Friday, December 20, 2013


One of the most frustrating parts of trying to build a career is the ever elusive RADIO AIRPLAY that is so hard to get as an Indie artist. Logic dictates that if an artist is heard on the radio, it would mean they have true credibility or have the ability to get more rapidly known. But radio today is not the same as it was 5-10 years ago.

First of all, it's obvious that the more America and international countries depend on digital data communication, the more syndication of media (like music) can occur to individuals with devices that can receive that media and play it or view it. Much like what email did to fax machines, wifi and mobile data are doing to CD sales and radio stations. In fact, the past 5 years of radio in the USA alone has seen a major shift in how revenues are created for station owners.

Since I'm a marketing guy for a living, I have to understand how advertising works.  In the simplest form, advertisers are what "pay" radio station budgets. Advertisers in any given community have a plethora of options to choose from to get their message out. Newspaper, billboard, direct mail, radio, TV, signage, and more importantly... the internet and social media.  Now the average consumer in America has internet access via mobile phone/tablet or computer. The "music" consumer radio stations reach are highly likely to use internet on a regular basis as well. I'm not talking "talk radio", but stations that play music format as their primary broadcast. Obviously the era and genre of music changes from station to station, but most are reaching consumers who are technology capable with the web.

Now, the FCC has made it difficult to get a radio station license to broadcast over the open air outside our homes. However, the FCC has no jurisdiction over the internet based radio stations broadcasting music. In fact, internet based radio poses a real threat to "terrestrial" radio stations which can be found on your radio dial in a car. As such, these stations around the U.S. which have paid for their F.C.C. license and have to keep that license in good standing in order to keep it, they have to be able to generate good income to underwrite overhead for just owning a station.

Sorry if this is boring, but it will make sense soon if you're following along.

So let me give you an example from the past.

Radio Station XYZ in Yourtown, USA was locally owned and operated. The station owner had a programming director or station manager that would decide what music would be played on-air. That station manager / program director would ultimately have the authority to decide what songs would get played and therefore they were the "ONE" you wanted to have a nice relationship with.  To some extent, that still holds true, but more on that later.

Record companies used to send demos to these station owners/managers/directors. They would build relationships with them and get their artists on the air. However, a nice feature of being locally owned meant that they could also decide to play Independent artist's music as well if they wanted. This is how many unsigned artists used to get radio play, and is how many artists today think it still works. In cases where a station is 'still' locally owned and not part of a group of stations owned by a big corporation, this may still be possible, but not likely.

The other factor that locally owned stations had going for them was that advertisers in their area had a hard time not finding success investing in radio commercials because (frankly) radio was the center of our daily world in the commute and at work and home. TV and radio were the cutting edge way of reaching a consumer. Factor in the internet, and suddenly consumer attention isn't fixed as much on local radio as it once was and suddenly the station's owner starts losing income because advertisers are spending their budgets on methods that may reach their intended audience more directly than radio (aka internet/social media).

So, with less money coming in, less staff. With less staff, less "LIVE DJ's" to work with. With less LIVE DJ's, the station programming director had to resort to pre-programming playlists of songs on a computer and hit "GO" and basically let the computer spit out music. At the same time, with less revenues, the station owners were less inclined to keep the station open and looked for someone to buy them out.

Enter the BIG CORPORATE TAKEOVER of local stations.

Now with large corporations buying out locally owned stations in a region or geographic area, there may be local programming that is overlapping a station of the same format 25 miles down the road. Saturation and overlap mean the advertising dollars are diluted so no ONE station can live off the splitting of the same advertisers among two format stations that play the same music. Big corporations consolidate stations and take over "play lists" they play from a CORPORATE level versus the old time local level programming director decision.

Add to this that the BIG 3 record companies in the world have their staff "buying" airtime with the corporate radio giants, and suddenly we have playlists that are saturated with what $$$ has been spent by the major record labels to "own" that air-time.

So what once was a local decision for songs being played is now a corporate decision because they are selling air-time to major record labels.

Now guess what advertisers are doing with this new model of radio?

They want to advertise on stations that play the music that is being sold on iTunes and shown on official music videos on Vevo. Frankly, corporate radio takes the lead from the Big 3 record companies because they know that the record companies are spending millions to promote their artists and those millions of marketing dollars are helping advertisers make the choice to buy commercials when they know the consumers are listening to the Billboard hits and latest release from their favorite recording artist.

