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John Snyder: Evolution in the Music Industry


Bio: John Snyder built his name as a producer of jazz and blues albums, working on more than 350 albums, including more than 34 Grammy nominees and five Grammy winners. He has held executive posts at several major labels and worked with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Sun Ra, Etta James, and Chet Baker, among others. He is the president and founder of Artists House Music and the Conrad N. Hilton Eminent Scholar in Music Industry Studies at Loyola University, New Orleans.

John, what do you see as the challenges to artists and in the music business today?

How to connect with people who care about what you do; how to balance what you do between what you give and what you sell; how to maximize customer service; how to make a living being creative; in short, how to run your life as a creative person as a business. It is a challenge for most artists to appreciate and participate in the business aspects of what they do much less appreciate the “art” of business.

The fact is, by virtue of what they do, artists create copyrights that create rights that create revenue streams. If musicians and artists were to fully appreciate the power that they have to create wealth from their imaginations and their natural, entrepreneurial character they wouldn’t have to work the day job to sustain their creative pursuits.

Challenges are just opportunities dressed up, and the opportunities for creating a sustainable career as an artist have never been greater. There are no longer any barriers between you and your customers. You can communicate directly with them and you must do that. It’s no longer about the impersonal “hit” it’s about the personal connection, and this is something that has to be nourished and respected.

It’s always been about the personal connection but when I was in love with Aretha there was no way for me to tell her that or for her to know me as someone whose life she changed. Things are different today. There are so many ways available to the artist and fan that it’s actually exciting, and that’s the beauty of these challenges and opportunities: they are empowering to all concerned.

The myth of the starving artist and the reality of the patronage-dependent artist, whether princes or record companies, are corrupt narratives and philosophically passé. There are many examples and much evidence to indicate that success can be had without any connection whatsoever to the major companies or Starbucks because they have health benefits or the NEA because you can fit in with what they want.

Do you think it is easier today to reach success as a musician?

It’s easier on the one hand and harder on the other. The Long Tail tells us that everything sells but the bad news is that it sells a hundred copies. If there are 15 million bands on MySpace, how does your band or you as an artist compete? The answer is, I think, you don’t. Heck, your competition is Facebook, video games and cell phone apps. You can’t beat that.

It’s not you against the world, it’s you against yourself and your own creativity and work ethic. Is it easier to work harder? No, it isn’t. It’s hard to work harder and it is unrelenting. That is the reality. You can, in fact, have success in the creative world if you’re smart, you’re extremely hard working, and you understand business and how your intellectual property are the assets of your business.

In the sense that the course is clear and the job is obvious, and the results are worth the effort and the sacrifice, it is easier today to reach success as a musician, as an artist. Living by your wits and your work is scary and exhilarating. Understanding your work from a business perspective is the safety net for your high wire life.

Mick Jagger went to the London School of Finance and runs the Stones like a business, and he is a very hands-on manager: he counts the money. The Stones were completely ripped off in their earlier years but these experiences became the levers of education and corrective behavior, and success.

Taking responsibility for your life isn’t easy, it’s hard, but once you do that, success is much more likely. You improve around the edges but you’re following a plan, with goals and objectives, and next actions – a to do list – that is tied to dates, deliverables and metrics. Everything flows from the mission, through your strategic goals, through your tactical objectives for accomplishing those goals, and finally through the specific, measurable actions that accomplishing your objectives. Random acts of improvement are to be avoided; everything should be connected

I guess another way to put it is, the new entrepreneurship is the art and artifice of it all, the amazing potential of it. Look at it this way, there is a market for everything including your work, you just have to find it, connect with it. You can attempt to create it, to “build it”, but it really is like the sculpture in the stone, waiting to be found. For the musician, the sculpture is the career and business is the tool box needed to find it.

An artist is not somebody who waits to be found and saved and made to sparkle, an artist is somebody who goes and gets it, someone who, like every other entrepreneur, doesn’t take no for an answer, who continues to chip away to find what they know is there. The entrepreneur and the musician share other traits as well: they don’t want to work for someone else, they can innovate and accept risk, they can communicate and they see and perceive things that others do not, they think, observe, do, and make.

