There's an interesting spat going on between Tom Silverman, who founded hip-hop/dance label Tommy Boy Records and runs the New Music Seminar for new artists to learn about the music industry, and Jeff Price, the CEO of TuneCore, a service that helps musicians place their songs on iTunes and other digital-distribution outlets.
In a three-part interview with Musician Coaching, Silverman dismissed the idea that the Internet is helping new musicians break. For purposes of this argument, his definition of "breaking" is selling more than 10,000 copies of an album in the year of its release, for the first time in an artist's career.
Citing Nielsen SoundScan statistics, he showed that only 225 albums released in 2009 met this criterion. Of those, only 12--a dozen--came from independent, unsigned artists. That's out of more than 100,000 albums released during the year--pretty bleak.
Price responded by pointing out that album sales aren't the only--or even best--measure of success. If you look at digital-single sales, several artists have sold more than 100,000 tracks apiece through TuneCore without being signed to any label. Those tracks may not have been counted by SoundScan because the corresponding albums have to be preregistered in SoundScan's database; many independent artists don't preregister their albums with SoundScan.
Both of them have a horse in the game: Silverman wants beginning artists to attend the seminar so they can learn the secrets to success, and Price wants them to believe that they can do it themselves, with TuneCore and other Internet tools.
There are elements of truth in both positions, and Silverman's points about radio (it doesn't help like it used to, but it's still important for mass sales) and music labels (they're taking fewer risks, and those risks are paying off less often) are absolutely correct. But as an approach for new bands, I tend to buy Price's do-it-yourself argument for one simple reason: Silverman basically admits that albums are dying. Digital single-song downloads are growing as album sales shrink. So why did he use album sales as his metric of success?
More generally, the argument illustrates how dramatically the definition of "success" has changed. Silverman remembers when new artists could become rock stars. It's always been a long shot, but if you had good material and the right promotional teams backing you, there was a legitimate chance at fame and fortune. Those huge sellers are disappearing.
But Internet tools have made it possible for artists who are completely outside of the traditional label system to make money from music. Fifteen years ago, if you didn't have a label and a management team, you were lucky to get a couple hundred bucks for a gig, where you could sell a few demo tapes or self-produced CDs (which cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to produce). Promotion involved stapling fliers to light poles and sending postcards through the mail--expensive, time-consuming, and not very effective.
Today, you can create, distribute, and promote your music to many more people for much less money--plus set up tours, sell merchandise, and find partners--all without leaving your computer. For somebody who started slogging around in bands in the 1990s, this is nothing short of amazing.
Of course, you still need to write good music and play a lot of shows--that never changes. But you can make a living playing music without playing the old radio label game or searching for the magic bullet that will make you into an overnight sensation. I think that there's never been a better time to be a musician--or a music fan, for that matter.