Back in the old days, the music industry was all very simple. You got a manager; they got you a record deal; the record company commissioned you to make a record; the record company’s PR team approached journalists and radio producers with said record; the journalists and radio producers got you in the papers and on the airwaves; owners of record shops heard your wonderfully hip new sound and agreed to stock your album…and eventually, you sold some records to a bunch of girls in Stevenage. All of the aforementioned individuals and organisations – right down to the girls in Stevenage – constituted ‘filters’: the entities that you had to convince to let you past the gates of rock and roll into a world of stardom and excess. If any one of the filters or gatekeepers in the chain said ‘no’ to your musical efforts, you were quite probably screwed and consigned to a life of miserable gigs at the local Rat and Parrot attended by your mother and your drunken aunt.
In this brave new world that we makers and purveyors of fine music now find ourselves in, it’s tempting to think that the whole ‘filter’ model doesn’t apply any more. After all, it’s just a case of setting up a website, sticking a free EP up there and waiting for the world to come knocking down your door, isn’t it? Well, no, not exactly, as we shall soon see.
But it does feel to many musicians as though the filters aren’t there any more. In my view, that’s down to two things. Firstly, recording: thanks to remarkably cheap and powerful recording gear it’s now technically possible to make a record without any record company involvement whatsoever. Secondly, distribution: you don’t need to impress any distributors to get distribution – all you need to do is just whack your album up on iTunes – or if you’re feeling very lazy/confident, simply put it up on your own website and leave it at that – and hey presto, your album is available 24/7 to a global audience.
This removal of the barriers to recording and distribution understandably makes a lot of bands think that if they work hard, make an undeniably great record and put it up on the net, that it will inevitably sell millions of digital copies, or, at the very least build them a fanbase that they can flog t-shirts to. Build it and they will come, to quote Field of Dreams or misquote Wayne’s World II.
But if anything, there are actually more filters in the music business than ever before. For a start, the old ones mentioned above are still there; record companies may not be selling as much music as they used to, but they are still capable of shifting units on a huge scale from time to time (even if that’s only once a year, at Christmas time, and involving a Leonard Cohen song or similar being murdered by a heavily autotuned, scantily-clad young lady who stayed on the right side of Gary Barlow for 10 very long weeks). Rock critics are still around (just); radio stations are still hugely important; hell, people still watch TV.
And then of course there’s our disruptive friend, the Internet; its arrival means that we now have a load of sites, blogs, social media pages, RSS feeds, podcasters and online radio stations that end up constituting a whole new set of filters – in short, musicians have a whole bunch set of dudes to impress (or not!).
So, no matter how easy it is to record or distribute music, filters haven’t gone away, and for my money it’s really important to remember three things when embarking on a music project:
(1) Despite the apparent lack of barriers in this internet age, you still need to get your music past a truckload of filters/gatekeepers and you need to be aware of who/what they are
(2) You need to spend time working out which individual gatekeepers you need to approach
(3) You need to decide in what order to approach them.
Step 1 boils down to making a list of ‘gatekeeper groups’. By groups I mean the likes of:
- distributers (yes, they are still relevant)
- PR companies
- radio pluggers
- search engine users
- social media fans
(Those are just examples that I thought of off the top of my head; there are probably far more groups that I could think of if I wasn’t concentrating on my need to head off and eat a curry).
In terms of step 2, the individual targets, you need to identify people within the above groups who really ‘get’ your music. For example, don’t spend ages trying to put your Oasis-esque tracks in front of some A&R guy who specialises in hip hop; don’t ask a blogger who only ever reviews folk albums to write a critique of your punk record; don’t approach a country music radio station with a heavy metal album. Instead, find people who are likely to champion the noise you make – fortunately there is a champion somewhere for every type of noise (which is why Ed Sheeran, despite his best efforts, is experiencing musical success).
Finally you need to think about the order that you approach these champions; should you approach a management company first? Or get some airplay and then approach a management company armed with a spin from Steve Lamacq? Or get Alex Petridis to say you’re the greatest thing since Girls Aloud and use this quote to convince Steve Lamacq to give you that spin? I won’t go on, but you can probably guess that it’s my sincere view that mysteries of music success can in many ways be explained by that nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she'll have a hit in the dance charts.
Ultimately there are so many variables involved in the making of a successful music project – not least luck – that it is unfortunately impossible to boil it down to a simple formula of approach X with Y and then impress Z with the results to obtain desired outcome (rock stardom and an interesting encounter in the back of a tour bus). However, I feel that artists don’t really stand a chance of any musical success at all if they don’t understand the importance of filters/gatekeepers and have a decent gameplan around how and when to approach them.
If all the above talk of filters, gatekeepers and game plans seems a little complicated, I’ll now give you the abridged version. Virtually every record company exec I’ve ever talked to has explained pop stardom to me in four words: “It’s who you know”. So get out and start knowing people.