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From The Plastic Hallway

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” -Hunter S. Thompson

On The Road, Again

“it’s still a fuckin road gig” ~ Kyle Gass

Touring. Live performance. The final frontier for today’s working musician. An honest opportunity for the true music fan to enjoy their favorite artists. In the room, sharing space, energy, and connecting through music.

Technology has not yet been able to bridge the gap between watching an experience on a laptop, and actually being in the room for a show. There are too many intangibles. Truly, nothing beats being there.

Technology has also created a tremendous level of competition for people’s attention. Selling tickets is hard. Getting people “off the couch” is hard. Many people prefer to "Netflix and chill". I can understand that preference.

Touring has also become a popular focal point for the music business, as recorded music revenue continues to erode, as previously discussed here:

In the late twenty-aughts, record companies began pushing artists to sign 360 deals ( in an effort to further monetize the label's efforts in building artist careers. A 360 deal allows a label to essentially commission many non-recorded-music aspects of an artist’s career, most notably touring and merchandise.

Why should a label make money on an artist’s touring, you ask? Well, many years ago it actually was a much more reasonable proposition.

For many years, labels offered their acts tremendous value in the touring world, all without participating in ticket sales. The goal of the record company was to, duh, sell as many records as possible. Often times, this was best done in conjunction with an artist’s tour activity.

Let’s say an artist is touring through Chicago – here are some of the things a label would do to support the show, based on the old label model of selling records in brick-and-mortar retail stores (like Tower Records, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders, Best Buy, or Coconuts… none of which sell much music anymore, let alone exist)

  • RETAIL: the label would cut a deal with Best Buy to put the artist’s album on sale. Maybe that album was normally $14.99, now it will be sale priced at $8.99 for a period of 6 weeks. The cost of that discounted deal would be fronted by the label, maybe recouped, maybe not…. At a cost of several thousand dollars. Other retailers in the market may have worked with the label to coordinate an in-store performance and autograph signing with the artist, which candidly were usually a complete waste of time and money.

  • PRINT: the retailer would then include the artist’s album within a circular that was likely distributed to hundreds of thousands of homes via newsprint.

  • RADIO: even if the artist wasn’t getting actual airplay, the label would spend thousands of dollars to advertise the artist’s album as “on sale” at Best Buy. Additionally, the label would pursue getting airplay, as well as offering radio stations promotions that included free tickets to the show… the label would also pitch morning radio show appearances…

  • PUBLICITY: unrelated to the Best Buy promotion, the label staff would pitch the great many relevant print media outlets (Chicago Tribune and City Paper), morning TV outlets, and NPR outlets (WGN) in Chicago in an effort to get the artist on the air so they could promote BOTH the album and the tour date.

  • ONLINE: in addition to an online press effort, the label would run geo-targeted ads based upon key words, ironically in an effort to get people to go to the physical Best Buy stores to buy the artist’s album, as well as encouraging people to check out the live show

  • TOUR SUPPORT: yep, the label would often fund artist touring directly. Maybe hire the band. Maybe pay for the tour bus. Maybe pay the artist a retainer to play their own shows in support of their own jams.

It was a real, three dimensional effort that created a tremendous amount of awareness and visibility for the artist. It was a win-win situation: the label gets to sell and promote the artist’s album, and the artist gets a truly valuable and credible bit of marketing and promotion for their live performance. Not every artist signed to a record label gets the benefit of this effort – but the ones who sell records certainly do.

It’s not to say that this effort doesn’t take place today – it does. However, those opportunities are found less and less frequently, as labels are selling less and less music, especially at physical retail.

Yet labels are still signing artists to 360 deals, which begs the question yet again – why should a record company participate in touring revenue? The real reason is financial – to offset the label’s massive risk in marketing and promoting records in an insanely competitive and expensive marketplace.

So how is an artist supposed to pay their own bills from touring and get ahead, while working with a label? The artist must find a way to align their goals with the goals of the record company.

Record companies are loyal to their systems – both internal and external. The internal systems include their distribution channels, their overhead (staffing and office space for both work and product storage and development), and their need for consistent product flow. The external systems include outside marketing and PR companies, radio promoters, touring relationships, licensing relationships, and in some instances, shareholders. For example, Warner Music Group is a publicly traded company:

If an artist, and in turn, their manager, can find ways to cooperate with the record company and help them sell records, they stand the best chance of coaxing the big label machine into helping promote an artist’s tour.

In the meantime, most artists tour without the benefit of funds from a label. How do they do it? You. The fans.


RELATED BUT UNRELATED: There’s an awful lot of work that goes into putting on a great show, most of which goes unseen. Sure, there’s all that goes in to putting the performance onstage – the lighting, the sound equipment, the staging, the instruments, the technology, and so on. There is also a tremendous amount of work done well before the stage lights go dark, and that work is generally the responsibility of a tour manager. I recently stumbled upon this wonderful template by Billy Reed that shines a bit of light on to what that process looks like:

 © 2017 Noble Steed Music

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