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Music Piracy, Emily White, and the Ethical Debate over Music Ownership (part 3)

Here’s part 1 of this series

…and part 2….

In concluding this discussion of the music piracy/ownership issue (provoked last week by an online exchange between NPR intern Emily White and music industry artist David Lowery), let me say again that while I have some opinions about right and wrong here, I also am a pragmatist when it comes to helping musicians have successful careers in this changing market. So in this final post, I have a few tips for DIY musicians when it comes to this issue.

Since I’ll be referencing these again in this post, let me start by reviewing the four categories of people I see currently dealing with the issue of music piracy. Maybe you find yourself in one of these four categories:

 

  • CATEGORY 1: The music industry “old guard” that continues to try and fight the onslaught of piracy by hunting down and prosecuting offenders (while complaining loudly);
  • CATEGORY 2: The increasingly younger generation of music consumers who largely see no moral dilemma in getting their music without paying for it, and who know that the odds of being held accountable are increasingly slim;
  • CATEGORY 3: The “new music industry” thought leaders who are looking for practical solutions to adapt to a new market and help musicians get paid for their work again; and
  • CATEGORY 4: The musicians and artists (including many DIY musicians) who mainly feel caught in the middle.

 

For those indie artists in Category 4, let me say clearly that I feel your pain—but being a “starving artist” does not have to be a given for you in this uncertain music market. Here are a few tips to help you navigate these waters.

 

  1. Learn to think outside the box. I know of several indie musicians who are making a really good living at what they do, just because they found income streams outside the “status quo.” One guy clears $50,000 a year doing nothing more than posting instrumental piano music online for people to buy. Another guy makes a huge amount of money doing a mixture of popular covers and original tunes on YouTube. The point is, it can be done. The ones who think outside the box in times of transition are the ones most likely to succeed.
  2. Take full advantage of current product delivery methods. If you’re not streaming your music on the Internet, for example, you’re wasting an opportunity to get paid. And if you register with SoundExchange, they will digitally track and get you paid for every instance in which your music is streamed online.
  3. Seek out other income streams. One really good way to get paid these days is through song placements on commercials, TV shows and films. Music supervisors are always looking for affordable music to license, and getting a song placed not only pays well and immediately, but also serves as an advertisement. Key song placements have helped to launch some music careers.
  4. Focus on building a fan base, not selling records. Thought leaders like Seth Godin and Kevin Kelly, I believe, are right on track with this one. Whether you call them “true fans,” a “tribe”, or a “small army,” one key to success in this music market is to build a solid, loyal following of people who will support you as an artist, regularly buying your music, merch and concert tickets because they believe in you. Develop this fan base, and you won’t be nearly so worried about fringe people who are getting your music without paying for it.
  5. Focus on selling yourself as an artist, rather than selling your records. One way to do this is to give away some of your music. Lots of indie musicians are now purposefully holding their music more loosely, allowing it to be a “calling card” to sell themselves as artists. Some give away a free download or two in exchange for an email address; others have adopted a name-your-own-price approach to selling their music in places like Bandcamp. The idea here is that even if someone hears your music and likes it, and if they find your online presence to be warm and welcoming, they are more likely to become part of the loyal fan base described in number 4 above. There are even people who have acquired someone’s music illegally that have turned around and made a purchase simply because they liked the artist and wanted to support him/her.

 

Finally, one key ingredient to navigating this market is your attitude. Being a Category 1 person is simply non-productive. History is already beginning to demonstrate that artists who become angry and bitter about what is being “stolen” from them, and who look for ways to restrict the flow of their music, are far less successful than artists who keep a positive outlook and go with the flow. A recent example is Cee Lo Green’s hit “F**k You.” For awhile before the song’s release, it was viral on YouTube, where it was actually impossible to “pay” for it. The song generated so much positive attention that it became a hit when it was released. Today, I’m sure Cee Lo Green is not whining about the money he didn’t make from that YouTube video. Holding his music loosely on the front end ended up paying off for him big-time in the long run.

So regardless of all that’s going on with the music piracy debate, just know that you don’t have to listen to all the negativity about how bad things are, and how difficult it is to make a living. I’m not saying it will be easy, but with the right attitude and a willingness to explore alternatives, it is possible for you to forge your own path. The flip side to a music industry in upheaval is that there is no longer one “right way” to get things done.

 


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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