So, yes, money dictates a lot of this.

Scratch that.

It's all about the benjamins.

Back to you... the independent and rising artist.

How do you get on radio?

Well there's an interesting shift in how consumers are "consuming" music now thanks to the internet and upgrading of mobile data bandwidth (think 4G and 4GLTE) which is making it possible to have "radio" on your cell phone with services like Spotify and iTunes. In fact, iTunes radio, which launched earlier this year, is becoming a force along with Spotify as a chief competitor to local radio.

Satellite radio makes it's dent, but when we're talking the younger generation, XM and Sirius Radio may not have the edge they once had for more music and the ability to listen to what you prefer (I prefer the 60's and 70's station).

Let me share Spotify, for example.

For $10 month, I can have commercial free (no advertisers) radio playing on my phone or computer and only include songs I chose to include in my playlist. So, when I sit at my computer and type away at my keys, I'm listening to any of my many playlists I created of songs I "WANT" to hear, not songs I have to hear because some Corporate Radio Giant dictates that I hear the same song 46 times a day.

How great is that?

So local radio may still hold attention of consumers, but it's nearly impossible to get an unsigned artist regular airplay unless they open their checkbook in a BIG way.

For example, we hired a radio promotion company in Tennessee to promote a single Spencer released this past February.  For a nifty $3500, the song was uploaded to a CLOUD based database of music that stations all over the USA and World can access. The file is in the proper format for computerized stations to quickly download to their server and insert into a playlist.

But wait, it's not just having the song available for program directors of these stations, it's also getting your song visible among the thousands that are plugged into that CLOUD every day. That's where I mentioned earlier that relationships with program directors or station managers can still be important. Well guess "WHO" those station managers and directors will tolerate calling them, emailing them, or mailing them "new" music?  Yep, the radio promotion people you HIRE to solicit them. Enter the tidy fee mentioned above.

A radio promotion expert knows all the station managers in the genre they specialize in. So it's not even enough to just hire a promotions company to get your song to radio, you need to make sure they are well accepted by the genre / format of station you want your song played on. So it makes no sense to hire a RAP / HIP HOP radio promotions guy to try and get your COUNTRY song on radio. That guy just does not have the connections at those format stations.

So let's just take a quick guess how much it costs a major label to place ONE song on radio? The national average I last heard for a top 40 type artist is $250,000 minimum for ONE song.

Hate to be a kill-the-vibe kind of guy, but this is the reality independent artists face and the reason why many of them get excited when an online radio station chooses to play their music. That's great for bragging that your song is on "radio", but if it's online radio, it only means so much unless that station is syndicated through the web or even on Terrestrial radio.

I know this is a HUGE amount of information to digest, but in reality, the more you understand about the RADIO GAME, the easier it will be to navigate that particular area of your artist's career. There's a ton more to know and understand about it, but this should give you a foundation.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


The web is full of sites which are designed to showcase an artist's music for various reasons. Some are designed as a portal for connecting artists and industry people and venues together. Some are focused on networking artists with each other, etc. Whatever their focus, these sites have done great and not so great things for artists.

For the artist who needs quick exposure, these sites can provide traffic from industry types. Some industry and venue people crawl these sites looking for talent. So from that perspective, it's great. But if you're looking for a place to showcase your music for a fan, these sites aren't necessarily the best. Many require memberships to view and communicate with profiles on them and the average fan shouldn't have to become a member of a site just to view a profile or talk to their favorite artist.

I'll talk specifically about one site that Spencer used to gain some traction early on in his career.


At present, I am completely angry about this site and it's blatant exploitation of unsigned artists. One such issue being that if you use them to distribute your music to iTunes or other online retailers, you're risking signing away any/all royalties because of a clever loophole they put in their Terms and Conditions that cites if you choose not to keep paying them annually to relist your song with online retailers they originally listed your song with for you, then you must pay a "termination fee" equal to $15-30 per song so they take that song off the retailers website. Here's the catch, if you choose NOT to pay them that fee to take it down, you actively surrender all your future royalties for that song as long as it is listed by them.