The reason it is easier for an individual artist to create a career for herself is because it is easier to distribute and market creative “products” directly to fans and customers, thanks to Mr. Internet. The music biz used to control content creation and distribution and now it controls neither, and their overall stake is decreasing. Yet, the global music business is more profitable than ever. Why is that? Universal is doing something right?

No, Universal is not doing something right, at least not on the label side, but they have, indirectly, help to create an environment that allows individuals to succeed completely outside of their orbit. Nature abhors a vacuum and the music business created a huge vacuum with its emphasis on sameness and mass market, its worship of profit, its lack of connection to fans, and its disrespect for artists, workers, and customers.

When basic human values, that have been cast out of a process, are restored, there is progress and change and usually for the better. When a process is solely dedicated to the personal enrichment of those who control it, it will eventually fail. The profit motive was the 20th century Midas touch. When we begin to see profit as a byproduct of productivity, innovation and human advancement, we will ring the harmolodic bell of the cultural economy in which everyone may participate as creators and consumers of art, encapsulating capitalism in a spirit of fairness and concern for others.

Do you think musicians are becoming more educated with copyright laws and their rights?

No. Most musicians do not know that when a songwriter writes down an original song they are creating a copyright. Most musicians don’t really realize they’re creating statutorily protected assets by virtue of what they do. If you record your song or anyone else’s, you’re creating a sound recording copyright. In that instant in time you have six exclusive rights the first two of which are to copy and distribute. That makes you a music publisher and a recording company. So what are you going to do about it? The default position is nothing. But from these rights come revenue and income, come careers, conversations, employment and enjoyment.

Copyright law calls you the “author” of a “work” and as such you may “authorize” others to use your rights. These transfers and licenses can create revenue streams but in order to monetize your rights you need to know what they are and how to allow others to use them.

Copyright protection is interesting. It is actually in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, concerning the powers of the legislative branch of the government. Right after the right to print money and levy taxes and before the power to make treaties and war, there’s this power to protect the inventor and the author by securing for them the exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries for a limited period of time.

Yet on the other hand, copyright means nothing. Everyone feels free to ignore its prohibitions against using someone else’s intellectual property without permission. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and ownership really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be nor does it mean the same thing it used to mean. That’s what record companies still haven’t figured out: what does “ownership” mean in digital era? It is certainly different from the analog era.

Do you think an artist should have to measure their success based on the quality of their work, versus their fan club? The market is saturated with manufactured talent.

You have to connect with people who care about what you do. These are your fans and your customers. You need to know them, who they are, what they like besides you, and when are their birthdays. Not everyone is going to have time for you or like you or even know enough about you to care one way or the other. You have to connect and communicate with those people who do. Where do you find them? How do you get them to care about you? What do you do once you get their attention?

I don’t necessarily think that the quality of an artist’s work is measured by the response of an audience. And I don’t necessarily think that an artist is the best judge of his or her own work. And I don’t think the market is to be trusted either, unless perversely. An artist is constantly changing and improving, in big ways and small, some imperceptible, some disturbing.

That’s the key and that’s what we respect. And they are relentless about it. They have goals and plans to achieve them. It’s called practicing, doing, writing. They understand method, the line that connects goals and needs, plans and deeds. That’s key for an artist and these traits can be applied to their businesses to very good effect. They can be applied to life to good effect.

The artist speaks in an authentic voice. It’s authenticity that reaches people first and keeps them around the longest. You can’t fake it but it’s also hard being you, being real, being honest. The best thing for an artist to do is to be humble in her determination to be better and do better and to connect with others who care about her messages and insights, her feelings and her magic. Authenticity is something you are, not something you dress for.

There is a great deal of talent in the world and therefore in the “market” because everyone has the ability to be creative and to be original. Education often removes or truncates this creative spirit because it’s hard to quantify with a standardized test, so we lose a lot of art and artists to the demands of education. From all that sprouts unnourished and unbowed comes an entire ecosystem of talent and skills. The challenge is to become a participant, a contributing member of this community, and to flourish in that ecosystem. Meeting that challenge is much more a matter of your own efforts rather than the efforts of another.

If you’re talking about Dancing with the Stars, you’re right, there is a manufactured quality to be sure, but that’s entertainment, not art. But that entertainment can certainly provide many creative opportunities for many people who consider themselves artists. I’m sure that individually, everyone who works on that show thinks of him or herself an artist.

