Phil Sweetland’s October 2010 Biz Buzz

Americana and DIY Projects Give Artists New Opportunities

The label and radio businesses are undergoing radical change, and smart artists and managers can take care of these two at last get their music heard.

September’s Americana Music Festival and Conference in Nashville was a perfect example of music and artists long overlooked by the mainstream and by radio that are making important strides in the marketplace.

“Americana has it all,” Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly wrote in the festival’s program. “It has legendary and groundbreaking acts. It has stars. It sells records. And yes, it `breaks’ acts!”

The most famous example is the Avett Brothers, a quirky acoustic trio from North Carolina who we first heard about five years ago when they were playing tiny halls near Charlotte.

Things have sure changed.

Hilly wrote: “The Avett Brothers’ Rick Rubin-produced record `I And Love And You’ debuted in the Top 20 in the Billboard charts and has sold over a quarter of a million copies.”

The Avetts’ music is as much folk as country, as much alternative as rock. It basically runs the gamut of musical styles, but their unusual music and fiercely energetic performances have captivated fans. They are role models for all of those artists whose music doesn’t conveniently fit into radio or Music Row formats.

There is also evidence that artists now must participate in their own marketing and management to maximize their sales and their opportunities. Billboard Country Update recently wrote: “With more marketing options available and more contract options to consider, the days of an Elvis Presley placing all of the business decisions in someone else’s hands are gone. Acts like the Zac Brown Band and Madonna are better examples of what the future holds for music’s stars.”

The Zac Brown Band became a huge club favorite long before getting a Nashville deal. That’s old-school artist development the way it should be. It runs counter to the idiotic obsession Row labels have had with reality-show contestants.

The huge ratings power of “American Idol” lulled record companies to sleep. A&R departments were reduced or eliminated, and instead the labels let Idol do their A&R for them. Reality contestants look good and are polished performers, but since they’re chosen thru mass auditions and not thru the tried-and-true techniques of building an audience by working clubs, they often prove to have little staying power.

And the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach is another rejection of the Idol-style deal, which wasn’t favorable to artists anyway because often Idol ownership group 19 Management took a gigantic cut of the contestant’s revenues.

So if you’re an artist or you represent artists, learn the nuts and bolts of the business. These all contribute to your profit potential as an artist, but were areas that labels and managers handled for years. But that was in the old biz models which have been broken for over a decade.

Instead, figure out where your expenses and where your revenues will come. How much does touring cost? What’s a day on the road cost? Is it worth it? Would you be better off flying to a gig, or leasing a bus?

The cost of radio promotion often sinks labels, as well as artists. Many top Row radio promoters now charge between $12,000 and $15,000 per month to promote a single to radio. That’s a gigantic expense. Is it worth it? How many spins are you getting for your money?

Besides, though we all dream of gold records and No. 1 singles, do you have the millions of dollars it costs today to compete with the majors at radio? Loretta Lynn may have gotten spins by walking into stations 50 years ago, but that was then and this is now. Those doors are slammed shut now. Radio is now the land of tiny playlists, and singles that drag on the charts for months.

Charts that move that slowly favor only artists and labels with extremely deep pockets – in other words, the majors. Don’t even try to compete with that unless you have virtually limitless money to spend (or waste) on promotion.

Instead, think of the Zac Brown and the Avett Brothers’ examples. Get out on the road and play, play, play. CD sales at retail? Maybe. Radio? Maybe. But touring money? Definitely. And T-shirt, hat, and photo sales at your shows? Absolutely. Those are things you can control, and budget items you can quantify every month.

When times were good here, about a decade ago, it was fairly easy for an album by a new artist to sell more than half a million copies. These days, that’s virtually a miracle.

So take the DIY approach, and don’t let CD sales or radio airplay be the barometer of your success.


Oct. 13 – Capitol Street Party, Demonbreun Street, Nashville.
Nov. 10 – CMA Awards, Bridgestone Arena and ABC-TV.

Biz Buzz by Phil Sweetland |

1 Comment

  1. This is very good development and methods for artist to be exposed and appreciated. Instead of doing it all hype, these artists can still catch attention by virtue of their talent.

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