Beyond this nifty little gem is a caveat in song ownership that you may need to clearly understand. By uploading your music to their site, you are giving them a LICENSE to promote (use) your music however they want and they don't have to pay you for it. Nice!

So, it is very important to know the fine print of some of these sites before you use them to promote your music or show your music.

In fact, it is best for you to only provide "links" to your youtube videos or music you've uploaded to a place which you trust their intentions and let these sites just refer to your music. For example, create your own artist website, upload your music there, and use these 3rd party music sites to bring traffic to YOUR site where you have 100% control of ownership of your music and content.

Now, I will say that I have found a few performance opportunities for Spencer using sites like these, so they aren't necessarily evil sites, but you have to be very careful to read the fine print.

In general, it is always a good practice to have an artist website as the key place to keep your updated music and public information (bio, tour schedule, latest news, etc.)

At some point in the adventure of the music industry it would be wise to have an entertainment lawyer on hand to review any terms & conditions of sites like these and most definitely any contractual agreements you're being asked to sign.


In the midst of recording Spencer's first professional studio song in early 2011, we engaged in an interesting dialog with the 25+ year veteran producers and mixing engineers. Should an artist (today) use AUTOTUNE or not?

For those of you older folk like me, Autotune is a nifty plug-in used in software for mixing music at most studios. There are two primary software makers for "fixing" pitch issues vocals: Autotune and Melodyne. In a quick lesson, the basics of these include the software's ability to detect what "note" the singer is trying to hit and it automagically fixes the note. Extreme uses of these software plug-ins can be heard in most pop, hip-hop, or rap music on the radio. One artist has made an entire career out of using Autotune as a special effect on their voice (T-Pain). Once you hear it (very obvious here) you'll immediately know the extreme version of it. However, although T-Pain has made millions from using it, Cher is actually the first to make it mainstream with her song "BELIEVE" in 1998 where the robotic effect on her voice was not yet known as Autotune by the main public. Other artists using this include Will-I-Am, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, etc.

So now you know the extreme uses of Autotune for effects. The other use, which is how it was intended, is to simply pitch correct a singer's voice. However, even this pitch correction can be easily detected by most music industry people. There's a subtle marker that can be heard when autotune is applied to vocalists.

So why write a blog post about this?

Great question.

Especially with younger artists trying to make their way in the music industry or possibly have a career, it is very important to know when to use autotune and when not to use autotune. Even saying this means that there is an acceptable use of it, which many purists (like me) get cranky about.

Let me just state a fact that is 100% accurate.

Like it or not, Grammy winning artists have all used this. Even country artists use it. When you're in the studio at Sony (as Spencer was this fall) they use Autotune as a standard plug-in. It's not even a question to them. It's regular practice.

So, it's not even a question of using it or not, it's just whether your artist can get by with having very little of it used on their voice.

One phenomenon that actually shocked me about the highest levels of pro-recording at studios is that Autotune is used during live recording "while" the artist is singing into the mic. This is a lot different than I would have guessed because I've only experienced autotune being applied "after" the recording was made and only to fix small spots that may have missed a note or two. What this did for Spencer, as I came to understand, is it created (for him) a sense of confidence to be more focused on vocal expression and dynamics than to worry about hitting the exact notes perfectly each take. Two different engineers told us that countless major recording artists rely on autotune to keep them focused on the other elements of delivering a good lyric in a song, like enunciation, volume, phrasing, etc.


What this also did was create a confidence that couldn't be reproduced live for Spencer on some songs. While he sounded great in the studio monitors and final mix, to hear him try to replicate the exactness of notes on a stage was a whole different issue.

Back to 2011.

These engineers pulled out (for our benefit) a recording from a 1970's vocal heavy song which clearly did not have Autotune, and we were shocked at how our ears had been trained (recently) to assume pitch-perfect vocals. Many of the amazing singers I grew up listening to were far from "on pitch" in their vocals, but we didn't have anything to compare them to at the time and the "NORM" was what it was. Pick your favorite old-school artist and listen to them close enough and you'll hear some missed notes and bended pitches where they slide into notes or out of notes. It was perfectly acceptable before, but now it isn't because of the invention of software like Autotune. They further pointed out to Spencer to give his impression of the vocals he heard from back in the ancient 1970's. He said they didn't sound good. You see, at his age, he has ears that are used to hearing pitch corrected vocals on the radio and CD's. So, even when he records, his natural singing voice (without autotune) sounds bad to him and he gets very conservative.