You have to care about something, to find meaning in something. Meaning is bestowed, not inherent. We bestow meaning, and when we do that we can become passionate about something and want to work on it in a very focused way. Passion replaces aggression yet passion is not passive, it is active, it is energy – it creates stuff. And when we see someone who is passionate we are immediately drawn to that person and to what they are passionate about.

So, the secret is passion and authenticity. Be real and be great. And then make friends. Give them stuff, sell them stuff, think of new cool things you can do for them; respect them. It is not easy being an artist and it is never about being one thing. It’s all over you all the time and you can never get it off or make sense of it. You can live with it and put it to work for you or you can ignore it and always wonder what went wrong. Your fans care about you. You should be so lucky. They are not your adversaries.

Has the mismanagement by record labels has left many musicians signed to labels in a state of distrust?

You could say that. But record companies that were brilliantly managed were not necessarily good for artists. Traditionally artists have gotten the low end of the deal, mostly because when they made money it was essentially covering all of the bad bets made by the record companies, that is 8 or 9 out of ten records released. That’s a lot of money to make up.

The thing about mistrust is that it’s passive. And no good comes from it. The idea for artists is to be informed and to understand their rights and what’s actually happening when they authorize others to use their rights. It’s not up to the record companies to educate you and to “do the right thing” about your rights. That’s up to you.

Labels that are service oriented, to both the artists and the customers, will survive. And those that aren’t will not survive. The key for labels is transparency. Every penny of a “sale” should be accounted for and clear for all to see who shares those pennies. Accounting practices that prohibit audits of manufacturing invoices and that provide no real data on which to make an intelligent decision as to their veracity must go and artists must demand that they go. The artist must realize that it is her rights that the record company is using and that how those rights are transferred and used are up to her.

Most all businesses that fail, fail because of bad management, and the music business has had its share of that. The invention of the CD covered up a lot of bad management and when god gave the business the Internet, which could have covered up a lot more bad management, they rejected it and at the same time pulled off all of the received wisdom that was cloaking their bad management revealing their fecklessness and incompetence. Not a pretty sight and, of course, as a double bad, it would be unwise for anyone to trust them further.

What are some of the issues in the business that you see as hurdles?

We’ve touched on these: lack of transparency, the inability to redefine what ownership means, the distrust the business has for its artists and customers, its inability to see itself as a service organization, its lack of understanding of values oriented marketing, its inability to believe in magic. The music business doesn’t know the difference between what it did right and what it did wrong.

As for the musician’s business, the hurdles are getting out of bed, putting on shoes, taking care of your body (the platform for the delivery of the art you say you care about), your inability to read a book, your unhelpful sense of entitlement, your failure to appreciate the economic as well as creative power of your “art”, and your failure to understand that with your ability to make wealth out of your imagination, your naturally entrepreneurial character and your innate understanding of method, you have ALL of the advantages. And yet you complain or you’re poor or you’re unappreciated. Please. What you are, is lazy and you are not thoughtful about your business OR your art. At least that’s true for those who are pretending.

There are common hurdles for the legacy businesses and the new artist businesses. In a time of plenty, of infinite possibilities, when everything sells and has an audience if not a community of fans, how do you stand out? How do you compete? How do you compete with free? How do you connect to memes and trends and waves and currents? These are objectives in the form of questions and there are distinct methods and ways of answering them. The answers create responsibilities, which create actions that make things happen. Be responsible! Jump those hurdles!

Should the myth that continues to go around that there is no money to be made in music be dispelled?

The myth of the starving artist has to go and the myth that you can’t make money in music and art has to go. Living the creative life, as an artist or a musician, a writer or a computer programmer, is not easy. But if you learn more you know more and this knowledge will lead you to business ideas and applications of your intellectual property that you had not thought of previously. The myth of the stupid artist is the most dangerous myth because it’s self-imposed and ultimately destructive. If you do not read a book you will be stupid forever and that is no myth.

Speaking about education, how did the universities miss the boat in empowering music and arts majors to market and manage their own careers?

Business schools have an uneasy relationship with academe, it seems to me. But then again, they are flourishing. And there are new trends and currents that will have their affect, even on the disproportionately staid. The Internet and media have not only changed everything for the artist they changed everything for the businessperson as well. It’s hard to keep up! And universities that glorify disciplines have difficulty adjusting to the meme of the present. It’s understandable.

