This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the rock concert that everyone remembers – even though almost none of us were there. Amidst all the tributes this weekend, I was taken by how much the music industry has changed during those 40 years – and how this industry can help us realize the need we all have to be adaptable.
When Woodstock occurred most music was listened to an a long-playing vinyl album, sold through a record store. Wow, have things changed. From albums to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs and now MP-3 players. In just 40 years we went through 4 different technologies, and made at least 2 (8-tracks and cassettes) obsolete. Nobody at Woodstock was thinking about that, but it's made a huge difference in who makes money.
When you bought music in 1969 you went to an independent record store. Or Musicland, a retailer with over 1,000 stores in shopping centers that exclusively sold records – and 8-tracks. Now we buy almost all our music on-line. Either ordering a CD from someplace like Amazon, or downloading the music directly into a player with no physical item being shipped. Mass merchandisers like KMart and WalMart eventually made record shops obsolete, and increasingly the mass merchandisers are of less importance. Musicland went bankrupt.
In 1969 the artists made practically nothing from a concert. Concerts existed as promotional events for the records. An artist signed a multi-album deal with a record label – like EMI. The label offered a studio and put together the album. They then packaged it, and shipped it to record stores. For this, the band members got almost nothing. Only if the album sold well did they get any cash. So the record label told the musicians to go on the road and play. The objective was to do concerts so people got turned on to your tunes and went to buy them at the store. The musician didn't make anything until the album sold – in high volume.
In 1969 promoters paid the record label for the musician to pay, and the record label paid the musician. A promoter could not hire a musician, even if the musician wanted to play, unless the label agreed. Any performance fees were deducted from album royalties, so from the label's point of view the event fee was irrelevant. Headliners – a band that was already famous and trying to stay that way – usually took a big fee, but it was just an advance on royalties. There would be lesser known bands, and the label barely gave them enough money for gas because they didn't know if the album would ever sell enough to be profitable. "On the road" was a bad thing as far as musicians were concerned.
Tickets to Woodstock cost $18, and the promoters lost money (of course, about 90% of the attendees didn't pay). That's about $100 in today's money. Most promoters lived a grand life, but in reality made little money. Some events profited, but a lot didn't. The fee to the labels were high, and audiences were often not large enough. Not to mention bands that no-showed or arrived stoned because they didn't care — remember they got paid little to nothing. So eventually a couple of bad concerts in a row sent the promoter to bankruptcy court once too often and he ended up snorting cocaine in trailer-park-city.
Today, going to a 3 day event costs over $250 for tickets – and the promoters expect to profit in the millions. The labels get a lot less, as many musicians negotiate their own contracts. But the prices are high enough that the musician is guaranteed a rate of return, and the promoter is as well. And the promoter usually insures all events just in case the musician no-shows are turns up stoned. Unprofitable events are rare.
Labels no longer run the show. Musicians now can negotiate much better single-album deals because distribution is far easier. Musicians can self-publish if they like, selling their own tunes off their own websites. This has meant that top performers make unbelievable sums – far more than their counterparts in 1969. The Carpenters used to have to beg for money for a new car, while their albums sold millions. Now, because they can guarantee the big audiences, all that money the label used to take, the musicians get. So tens of millions flow their way. If you have any doubt, look at the private jets and helicopters owned and flown by the lead drummer for Pink Floyd. Or about any rapper on late night MTV. It would make a corporate CEO envious.
And the company that makes the most money of all in music is Apple. They have the biggest distribution system, and sell the most music. They don't have any artists on contract, don't produce any music, and don't carry any inventory. They just run a server farm that collects money and sends out digital files.
Of course, it's still tough to be a new musician. But you no longer have to sell your soul to a label. You can produce your own music, using affordable gear in your basement that's better than Joan Baez had in 1969 at the EMI studio. And you can sell the tunes yourself. If you work hard at promotion, including working those promoters to give you a warm-up slot, you can capture all the revenue from your songs from your own web site, and sign up your own distribution groups. It's much more in your own hands. Of course, that also means the labels don't have the money they once did to create an Elvis, or Beatles, or Rare Earth. So it's a lot more up to you to earn that money, rather than hope you get lucky and lots of label backing.
I doubt Jimi Hendrix would recognize anything about the music industry today. Of course, given how stoned he liked to get it's hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix being alive today.
Things change. We sometimes don't see them, because it's like watching the grass grow. You don't notice differences unless you compare two snapshots in time. Then we can see just how much things change. If you want to be a winner, you have to learn to shift with these changes. Only those who make the shifts survive. Just ask Barry Gordy, the one-time founder of Motown who saw his billion dollar business disappear. Now a footnote in history. For all of us to avoid becoming similar footnotes, the moral is to be ever vigilant about identifying and adapting to market shifts.