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Music biz expert Passman: Subscriptions can save us

Author of "All You Need to Know About the Music Business" acknowledges the impending death of the CD, but he remains optimistic about the long-term health of the industry.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
5 min read

If you work in the music business, you probably already know the name Donald Passman. For the uninitiated, his book "All You Need to Know About the Music Business," which was first released in 1991 and comes out in a seventh edition today, is the book on how the music industry works. If you ever wanted to know how major and indie label deals are structured, the different types of royalties that musicians can earn and how they're calculated, what a personal manager does for a band, how much money artists make on tour, where your ticket fees go, or any of countless other nitty-gritty details, this is the book. Music industry people sometimes call it the bible, and they're not joking.

The seventh edition contains numerous updates since the last release in 2006, including the final resolution of the battle over Internet radio royalties, details of how royalties are calculated for iTunes and YouTube, and the latest developments in label deals. I had a chance to talk to Passman on the phone on Tuesday morning about the changes he sees in the music industry and where he thinks it's going.

Q: Since the last edition of the book was published in 2006, what's the biggest change to the industry?
Donald Passman: 360 deals [in which record labels get a cut of the artist's revenue from touring, merchandise, and other sources apart from record sales] are a tectonic shift in the way record deals get done. There was a smattering of them three years ago, but now it's become the norm. Early deals with Madonna and other established artists were really banking deals, where everybody knew the artist's track record and they were making a bet on what the future would be. Deals with new artists are quite different. The labels are saying that they're the only ones really willing to spend money on a new artist's career, and they can no longer make money just in the record business, so they need a cut of this other income.

We're also starting to see some industry patterns in how royalties and payments are calculated for digital music. So far, none of the business models have made a lot of money. Even iTunes doesn't make a huge profit. But part of the problem three years ago was that if you started a streaming music service, you had no idea what you were paying. Now we're starting to see industry patterns.

Do you still think it's worth an artist's time to pay or find funding for a professionally recorded demo in a big studio? Or would you recommend that artists invest that time and money in buying a computer and other home recording gear and learning how to record themselves?
Passman: There's no one-size-fits-all answer. The software that's available now is better than what professional studios used to be like 10 years ago. You can create an extraordinarily good demo in your house. The key is to create a demo that sounds like a hit so they don't have to use their imagination to hear it. People will tell you they can hear a diamond in the rough; they can't.

Do you think the rise of do-it-yourself online services like CDBaby, Tunecore, and Sonicbids will lead to a new thriving "middle class" of musicians--folks that aren't signed to a label, but spend most of their time recording and touring and make a decent living doing it?
Passman: It's a reality today. If you're a niche-type artist and you don't mind staying in your niche, you can make a perfectly good middle-class living that way. If you're more mainstream, you can use those techniques to build buzz and attract a label. Nobody's yet had a major career without a label behind them. I'm certain that's going to change, but for bands that want to be truly international and mainstream, they still need a label.

In your book, you mention that you favor unlimited music-streaming--the "celestial jukebox"--as the most likely future business model to succeed. Do you think ad-supported free services (like Imeem or Grooveshark) will ever be viable?
Passman: I'm skeptical that ad-supported music services will work in a major way. People have had a hard time monetizing music to advertisers because the music is so diverse. Advertisers don't know what type of music they're going to be associated with, so it's hard for these services to get high enough CPMs [impression-based advertising rates]. YouTube's had the same problem: you don't know what kind of video's going to pop up next to your advertisement. Free services will probably be a model, but I don't think they'll be the model.

Why do you think subscription-based services (such as Rhapsody) haven't really taken off?
Passman: They're not convenient enough, they're not truly cross-platform. For me, the ultimate would be anytime-anywhere access to any music for one subscription. On my computer, in my car, on a connected device, whether it's an iPod or something else, on an airplane when I don't have an Internet connection. Not just tied to one or two devices. I'm personally a believer in subscription services. People don't think twice about paying for cable, and when you stop paying it goes away. But with music, there's a kneejerk reaction because we're used to owning it.

We hear a lot of doom and gloom about the death of the music industry. Are you still optimistic?
Passman: I'm optimistic in the longer term. Not for the next few years. I think it'll probably get a little worse, and then we'll bump along the bottom for a while. I don't think we've hit bottom, and that's because I see the trends that are happening now. CD sales are declining and will eventually disappear, and retailers are making it happen. They're cutting back the floor space they devote to CDs, which means less CD sales, which makes them cut back more.

But the digital opportunity is huge. We can sell music to people who've never gone into a record store, people who never listen to music because they stopped listening to the radio at a certain age will now have access. Unfortunately, we're not there, technically or legally. The more pain the industry feels, the easier the legal side gets. The better the technology gets, the closer we get to delivering an experience people want.