Artist Development: Musicians Are Now in Control (Guest Post)

Steve Rennie, President of REN Management, during a live Web show, "Renman Music & Business."

Photo courtesy of REN Management.

Steve Rennie is president of REN Management and host of Renman Music & Business. In addition to having managed  Incubus, Primal Scream and The The, Rennie was a founding member of ArtistDirect and SVP and GM of Epic Records where he worked with Korn, Rage Against the Machine, Ozzy Osbourne and Celine Dion.

There was a concept in the record business for years called artist development.

The idea was actually pretty simple. The label would sign an artist that they loved or whose future they believed in. Typically those artists were at the beginning of their creative potential but still had not totally dialed in their thing.

In those glory days, the artist development process could be analogous to a budding romance. First, you went on a date and held hands. Then perhaps on your second date, you kissed. And if you were getting along great, you build up to that moment of consummation – the record contract. The process assumed that you would light some candles, pour some wine, have a nice meal, and then if all went well, you’d get down to, well more.

In today's music business, there are no such luxuries, no candles, no wine, no romantic dinners, just a simple yes or no. It's not about love. It's about results.

It's not just the labels that have changed. The whole artist development infrastructure that had worked for years has gone through transformation is well. MTV has been supplanted by YouTube. Rolling Stone has been supplanted by blogs, started by some kid in a college dorm who couldn't get a job at Rolling Stone. Commercial radio stations have been challenged by online streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. New ways to hear music have emerged that operate outside the mainstream of the radio business.

The old brick-and-mortar retail distribution network that was the linchpin of the major labels power has been usurped as well. Getting your record in a store today is doable for just about anybody with forty bucks and an Internet connection.

So if the labels today aren't going to be the architects of artist development, then who is?

There's a whole new infrastructure of artist development starting to take shape on the Web today. There's now a host of tools to help make music, promote music, market music and more. Most of these companies are being started not by big multinational corporations but rather by young music fans and entrepreneurs. Their business plans generally started with a genuine, sincere love of music and the desire to be a part of it.

These kids today are not protecting a franchise. They're trying to build one. That difference in mindset is huge.

Let me give you a concrete example. Last week, I had a chance to meet with two young entrepreneurs from Chicago named Michael Johnston and Adam Thurston who started a website called Audiotree.tv. I wasn't introduced to them by some big powerbroker in the music business. I was introduced to them by one of my Renman MB community members. The kid sent me a note telling me about this great new site that helps young artists capture their live performance on video and suggested I have them on my Web show. So I contacted them by email and arranged to spotlight their website on Renman Live.

This is their story. Three years ago, Michael and Adam rented a studio, bought some cameras and started webcasting local bands coming through the Chicago area. The reality is that most of the bands are unknown at best. But over the course of three years, they had a chance to work with some really terrific artist along the way. Through them, I discovered Shakey Graves, who I picked at random. This kid turned out to be a great find!

What started as a friendly conversation about their website has turned into a bit of a friendship over the last year. This past week, we talked about their business model and how they intend to turn it into a sustainable business. The conversation ultimately turned towards the challenges they faced dealing with major labels. It seemed they were in the Rodney Dangerfield vortex where they were playing an important role in the artist development process but getting no respect.

That got me thinking about this whole idea of developing the next generation of artist. Who’s going to do it? How are they going to do it, and why? While most artists would love to be invited on "Saturday Night Live" or "Jimmy Fallon," the fact is most developing artist won't be invited.

So what do they do?

Simple. They work with sites like Audiotree. It's expensive to tour, but if you play in Chicago for Audiotree, your performance has a chance to play in every country around the world where you can find an Internet connection. That's huge. And if the goal of your artist development plan is to ultimately take a swing at the big time, then you'll need a major label.

The truth is while major labels and their scouts are scouring the Web looking for signs of life, the truly committed indie artists are scouring the Web looking for ways to do the dirty, but important, work of artist development on their own. And the good news is that there is a growing number of sites and tools to help with booking tours, making music, and making videos. Here are a few of the good ones I would be looking at, if I were them.

Indie On The Move -- This is a great website to help indie artists book a tour without an agent. IndieOnTheMove is basically a database of 5,000-plus venues across the U.S. with detailed contacts and information put together by Kyle Weber, a musician who gathered the data while trying to build his own band's touring business. Here is a clip from my interview with Kyle on "Renman Live."

Radar Music Videos -- This site out of the U.K. connects artists and small labels with professional filmmakers who can produce videos on the cheap. I was turned on to Radar by a great young manager of a band called ArtOfficial from Miami. They made a sick video for $1,200 and connected with the director through the site. Check out a clip of my interview with Caroline Bottomley, who is the founder of the site. 

Daytrotter -- Daytrotter is another excellent site started by a musician named Sean Moeller in Rock Island, Iowa. They do live recording sessions with indie artists who are passing through the area. The Daytrotter crew now operates studio sessions in other cities as well. Check out the list of artists who've visited their studio, and you'll see lots of unknown artists alongside artists like Wilco, Mumford & Sons, Death Cab For Cutie, Lumineers and more.

Songcraft Presents --  Song writing isn't easy, and labels used to help out here, too. Not anymore -- at least not for indie artists. Run by Ben Arthur, Songcraft Presents brings new artists into the studio, where Arthur and his crew help the artists write, record, mix and master a brand new song -- all within three hours. The whole affair is put on video as part of a Web series. As a bonus, some of Songcraft's segments make their way to Acoustic Cafe, a weekly radio show hosted by Rob Reinhart that's syndicated to more than 90 stations in the U.S. and via Voice of America abroad, where it reaches 3 million people. Check out the session they did with Sean Rowe, which got turned into a 20-minute segment on Acoustic Cafe, a music video, a tutorial, a behind the scenes video and an original song sold on iTunes.

As you can see, there are no big corporations here. Just lovers of music, trying to give artists a shot. And you gotta love that.

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