So you want to be a musician? No problem. It’s actually quite simple. First, write a catchy song. Then, record it on your computer. Next, publish it on your YouTube channel. Now, have friends and relatives like and share it. Chances are some Usher out there is scouting for someone just like you. A record deal follows and… that’s it! That career you’ve always dreamt of becomes a reality. A piece of cake. But is it really?
Rizzo is the writer, guitar player and vocalist for a hard rock band called Whatever We Are. Fil plays bass guitar in the same outfit. Both are in their late 20s. They come from Pennsylvania and so far have released one LP boldly called Greatest Hits on their website. Their recently published EP The Mess We Have Become is available on YouTube. They list mostly grunge, punk and alt-rock as their biggest influences.
In his early 20s Reinaut used to drum for a very niche, instrumental-only psychedelic post-rock band called Eye of Daw. They used a lot of historic speech samples in their songs. Reinaut names Mogwai, Tool and Explosions in the Sky amongst their heroes. Even though the band is not active anymore in the original line-up, they still have a Facebook page showcasing their achievements. And Reinaut still holds on to his drum set at home, years after it all started.
Back in the VHS and CD years Menno was on the verge of breaking into the music industry with one the many groups he’s been a part of in his career. Biatch was a mix of hip hop, hard core and heavy metal. Although the band was from the Netherlands, the raps were mainly in English. Menno was the main writer and played a Led Zeppelin/Metallica/Megadeth-influenced guitar in the group. Now, almost 20 years later, he’s still faithful to the same genre.
All four are talented musicians that have, somehow, never made it to fame and fortune. So I have asked them why not everybody can become a rock star, what their personal experiences have taught them and what it really takes to make it in the music business today.
There’s a cliché question that everyone asks aspiring musicians and it’s the same one they ask themselves every day: to what extent they would sacrifice their artistic freedom if they could land a major record deal. “I can’t wrap my head around not having control of my own music,” claims Rizzo. Fil backs him up. “I would never compromise those things for any deal, major or minor.” Menno’s story proves the point exactly. The band did get noticed and they were about to release their first single on one of the major labels. But they had a different idea about the song that should be that single. After a lot of discussions with the record company they still didn’t cave in. So the whole deal fell apart. “It’s not up to you. And that is the problem,” he summarizes. Reinaut feels much more strongly about it – he compares the record labels’ interventions to “cutting off your balls”.
So here comes the uncomfortable truth. According to all four gents, there’s absolutely no way you can make it in the music industry financially if you’re just any musician having sporadic gigs in a local pub. You’re lucky if you break even. Forget about your music contributing significantly to your income. And it’s a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication, too. So who pays for it? “We do,” Rizzo and Fil agree. Both of them have regular jobs that have nothing to do with music (insurance and public works). And what about friends and family? They help in other, non-material ways: by coming to the shows, offering their basements for practice or spreading the word about the band. So their music passion has never been any major part of their income? Rizzo still recalls the group’s early days. “There were times we played at a venue knowing that we weren’t going to be paid at all, just because we wanted to play. We were all working and going to school. I was working two jobs and playing shows two or three times a week with those guys, driving back and forth (…) anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour and 35 minutes away by car.” Fil puts it in a different way. “When we did get paid, it was like a cherry on top”. Reinaut sides with them. “We didn’t make any money but we had sufficient to get going.” In Menno’s case Biatch’s management had access to the studio and other resources, so they didn’t have to worry about it.
But – chin up! There are ways of financing the dream. Take crowdfunding, for example. One of Menno’s favourite group’s – Protest the Hero from Canada – put out their last album that way. Radiohead took a similar approach in 2007 when they released their album In Rainbows. For three months fans could purchase it for the price they found suitable and there was no middleman involved. Surprisingly, it turned out their fans were willing to pay decent money without being told a fixed retail price. Whatever We Are tried a variation of this experiment – they set the retail price for their Greatest Hits on the website for a very accessible $5. How did they determine the value? Fil admits it’s always an internal struggle between having people pay for art and trying to make up for some of the production costs. Reinaut explains that you can calculate fixed spending per record or show, like replacing the drumsticks, for instance. But it isn’t easy. Rizzo brings up another important aspect. “As an already established and well-respected alternative rock powerhouse [Radiohead], you can do that. Marketing isn’t as important. They aren’t worried about not being able to afford their food next week, you know?”