The opposite can be true with some artists, they don't possess a tone gauge that keeps them in the same key. They may consistently hit note after note, but it may drift 1/2 step up or down from the actual key. Sadly, parents of some younger artists get caught convincing their child how amazing their vocals are and while their skill may be good, their execution of notes is not. Hence, the need for AUTOTUNE.

So, what's the negative for Autotune if it fixes issues... is the common practice today... and is what the trained ear of today's music expects?

Live shows.

While I've not seen him live in concert, Jason Derulo has a huge fan base of his music. Spencer introduced me to his songs and I really like his R&B vibe. When sharing about him with a few friends and acquaintances we've met in the industry, we were told his live show was horrible. He can't sing like he does on his records. There has been so much doctoring of his vocals in the studio that he can't replicate it live.

Another facet is that while the average fan will love recorded music from an artist, music industry executives and professionals tend to be less impressed with software wizardry by a producer and more interested to know what an artist sounds like without all the myriad of takes that go into making one song. In fact, most labels will require an artist to audition live so they can determine if they have a real voice or a studio voice. (think American Idol or X-Factor, etc.)  The "live" voice is the real voice of an artist. Autotune is supposed to help make a commercial product that will be sold, and it is perfectly acceptable in that case to use Autotune to fix vocal miscues.

One thing that consistently annoys me about young artists with their music is when you clearly hear the heavy autotune they've used to fix issues. Sadly, young artists goes through puberty and their voices are not capable of being "on" all the time. So Autotune may be a tool required to provide consistency for them. But it also raises the question of whether they can really sing.

So the best advice I've come to understand from industry execs and my own experience with building a fan base for Spencer is this:

  • Use Autotune on songs which will be sold on iTunes or made for a CD projects
    • Be careful that how it is used won't be an issue for live performances and the artist being able to replicate the vocals on stage without sounding completely foreign to the audience
  • Don't let your artist become dependent on Autotune and be a lazy singer who isn't trying to get better
  • Realize that experienced industry people can spot Autotune "fixed" vocals on a demo and know whether it is an effect cause the song calls for it, or it is fixing pitch issues and may be a red flag to them
  • ALWAYS let an experienced engineer apply the Autotune versus an amateur. If they are professional, even the most trained ears won't be able to hear the plug-in on the vocals and it will still sound natural
  • Have your artist record live songs in front of a video camera and post on Youtube so fans and industry people will have the chance to hear a pure vocal without it being fixed with software. This will increase your credibility as an artist.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


In previous posts, I've eluded to working with a label from a few different aspects. Perhaps one of the most challenging areas to understand as a new artist or for parents of younger artists is what it means to get a label deal and the many facets involved.

First of all, in the world of music, there really aren't very many major labels left. Most of the industry has consolidated into a field of indie labels and the remaining big boys.
  • Universal Music Group
  • Sony Music Entertainment
  • Warner Music Group
There are other well-known labels with market recognition, but many are just subsidiaries of these three major corporations. Labels like Atlantic, Capitol, MCA, Mercury, Arista, and Motown are all names I grew up knowing as labels of famous artists. All of these and many more are now under the umbrella of one of these big 3 companies. However, in the industry, these labels are considered a power in themselves in various genres. Also keep in mind that these labels have sisters and brothers in other countries and even some siblings in the USA market as well.

In a recent visit to Warner Music Group in Nashville, I was able to hear the history of Warner's maneuvers in the industry the past few decades and didn't realize how cross-pollinating some of the labels under Warner really were. For instance, some artists signed to one Warner label may actually work with a sister label on a project or for distribution to a different segment of the consumer market. Frankly, it's all very confusing until you sit down and draw it out on paper.

Then there are the Independent Labels that are "not" part of the big 3. Honestly, I know of many small indie labels that have launched the careers of some well-known artists that later moved on to the big boys or the labels roster was bought out by a big boy.

So, knowing that there are MAJORS and INDIES in the label business, there are some clear distinctions you should understand before starting a dialog with either, should you be fortunate enough to be considered.


