The Empowered Entertainer

As has often been my tendency on this site, I am straying away from production tech topics and towards “biz.” I figure I can get away with it every so often, especially because being a production tech gives a person a different, perhaps interesting perspective on the business issues. The musicians are sitting where they are, and the venue operators are sitting wherever they sit, and the promoters are kinda standing over there…and the production humans are hanging out at FOH control, or standing on deck, watching.

Or sitting right in the middle, depending on how cross-discipline the audio or lighting human happens to be.

Anyway.

Back in March, a thought formed in my mind. I wrote that thought down in a simple little TXT file, where it has stayed until today:

“Promoters advertise because they know they’ll make their money back – plus a lot more.”

It’s a simplified statement, but its true.

And it could be used to justify a lot of haranguing aimed at musicians about growing their own fanbases and not relying on other industry members to propel their careers, but…well, it actually hits on something much deeper.

You see, the entertainers are the people in this business who can really amass and wield power. (I’ve touched on this before, in a different context.)

Of course, this isn’t much fun to hear when you haven’t amassed much of any power to wield. Depressing, even. Let’s embrace that depression, at least for a few minutes.

Cold Economics

When there was that whole thing with U2 releasing their new songs, for free, on Itunes, a question arose. It was probably asked by numerous different artists in numerous ways, but it all boiled down to one composite query:

“When will an industry giant buy my songs for, say, a million bucks each, and then market them for me?”

The answer to that question is that it will happen as soon as that industry giant figures that it can profit (NOT just “take in,” but PROFIT), say, a million bucks for each song it buys and promotes.

So, if you don’t have a large cadre of raving fans who will gleefully fling money at someone – anyone – selling your music/ merch/ appearances/ etc, then your health will be in serious jeopardy if you hold your breath waiting for the industry to “king” you.

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

Let’s keep talking about U2 for a minute, and bring in the live-show element. When their 2011 tour showed up in Salt Lake (the metro area I’m closest to), the stadium sold out. The stadium’s capacity for that concert was just north of 47,000, and just north of 47,000 people were there. They paid about $63 – $64 each for the privilege. (So saith Wikipedia.)

Now then. I have no idea how much was spent on promoting the show, but let’s go for what seems like a big number. Let’s say it was $500,000. That’s enough to really do some damage in print, as well as on the radio.

What I’m going to assume is that some sort of deal was worked out where the production overhead – I guess it was about $750,000 – was paid out to the band immediately. My guess is that the full promo cost of $500,000 was covered from receipts and removed from “settlement consideration,” and maybe someone had to fork over an additional $250,000 to use Rice Eccles Stadium. So…that’s $1.5 million just to put on the show, which would leave a roughly equal amount as actual profit. If the promotions arm of the whole thing (LiveNation, local promo, whoever) got, say, 15% of that, what that promo effort made from that one show is about $225,000.

Again, let me be clear: I have NO idea if this scenario is close to what actually happened. It seems plausible to me, though.

And no matter how exactly it all worked out, I can’t imagine that the “promotion profit” was anything less than six figures. That’s why promoters want to work with bands like U2 – an act that can fill stadiums is a good bet. Any band with a draw where $1 spent on promo returns $1.45 is an act that makes good financial sense to promote.

Did you find the key phrase in that last sentence? Did you find the key element in my theoretical payout to the promotions people?

The Band Is The Nail Holding It All Together

The answers to my two questions are:

“Any band with a draw where” and “15%.”

Bands have a tendency to put tons of power in the hands of other people. “If we only had a promoter who would shout our name from the rooftops. If we only had the right management. If we only had someone to run our social media accounts. If only the venues would advertise more. If only…”

Here’s the thing, though. In that whole, long, theoretical scenario up there, who really had all the power? The promoter?

Are you kidding me?

U2 owned the whole thing. The reason why concert promoters want to work with U2 is because U2 has a giant army of fans that can actually be promoted to. If you think that 47,000 people coughed up over $63 per seat because a cleverly designed, large surface-area print ad “made them believe,” you’re giving the ad WAY too much credit. They showed up because they wanted to hear their favorite songs performed live, with an over-the-top set and a huge PA system. Their minds were already made up to go – they just needed to be told where, when, and how much it would cost.

Because they love U2. U2 has a mind-boggling “draw,” otherwise known as the ability to get people to go to shows, buy records, purchase merch, and spread the word.

