At 16 years old, I got my first job at a video rental store. Since then, I’ve worked at a mall, been a waiter, caterer, bartender, bar back, bouncer, sofa bed salesman, and office supply salesman. I also got my first paying gig as a jazz guitarist at 16, playing at a cafe in the middle of the mall. I think that gig paid $22.50 (the band leader took a 10% finders fee and split the rest four ways). That was the beginning of my double life–the kid that worked hard to make a paycheck and the kid that really just wanted to make music. For the most part, the first kid kept the other one kind of quiet because music is a hobby, not a job, right?
My attitude changed when I quit the office supply business and decided to find some mindless temp work to pay the bills while I tried to get things rolling with my music. I was completely honest with the interviewer at the temp agency:
“I’m a musician, and I just want a job where I can punch out at 5, forget about everything I did that day, and go focus on my music.”
He asked me what I played, what I listened to, all the typical music related questions. Then he said he might have just the position for me–Verve Records needed a long term temp to do some data entry. Perfect. Sign me up!
I had an interview a few weeks later at Verve. I showed up early, and in a suit. I later learned that nothing runs early in the music industry, and my boss would joke with people that came to work dressed too nice, “Interviewing for a new job?” she’d ask loud enough so everyone down the hall could hear.
My first day at Verve was in early 2005. At that point, I had only a vague idea of how any business worked, much less the music industry. Not only had I never worked in an office, but I was a jazz studies major in college. I studied music as an art, not a commercial product to be exploited as a business asset. Never the less I kept my eyes and ears open and learned as much as I could about all aspects of the business. After all, if I wanted to function as an artist someday, I needed to know what I’d be dealing with on the business end.
I ended up leaving the company about 3 years after I’d started. It was a very tough decision. If there was a day job designed for me, this was it. But when I went home at night and looked at my guitars, I got the feeling that I wasn’t using my time appropriately. My job was stressful and mentally challenging, which put a strain on my creative output outside of work. There was also a money issue. Despite what you may imagine, record label jobs pay relatively little. Most people are OK with this because it can be a pretty fun, socially relevant job. But I was starting to see opportunities to make a real career out of my music, and knew that if I dug in and worked with the same intensity, I could make the same money and eventually more with my own music on my own terms.
The lessons I took away from this job will serve me for the rest of my career, not because they taught me specific things to do, but because they taught me how to adapt. What works today will not work in 10 years. But the ability to see changing trends, stay ahead of the curve and ultimately balance my long term revenue streams with low, short term costs–which don’t have to cost money–will keep me in business doing what I love for the rest of my life.
Digital production, strategic marketing.
When hired, I was assigned the digital production responsibilities. I entered boatloads of metadata from out of print albums into a database. I was perfect for this because I already knew a lot about many of these albums, and whenever I didn’t know something I had access to several complete jazz discographies, the entire Verve library full of nearly every LP and CD ever released, and several very knowledgeable coworkers.
In short, the position straddled the Production and New Media (online sales and marketing) departments and involved coordinating the release of digital products–ie. digital albums, ringtones and other mobile configurations, and videos. I had to make sure the metadata was entered into a few systems properly so it would show up in online stores like iTunes without incorrect track listings, timings, misspellings, etc., and then get the artwork and audio uploaded to some other systems by a deadline.
The term metadata refers to all the information for an album. Simply put, it’s the interactive digital version of everything printed on a CD booklet, LP jacket, or other packaging, stored in a database. When I would add an artist to an album, the database would know who this artist was and which recordings they were on (at least whatever had been entered so far). I would gather my information by looking at the packaging, searching through discographies, listening to the music (timings were often approximate on LP jackets, but they must be exact in the digital era), and using a variety of songwriter dictionaries and online resources to make sure I had the correct composer and publisher information. There was a lot of research involved.
