The Music Industry’s Inconvenient Truth


by Paul Gelsomine

It’s no big secret that the music industry is a tough business to be in. As we quickly move through the digital landscape, seeing the slow death of physical product among other opportunities, the whole Music Industry game continues to be constantly shifting. Gone are the days where composers would receive huge cash advances. There’s also the feeling that technology platforms are disrupting the music business. Some claim they are improving the game, while others say they are taking money away from the creators.

The vast majority of educational content being spewed out about the music industry works under the assumption that there is only one viable path forward. Many believe companies writing this material, are trying to attract future independent content providers as customers.

Throughout my entire career I have sought out a framework for my creative business that is modular and customizable, rather than a rigid one-size-fits-all solution. What I really want to do is to make a living doing the creative work I love, without having to win the career lottery, randomly going viral on social media, or being famous! As a creative enterprise, perhaps the worst thing that can be done is ending up chasing other people’s definition of success, instead of your own.

For example, an artist earning the majority of their revenue from YouTube, a classical musician making 90% of revenue from live shows, or a songwriter / composer pulling in a comfortable salary from sync deals, all might be earning the same income on an annual basis, and achieving equal amounts of what they consider success, but each have very different strengths, sore points and career goals.

In reality, there remain many composers and producers today who see value in major partnership deals as their next stepping stone, based on their own goals and definition of accomplishment. This is completely legit, but the key is how to navigate these types of corporate environments effectively.

How can you best prepare yourself for all the mental and commercial challenges that come with the bigger deal? How do you stay true to your own definition of success in an environment where so many other vested interests are colliding?

One question is prevalent: How does a business spend what it has today to benefit itself in the future and make educated decisions about their investments and partnerships?  This could mean wildly different things for different artists, composers, companies, etc., which are in a general sense in the same business. Music!

The main goal is to make investments that yield returns. But these returns might not always include dollar signs, at least not in the start up phase. Returns in this business come in many forms, as many veterans might agree, and benefits, or dividends may come at a much later date. On the other hand many are interested in what they are going to get paid before they even have any experience. No doubt everyone in business is searching for some kind of “return on investment,” but what that return could actually look like varies widely dependent on where one is now and where one is eventually headed.

As I see it, my experience has been a form of payment for me. It turned out that the more stripes I had on my belt, and the more experience I gained, the more respect I received from more seasoned musicians and industry professionals. With the knowledge I acquired, I had a greater chance to get paid fairly. So remember, in the beginning of your career, it is not about what you earn, it’s about what you have the chance to learn.

If you are looking for a checklist of all the things you need to do to be successful in the music business you won’t really find it. What worked for me in my career might not work for you. A strategy or plan that works today might not work tomorrow. Getting a degree in a trade might help get you a job in any respective field, but a degree in the music business won’t guarantee you anything. Your education will largely be, for you to figure out what works for you and do more of it, and to figure out what’s not working and stop doing it.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish

In the world of production music the present situation is one of increasing competition and decreasing budgets.  The gain is that there are more potential clients than ever, but the disadvantage is that some clients are being pressed financially and are therefore pressured to look for alternative sources for production music. Some reason the future outcome might be detrimental to the industry on a whole.

Amazingly though the production music sector seems to have consistently grown in both size and quality over the past years. Long gone are the days of clients complaining they had to use a production library cues for their media. Clients have a huge choice when it comes to music, and their choices often focus on creativity and production value, which are good news for our industry!

The increase of television channels has inevitably watered out the viewing audience, thus causing advertising revenue, and budgets, to be reduced. Apart from the few at the very top, many TV and film composers have had to get used to working on lower budgets. Often this can result (at worst) in lower–quality commissioned music being produced, and sadly, fewer live musicians being involved.

Seizing opportunity, new production libraries and music companies marched in with a new generation of music having high artistic and production values, which could be licensed easily. Getting your music accepted or being commissioned to write production music is every bit as competitive as any of the more traditionally glamorous goals for musicians and composers, such as landing a record deal, publishing deal, film or TV commission.

