Today I saw a post which was a picture of the Coachella lineup, and another which showed the agent that each artist had. The angle of the post was “the music industry is rigged” but the fact is for anything to work in life there has to be a structure. McDonalds has an epic chain of buyers, farmers, processors, suppliers, logistics chain and marketeers before we even get to the restaurant - that burger doesn’t just APPEAR. I’m not comparing your art to a burger, but we are assuming that if you had a problem with how a festival booking works you probably secretly deep down wanted to play there yourself which puts you fully into the arena of your music being your product. A lot of frustration is caused by people just not understanding how things work in the music industry, and the denial of the fact that they’re probably not IN it.
First off, not everyone has to be IN the music industry, and there’s no real need to even engage with it if your goal is to just make music. You can create, and achieve a certain level of notoriety and success alternatively if you make great records - to a point. You don’t need ANY of these things unless your goal is that next level of commercial success, and if you do, or are just curious - then read on.
There’s somewhat of a fallacy that if you want huge success you can do it all yourself, and thankfully most DIY artists don’t suffer from that kind of delusion. A home mechanic could probably restore a car (I did) but I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to start making cars on a commercial level. People always throw around the word 'gatekeepers' negatively but can you imagine the impossibility of a lot of unconnected individuals making thousands of random requests, the difficultly of sifting through that, and getting anything done without some kind of process or structure? It’s hard enough to pick something to watch on Netflix, never mind put together a festival lineup that has to make a profit or not happen next year.
The agent topic reminded me there are five pillars that an artist that aspires to be a working, probably wanting to get signed artist generally pursues. Let’s look at those.
By now, if you’re on this journey you have realised as an artist you have 1000 non-music making jobs to do, and you’re bad at most of them or at the very least don’t have enough time or experience to do them all WELL. You may, along the way rope in some help, let’s say …a friend who is masochistic enough to want to get into artist management and start that way. Or, more efficiently you pursue an artist manager with existing experience of managing successful artists (thus proving that can actually DO it, rather than talk about it) in your style of genre. Entertainment is about people, and the manager is going to be the king or queen of relationships, most likely with other people in positions of expertise in whatever part of the puzzle you need next. If I was an artist crazy enough to want a deal and career, getting a manger is where I’d start.
At this point I need to tell you that acquiring each of these key pillars or pieces of the puzzle is very difficult There are many other people just like you chasing the same people at varying stages of climbing the ladder, and only so much bandwidth each person has to handle the business of clients.
The good news is once you get one, the rest tend to fall into place much easier.
The agent pitches you for shows, books tours, and so on. You often get one of these slightly before you get a deal and look like you are an act that has legs, people actually DO go and see live, or will want to see live. You can’t book people that nobody is interested in, and again this is like a ladder. I’m sure if you’re in a band you probably started with Tuesday night opening slots and worked up the long road to headlining at the weekend at a club level. Well, the same happens at the next stage. Someone has to play at 10:30 AM at Glastonbury, and that’s probably a band who has just released their first album through a major indie, popular enough have a little hardcore fanbase dedicated enough to show up in the mud, way too early. Same with every other major festival in the world. The agent has to know that you’re the artist for the gig, at the right level for the slot.
This is usually a small company, or in-house label department that has extensive relationships with people at assorted press outlets from blogs, to magazines, to TV and beyond. We’ll throw in pluggers into this mix as well, though it’s kind of separate - they are the people that pitch your records to program directors weekly playlist meetings to try to get your records played, and often these days playlisters too. These are both commercial services, but sometimes thy come on board early in an artists career before they have a deal, or can afford to pay them. After all, a plugger can often smell a hit, and a hit is a hit. Again, your perception of your music may vary wildly from theirs which is why sometimes it’s very difficult to even get these people to TAKE your money to do the job - that’s an easy way to weed out the scammers from the real players. That’s why if you want to do this, you have to make records of a realistically commercial level, usually by working with someone like me who has made real records before.
If your record deal is your right hand, the publisher is your left hand. These are the people who will give you a wad of cash upfront as an advance on future royalties made by exploiting your songs commercially, and seek out opportunities to do so. Those beer commercial placements, movies, video games, learn to play guitar with (insert band name) etc - you get the idea. Often again, this happens just before, or around the same time as you get signed. They have to believe that you are comercially viable, and your music is placeable for these opportunuties.
Side note: Each of these people puts their professional reputation on the line for you, so they have to be very careful about who they work with - if someone constantly put forward the wrong artist for a tour, a commercial, press review, or label then those people at the respective place would quickly stop listening to them or trusting them. This is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get your foot in the door - your face has to fit.
I’m not even going into the pros and cons at this point, or the function of a label in 2024, but what they DO have is the experience, people and money to industrialise your music. That is, take what you are doing as an artist and make it into something for a mass audience. Being totally indie is great, but 100% of nothing is nothing, and I am sure you stand a better chance of making it to Coachella with Universals marketing team behind your record.
I hope this was useful and provided at least a little information about how the dreaded industry works. As I said before, it’s all totally optional and doesn’t get in the way of your ability to make music, but it is how it works if you want to climb the big greasy pole!