reading some of the responses to my question, I found that the main reason for this shift was the physical and emotional connection that the listeners felt to the music on the record. If we look at the timeline mentioned above, from vinyl to CD, and Napster to Spotify, let’s think about how this affected the artist. In 1996, bands were selling vinyl and CDs for upwards of $20, but today they only get paid mere pennies for however many hundreds of times their songs are streamed on Spotify.
The second highest response to my question was to support the artist. Bands clearly aren’t making any money from streaming, and they definitely don’t have major labels backing them any more, so where is their revenue coming from? For some lucky artists, it’s coming from their vinyl record sales. 21% of my respondents purchased just to support the artist. Two of the other major responses to my question were that listeners are buying vinyl for the higher audio quality and physical packaging.
Some of the more interesting lifestyle statistics I gathered from my audience were geographical location and annual household income. Most lived on the east coast of the United States in major cities, some were unemployed, and others made almost $200,000 per annum. Music has always been something that brings people together, and often transcends cultural and socio-economic barriers. It was really exciting to see so many people from different backgrounds come together just to talk about their love for music. Many of them talked about the feeling they get of nostalgia or warmth once they touch the needle to the record, or how much closer they feel to the artists that they love.
The artists have noticed this cultural shift too, and have started to give back to their fans. Record Store Day is usually the third Saturday of April, an international holy day for musicians, fans, and record store owners alike. Many bands release special records and CDs and even perform concerts at independent record stores all around the world. It has become a unique and important observance for die-hard music fans allowing them the chance to collect rare memoribilia, meet the artists they love, and provide a revenue boom for small businesses and independent musicians.
Though music may be seen as a commodity to many, to others it is life. The anticipation running through their veins as they tear off the shrink wrap, pull out the liner notes, and delicately place the needle on the track. Turning the lights down low, the bass and treble up, and simply enjoying being nowhere with only your favorite song as company. I’d like to say that the recent uptick in sales of vinyl records is not a trend, because trends don’t last for 150 years. Trends come and go as technologies and cultures change, but one thing that will always remain the same is the connection that we feel to the music.
In keeping with the spirit of an album release, today we’ll talk about how to price your album. There are many different factors to consider when establishing a price, such as how much money you put into the making of the album (studio time, artwork, photography, advertising); how much money you hope to earn from sales of the album (after dividing money between band members, paying income tax, manufacturing overhead), and ultimately, what you think the album is worth.
Manufacturing Overhead: Overhead is the cost of doing business. So you rent a studio space for $500 a month, it costs you $750 to press new merchandise each month, and your entire band needs a cost of living wage; so when it’s all said and done, your overhead is likely several thousands of dollars per month.
Income Tax: Taxes paid on all incoming revenue. If you are a solo artist or sole proprietor, or your band is a co-owned LLC, you would generally pay the IRS your income tax quarterly as an independent contractor.
Many artists calculate what they’ll sell their album for by starting with the product cost. What I’ve heard a lot of bands say is “the CDs each cost $2 to press, so we need to earn at least $2.” This is called break-even pricing. What this strategy vies for is earning enough revenue to cover the cost of manufacturing. What it doesn’t take into account is how much money it cost to record the album in a professional studio, how much the photographer was paid, and how much time each band member spent practicing, recording, and promoting. Unless you’re opting for the freemium model (which we’ll discuss later on), this is the best worst-case scenario.
If you want to earn a profit on the sale of your records, what you’ll likely want to do is markup your sale price. Cost-plus pricing is when you consider the initial cost of manufacturing and add (plus) your desired profit. So it takes $2 to press each CD, and you want to earn a minimum of $5 profit per sale, so you sell each album for $7. In today’s economic environment, is this the most realistic price? If every other musician on the planet is selling their album for only $5, and you are selling yours for $7, who do you think the audience is more likely to support? Unless you have added value (bonus tracks, free downloads online, music videos, etc.), your competition is likely to prevail. Competition-based pricing is just that- pricing your products at the same price or lower than your competitors. I’m sure you’ve seen gas stations across the street from one another lowering their prices by mere pennies just to gain market share; well it’s not much different in today’s music industry where supply greatly outweighs demand.
Gross Profit: This is the amount of money you make before paying off your band members, income tax, and using the band fund to cover costs such as hotels and meals.