Academia is facing the same kinds of issues faced by the music business, the film business, and now, more than ever, the book business. It could very easily be the next model to fail if it can’t adapt. For those of us who respect the institution we believe that good governance and thoughtful management will win the day. We are idealists.

The reason business and the creative enterprise (music and art, writing and documenting) are tied together has nothing to do with what either wants or doesn’t want. It has everything to do with what is, what actually happens when art, music, writing, painting, etc. are made manifest: rights are instantly created that are as real as rock and they can earn “revenue” in so many ways that it would take a book or two to list them, much less discuss the issues involved in allowing others to use them on your behalf. The Brabec Brothers did that: Music and Money is the name of the book.

Many schools are dealing with the reality in a very direct way. University of Miami is very advanced in this respect. Even New England Conservatory has a new and ongoing entrepreneurship program for its young geniuses. There is still a very large gap between, say, theatre and dance departments and the businesses of theatre and dance, but I think that’s changing. Arts entrepreneurship is such an empowering concept and such a natural fit to the creative person’s character and mindset.

It is also true that attending a college or university is an end in itself. When you study history or philosophy it isn’t necessarily because you intend to make your living at it. The same is true for music and art. It is a widely held view that attending a music school will enrich your life no matter what you end up doing, and that further, the methodologies and disciplines involved will apply to your life no matter the specific profession.

But here’s the thing about that: the results of what you do as a musician, an actor, dancer or artist of any kind, do in fact create rights that are exclusive to you, as “author”, and it would be irresponsible to ignore that. Whether music and art are just parts of an educated life or not, the amazing rights and economic impact that flow from their creation should clearly be a part of that education.

Yet it sounds like there will always be the need for managers and agents to help artists.

Artists and musicians need managers to manage their businesses when they themselves can no longer handle the work. It is vitally important for the role of the “new” manager be clearly defined: that person is in effect managing a small business with multiple revenue streams from multiple “products”, all inter-related. This includes the management of resources and of people, of coordinating the efforts of a number of people who are involved in their own way in the enterprise that we call “artist”. It includes understanding money, finance and accounting, cash flow analysis, balance sheets and income statements.

Therefore, get yourself an MBA or a business minded person to partner with you in this respect, and make sure they that person understands copyright and has read the books. Not your momma, not your girl/boy friend, not your uncle Fred the real estate lawyer. You the musician/artist need to understand your business before you trust someone else to run your business. How do you know if they have any idea what they’re doing? Read the book!

Partner up! If you’re a performer, you need that marketing kid on your side, and that tech kid, and that money kid, and that graphic design kid. You need a team of multi-media experts to do what they do around what you do, and it needs to work for them on that same level. If you can find yourself in that community, you face a happy and creative life of friends for life. But remember it’s about two things: head and heart. Learn your business, advance your art, live your life on your terms.

John, you have spoken to the point that music when produced from a creative place with great skill is magic. This seems the reason why we support it.

Well, without getting too fancy about it, music is just another form of communication that allows us to express how we feel to others, and especially when it’s wordless it’s subject to vast interpretation and it encourages if not demands an interaction with another person or persons – a conversation if you will. This is why it is magical. It is magical because it causes unknown things to happen and to take root and we will certainly never know of all of consequences or ramifications of this magic. But one thing for sure: it lives, it spreads, it grows, and it changes people and it changes history.

I have had the occasion to be producing a recording that wasn’t on or had fallen off track. I found a way to tell the band about how I viewed our time together: we woke up this morning and nothing existed and we go to bed to night and there are five songs on tape or disc, any one of which has the power to affect people’s lives in a positive way if not change the world. That’s a pretty big power. Power implies responsibility and opportunity and creative power makes magic at the drop of a hat. We support it because it takes us into it and then into ourselves and we come out affected maybe even changed, maybe even better. We support it because it becomes us and we become it.

It seems more artists are seeking resources and information to create their own success.

I’m glad to hear it! They’ve been fighting it for a long time! Our website has been trying to provide information to musicians and entrepreneurs, at least get the conversation started ( Entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, green entrepreneurship, are all hot topics, and to those we add, arts entrepreneurship. It’s a tautology, I know, but sometimes you have to say things twice.  Photo. Cathy Weeks

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