Lately I’ve been intrigued with how music distribution has changed over the years. So, I wanted to chat with someone who could tell me more about how the delivery process has evolved and where it might be going in the future. I chose Derek Sivers, the founder and former president of CD Baby, the largest online distributor of independent music. Derek turned what was initially supposed to be a small effort to distribute his music to the public into a company that grossed over $100 million in sales for more than 150,000 musician clients.
Derek really does have a desire to help musicians, as he put the money from his sale of CD Baby last year into the Independent Musician’s Charitable Trust. Since then, Derek has been working on several new projects, one of which is Muckwork, a company that will specialize in doing uncreative dirty work for musicians so that they can focus on their music. Derek kindly made time to share his thoughts about how artists can keep up with the changing pace of the music industry. Here’s what he had to say.
Mimi Soul: You’ve mentioned that today, 90% of an artist’s career is up to them. You add that the right business plan will get artists to a good sustainable level of success even without a big record deal. What would you say is the first step for aspiring artists as they develop their plan? Is it to focus on the internal aspects like perfecting their craft or should they focus on the external things such as hiring the right manager?
Derek: Well first, yeah, of course the skill and craft of making music has to come first. But then the key is to be profitable. Be valuable enough that people will pay you, whether it’s paying for CDs, paying you to perform, record, or anything else. Being profitable is a great measure of your value to the audience and to your creative resourcefulness.
I quit my last job in 1992 to be a full-time musician and I’d just do whatever it took to pay my rent making music. Whether that’s taking a jazz piano gig or producing someone’s demo, I’d just pursue everything, say yes to everything, answer every classified ad, and make stuff happen. Do that first, and then hire a manager once you’re making so much money that you can afford to hire someone to help manage it all and take it to the next level.
Mimi Soul: What are some things that you think few people know about the music business?
Derek: That success is based on skill and work, not luck. The ones who get “discovered” are out there meeting people every day, so it was bound to happen. Anyone can be great, if they’re willing to practice, focus and learn. Also, the artist needs to be the boss. The days of the dumb naïve artist are done. Some artists think that as soon as they find a manager, that person will tell them what to do. But more often, the artist needs to tell the manager what to do. The artist is still in control.
Mimi Soul: In one of your interviews, you said that “CDs will eventually go away someday”. That seems to be happening already as we see more digital music releases and things of that sort. As we continue to see changes in the ways music is distributed and purchased, what advice would you give artists about how to stay current with those changes?
Derek: We’re in hybrid times. Embrace the future but don’t shut out the past. Offer downloads but also CDs. There are good markets for both. Then be open-minded about new things. Don’t get stuck in an outdated self-image. Watch out when you hear yourself saying, “I just don’t do that kind of thing” as an excuse to not get into blogging or Twitter or whatever. If you check out Twitter or blogging and give it a try and then really decide it’s not for you, that’s fine. But try to be adaptable to the future. Challenge yourself to try new ways of doing things.
Mimi Soul: You’ve also said that your desire to help other musicians is “rooted in a genuine love for the intense labor and devotion that goes into creating, promoting and producing one’s own work”. I’m sure some artists have experienced a pressure to compromise their work for the interest of being profitable enough to sustain their living from it. Do you think the labor and devotion involved with being a musician comes at a price? If so, at what point should musicians reconsider their approach if it’s not profitable?
Derek: Well, I have a weird opinion on this. I think that profit is a very neutral measure of your value to the world. It’s really hard to have a hit song. It’s hard to entertain a crowd in a venue. If you can learn to make people happy and entertain people enough for them to pay you to do it, that’s quite an achievement. Then if you can do it in a way that satisfies you creatively at the same time, that’s the real goal.
But if you’re not profitable, it’s a great creative challenge to find ways to be more valuable to the world, so that you are profitable. What can you do to add value to people’s lives through your music? Maybe it’s learning how to better transform their Saturday night into an other-worldly experience. Maybe it’s learning how to write a melody that they can’t get out of their head, and lyrics that make them smile. Maybe it’s learning how to make a deeper groove with technology so that artists hire you to produce their album and give it your signature groove. It’s all about finding ways to be more valuable to the world. Usually, not always, money is a good measure of that.
Mimi Soul: When you founded CD Baby, you filled a void in music distribution by offering a way for independent artists to sell their music in a level playing field. Are there any other voids in today’s music industry that you think artists need to have filled?
Derek: Marketing, definitely. But educated marketing. Not just “give me whatever you’ve got and I’ll market it” but “let’s help you make yourself more marketable.”
Those of you who are aspiring musicians should definitely read Derek’s short e-book about how to call attention to your music. I guarantee you’ll find his suggestions to be very helpful. Thanks Derek for a great interview!