Friday, July 3, 2009

Economics 101 and Musicians

My former Marketing professor used to say: "It's simple to be successful in business. Just find out what people want, and give it to them." He was right, but a lot of musicians (myself included) aren't generally inclined to follow that advice. We tend to look down on artists who pander to popular demand as being "sell-outs". Besides, popular music trends are notoriously unpredictable and most of us have a hard time molding ourselves to fit constantly changing music fads anyway.

Unfortunately for us, the free market doesn't care about artistic integrity. It's fine to be romantic and idealistic in your songwriting, but don't try to carry that mentality over into the business side of things or you will surely get burned. Capitalist free market economics always boils down to the very simple concept of supply vs. demand. If you want to know how any venture is going to work out, all you have to do is realistically figure how much supply there will be relative to demand for that product or service. It is really that simple. It's not about corporate conspiracies or lack of government support for the arts. As long as markets are truly free and competitive, it just comes down to supply and demand. That's why dealers of unpopular automobiles go bankrupt, while salesmen for the most popular models don't even bother to negotiate or return phone calls. They know that they have a hot product. All they have to do is sit back and the customers will come to them.

So what lessons should the independent musician draw from this? Well, for starters, I think we can all benefit from being realistic about supply and demand for our own services. If you're not already a superstar, then you're probably not in a position to sit back and wait for the customers to come to you. I'm a jazz musician, a service for which there is absurdly small demand! I try to do what I can to spread the word about gigs, but I have limited means to generate more demand. There continues to be an ample supply of good jazz musicians in my local market, though prospects are better for those who achieve the skill level necessary to ascend into the less crowded elite jazz musician market. Ultimately I realize that I have chosen a professional field in which the supply/demand equation is stacked against me, and I know that I am lucky to be working at all! If money were my main motivation, I'd probably be selling iPhones instead of jazz music.


Leigh-Anne Russell said...

Hi .. came across your blog via Artists House tweet ..

.. I live in Shanghai, China, where there's an ever-growing vibrant community of international musicians, many of whom, I suspect, have chosen to make China their base for the very reasons you cite in this post..

Jason Parker said...

Hey Doug,

I came across your blog through the Artists House tweet too. You should send them a big thank you!

I agree with your premise that the business side of the equation is important and often no different from any business equation. I'm also a jazz musician and I work more than most of my peers. Is it because I'm a better musician than them? No. It's because I approach my business as a business.

But you lost me at the end there when you said that you feel lucky to be working at all. I don't know where you live, but in Seattle there is plenty of demand for my music. I just have to search it out. I play bars, restaurants, nightclubs, coffee shops, concerts, festivals, weddings, corporate parties, etc. In fact, there's so much work that I had to form a company to farm out the gigs I couldn't play. I would venture to guess that the same is true in most medium to large markets.

What separates those who work from those who don't in my experience is a willingness to be proactive and to play a variety of types of gigs.

Thanks for the post! Looking forward to checking out the rest of your thoughts.

Doug Ross said...

Thanks for your comments, Jason. I agree with you 100%. What I meant was that gigs don't always come to you in the form that you want. I am grateful for the jazz gigs I get, but since I diversified into other styles, I stay much busier. Glad you are busy, too!

theexcitableboy said...

Thank you for your straight shooting look at the business of music as it pertains to we the musicians.

The belief that we have to be introverted, and even selfish, as artists is an archaic at best. A willingness to expose our hearts/souls to the world and take the ignorant judgement with the praise that may come along with it is what has driven art since the beginning of time, in some small way. It is even more important in this day and age. In a perfect world it would be considered no more than promotion of the arts. Unfortunately, it has been perverted from its basic creative roots. The Artists, themselves, have been too much of the focus. The preservation of the artists' integrity has, subsequently, fallen by the wayside.

In today's culture of instant gratification and informational overload we often forget how easy it is to make impressions on people simply by the honesty in the art itself. The Record industry may be failing in many ways, but the music industry is flourishing undenyably. Access to music is at an all time high, and shows no sign of plateau. Do you think "Selling out" and being artistically prolific are mutually exclusive ideaologies in today's musical climate?

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