800 pound gorillas in the music business

John Gruber is probably my favorite blogger; he’s smart, articulate, direct, insightful, and funny.

His ostensible focus is Mac commentary, but there are frequent forays into UI, design, and even business strategy.

He recently posted the following. I added the red underlines.

As I read this post, my teeth clinched, thinking of all the stoopid arguments I’ve gotten into with people who insisted that whatever project I was working on had to render in Internet Explorer (jackasses), I realized that – as recently as yesterday, and pretty much for the past two years – I’ve been trying to get people to stop worrying about 800 pound gorillas with respect to the music industry.

Yesterday, I gave a brief speech to some potential incoming freshman who are interested in music business. I, naturally, said that, but for some infinitesimal number of people in the music business, the majors are irrelevant. (I was later informed that a parent of one of said prospective students is a muckety-muck at one of the majors – so it goes.)

I’ve been preaching this same sermon for quite some time now. The majors are the 800 pound gorillas for 99.999% of people in the music business. The problem with this is that they create distraction, false expectations/hopes, and cause people to generate “strategy” that is predicated on a logical fallacy. The artist thinks, “Artists get signed to major labels. I’m an artist. Therefore I will get signed to a major label.”

The artist ends up engaging in a bunch of random acts of improvement because they think – based on their logical fallacy predicated on the 800 pound gorilla – that their actions will lead them to their manifest destiny.

Of course, this doesn’t happen. The artist then determines that her music just isn’t good enough. This may or may not be true; the music was never the issue. The issue was that the 800 pound gorilla led them on a quixotic progression of meaningless acts in search of something that isn’t there.

Had they removed the gorilla from their minds and instead focused on developing a plan that would allow them to monetize their passions and create art on their own terms (over the long term), they might (sure as heck are no guarantees) have been able to attain that goal. Certainly, their odds would have been better.

Here’s the thing. It’s not just the majors who are 800 pound gorillas in the minds of people in the music business. Nope. It’s radio (any format above non-com AAA), it’s print media, it’s myspace. These are all 800 pound gorillas that really have no bearing on your success as an artist.

To be clear, radio, print media, and myspace are not inherently bad (well, they sort of are…or at least inherently lame, and that’s bad), and they can (conceivably) have a place in an artist’s career. However, their places are subservient to other things.

What things? Things like creating real emotional connections with your constituents in a face-to-face (non virtual) manner and then leveraging the tech to accelerate this (see “The Straddle” related posts).

Things like viewing records as a tool set; a set of social objects that your constituents can use to develop and spread the Tribe.

Anyway, leave it to Mr. Gruber to perfectly and succinctly articulate what I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time now. As he would say, “Jiminy.”

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  1. LyricalVenus’s avatar

    The whole “random acts of improvement” vs. “strategic plan” thing, and how the first can lead to such disappointment really clarifies a lot, thanks for that!

    Question though – I've got some friends in a band who currently aren't very interested in touring or playing out (at least not all members equally, and they are likely to go their separate ways at the end of the school year). But they just made a CD and want to “get it out there”. Any thoughts on a strategic plan for a short term project for a band that isn't planning to stay together or even wanting make it really big? It seems like there ought to be a way for that CD to be successful, that might also reflect well as a piece of their past on the individual band members if they decide to take a musical path in the future.

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  2. George Howard’s avatar

    Thanks for the comment and the kind words.

    As to your question: I think more artists need to accept that they are basically “hobbyists.” I don't mean this in a pejorative way. I mean that, while they love playing/writing music, and like to occasionally perform in front of people, they really are not “lifers.” They will get jobs, get married, get mortgages, have kids, and – hopefully – play music to their kids, but they won't go on the road 200 days a year; they won't determine how to create social objects that can be shared; and they won't ultimately monetize their passion.

    Again, nothing wrong with this. It's the reality for most artists. Often, it just takes them a long time to realize this. Better to realize it sooner, enjoy what you're doing, and keep your expectations in line. (problems exist, of course, in a band where some % of the members are as described above (hobbyists) while others either are or believe they are lifers. At this point the values within the band doesn't align, and the band will eventually break up – again, better to reconcile this sooner rather than later).

    As for your friends, I'd try and create a couple of events to sort of celebrate the band. Use the CD they've created as one of the social objects. Leverage their own site, FB, etc. to really create some sort of special event – think a party – where the band can let people know about their music, and sort of be proud of their accomplishment. Think of it almost like an art gallery opening.

    Hope this helps a little.

    best,

    George

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  3. LyricalVenus’s avatar

    Ah ha! Yes, this all makes a lot of sense. They are already planning a concert/party and thinking of it as an art gallery opening helps a lot for me to categorize it in my mind!

    “Better to realize it sooner, enjoy what you're doing, and keep your expectations in line.” – exactly! It will be good for them to be clear on what they want, because they will run into a lot of people who expect them to want to “make it big” and have all sorts of suggestions on how to do that.

    I keep thinking of it as being pregnant or planning a wedding – special life events awaken something in people that make them think they can/should suggest how the person should go about things, even if they don't actually know that person! (Strangers giving a pregnant woman advice in the supermarket for example.) The human connection over something special is beautiful, but not being prepared and centered in yourself makes it easy to get overwhelmed by outside suggestions, especially when you get conflicting ones.

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  4. Tom Williams’s avatar

    George –

    Great post, I agree 100%. It reminds me of what Chuck D said recently: “There is nothing wrong with the music business, there is a problem with the CD business.” Once people and bands start to take a wider look at what is happening, they will see a ton of opportunities. So many of the musical success stories from this past year were successes because they made a conscious effort to avoid those 800lbs gorillas. The one that immediately springs to mind is In Rainbows.

    @LyricalVenus If I were the band, I would be very open about the plan to breakup at the end of the school year. It places additional value to every gig or thing they do. Immediately their gigs and recorded output becomes a scarce quantity and will likely garner more attention in a shorter period of time.

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  5. DanoSongsBlog’s avatar

    Wow, so true. Compare it to any other business. If you want to start a restaurant you just do it, you wouldn't even think about the fact that you are not McDonalds (800 pound gorilla)… it's not even an issue. If you have great food, good press and a good location, you will do well.

    Dan-O's Free Music Downloads Blog
    http://www.danosongs.com/music_blog/

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  6. DanoSongsBlog’s avatar

    LyricalVenus – it is very easy to “get music out there” and plenty of thousands of gigabytes on iPods to fill up in the world. Tell them to get a package of 1,000 Cds, spend some time to burn it and make their own paper sleeves with “Free Sample” printed on the cover. Total cost is about $.05 each! People to this day tell me that they still play a CD they picked up from coffee shop I long ago dropped them off at.

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  7. Jeff Shattuck’s avatar

    Just discovered your blog. Super cool. I have a lot of catching up to do,
    but going back through your wisdom I'm sure will help me with my own record project.

    Jeff
    http://www.cerebellumblues.com

    Reply

  8. pregnancy symptoms’s avatar

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  9. Live lead transfer’s avatar

    I really agree in this article..
    Music industry Is really having a hard time because of piracy..
    I hope the government will solve this issue..

    Reply

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