Unfortunately, I’m am afraid of the continued race to the bottom due to newer libraries not taking any sync fees which devalue the business for everyone else. Broadcasters are being met with more competition for market share, and overall there has been an increase in new productions from new production companies, which in turn creates more competition for viewers around the globe. There are also an increasing number of music providers, with a wide range of quality and quantity.

It seems the pressure has been turned up for the production music sector, which a while back enjoyed relative stability for years even though the rest of the music industry turned chaotic around it. In the meanwhile as the number of production music catalogs and creators are increasing, their customers have less to spend.

Songwriter Problems

Songwriters, content creators, and composers, are often paid pennies for their tracks, even top-charting songs on major streaming, Internet and radio platforms.  Lower royalties are hurting an entire generation of writers. Songwriters, and publishers often have little negotiating power. Meanwhile, the threat of accidental plagiarism is increasing, thanks to a hyper-connected creative world and the high likelihood of two writers composing something extremely similar.

Music Industry professionals (managers, agents, labels, publishers, etc.) are attracted to musicians and writers who take the lead and achieve a great deal on their own. It’s no secret for some that if you want to get to that next level of your music career, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Regardless of what you have heard music is never free. You spend time writing your songs, and possibly invest in recording your music. When all is said and done, you’ve spent a good deal of money and hours of your precious time. Don’t devaluate your music by giving it away for free!

Rather than give your music away at no cost to the customer, build value in it! Tell people about the talented and hard working producers, or musicians with whom you worked, the quality standard of the studio you recorded in. All that equipment costs. And don’t forget the time and love that you put into making your music.

Pursuing a career in music requires blood, sweat, and money. Nothing is free and you should make sure that people realize that! In the long run it will be better for everyone involved in the business of music.

After some hard work, the day may come when you are presented with a contractual offer. Good news, congratulations!  But jumping at every deal like it’s a take it or leave it situation is not always advisable. You should never sign anything without understanding it, or feel rushed or pressured to take the deal. Remember that most contracts are agreements that are drafted to favor the other party and are used as negotiations starting points.

Most companies (labels, production companies, libraries, etc.) expect that you’re going to analyze, and ask for contract revisions, based on their desire to do business with you. Based on your strengths and accomplishments, many companies are prepared to make reasonable concessions. So keep your cool and remember, in business, you never get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate for.

If You Don’t DIY

Amidst dizzying opportunities and endless distraction of the music industry, it’s tough deciding how to spend what you’ve got. Building a real career in music happens over time and that means you’ll need to get a lot of things right, over and over again, for a very long time. And you will need to fail a lot to accomplish that. Anybody can get lucky for a minute, but you’ve got to be good at what you do to last for years.

Working in music is more than just a 9 to 5 job. It requires a lot of commitment, often for not a lot of compensation or recognition. It doesn’t help either, that there is mountains of misinformation out there about how to get into the music industry and what to do once you’re there. If you want to be successful you have to know exactly what you are getting into. You’ll need to roll with all the unpredictability that comes with the business. There is no crying allowed. You’ll need all of that energy to work at achieving your short and long-term goals.

As many on this site have said before. Plan for a long duration not a short one. Consistency, routine, a gradual increase in work rate and complexity, are all key. At first, you may think it’s an impossible task, but it will get better and better every day. As we improve, we set ourselves new and exciting targets.

Make no mistake if you’re in it for only the money, you may have a quicker path to success by being a money manager or stockbroker. As a songsmith / composer, it could a very long time before you start making a comfortable living in the music business. Be sure that you’re focused on the right things: making quality music that you are proud of, and that can potentially help you cover your bills.

Success is no accident! Hard work, persistence and learning from failure put you where good luck can find you.

Just parts and labor and a workingman’s advice!

8 Replies to “The Music Industry’s Inconvenient Truth”

  1. Thank you for your “don’t work for free” admonition. As a music supervisor I refuse to willingly use any so-called “royalty free” libraries. As a composer/songwriter I won’t license my IP for free — unless it is a passion project/documentary about a cause in which I’m significantly invested/support.

  2. Hey listen everyone on the MLR site, thanks for all the kind words from all of you that liked the article. Especially like to thank Art for letting me put the article up on the site, otherwise no one would have been able to give it a read. Continue to enjoy your musical journey!

    Paul G

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