To simplify the role of a label, let's just pull away the glitz and glamor of getting signed. A label is nothing more than a business partner (bank) who is interested in investing in your small business (the artist). Having said that, stop thinking of yourself as a creative entertainer with spotlights and autographs happening and think in terms of being a mom & pop diner in your town. You have invested in your reputation, product, service and advertised with your own money. Imagine a banker or investor coming along and seeing you have a successful small business. There are legitimate investors to consider and some you should avoid. This is the essence of navigating your understanding of a label's role.

So to avoid picking the wrong "investor" you should consider some basics.

  • In general, an established label will NOT reach out to artists unless they have been touring a lot.
    • The market is too full of talent for them to need to turn over stones. Most want to discover new talent, but rarely reach out to up and coming artists unless they intend to do a development deal... which usually involves the artist writing checks to someone for "development".
  • The music industry is shrinking and many ex-professional executives are out of work.
    • Sales and revenues for labels are very hard to come by today versus just 5 years ago. As such, many labels are laying off even the most experienced and talented staff members simply because they can't afford to keep them on payroll.
    • Many of these former employees have launched management companies, development companies, bird dogging services (they find talent and set up intro meetings with their former associates for a nice fee), production companies, or even small labels. They use their resume to impress you with how they will help you get discovered or signed to a big deal. In the midst is the little issue of them needing to make money to transfer this wealth of knowledge they possess.
  • What artists do they currently have?
    • Many labels have a plethora of undiscovered talent on their roster and they use those artists small-market fame to build their label with other small-market talent.
    • Many of these labels try to build momentum off their anchor artist on the roster, who may or may not be happy with their "contractual" obligation to stay with that label.
    • Their website is plastered with self-promoting fluff that really doesn't point to any third parties to validate their track record. If they don't post record sales, tour photos, radio results, etc. it's a sign that they aren't doing much.
So suppose you get into a dialog with any of these labels who claim you (the artist) are the next big thing. The reality is that all their promises and delivery guarantees can be found in the fine print of that annoying and lengthy contract they present. Initially it's great to discuss theoretical outcomes, but get the contract into the hands of an "ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER" (not your family lawyer or your company lawyer). An entertainment attorney has seen all the tricks and knows the industry better than a general practice attorney. There are obviously black and white elements that will be easy to spot as an artist, but never sign a contract with anyone unless it has first been reviewed by an entertainment attorney.


Yes, there are good guys in the industry that are fair and able to become your partner without you fearing the worst. However, the reality of what a good guy provides in a deal may not be what you expect or want.

