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Author Ari Herstand on Success in Music in 2023: ‘It’s Not a Straight Line Anymore’

The independent musician's how-to manual for other independent musicians, How to Make It in the New Music Business, is now in its third edition.

The music industry was radically reshaped in the three years since Ari Herstand last updated his how-to instruction manual for independent musicians, How to Make it in the New Music Business: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following and Making a Living as a Musician, first published in 2016. The pandemic changed how musicians monetize live music, social media apps re-wrote the rules about promoting music and blockchain-based products went mainstream.

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“A lot has changed,” says Herstand. “I would say more has changed in the last three years than probably the last 20 years.”

Now in its third edition, How to Make it in the New Music Business has joined Don Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business as a go-to source for navigating the industry’s dire straits. Herstand augments the book with a podcast of the same name and his long-running blog, Ari’s Take, that are informed by his own music career. As a solo artist and the front man of the Los Angeles-based funk band Brassroots District, Herstand understands the tribulations of the working musician.

“It’s not a straight line anymore,” he says about becoming a successful musician in 2023. Marketing and promotion is fragmented. Some artists use TikTok while others reach fans through old-fashioned SMS marketing. Some artists take a traditional path of building a fan base through touring. They have multiple options for crowdfunding and merch sales. Independent artists can follow Herstand’s examples of getting their music used in television, films and advertisements. “There is no one way to create a successful music career.”

How to Make It in the New Music Business has sold well and become regarded as a must-read for musicians. Are you surprised by its success?

I’m grateful that so many people have taken to the book. You know, the reason that I felt I needed to write this was because I had felt there was a void in the industry for manuals and helpful guides for the working musician. There were no books out there helping musicians navigate this new music business. Most of the other music business books that were widely regarded as kind of the go-to music industry Bibles were written by lawyers decades ago, and started with the incorrect premise that the only way to succeed in the music industry is by getting a record contract and a record label.

I hear from musicians every day. I had my book signing last night and so I got to meet and talk to a lot of them. People have told me how much the book has really helped them. I’ve heard from Grammy winners, I’ve heard from other people who are navigating [the industry] as middle-class musicians.

Is the notion of a do-it-yourself musician kind of outdated in a complex music business or has the term DIY always undersold the amount of teamwork involved in an artist’s success?

There is no artist that is truly DIY. I think that the DIY term now refers to artists that aren’t working with a traditional team. But there are non-traditional teams, and I outline what the “new team” looks like in the new music business. It can be everyone from a graphic designer that you’re working with, or someone to help you run your social media ads, to a videographer, to someone that can help guide you with royalty collection. Everybody needs team members. It’s impossible to do all of this on your own. And so, it’s just about finding those people who believe in what you’re doing, want to be part of the journey with you in any capacity, and then use their strengths to fill in the blank where your weaknesses may lie, or maybe where you just don’t have the time, or knowhow or desire to do those things yourself.

It’s far too much to manage and handle for one person. I encourage artists to learn everything that they need to get done and then delegate. Some people will delegate with a traditional role like a manager. Other people will delegate to their friends who just want to come help out. They might not have the traditional title of manager, but they might be partners in various capacities.

At my book signings last night, I interviewed Theo Katzman from the band Vulfpeck. I think he is a great example of a DIY icon. This is a band that has no manager, no record label, and they sold out Madison Square Garden, the Greek Theatre and Red Rock [Amphitheatre]. That’s something that was previously unheard of. Theo, as a solo artist, also does not have a manager. He told me he likes to maintain control. He doesn’t want to give up percentage of his career – 15-20% of gross – to anyone, and he’s playing to 3,000 capacity rooms all over the country right now and selling out these rooms.

About three years passed between editions of your book. What changed in the music business during that time that demanded inclusion in the new edition?