Speaking of the costs, has music become cheaper and more accessible today? It depends on whether it’s making or buying it. Spotify and other live streaming services have changed the rules of the game a lot in recent years. Depending on your location in the world, you can get the premium access (meaning no commercials and access to playlists offline) for as low as €10/£10 a month. That’s cheaper than purchasing one album a month, and you get an unlimited number of downloads. And if you’re a real geek checking out the newest or hard-to-find music frequently, those €120 of annual investment still sound like quite a good deal.
But not all artists are on board. You won’t find Taylor Swift on Spotify. Adele waited quite long before her latest album 25 was released on the platform. And Beyoncé’s Lemonade as of today still isn’t available there, seven months after its release. Why is that? Fil attributes it to the fact that a lot of musicians have to be smart business people above all nowadays. Rizzo breaks it down to the basics. “I feel like music should be shared as much as possible – but art is a hard item to put a price on.”
Reinaut is a big fan of Spotify because it gives one access to pretty much anything these days, unlike when he was a kid. Especially to the underground or not-so-popular artists. But both he and Menno point to the business strategy again. In a way being “elusive, unreachable, hard to find” on the streaming services and social media is merely a marketing tool. It keeps the diehard fans excited and hungry for more. Bands such as Metallica “can go for eight years without releasing an album, and when they do, the whole metal world just goes bananas,” says Menno.
If Spotify isn’t so almighty anymore and the album sales don’t cut it, what other ways of promotion are there today? Concerts, gigs, shows, playing live – these four expressions describing the same concept are mentioned by all four gents. The ever-present social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) cannot be underestimated. They’re kind of a modern word of mouth. But making the effort to invite people to come to the events personally, the old fashioned way, doesn’t hurt. “There should be an (…) app for unknown bands to post songs or something. A way to stream music (…) without a label,” dreams Rizzo. And if you’re a novice in the business, you might actually need help of the professionals, especially when it comes to marketing. Reinaut admitted that his band “were really shit at it”. So working with a record company definitely helped them be visible to a certain extent. What sort of things can you do to promote your music? Song teasers, video trailers, album add-ons, behind the scenes clips, backstage videos, “making of” films… Everything must be multi-platform if you want to reach the new generation and expand your fanbase.
Menno has had a revolutionary idea on his mind for a while: selling music as a package. What does he mean? Selling riffs, for instance, because “there might be someone out there who performs your songs better than you”. Or scrapping the whole concept of a band altogether. Performing has just become a far more abstract and broader concept over the years. Being a musician opens a lot more doors and possibilities nowadays. Story telling has gained a new meaning and the visual aspect of music is equally important.
Keeping all those ideas in mind, is it really easier today than – say – 20 years ago to break into the industry? Menno reflects on the way it was done in the past. “When you sold records, it was an indication on how well you were doing”. You distributed your music through CDs and having it played on the radio. He remembers the day Metallica’s Black album came out and half of his mates didn’t show up at school because they all wanted to hear it on the radio for the first time. Those times are long gone.
Today it is a different kind of dedication, energy and effort. You have to be visible as an artist – so you have to tour constantly. There’s so much demand for live performances it’s no longer good enough to release an album. It won’t sell until you play it live. With the number of music events all year round you can (and probably should) tour the whole wide world. A few open arena appearances in Europe in July and August, then touring the US in the fall, followed by another round of festival performances in Australia in January/February, and off to Latin America in the spring. Some bands don’t have breaks for two (!) years. It’s very exhausting and not everyone’s willing to put up with it. And your record label is already expecting you to be working on the next big thing.