I could have blown off a lot of the attention to details and it maybe wouldn’t have affected my job, but someday the accuracy of all this information will be crucial. With trends shifting away from physical albums, liner notes, credits, and anything else printed on the packaging is being lost. But that information is invaluable, and will eventually be accessible online and embedded into the tracks you download. I took a sense of pride in thinking my work would give some relatively unknown artist a place in history. Perhaps this was positive thinking as I faced the grim possibility of obscurity for my own music.
My biggest ongoing project while handling the digital production responsibilities was the Verve Vault, a series of reissues released exclusively to iTunes (here’s a random blog post about the series). We were looking for out of print albums in the “vaults of Verve” to make available digitally–albums where manufacturing physical product wouldn’t have been cost effective. In other words, I was working with albums that make up the Long Tail of Verve’s catalog.
This taught me invaluable lessons on working with niche oriented music and how to make the most out of digital distribution scenarios–lessons directly applicable to independent artists. Albums deep in the Verve catalog, by artists like Illinois Jacquet or Ray Bryant have no advantage being owned by a major label. They have roughly the same marketing budgets as a Cameron Mizell album, so we had to apply low or no-cost strategies to help these albums sell. The most effective methods were things like optimized online announcements, creating iMixes or other user generated playlists, and targeting specific niches that would help introduce these lesser known jazz icons of yesteryear to the download generation. In the exact same way, I learned many strategies to help people find my music online.
In general, the best form of online marketing is to not be a marketer. Or in other words, just nudge either your music or your target fans towards each other and let them meet on their own. Ultimately, encourage discovery. It may just be the illusion of discovery, but it gives the your music greater personal value and the fan’s excitement becomes viral. Word of mouth begins.
Production, design, manufacturing, distribution.
After a while, I ended up as the head of the production department. I didn’t intend for this to happen, but the inevitable downsizing of record labels hit Verve pretty hard at the end of 2006 and I was the only person left from the original department. I didn’t have the official title, but I had the responsibilities. In a very short time, I learned everything from pricing out packaging to tackling manufacturing related issues at the last minute. I was also heavily involved with quality control and put my ear to every master and proofed all the artwork prior to manufacturing. Verve is known for it’s quality releases, and I was lucky enough to learn from some of the best. I wrote an article about preparing to release your next album on this site which applies much of what I learned to indie musician releases. It’s what I’ve done for my recent albums.
One of the perks of working production was getting credit in all the albums. You can see a list of my credits on All Music Guide. The credits with Production Coordination or Release Coordination are from my work at Verve. I hope to some day match those with Guitar and other musically related credits.
A job in production, for those unfamiliar, is essentially that of a taskmaster. It was my responsibility to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle came together on time so the company would have a CD to sell on the street date. Unlike digital production, where I was able to do my job pretty much all on my own, physical production put me in contact with nearly every department:
The master came from the A&R department (Artist & Repertoire), as well as all the credits for an album. Among other things, the A&R department works with the artist and studios to make sure the music will be done on time. The schedule for “on time” had to be provided by me.
The earlier we had music, the sooner I could create advances and radio singles for the Publicity and Promotion departments. Advances are CDs with little or no artwork serviced to writers, radio stations, and anyone else that would need to hear the music early enough to help create buzz around the album.
The artwork came from the Creative department. Along with simply looking great, the text (or copy as it’s called in the industry) had to be free of errors. This involved a great deal of proofing, a process that started with me, was routed through the Marketing department to the artist, then to the Legal and A&R departments, past the desk of the General Manager and eventually the CEO, and back to me. Proofing involved looking at all the credits (musician, production, and writer), liner notes, song titles, timings, lyrics, special thanks, legal lines, spacing, punctuation, font styles, spelling, the UPC, catalog number, and anything else the artist wanted in their package. Needless to say, not everyone looked at everything, so it was up to me to make sure enough eyes were put on it to catch things somebody else might have missed.
Working the the Creative department also taught me a great deal about print production. Printing is a pretty complex beast, and while the technology is pretty advanced today, at the heart of it people still print with four color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). The design files had to be set up perfectly so the right amount of ink was hitting the paper in the right spots. Things that seem simple on a computer, like white text on a black background, can be problematic for a printer as the ink might close up the narrow white spaces. Working with the designers and art director, I had to check that the artwork met the printers’ specifications.