In general, these are the things that the big labels do and don't do with a new artist, and what they are looking for in new talent.
    • Most major labels will not sign artists who are still trying to find themselves artistically or finding a fan base. Simply, they want an operating business that they can blow up (in a good way). They aren't interested in having to train the artist "HOW" to be an artist. They assume that is already done.
    • However, they may be willing to build on a good foundation and develop a better marketing strategy or brand image that will have a stronger market presence. For example, you may have built a fan base with your band being called "The Crumb Eaters", but the label may choose to rename your band and invest in a new logo and brand campaign because "The Crumb Eaters" doesn't fit their overall corporate brand strategy as a label.
    • Although A&R staff still exists at major labels, most A&R roles aren't as hands on as they used to be in the past. They aren't necessarily spending a lot of time training artists how to be a professional artist. They are more interested in refining the product through strategic song writing and production. They are more hands on in creating product that sells. So consider them more R&D engineers.
    • Unfortunately, many necessary doors to exposure are sealed shut to independent artists. Big labels have the relationships to get radio airplay, big tours, P.R. events, etc. Sadly, the radio industry, for example, will prefer music from major label artists before indie artists. Why? Because these major labels have the artists that consumers want to hear and advertisers on those stations will invest to have their commercials played between those artist's songs.
    • When you're working with a major label, the industry quickly knows who you are and you will have first-hand knowledge of matters that may affect your career much quicker than being an indie.
    • Labels have to deal with a whole team of artists and won't sign competing artists (necessarily) that an existing roster member already handles that area of a market. This may be hard to distinguish with 
    • Conversely, a label won't sign an artist that is so far from the genre they specialize in that their infrastructure, relationships, etc. won't be usable. For example, if the label is primarily a Hip-Hop focused artist home, their radio contacts will likely be with stations that feature hip-hop music.
    • A reality that is hard to handle sometimes is measuring the effort and sweat you put into a career versus what is noticed or considered "acceptable" experience by a big label's standards. At one point in the past 12 months, I had a candid conversation with one of Spencer's mentors and managers in Nashville who shared the harsh reality of the trek we've been on. He was first to compliment Spencer for the hard work he's been putting in and the overall work we've been doing as a team, but he said that the industry has some definitive bench marks they use when considering which artists are really on the radar. Sadly, he said as much progress as Spencer is making, he's not even a blip on the screen yet. That was hard to hear, but a good thing to understand. I asked what makes a BLIP, or how (when) does Spencer become a BLIP. His reply was both encouraging and depressing at the same time. Mind you, this man helped start the fastest growing label in the hip-hop industry 8 years ago and is now a multi-million dollar enterprise with it's premiere artist just having won a Grammy this year. In addition, he has negotiated several major deals with other artists and major labels, and has been in music distribution for a long time. He knows and understands the "business" side of the music industry. His reply...
      • How many units has Spencer sold the past 12 months? (units=songs and or CDs)
      • How many live shows has Spencer done in the past 12 months?
      • How many top 10 radio hits has he had in the past 12 months?
      • What is his live show attendance average when he headlines?
    • My head sank when I realized the measuring stick of a major label is different than my "YOUTUBE VIEWS", FOLLOWERS ONLINE pride we've had for Spencer. He commented that unless his sales of units is in the 5 to 6 digit area and his live shows nears 100 or more each year with several hundred in attendance, he isn't really even considered a legitimate artist yet. Then radio needs to have at least 1 or 2 songs chart for him to be considered legit. The reality is that all of this takes time, resources, and PATIENCE. These criteria are also used by major tours to determine if an artist can even OPEN for a headliner. Either that, or it's a PAY TO PLAY scenario for an emerging artist wanting to get exposure.
    • Most major labels aren't looking to experiment. They are looking to invest in someone who is grounded in what they want to do in their life with music. They aren't looking for someone seeking fame and fortune, but rather someone who is seeking hard work and is "self-motivated" to work hard for very little initial gratification. They want to see that an artist is in it for the long-haul.
    • When Spencer was 15 and we just started to seriously discuss his music career with the management team we have in Nashville, one of the more profound things I learned was the value of real-world experience over time for Spencer. While he had many tangible assets for a major label to consider, he lacked "LIVING" the life of an artist over time that most labels want to see an artist having done already. Why? Well, consider a bank loaning your business money in the first 12 months. It's highly risky to do so because you haven't really proven your staying power during good AND bad times. Statistically, most businesses fail in the first 36 months nationally speaking. It's usually after 36 months that an owner will either throw in the towel or stick it out because they've invested themselves and learned "HOW" to run their business.
    • Most artists think if their sound is great that they deserve the big contract. Well, think about the perspective of a label who will be investing millions into launching that artists career. The risk is the money they spend to launch them (marketing mostly) and if the artist hits the road and fizzles out because of the rigorous schedule and limelight and constant scrutiny, the label risks losing an investment. So, as Spencer's current manager put it, they want to know that the artist knows what it's like to sleep in a van, slugging their own equipment from show to show and eating at Arby's at 2am in the morning. That 'experience' is worth MORE to a label than talent. A label wants to protect their investment and an artist must be able to demonstrate that they are fully committed to their career but not just fame and fortune seekers.
While having a lot of cyber-fans can mean popularity, it doesn't always translate into revenues. Proving the financial value of an artist to a label is the most significant "business" side of what a label considers. The indie labels are usually anti-big-label minded. They tend to shy away from the traditional model that big-labels look for, but in the end, it's still about making money.

So, when considering a label or label deal being presented, make sure you do your homework on how income and expenses are shared between the label and artist. Most deals are backend loaded with artists having to PAY BACK up front monies and reimburse expenses. Be sure to understand how the accounting of those expenses is done and what percentages are going toward whose account. 