For one, the pandemic. You know, the industry looks quite different post-pandemic. There were over 100,000 livestream concerts that happened just in 2020 and 2021. TikTok came into prominence over the last three years. In the previous edition, I have one mention of TikTok. And now, I have an entire rewritten chapter on social media telling a lot of the stories of how TikTok has really enabled musicians to find an audience – some in a massive way and others in just a sustainable way. I talked about what’s happening with NFTs in the metaverse. And with the MLC [Music Licensing Collective] now in place I updated how royalty collection works, and how artists can structure their royalty collection and the parties that they need to work with if they’re remaining independent and aren’t working with a traditional publisher to collect their royalties or publishing royalties like mechanicals and performance.

And I talked about how record label record deals are structured. I interviewed a lot of artists that were offered 50-50 licensing deals from major record labels. This is something that was completely unheard of. I’ve never really seen a 50-50 licensing deal with a big advance –usually a six- or seven-figure advance – to completely independent artists with very little track record other than a TikTok song going viral.

I think the major labels are looking at these bands and they need to be far more competitive with the label services companies out there. Independent artists are realizing they don’t really need the record labels like they once did.

Independent artists tend to be quick to adopt new technologies. Let’s talk real quickly about a few of them. You mentioned TikTok. What’s the opportunity there for the independent artist?

I have never seen a social media platform be as effective as quickly. There’s never been a platform to launch songs as quickly and as powerfully as Tiktok has been able to. I’m less interested in superstar stories – there’s always some people and money behind the scenes pulling the strings. But what is is more interesting to me are some of these artists that are completely independent where sure some of them go viral and then get offered major record deals, but more so it’s the ones that are using it on an ongoing basis to build a sustainable fan base and interact with their audience, tell stories about themselves.

And where TikTok is now moving in 2023, which I think is actually very exciting for the independent artists, is the “For You” page has become so niche and fragmented that artists can find their community and not have any songs go viral. The algorithm now has become so honed that it is now connecting artists with fans in a way that feels natural and is under the radar from most of the industry and the labels. It’s really helpful for these artists.

Web3: for the independent musician, is it a mirage, or a good place to put resources and time?

I think Web3 is going to continue to find its footing. And I don’t think it’s a fad. I know that it got a lot of hype a year or two ago when NFTs were all the rage. There’s a lot of utility that I’m seeing happen. There is the company Royal. There’s another company Labelcoin. [Herstand is on Labelcoin’s advisory board.] Fans are able to invest in artists’ songs that they might believe in participate in the share of royalties. Web3 technologies give a very streamlined ability to do this. It’s kind of like crowdfunding. I call it crowdfunding 3.0 Crowdfunding 1.0 was Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Crowdfunding 2.0 was Patreon, that ongoing support. Now crowdfunding 3.0 is a fan investing model. So that’s where some of the utility of Web3 is moving.

I see Web3 as something that is constantly evolving and starting to find its footing. I don’t see it going anywhere. It’s like, the internet wasn’t a fad. Social media wasn’t a fad, but it evolved and it isn’t what it was when it first came out. So that’s, that’s what we went through. It’s still very early stages. But it is a very exciting frontier.

There are a lot of platforms and services these days for funding, whether it’s crowd funding or advances or loans. What do you think of these opportunities for independent artists? Are they on artists’ radars?

Yeah, there are distributors out there that have built right into their platform. TuneCore does this. Because they have all of your streaming data, they can get through their own internal algorithms crunch the numbers offer their artists advances. There’s standalone companies out there as well that that artists can apply to to get royalties and get advances from. I don’t think enough artists know about these platforms, and they’re more popping up every day. But it is very exciting that they can say, “All right, well, let’s look at the previous three years of your streaming data. Okay, this song earned about $10,000 a year. So we anticipate this is probably going to earn $10,000 a year for the next five years. So, we can write you a $50,000 check today. And then we’re going to kind of take the first $60,000 that comes in from the song over the five-six years, and we’ll make a little profit, and you get $50,000 today.” That’s happening. That’s kind of what the TuneCore model is and what a lot of these other companies’ models are. That’s available for artists that have pretty good streaming numbers. It’s modest but that advance could help them with the marketing of their new music and help them go on tour or help them buy inventory.