Meanwhile, the Sales department was busy drumming up interest in various accounts, so the albums would get as much distribution as possible. If you’ve ever tried to get your local CD store to sell your CD, you have an idea of what the sales department does. They have to pitch each album to every retailer (often times there is a one large buyer that supplies several retailers with product). The only way to pitch an album is to have a story–something that would suggest people will actually go into the store and buy the album. Their main tool is called a sales sheet, or one sheet, which is kind of like a one page summary of all the marketing, publicity, radio, tour info, artist bio, and past sales performance.
One way to understand the whole process of selling records is to actually start with the Sales department suggesting a new angle on a product, such as a reissue series, that they feel will do well at certain retailers. Then the A&R, Creative, and Production departments jump into action to make the product a reality. Sometimes this involves creating exclusives for particular accounts (such as a Borders’ version with a bonus track). Exclusives are usually added to the schedule last minute and involve some quick manuvering through the processes mentioned above.
I would also act as a liaison between the Sales department and UMG Logistics department which oversaw the actual manufacturing and inventory. One of my shining moments, which was nearly a nightmare, was when Herbie Hancock’s album River: The Joni Letters won the Grammy for Album of the Year. In the five months between it’s release and the Grammy Awards, I believe it sold about 50,000 albums. In the week following the Grammy win, it sold nearly that many again. It took some quick action and teamwork between myself and the Sales and Inventory departments to make sure we had enough product on order to keep up with the demand.
I remember one day in the thick of all this when my boss came into my office and asked me to create a report of the inventory numbers from all the various warehouses along with what was in production and when those would be delivered and to what warehouses. And he needed it in an hour so he could get on the phone with his boss, the CEO. Normally, when I pull these kinds of reports I double check my numbers with the guys in Inventory, but they were in a meeting for the next hour, so it was all on me. I managed to pull an accurate report but the numbers were a little to close for comfort, so my boss and the head of sales sweetened them a bit for the CEO. What he didn’t know didn’t hurt him.
I also worked with the Sales and Marketing departments to create POP, or point of purchase items, and promotional tools like t-shirts, match books, cocktail stirrers, chapstick, posters, postcards, you name it. If somebody thought it would help sell the record, I had to figure out the cost. If the cost got approved (it usually didn’t), then I’d have to orchestrate the design and production of the item.
While working with all these different departments, I tried to learn as much as I could. I asked lots of questions, but not questions like “what do you want me to do next?” or even “how do I do this?” No, my questions were either “why do they do it this way?” to figure out the method to the madness. I also tried to work things out for myself and then ask the appropriate people whether I’d gotten it right. I did this with anything involving the label’s lawyer for two reasons–quicker answers, and because understanding how legal issues effect decisions will probably save my ass somewhere down the road.
The biggest lesson I learned here: Marketing is marketing, sales is sales, publicity is publicity, etc. Just because you’re in the music business doesn’t change the game, and as a musician I can learn a lot from other savvy and creative business people.
In many ways, I was always cut out for a production job at a jazz record label. My training as a musician has developed my ear to the point where I can pick out tiny ticks, clips, distortions, and other non-musical sounds on recordings, even those engineered by the best. Besides music, art had been a big passion of mine growing up. In fact, had I not studied music, I was considering an art major. This gave me an advantage when looking at artwork. I understood concepts of composition, balance, color and fonts. I was also a quick study when working with some excellent designers and a very particular art director who had a knack for teaching. Add to that my natural anal-retentiveness and the job fits like a glove.
Inertia and changing course.
Perhaps the most important but least tangible lesson learned was that of inertia. Verve was a tiny part of a the largest recorded music company in the world, Universal Music Group. The collective power of all the UMG labels enables massive distribution leverage. You needn’t go further than any popular music news website or blog to hear about how UMG uses it’s power to force startups to pay extremely large up front licensing fees for access to the UMG catalog. UMG managed to even get a royalty of every Microsoft Zune sold (the Zune was supposed to be an iPod competitor). And just like any other large company, the quantity of work they can give a third party such as a printer or digital aggregator, gives them a strong hand in negotiations.