Menno adds another interesting factor to the equation: your success in the business depends heavily on the genre you play. Try to make a living as a heavy metal band in the totally hip hop dominated world or as a blues artist in the pop era. No matter how good you are, you’re just not trendy enough.
So yes, it’s not very difficult to get your music out there today. Yet, “as far as being easier to make it big? No. The platform is there, but now you have way, way, way more people with the capability and the capacity to create music and put it online. There is just so much talent out there that you are competing with,” cautions Rizzo. Reinaut adds that playing live shows gives you a unique opportunity to expand your territory. But “every time you have finished touring, your audience want you to come up with something new”. That is also why a lot of bands cannot stand the pressure and break up it in the end.
On the other hand, nowadays you know almost instantly how well your music is doing. The streaming or downloading numbers provide you with a pretty accurate “here and now” feedback. So you go with what’s selling best. The truth behind the quality of music is a little heartbreaking, though. Record labels want the tracks to be really simple. Menno recalls one particular story. “When the company asked us for more songs, we recorded ten more. And then they told us they couldn’t use any of them because of their complexity. And we were so convinced they were so much better than the rest.” What counts, after all, is the formula for a good song. Menno refers me to the Britney Spears’ most famous tracks that (in their vast majority) are based on the 4-chord formula. “It’s pure math,” he adds. Reinaut argues, however, that in the past most songs on any given album were good quality. Nowadays “you just record one/two good songs and the rest is just to fill up the album”. Sad but true.
And what about the lyrics? Obviously, “love” and “miss you” make the pop list whilst “angel of death” or “anger” can be found in many heavy metal songs. Tons of studies have been done on this subject. So the demand is not for complicated masterpieces, just easy-to-listen tunes with catchy, repetitive lyrics.
If everything’s so predictable, are there any artists that inspire them by doing something different with their careers? Fil admires the ones that just do what they love without trying to impress anybody. Rizzo mentions Pearl Jam and the time when they antagonized Ticketmaster. He also gives credit to Green Day for the American Idiot musical – a modern rock opera played on Broadway and West End. Something that is unheard of in the modern rock world that wants to pride itself on being non-commercial. In Menno’s opinion drawing on your experiences in creating music makes it interesting. And Reinaut, surprisingly, mentions classical music and claims that we should all look up to composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Their musical genius cannot be even matched today and a lot of contemporary musicians could learn from them. On the other hand, being versatile, like Mogwai, also pays off. The band did not only record regular studio albums but also full-length soundtracks for movies and TV.
So why are Rizzo, Fil, Reinaut and Menno not famous? After all, they’ve all had their shot at the music business in a way. They have written songs, recorded them, played concerts and had their music distributed via popular media.
They mention quite a few similar excuses: some things change when you’re getting older; you have to start working a real job; you are ready for other things, like having a family. And it’s a little hard to reconcile if you’re a rock star. None of them denies the dream of being famous somehow always stays in the back of your mind. Reinaut is not pursuing any music projects at the moment. “But if tomorrow they told me I can do it [have a full time career in the music industry], I wouldn’t refuse it,” he adds. Menno writes and records songs for himself because he simply loves that pure moment of creation. Whatever We Are’s members live their regular lives rather than being followed by paparazzi or groupies all day long. There are some more realistic reasons as well. “You don’t just wake up and suddenly become famous,” offers Menno. And stardom and fortune are not the objective, either. Creating music is. Anything else that comes with it is a perk.
The biggest achievements in their lives related to music so far sound pretty normal, too. “Just being able to say we did it,” that’s Rizzo. Reinaut shares a personal story: he wrote a song that he played for his dad who passed away shortly after. “I felt for the first time that it went straight to his heart. (…) It was probably one of the most impactful moments of my life.” Menno is over the moon when his 4-year-old daughter wants to sing to his songs. And finally, Fil gives me hope: “I’d like to think that the biggest achievement hasn’t happened yet. If it had, I’d probably feel content, and that’s death of artist creativity, isn’t it?”