Welcome to the first edition of “Making Scale,” a new blog covering current topics in the music industry. We will focus this space on the independent music scene, looking at the issues that affect musicians, studios and venues as they produce and present live and recorded music. We hope this will prove interesting to those engaged in the business and to those that are simply fans, too.
The blog’s name is a reference to the concept of “Union Scale” or the set rates that musicians were to be paid for their services in more civilized times. While the concept may still exist in some pockets of the industry, in most instances now it is a struggle to make music a profitable enterprise. It’s an issue we hope to make a central theme in the blog: In a wired world, the minstrel is going to have to do more than just sing if they want supper.
For this first edition, we set up a roundtable interview with the editors of four well established online music publications:
Greg Jones – EarToTheGround Music (http://www.eartothegroundmusic.co/)
John Sinkevics – Local Spins (http://localspins.com/category/live-at-river-city/)
James McQuiston – NeuFutur (http://neufutur.com/)
Don Valentine – I Don’t Hear A Single (https://hearasingle.blogspot.com/)
We asked the four to answer a range of topics as fans who also have gained a unique viewpoint as members of the independent media covering music and musicians. Here is what they had to say:
1. Tell us about your publication.
Greg Jones: EarToTheGround Music is a folk, indie rock, and roots music blog. We feature emerging artists. It is our mission to help music fans find great new music and help musicians find amazing new fans.
John Sinkevics: Local Spins covers and showcases West Michigan's music scene through artist spotlight features, concert/album reviews, videos, photos, podcasts and concert listings. We were established in early 2012, after I left The Grand Rapids Press where I'd spent the previous 12 years as a music and entertainment writer (after 18 years as a hard news reporter). We're the fastest growing music website in the region -- generally covering events/artists in the Grand Rapids area, and from Kalamazoo to Traverse City and along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
James McQuiston: NeuFutur Magazine has been around in some form since November, 1998. I started the publication in high school, was promptly suspended for it, and changed the name to NeuFutur in 2002. We started out as a music magazine covering punk and metal, but opened up to covering media (videos and books) a few years after. In the last five years, we've taken on a number of different beats, including forays into covering fitness products, travel destinations, craft beer, and restaurants. In the 17 years we've been active, we've covered over 6,000 CDs and have conducted around 500 interviews with artists of every genre from gospel to crust punk.
Don Valentine: I run the I Don't Hear A Single Blog which concentrates on new Pop albums, particularly Power Pop. I've run a Private Blog for nine years too. These days I concentrate only on what I like, I wouldn't give a bad review to something, I just wouldn't review it. I'm fortunate to have made lots of contacts around the world and so albums roll in. Facebook is the biggest generator of the reviews and activity.
2. It’s not unusual to hear people say today’s music isn’t as good or does not compare well with the music of the past. As someone who hears a lot of new music, how do you respond to this?
Sinkevics: Actually, I rarely hear that comment any more. Clearly, baby boomers remain smitten by the music that defined their generation, but I meet many older music fans who truly embrace contemporary music, especially music being written and performed by a burgeoning legion of Michigan-based acts. And teens, 20-somethings and 30-somethings -- musicians and fans alike -- seem willing to incorporate and showcase a variety of different musical styles -- from classic rock to hip hop and funk -- into their music and the music they listen to. My point to some of these folks (some of them callers to my radio show): Give it a chance. You may end up loving it.
McQuiston: There's always been music of varying qualities. The ability to record music cheaply came to the masses in the mid-1990s as 4-track recorders became commonplace, so I'm unsure that one can argue that the barriers to making music have decreased with the advent of easy-to-use computer programs. It's hard to find good music generally, but it is wholly rewarding when someone sends you a great release. I would say that it is tremendously easy to presume older music is better based on what's being played on the radio just because the mediocre or downright bad music has been forgotten.
Valentine: I don't agree. It's a common statement from generation to generation. Music has become far more formulaic following trends, but there's always been some of that around. The sad thing is that music doesn't seem as important in the youth market these days, it's individual songs that are thrown away in six weeks. There's far more competing for the 15 - 24 market and traditionally that age has driven trends and sales. Now, it's a much older market that do that, primarily nostalgia.
Jones: Well there are definitely cycles of repetition. For example, right now the 80s are really "back" with lots of synth-heavy music under the "pop" tag. But we actually really enjoy hearing artists who can emulate classic Americana styles like roots country, the blues, or even early rock n' roll. For example, fans of classic singer songwriters would love Jason Isbell. I think that most people who say that there's nothing good out there just aren't listening to enough. If your only exposure to music is on the radio, of course it will feel stale. Find new music on sites like ours and you'll change your tune quickly. :)
3. What is your typical approach when you review a new musical release? How to do you go about giving useful information to those looking to discover new releases?
McQuiston: I typically get the album and play it a few times while I am working on other NeuFutur projects. So much more of the nuance is shown when a reviewer has the time to properly listen to an album. The different connections that the act has made between single songs and overall themes start to show themselves after a few days with the disc. To ensure that NeuFutur continually provides our readers with the relevant information concerning how to contact a musician and purchase their music, we have a style guide that all reviewers follow. After the review is finished, we place the coverage on the front page of NeuFutur and broadcast it to our social media profiles (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+), our RSS feed, and our mirror websites (Blogger, Page)
Valentine: I tell them a bit about the artist's history, Mark out individual songs and compare them to what's around. I'll always ensure they can listen to two or three songs whole so people get a gist. I will always direct them where to find out more about the artist and where they can buy the album
Jones: Well I suppose this would be different for each reviewer, but I (Greg Jones, managing editor) tend to take the album a song at a time. First we have the submission process where I make the call whether to even cover the album at all. In that process I am looking for a solid melody, intriguing lyrics, and a good strong vocal. If it has those elements, then I'll pay attention to subtler elements like chord progression, quality of harmonies, or even instrumentation. By the time I sit down to actually review a full album, I've already made up my mind that it will be a positive review. At that point I'm really just explaining to people what I like about it. I try to think of my readers as my friends; what would I tell a friend about this album? Why should my friend pick it up? I feel that if I write with that kind of evidence-based, good-natured description, everyone will be happy with the end result. I try not to be overly technical (to the extent that I can be) merely because I'm not writing for sound engineers or professional composers. I'm trying to convince Uncle Floyd to put on this new album for his barbeque next week.