Many labels today want 360 deals (that means they get a piece of every revenue stream an artist makes) in order to get the return on their up front investment as quickly as possible. In the past, some artists have signed multi-album deals and labels have been burned when sales of the first or second album don't exceed the investment. So, to offset the risk, they find ways to bring in money from an artist through things like merchandise, concert revenues, licensing deals, publishing, etc. All these revenue streams are "taxed" by a label and the artist must pay a portion of those back to the label. This is very common in reality TV shows like American Idol and X-Factor. In exchange for being catapulted into the market, the artist surrenders a lot of future revenues they would have been able to keep in the past.

This is why the Indie label or Indie route for an artist can be much more appealing. The publishing, merchandising, concert revenues, record sales, etc. are all revenues that you get to keep. The trade off is that you rarely get the marketing budget for people to find out about you and if you do, you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting that notoriety... which of course, would have to be made back in revenues at some point.

So it ends up looking like this.

Invest your personal resources into the career of the artist as much as you can. Hope the market likes your stuff. Build a loyal fan base over time and someday realize a revenue (income) from the investment. This method is usually slow growth and long, long time to come to fruition.


Sign on with a big label when possible, short cut the long term, slow growth model, give up revenues, but have a bank paying to make you known (in the short term). You're essentially signing a promotion deal since the biggest payment you will get is exposure in front of a larger audience.

When you're dealing with a young artist, the long-term exposure route through self-promotion usually takes the artist into their adult years, in which case they become a needle in a haystack of talent.

While this post isn't all-inclusive of every possible scenario, for the most part, inexperienced artists and/or parents should take it as wisdom to avoid getting excited over the first dozen "industry" people that make a pitch to the artist. Chances are, you are one of hundreds on a list they are hoping to earn some fees for sharing the secrets of a successful career in the music business.


I'm not even sure 'commerciality' is a word, but it was a fun title, so why not?

At some point in the journey of becoming a professional artist, there will come a point when creating original music is a challenge. On one hand, most "creative" types like to just create and leave it at that. They prefer people appreciate their work for what it is and how original it is. Simply, they want it to be their representation of who they are or want people to see them to be.

Backing it up a bit.

When the artist is younger, a lot of times they create original music that is very similar to what is already on radio in hopes to sound professional.

We've all heard the expression, "It's about the music", and to a large extent, it is. However, in the real industry of entertainment, it's also "about the commercial viability of the music". In other words, "can this song make money".

Spencer is active in creating both secular and Christian genre's of music. His secular music is in the form of known covers, but also in the form of original music with lyrics that are positive, hopeful, and encouragement to the listener. His Christian music leans more toward a Christian audience which is accustomed to lyrics that directly speak about the Christian walk of faith or directly about God. But in this combination of creating music, there is still a balancing act between the music being something totally creative and free from commercial worry, and paying the bills.

So what makes a song commercially viable?

Well, unfortunately, there is no magic pill or silver bullet on this one, or else everyone who writes songs or performs them would be famous. There is, however, some baseline for understanding trends and how different pieces of the industry work so at least you have a better chance at creating something commercially viable.

There a key influencers that can often dictate whether a song will be a project tucked away on a track on an album project and reserved for loyal fans to appreciate, or one which will likely sell and become a hit.

In no specific order, consider these factors.

