Recordings VS Careers. By Bob Lefsetz

Posted on June 8, 2022 by


Have you seen this video?

“We tracked what happens after TikTok songs go viral”:

Unfortunately it conflates monthly listeners with streams, and the difference is important. The bottom line is if you want to make money it’s the total number of streams, not the total number of monthly listeners. Each listener is unique, but the same listener can listen to a song one time, which is really only 30 seconds, or two hundred times.

I could go deeper, but in truth no one really cares, they just want to make it, get that big record company check, what they’re actually doing, the quality of the material… IRRELEVANT!

Now if you’re sophisticated, you really won’t learn anything in this video. It promises a lot, but ultimately it’s all known, assuming you’re in the game. However very few are in the game, and if you’re not you should check it out. But it costs 22 minutes. Which is an eternity in internet time. But it’s snazzily produced by Vox. But when you get to the end of it you’ll have a completely skewed vision of the music business. You’ll think it’s all about hatching TikTok stars, because all of the ink is on streaming payouts as opposed to overall income, and if you truly want to make bank in music you’ve got to have a career, and a viral video is only the first stepping stone, far from the cherry on top. In other words, you may have multiple millions of views on TikTok, but will anybody buy a ticket to see you play? Even more important, will they buy another ticket after they’ve seen you once and the novelty factor has worn off?

News comes from the bottom-up.

And this is sometimes scary.

If you’re paying attention to the story behind the story of Depp/Heard, you know it was not driven by mainstream media, but online influencers. Who did it for the bread. And the bread was in being pro-Depp, so all these sold-out video makers skewed their productions that way. And they didn’t only post once a day, but many times a day. They became mini-fan clubs. And the purveyors got momentary attention, will it sustain? Probably not. And just because you have one viral video online, that does not mean you can replicate the success, especially on TikTok, whose algorithm allows nobodies to score.

And one of the big questions proffered in this video is whether to take the record company bucks or go independent.

The truth is TikTok stars are almost never going to have any more success, so take the check. They’re doing the math of recoupment, of low royalty rates… Just take the check and try to give up as few rights for as little time as possible.

Of course there are exceptions, but if there weren’t there wouldn’t be any rules!

Bottom line, punters said that the internet would allow the square pegs that didn’t fit into round holes to flourish. In other words, there was tons of unsigned talent overlooked by the major labels and it would come out of the woodwork and…

It didn’t happen. Turns out the labels were doing a very good job of finding who deserved amplification of their musical efforts.

Which brings us back to the point that almost all of the viral TikTok hits are not about music, but COMMERCE! As are most of the Spotify Top 50 tracks, so they have that in common, which is contributing to the second class status of new music.

So, if you’re sitting at home, you’ve got the tools, seemingly everybody does, you can play the music industry game. Doesn’t require much musical talent, and the penumbra is important, i.e. how you look and how you move. Not that innovation is absent. This is something the TikTok creators have that the denizens of the Spotify Top 50 do not. Knowing that the music is not enough to sell them, they come up with wacky ideas to garner eyeballs. Train-wreck value. Innovation is key in popular music, but homogenization has creeped into the halls of the major labels. Don’t make it hard, make it easy. Just sell that which sounds like everything else that is successful. Don’t try and swim upstream, don’t try and do something new. Which means the mainstream is boring and the excitement is on TikTok so the labels are going there to find talent. It’s just that on TikTok the music is secondary, they’re selling video, stupid pet tricks. You can try to capture lightning in a bottle, but lightning disappears almost instantly.

Rather than develop acts which might sustain, the labels hoover up these nascent TikTok acts before they’re fully grown. And the truth is almost none of them will grow fully.

As for cover songs, do it right and you can blow up the original, but we already knew those were hits!

As for acts breaking in more traditional ways, via live performance and full recordings, the labels are tapped into that too, but here’s where you don’t want to take the check, if it’s even offered, which usually it is not. Because if you have an ongoing enterprise you don’t want that million dollars, you’ll be hobbling your future. You can monetize all day long sans cross-collateralization. And the truth is your fans spread the word, not traditional publicity. The major label can do little for you unless you make music in either hip-hop, pop or country. That’s right, the majors are ceding most of the music business. Not most of the RECORDED music business, but that percentage continues to decline. If you’re debating streaming remuneration you’re missing the point. Thank god everybody can hear all your music, unlike in the old days, it’s up to you to make it pay. The recordings are just the STARTING POINT!

So, TikTok is the new radio.

But terrestrial radio has been moribund for more than decade. The labels are chasing trends as opposed to birthing new ones. They’ve stripped those departments from their company, it costs too much money to find real talent and develop it, best to just skim the cream off the top of what rears its head online.

In other words, the labels are making beaucoup bucks while they’re killing their business. Thank god they have those gold-plated catalogs, because otherwise their numbers would look terrible.

So what this means is you’ve got to decide which side you’re on. Are you a stunt player, someone looking to get lucky, or a dedicated musician? Hell, a million dollars isn’t even that much anymore, and it’s the only time you’ll get paid. These viral hits have no legs, they’re not “American Pie,” paying dividends for decades thereafter.

But everybody believes the system is rigged against them and the game is too hard.

Welcome to the world. It’s not only record companies that have sacrificed costly research and development to keep their shareholders happy.

In other words, you’re on your own. You must build it yourself. Your VC fund is your parents. And/or your fans. It’s positively cottage industry. You just need enough money to make music and go on the road. Nothing more, you’re not entitled to make a living.

So it comes down to you.

And sure, you must find a way to nexus with potential fans. But you can’t let this nexus supersede the core elements, like the music itself and your ability to play. The goal is to get to the point where you don’t need any of the shenanigans, where the music sells itself, draws customers. But that’s a long, slow, hard process.

So you need to be aware of the TikTok game, you should know the entire landscape. But TikTok is the land of amateurs, on a lark. Or those with more business-savvy than musical talent.

There are no short cuts.

And nobody wants to hear this.

But you know if you have to continue.

And if you’re making no progress, don’t blame it on everybody else. First, are you in the game? If you never release your music no one can like it. Second, if a fan base for your tune doesn’t grow, you could be too far ahead of the game, or maybe your music just isn’t that interesting to most people and you should pivot or get out of the game or be happy where you are.

But one thing TikTok can teach us about is creative innovation. That’s what it’s based on, the entire service, people at home coming up with new ideas. And ideas are paramount, which is why all the money comes down to songwriting, which is damn hard to do. If you’re doing it just like everybody else you won’t go viral, no one is interested, but when you push the envelope, skew the vision a bit, and underpin it with desirable music, you’re on the road to success. But just beginning.

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