But this kind of inertia is a big problem when it’s time to change directions. The times they are a changin’ and the old model is proven less effective. The cost of running a huge company can no longer be supported by selling CDs, and while monetizing digital assets is promising, it does not fill the void. There is a lot of discussions of 360 degree deals, where one company controls all the major revenue streams for an artist. That doesn’t sound like a viable solution for developing artists, and worse, it only compounds the issue of changing directions with new trends.
Large companies also tend to over-insulate their artists. New generations of fans will want more contact with artists, and when they can’t get it they manufacture it by making their own music videos or other various activities that are technically illegal until the major label attorneys are able to figure out a way to monetize it. Remember when Colbie Caillat told her fans that Universal artists were only allowed to post 90 second clips of their music on MySpace? This is just one example of an artist feeling alienated from her fans because of a large label. The situation could have been handled better, but by putting a choke hold on MySpace using their artists’ music (which doesn’t actually belong to the artists) as the noose, UMG figured they could turn the popular website into another revenue stream. The problem here is that even though the music belongs to the label, the artists’ reputation and relationship with fans is more valuable. This kind of relationship is more easily maintained when fewer people are involved. Fans, artist, and maybe a small team to facilitate the technology.
As I mentioned earlier, I resigned from Verve after about three years. That was the longest gig I’d held, unless you count being a musician. My record label job was the ideal 9 to 5 for a guy like me. But then I’d remember that kid with the hobby playing music, and I realized that I had the tools to support myself with my hobby. In fact, over the few years I’d been working at the label and applying what I was learning to help sell my own music, I was actually bringing in a decent amount of cash for maybe three hours of work each week. Meanwhile the 50-60 hours a week I spent at the office was bringing in about three times that of my music income. I wondered what would happen if I applied myself full time to making music? How long before I could double it? Triple it? I struggled with the decision, but after looking at the finances with my wife and painting worst case scenario after worst case scenario, the decision was made.
I write this almost 6 months since my last day at the office. Each month has brought in a little more money than the last. One month in particular brought in more than what I had been making with the record label job. There will be ups and downs in the future, but I’ve proven to myself that I made the right decision. I continue to diversify my revenue streams to help me through dry spells. Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to cut my income in half now and build a solid foundation for a long term career. This foundation is constructed by writing more music, playing more gigs, recording more albums, producing and playing on other people’s albums, establishing a broader internet presence, and building more relationships as a musician. But the cornerstone of it all is in finding my voice as a guitarist.
While I continue to develop a career of my own music, there are other facets that help pay the bills. I teach guitar lessons. I’m a production consultant for a small company that provides sales and marketing expertise to both independent and major labels. I work on jingles with a fellow musician working on her own music. And along with some other musician friends, I record niche oriented albums under different pseudonyms to create different brands (as well as avoid confusion with the brand I’m trying to establish with my music). If I have a slow month in any of these areas, I’m covered by the others.
This is an exciting time to be an independent musician. I believe the future will be bright for knowledgeable artists that retain ownership of their recordings and understand how to keep costs down. Quality recordings can be made for relatively little when the right group of talented people get together, and once the recording is made there’s no reason to sell it to a label. The business relationships independent artists should cultivate are those of mutual benefit, with a team of experts that believe in the artist and his or her music.
As an independent artist myself, I understand that there is simply too much to do day to day to release an album to it’s full potential. There is no way I could do everything the people at Verve did. Proper business relationships are established through repeated business, and if I’m only releasing one album every couple years, those relationships will never fully develop. But I can establish relationships with other artists, and use our collective continuity to establish working relationships with experts in sales, publicity, marketing, promotion, and distribution. I envision someday being involved with a virtual label of like minded artists inspiring each other creatively while helping each other stay aware and ahead of current business trends, all to create a new adaptive form of momentum. I imagine I’m not alone.