Five ways the music industry can achieve long-term sustainability

The music industry is quite unique in the fact that its existence is predicated on the creative output of human beings. Quite often, that creative output is the result of dealing with the hardest things we have to go through in life. In previous decades, when money from CD sales seemed evergreen, there was a lot of space and resource for patience and care when it came to A&Ring those creatives. In 2017, when the music industry is run by three major corporations whose primary business is not music and profits have halved, it’s not hard to imagine the pressure that might create.

The digital revolution has changed the parameters of success and hugely decreased money earned from record sales. That should mean, in practice, major labels signing fewer acts and focusing their attention on a small roster. Stats suggest it’s the opposite. In the UK, new artist deals in 2014 were 30% up on the 120 signed in 2013 and the highest annual total since 2009. Of the 156 new artist deals signed in 2014, nine debut albums reached gold status. That’s a hit rate of 5.7%, according to MBW. While we don’t have similar figures for last year, we do know that only one debut album released in 2016 hit gold. That wasn’t fresh and innovative music written and performed by the next Bowie or Madonna, it was 13 covers of swing classics sung by TV personality Bradley Walsh (the host of ITV gameshow The Chase).

Laura Mvula, who was recently dropped by Sony label RCA after three albums (including her live album with the Metropole Orkest), has her own idea as to why this environment might exist. “I think fear is behind a lot of what we thrust in people’s faces,” she explains. “Very often, me and my manager would present a vision [to the label] that would be met with scepticism and almost a prediction of failure. My orchestral album wasn’t something that everyone got on board with as a transitional record, but when it came out, we played it for the first time as part of the BBC Proms to a sold out Royal Albert Hall. It was a really important part of my creative journey.

“One of the things that shocked me when I got signed was how quickly things change within the machine and how fast people move around. That must be terrifying for those people working within that because you’re not operating from a place of confidence and faith in something, you are fighting for your life most of the time which can lead to rash or inaccurate and unmusical predictions. I’m sure that’s not the total picture but that’s what I’ve witnessed so far. I’m not sure how in touch the people that are in charge are with the artistic heart of the music industry.”

Mvula’s referring to the major industry, and there are many independent labels, publishers and management companies that aren’t as beholden to financial targets. However, with lower revenues, they are faced with their own pressure to stay afloat and an acquisition cheque from one of the major corporations would be understandably tempting to any struggling CEO. In this environment it’s perhaps more important than ever to step back and consider the duty of care the music business has to those that work within it, in order to ensure it continues doing what it has historically been good at; helping artists create music that’s exciting and made with passion, and delivering that to the general public. It’s not just the artists that need looking after, it’s also the managers, A&Rs, PRs, publishers and wealth of young and overworked executives.

So how do we do that? A conversation about mental health has happened recently, and that’s great because it encourages open discussion about a widespread problem that’s previously been shrouded in shame. However, the pressurised culture and the impact that has on creativity is only going to change if everyone working in the music industry takes practical steps towards a brighter future. Here’s some suggestions.

Stop being busy

Why is staying late in the office and working all hours hailed as vital for progression? Why are we sending and answering hundreds of emails a day? Why do we have our emails linked up to our phones outside of office hours? Why do those working at a computer use spare time to spend more time at a computer on social networks, watching YouTube videos or whatever? When you’re in a meeting listening to music, how many of those around you are on their phones instead of closing their eyes and focusing? All the above kills our concentration span and makes lateral thinking incredibly hard.

Creative consultant Clare Scivier, who has recently launched a charity that provides health and wellbeing coaching to the music industry called Your Green Room, offers a suggestion: “If you ask someone questions with a hand in front of their face, they can’t think. You need to take time out, breathe, get a glass of water, go outside and get some air. That’s when you start to [be able to strategise] and plan things. If you’re in crisis mode, there’s going to be a crisis.”

Have passion and belief

It’s no secret that once a track or artist breaks, A&Rs are told to ‘find something that sounds like [insert artist here]’. Signing decisions are supposed to be based on passion and belief in talent, not on what’s gone before. Scivier says that finding who you are and what makes you tick makes it easier to know what talent you should work with. “How do you know you love something? You can feel it in your chest, and repulsion comes from the same place,” she explains. “Things go wrong when you don’t really believe in something. 97% of things that are signed fail, and that’s because we sign everything. Record labels sign far too much to cope. If we only signed the 3% everyone would be much less stressed and happier.”

Huge amounts of money is wasted on all those signings, and a lack of direction based on gut feeling furthers that even more. Scivier adds: “When everyone wants to sign something, all the labels jump on, the price goes up and they never recoup. It becomes this big fight and suddenly the track some guy has made for nothing in his backyard has been signed for £200,000. There’s so much pressure before tracks are even finished.”

Define long term goals

Scivier uses Time Line Therapy to talk through the realities of what a goal or idea would mean. It can alleviate indecisiveness and stop problems happening further down the line when the artist or members of their team are faced with a reality they’re not comfortable with. Having a clear strategy with goals to tick off along the way helps maintain focus. In our internet age, we’ve got tonnes of choices. Make life easier by whittling them down.

What you want to achieve and what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to get there is vital to define. Does the artist want to be a worldwide superstar? If so, are they willing to live a life on the road and be in the public eye at all times? Do you want to be a rich executive? Are you cool with working all hours and sacrificing time with your friends and family in order to get to the top? Perhaps one day you’ve had enough and want to give everything up and live on a farm. If so, you’re going to have to wake up early every day to feed the animals and clean up their poo. And how will your goals and aspirations change with age and responsibilities?

Treat artists like athletes

Athletes have a crew with physiotherapists, behavioural psychologists and nutritionists. Artists have people to further their career and little support when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, despite undergoing what is often a gruelling touring and promotion schedule (especially when most income is made playing live instead of from record sales). If the industry wants to nurture and maintain career artists, support for mental as well as physical health should be part of a signing package.

“Professional footballers have an entire crew to look at every element,” Scivier explains. “If you walk into a record company, there’s a press department and marketing, but there’s nothing about physical health at all. Artists have to be athletes these days physically and mentally, they have to be resilient. British Airways cabin crew have rules about how long they can fly and how many days off they have. DJs and artists don’t. It’s treated far too much as ‘you’re having it good now, and it could all be over tomorrow.’ We need to consider the long term rather than quick, cash in while we can, because these artists are being burnt out.”

Invest in the next generation of execs

Passionate mavericks like London Records founder Tracy Bennett and former Chrysalis boss Doug D’Arcy created real movements in the ’80s and ’90s. Neither of the execs were known for their employability. Music companies should be recruiting and nurturing the next generation of mavericks, and give them the time and space to learn from their mistakes. Hiring people from all walks of life is also vital in catering to a diverse general public, and unpaid internships won’t do that.

Sarah Stennett summed this up with a recent call to arms while accepting her Music Week Strat Award: “I think it’s important for us to embrace those people who think differently. In the noise and endless discussion around technology, platforms, streaming and marketshare, I feel that we have forgotten the importance of the people. It’s the people who are the heart of this business,” she said.

“Let’s support the young people. Let’s allow them to express themselves, let’s help guide them through their mistakes. To all the young people in the room who aren’t always able to express themselves in a room full of experienced executives, or who aren’t heard even if they do, and to all of us who are navigating the uncharted waters of a rapidly changing industry, I encourage you to be brave, to embrace your individuality and, in the words of my father, hang on in there.”

This article originally appeared on Synchblog