Net Profit: This is the amount of money that you earn after all expenses are paid. So you sold $1,000 worth of albums, but after living expenses, taxes, and per diems, you’ve got about $40 bucks.
With the increase in streaming programs such as Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio, many consumers, especially die hard music fans aren’t even buying much music anymore. Sure, they might pick up a vinyl record or download an album on bandcamp to support an artist they love, but in 2014, several artists surpassed over one billion plays each on Spotify. With this technological shift in the way we consume music, many bands, especially indie ones, are opting for pay-what-you-want or freemium pricing strategies.
Pay-what-you-want is so simple that it makes you wonder why no one thought of it years ago. Radiohead was one of the first bands to successfully execute this model with the release of In Rainbows in 2008, which saw millions of downloads worldwide. Many indie artists are using the PWYW method as a gamble. Realistically, most people will probably download your album for $0, but every once in a while you might get a very generous benefactor. I remember one time I was hawking my old band’s EP for $5 at a Warped Tour stop in New Jersey, and after hearing us, a young woman offered $20 for the 5-song EP that we recorded in our singer’s basement. She was heavily intoxicated and clearly incapable of making financial decisions, so I declined her offer as many times as possible before she simply shoved the $20 in my face. I gave her $20 worth of merchandise and sang her a few tunes on my ukulele, making damn sure she got her money’s worth, as that was the first (and last) time anybody paid me $20 for my music.
Finally we’ve arrived at the current trend in indie music, the freemium model. When I was going to university for marketing, I had always heard a term called “loss leader” which is a strategy that works well for major corporations. A loss leader is a product that the company sells for a low price or gives away in order to drive consumers to their establishments in the hopes that they will buy other items on which the company will profit. McDonald’s sells $1 large drinks in the summer in hopes that the customers will buy Big Macs and whatever other expensive crap they sell. It usually works. In the music industry, time and time again artists are realizing that the best money they’ll make is on the road. And how can you guarantee that people will come out to see your concert? Well, you can’t really, but giving them free music is definitely a start.
Recently, U2, one of the biggest bands of time immemorial, released their latest album for free on iTunes to all of its users. In all of my years avoiding pop radio and television, I suddenly found myself with a copy of an album which I had previously gone out of my way to avoid. I’d be lying if I didn’t enjoy the U2 tracks that came up on my shuffle, but will I ever go see them live? Probably not, but if it were a local band whose concert I could afford attending, I would definitely be more inclined to go than if they were charging me $10 to listen to their album.
We’ll touch on pricing again as we get into the 4th P, Promotion, covering topics such as discounts and incentives, but for now this is most of what you need to know in order to start pricing your album. Tune in next week to read about place; also known as distribution.
Once you’ve figured out what your release will be, you’ll want to start focusing on packaging. Packaging is the visual and physical representation of your product before it hits listener’s ears. Important aspects of packaging consist of cover art, track listing, and liner notes. Cover art is easiest to achieve with digital releases, as you often only need one image to act as the cover of your album. Track listing is also as simple as writing up a text document of the songs included on the album, which order they’re in, and each song’s length. Liner notes may take a little longer to create, as they include lyrics, credits, art and photography contained within a .PDF document. Barriers to physical releases (CD, vinyl, cassette) consist of creating front and back album art including barcode/UPC, designing the actual CD face, and artistically creating the layout based on the format’s physical space limitations. Not only are physical releases more costly to produce, but they often take longer to complete.
In order to create a successful product, the music, lyrics, and recording quality need to be good, but I’ll leave that topic alone in the hopes that you’ve already achieved those traits before preparing for release. When you are finally ready, you can use the checklist below to narrow your focus.
– Your album is a single, EP, or full length
– Your product will be released digitally, on CD, vinyl, cassette, or all of the above
– You have album art/professional photography, track listing, and liner notes
Above all, you should only release your album once it’s ready. If the songs are poorly performed, or the art isn’t appropriate, the audience will recognize that and respond accordingly. One question I always ask myself is “am I proud of this?” If I am, then I can move forward. If I’m not proud of my work, I go back and tweak every little thing I can until I’m satisfied. I encourage you to take pride in your work and never try to run before you can walk.