Sinkevics: It's fairly straightforward: Listen to the album or EP, check out the liner notes for all pertinent information, go online to get more details about the band so you truly have a better understanding as to where they're coming from musically. This can be a time-consuming process, but worthwhile. And folks can come to Local Spins to get a great roundup of new Michigan/local releases.
4. It’s been said that video killed the radio star. What has the internet done for the independent musical performer?
Valentine: It's true it's killed the record industry, but as in anything, there's good and bad points. The whole world is reachable now and you can target that. However, the decline of TV, Radio and Press coverage, means that nothing is put in front of you. The internet is great, but you have to search everything out, know what you are looking for. The internet though has revived independent labels and self-released. The artist is more in control of their career and finances, but it's harder to make any money. For most, music is a secondary job now, made out of love, not for a career.
Jones: The Internet has changed EVERYTHING. Of course we wouldn't know because we only entered the music industry because of the Internet. But from the first interview I ever conducted (Matthew Mayfield, 2011), artists began telling us how important blogs were to their success. We spread the word, influence tastemakers, and ultimately can help bands get more exposure. Our short reviews or artist features end up in front of thousands of eyes. No longer are people limited to finding new music on the corporate-infused big radio. Now a music fan can listen on streaming platforms or check out Hype Machine, which indexes blogs like ours. It's a great way for fans to find a diverse set of music that is almost totally disconnected from the big record labels that dominate the standard airwaves. Related, indie artists now have better access to inclusion on TV shows, films, and music collections. One artist that I love, Noah Gundersen, saw a major boost in his career when one of his songs was featured on the show Sons of Anarchy. One placement like that from an indie artist can make the career go from playing honky tonks in the moonlight to playing big theater shows. The Internet and its access to networking, especially, has made it so that an indie artist can build and sustain a following who will purchase show tickets and merch for years to come.
Sinkevics: It's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's leveled the playing field so that every artist that has music now has an easy, cheap platform to present it and promote it. The problem is, everyone has access to the same platforms, so the competition for fans' time is intense and the ability to stand out and have people actually find your music remains difficult. The bottom line is: You still have to work hard, gig and promote your music in a grass-roots way.
McQuiston: The internet allows a wider audience to find out about an independent musician. In the pre-internet days, it was quite possible that someone could be in a geographically distant location and never have their music heard by an audience that would appreciate it. If the artist is able to use services like Spotify, Bandcamp, and CDBaby with proper promotion, they will be able to go forth and find an eager audience no matter what genre or style that they settle into.
5. If you could give one piece of advice to independent artists who are seeking wider recognition, what would that be?
Jones: Well it's hard to keep it to one, but I'll try. It seems obvious, but the most important thing is to do good work. That is, make good music. Then, once you have good music that is honest to you, begin to think about the business side of what you do. The best indie acts out there run it like a business. They know that the creative process is part of it, but they also show up for things. They hustle. They keep an email list and send out exclusives. Show your fans you care. Reply to fans on social media. Interact with people. Be active with it more than just putting out an album every few years. Do house shows and shake hands with people. Smile in their pictures and really get connected. When you do interviews, make sure to give thoughtful answers and be present. Remember that every action is under observation. Some of the best interviews I've had were made good just because the artist was genuinely thankful for the opportunity. It doesn't have anything to do with album sales or years in the industry, either. One of my favorite interviews was with Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup; they are way out of my league in the industry, but they were genuinely glad to chat with me about their music. Likewise, I've done interviews with off-the-radar artists who acted like I was wasting their time. In short, help bloggers and fans help you.
Sinkevics: Do a better job of letting fans and media outlets know who you are and the kind of music they play. Have an updated website and Facebook page that clearly outlines who you are, the genre(s) of music you play, the concerts/gigs you've got scheduled, where folks can buy/download your music and how they can get in contact with you. Have current photos of your band available, not something taken three years ago before your bassist left. Have your music professionally recorded at a real studio. It's more expensive but it pays off in the long and you'll be a lot happier with the final result -- especially if you have a producer/engineer who can provide that extra set of ears to let you know what sounds right. Finally, connect with your fans in every way possible -- on Facebook, through Twitter, at your performances. Compile email lists of your fans so you can let them know where you're playing and what you're up to. All of this helps in this ultra-competitive environment.
McQuiston: No matter whether you're active daily, weekly, or monthly, make a profile on each social media service. Don't just stick to the English-language ones either; a profile on VK or Baidu will further get your music out to the masses. On each of these accounts, include links to your main domain, your other social media profiles, and any other relevant websites (studio, label). Look into auto-posting services for your press releases, and make good use of the free publicity newswires.
Valentine: Know your market. Use Blogs and Internet Radio, Don't fall for get rich quick schemes, there aren't any. Use social media, but not too heavily. If you are in a band, decide who is going to be the public face of it and have them handle the Facebook and Twitters of the world. They have to be someone who can keep an even temper when criticism comes along. Know your fans and market to them, Milk the favorable reviewers for their contacts.