    • Every artist I know that is serious about their career is hoping for radio to embrace their music and songs. This is a Rubik's Cube if not a 10,000 piece puzzle of a solid color picture. Radio has been changing and evolving for quite some time and presents both the good and bad of the music industry journey. I won't use this post to speak about radio in depth, but on the surface, there are gatekeepers of the radio world that may or may not officially "BLESS" a song's commercial worth. The moment a terrestrial radio station embraces and plays a song, you are almost guaranteed it will have a commercial shelf life of sales. How much or when is not a formula easily calculated, but at the least, radio playing a song is an endorsement to consumers that the artist and the song are worthy of consumer consideration.
      • I would love to list the factors gatekeepers use to decide this, but (again) a later post.
    • This is a "DUHH" point. But it is truly important to understand. Before most artists hit radio, there is a fan base that supports the song. This isn't always true about radio, but apart from a label pushing the song to radio, it is more likely as in indie artist, fans will have paved the support road for a single to get played on radio... which turns into exposure... which turns into sales at some point.
    • Some songs find prominence and commercial success because the artist performs it so great in a live setting that it goes viral or has a grassroots movement behind it.
    • This is a tricky one. The moment a song goes onto Youtube, the consumer base that is supposed to purchase it no longer has the requirement to do so since browser makers provide a handy-dandy plugin that allows people to "rip" the music off a youtube video as an MP3 and lets them put it in their iPod for free. However, a lot of views of a music video can certainly equate exposure which may lead to sales.
    • One of the key ingredients of a song's commercial viability is it's production quality. There are many ways to produce a song and budgets dictate all of them.
    • Exactly "WHO" produced the song is also a key factor in whether it will be taken seriously by radio or industry executives with budgets enough to promote the song to commercial viability. So having a known producer on a track will increase it's likelihood of being taken seriously by industry gods who wave their magic wands over whose music gets pushed to the public.
    • Home studios are used all the time by professional singers and artists. What most may not tell you, however, is the when it's time to MIX that song recorded at home, they outsource that to professional mix engineers, and also may go to a professional MASTERING engineer. These specialist are called upon to mix and master music to commercial standards. Like it or not, there are industry known standards about the mix of a song that any radio or label executive will hear the moment they listen. They can tell if it is worthy of commercial promotion. So, in this sense, production of the song is a HUGE piece of the puzzle.
    • Another element is the readiness of the market for the song. Does the song stand out from what's already available from other artists, or is the genre unsaturated and can use another sound-alike without being lost in the shuffle? As an older adult, I tend to hear top 40 music and think, "Didn't I just hear that song 2 songs ago?" Seriously, a lot of the music sounds the same to me, but in reality, consumers are creatures of habit and may be interested in other songs by an artist and it just so happens what is currently on the playlist is a new release by the artist that happens to sound similar.
    • But from a "new artist" standpoint, I can guarantee you that labels are not looking to replace their current roster artists. They are interested in breaking an artist that can stand on their own two feet commercially and creatively. Labels aren't stupid. They also understand the power of the bandwagon, but if I've learned one thing so far on our journey, it's this. The cycle of production to market release is not less than 18 months in the real world of commercial releases. That's right, 18 months minimum. I've spoken to producer after producer in Nashville when working with Spencer and in their world, what they create today won't even hit the street for consumer's to hear for nearly 18 months. Now there may be some small market testing of a release before that, but when we're talking national radio, it's 18 months. So the "sound" or "style" of a song may already be 2 years old before a fan base is singing the words in their shower. As such, it's not always the song that "sounds" similar to what an artist hears on the radio today. It's the ability to predict what will be popular 18 months from now, and therein lies the problem knowing if a song will be a hit or sell well.
      • Personally, I struggle with knowing how easy it is to produce a song, and use a service like CD Baby to throw it up on iTunes in 2 months time. However, just cause it's available for purchase doesn't mean you're raking in the revenues.
    • Sometimes songs that are written with a specific social message can take on a greater commercial return than those that are personal creativity projects. Taking on a story from the headlines or topic that touches a lot of lives can be a way to quickly find exposure... again, leading to sales.
    • Sometimes the message is nonsense. Look at songs like "WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY" or "GANGNAM STYLE" and realize that the cleverness of the lyric and message it represents allowed it to gain market acceptance.
    • I know that younger artists don't think about this, but professional artists do this all the time. They write music that they know could be sold to TV, MOVIES, COMMERCIALS, etc. They intentionally write with licensing in mind. They will sit down and intentionally think of a product that the song could endorse or be used to promote. For example, the lyric says something about feeling excited and suddenly it's usable by Cadillac to launch their new car line on a TV commercial.
    • Sadly, a lot of starving artists look at this approach as selling out their artistry. But when they have to make a choice of having a regular job or doing a career they love.. but get paid to do it... usually they will understand the importance of making their music commercially viable.
These were just a few factors that affect whether a song is worthy of consumer investment. Labels are constantly toying with this list when considering new talent. In fact, it's almost formulaic how some labels go through the process of considering an artists commercial viability. This too, is a topic for another post (label's checklist for considering an artist).

Suffice it to say, an artist who intends to make a career out of their music passion will learn at some point it isn't about the beatnik poetic lyrics and melodies they churn out in a 2 hour rampage of inspiration. It's about knowing their intended audience and how to play the game of getting attention from the industry gods who look for artists willing to submit to their canons of unspoken rules.