U2 made the emotional connection. U2 was the driving force. U2 had the power to get that audience out there. U2 could conceivably demand 85% of the net receipts after expenses, and get it (with a smile, even), because U2 fills stadiums. Not newspaper ads. Not radio mentions. Not clever marketing tricks. Not the promoter.

U2.

The artist, as the constructor of emotional connections with fans, commands all the power until such time as that power is conceded.

Let me repeat that.

The artist, as the constructor of emotional connections with fans, commands all the power until such time as that power is conceded.

Of course musicians get taken advantage of by sleazy managers, greedy promoters, evil industry execs, and so on. It’s because they concede their power to those people, whether intentionally or by accident.

You can also be in a position where you willingly concede power to a promoter, manager, or exec who’s entirely decent. It might just be more convenient for you. My guess is that U2 doesn’t actually need LiveNation for anything, but LiveNation makes life easy for them somehow – so, U2 concedes a bit of power and profit in order to be comfortable.

Let me put it this way: If U2 put it out there on Facebook, Twitter, and their website that they were coming to Salt Lake to do a special show for $40 a seat (where the fans would vote on the setlist) and then did no other promo, would Rice Eccles not be filled to capacity? I can’t seriously imagine that it wouldn’t be completely jammed.

In the age of self-publishing and high-speed data, I don’t think that U2 actually needs a promoter in the traditional sense. They certainly have the money to pay for anything they WANT, however.

What If You Feel Like You Don’t Have Any Power?

I can’t imagine that any of this is particularly encouraging if you don’t draw.

If you aren’t making that kind of connection with fans, then not feeling empowered is appropriate. Uncomfortable, yes, but also appropriate. Knowing when your empowerment isn’t yet built is what helps keep you humble and tolerable to be around. (Remembering what it was like to not be empowered is what keeps big players humble and tolerable.)

But it may just be the case that you’re not connecting YET.

You have to keep at it.

This doesn’t mean continually doing the same thing and expecting different results. It’s a good idea to try different things, allow a “dud” band to break up, pursue a solo career, switch genres, and just generally rock your own boat. To use a metaphor, if you try to launch a rocket and it just sits on the pad, then you have to figure out what you’ve learned and then rework the rocket. You don’t just continually try to light the same rocket.

It’s a bit of a buzzword anymore, but I think it’s a useful concept: You have to iterate, iterate, iterate.

Keep trying. Keep trying different things. Don’t put all your hopes into one “do or die” effort. Allow yourself to be incremental. Be nice to people, write the best tunes you can, put on the best shows you know how, and learn as much from it all as possible.

That’s how you’ll have any hope of forging connections with fans, and connections with fans empower you.

Because you’re the draw, and the bigger the draw you are, the more power you get.

  • TRK

    I love your shit, DM, but this, THIS is the most awesomest shiny thingy ever. Cuz when the rubber hits the road, the reason music even fucking exists is to make people resonate with feels – hairs on end, that shit. If you can’t do that for people, then you can throw money and agents and watts and leather with furiousness and nothing’s going to happen. Unless there’s boobs, and then even that usually is only good for kindling, not coals. Make people feel shit. Connect. It’s drugs. You’re the supplier.

  • Sheryl Diane

    The new buzzword is “traction” everybody interested in joining your career wants to join a well-organized media savvy artist that has traction (or a following showing up online). Number 1, you can’t fake that with adding people who just don’t care either, as some novices do. Everyone has to get used to the idea of building a following (incremental is right Danny!) instead of just blasting off into the stratosphere of fame. I think The Flaming Lips are a great example of slow builders, I first met them in Montana as three boys touring in a van in the 80’s. They played a lot and earned a lot of fans early on in their career, gaining fans each city. It takes persistence. What frequently makes us fail is the passing of time is so breakneck when you are creating music, producing shows, probably working or raising kids too and then you fail to promote. Such is my fate – it’s not a natural survival skill it must be focused on and strategically deployed.

  • Eddie B.

    Another outstanding article by “The Small Venue Survivalist” I have been reading Danny’s work for a couple of years now. UNSOLICITED OPINION!! If you want to read more quality pieces like the one above I strongly suggest you suscribe to Mr. Maland’s blog. Always great stuff and many excellent technical articles on live performance sound reinforcement and more. Thank you Carlos for bringing us solid stuff like this on the “Schilly Family Musician” blog.
    Eddie B. “IonEddie” Milville, Wi.