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Becoming a rock star: It's possible, but unlikely

Becoming a rock star: It's possible, but unlikely
Artwork by Chris Strouth

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

I get a surprising amount of emails from people asking questions about how to succeed in music, how to get publicity, and how to get music heard by others. These inquiries seem to be  seeking how to get what it is these nascent creatives think they want. In reality, it's not that they can't get the right answers, but they are asking the wrong questions, and most definitely at the wrong time.

We are in the post-music age. Music is no longer the force leading popular culture. Sorry, it just isn't. Sure, tour revenues are up, but so are ticket prices are too. In pure economic terms, fewer people are paying more. The dollars go up, but audience is essentially squeezed out of the market. If you can't engage its hard to be part of the culture. Music is now less a stand-alone and more part of a bubble. It's all merged in with merchandise and software. A concert is no longer just a concert -- it's an "experience."


In terms of pure numbers, music takes take a back seat to video games. In 2013 the total gross revenue from touring musicians was $4.8 billion worldwide while the recording industry itself is worth approximately $15 billion (2 percent sync rights, 7 percent performance rights, 39 percent digital rights, and 51 percent physical sales). The whole shooting match is worth about $20 billion. Which sounds pretty good till you realize that the video game market tops in at $93 billion for that same period. This includes sales of video game console hardware and software, online, mobile and PC games, but doesn't include money from films and TV shows based on games, or merchandise like action figures or terribly clever T-shirts.

Want to feel worse? The gross revenues for fantasy football, which is just a U.S. thing, come in at $15 billion. Or to put it another way, the global music economy is worth $1 billion more than what Facebook just paid for the What's App messenger service. The movie Frozen grossed a little over a billion dollars on its own, so that movie is equal to about 1/20 of music worldwide. Not including the platinum record that it got for music sales. And about those platinum records: There were all of 17 in the year 2013. One of which was a holiday album by the Robertsons, the Duck Dynasty clan. Though platinum, singles beat albums by a hefty margin.

You're looking at this photo for purely musical purposes.
You're looking at this photo for purely musical purposes.
Erik Hess

Music barely even scratched the Google year-end trend lists. Just one entry in top 10 trending, and it was "The Harlem Shake," which, let's be honest here, isn't about the song at all. Of course, the number one "what is " query was "What is twerking?" While it seems to be about music, it is really about ass jiggling. In fairness people confuse the two often. In music's favor, the top 10 most searched people were all musicians: Miley Cyrus, Drake, Kim Kardashian (sad as that is to consider her as such), Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, and Kanye West. Of course, that said, how many on that list do you think are being Googled because of their music?

Are you depressed yet? You should be. I would love to tell you how many songs were released in 2013, but it is actually impossible. There are traditional release methods, songs on the iTunes store, songs put up on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and other streaming sites, and let us not forget the YouTube. Now the largest search engine for music, YouTube has on average 93,600 hours of video added daily -- which mean 36,164,000 hours added last year, which equals 4,000 years worth of non-stop watching. I am guessing a good chunk of that is cat videos, but a lot is people waiting to be a viral sensation and good chunk of them singing songs.

 

Are you discouraged yet? Because you should be. Making music is now easier than ever, and we live in a period of time where more people would classify themselves as a musician or artist than at any other time in history. Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. What once seemed a clever bit about fortune's impermanence is now true. Yesterday's sensation is now an answer on Trivial Pursuit: The meme edition.

With so many choices, things get lost. It's harder to find a gem, and eventually you settle just to be done looking. It's like looking for a movie to watch on Netflix: a million choices, but none of them just right. Rather than choosing from the best, you choose from a million varieties of OK. The sheer number of choices can make even the truly bright seem all the duller.

So that sort of begs the question: Do you still want it? Because if hearing all that didn't deter you, that's already a pretty good start. I hear people talk a lot in their emails about their passion. Passion is great, and with that and a quarter you can make a phone call -- provided of course, you can still find a payphone. Passion alone just isn't enough. It's about action. It's about dedication to the dumb little details. As a working musician I can tell you that I spend more time pitching and organizing then I do actually making music. And unless you're just doing session work, that's most likely going to be the case.

Music, like any other business, is about relationships. Though with that said, it is not a case of "It's not what you know, its who you know" either. Just knowing someone isn't good enough; it's how you relate to each other. In truth, some of the most successful bands succeed because they are interconnected. The Totally Gross National Product bands are a prime example. They are part of one scene, they hang out together, they play in each other's bands, see each other's bands, and are actual friends, in some case going back to high school or before.

They aren't alone. Almost every label works a bit like that, from Rhymesayers to Amphetamine Reptile to Twin/Tone. And whether its high school, college, or treatment, there is usually a connection beyond the musical. It's not just about how you play together, its about who you want to hang out with. Because music involves spending a lot of time with the people you're doing it with, and if you're annoying, no amount of musical prowess will make that tolerable.

It's also about relationships with the media. I can't tell you how many mass-emailed press releases I get about people's "passion," when honestly the sender would do infinitely better to spend the time to figure out who they were actually emailing and targeting the right people. More isn't always the right choice. You are always better off taking aim than firing blindly and hoping you connect to the target. Sure, it's common sense, yet it's surprisingly rare for those of the three-chords-and-a-dream variety.

All that aside, it really is an amazing era for music. It's open to so much, and if you have a different sound you can find an audience that in another era might have been lost. Think tUnE-yArDs, Sigur Ros, Animal Collective -- bands that 10 years ago wouldn't have been heard on commercial airwaves. There are millions of ways to connect with fans -- that is of course, after you figure out a way to get them to be your fan in the first place. The point is, the old ways aren't going to work.

What worked for all the bands mentioned thus far aren't going to work for you. You have to find your own path, because all the old ones are closed. It means that you can go somewhere that no one has ever gone before, even if it's being a semi-successful musician and a completely successful baker. It's OK for music to be a part time job. The point is, it's not easy, and it shouldn't be. But of course , isn't that what makes it worth doing?

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