viznomics is a blog by Byta founder Marc Brown

Why Music is Different = Decentralised Tension

Why Music is Different = Decentralised Tension

Most people agree the music business is a tough racket. Some think it is unfair, corrupt, chaotic. I’ve experienced all of that at one time or another, though I wonder if it really is any worse than any other business? It’s definitely way better than it used to be, less mob involvement is something to celebrate.

Considering I’m old (45) in music business terms, it is common to hear friends my age say they “want out”, “need a change” or simply “fuck this”. Some, like me, are determined to find new challenges and develop and grow new ideas. Others hesitate and worry they have “no transferable skills”. It’s that last bunch of people I’m always telling that if one has worked in the music business the rest is easy.

Long before I started Byta I was always trying different ideas while I ran my boutique radio promotion company. Side hustles, everyone in music has at least one. I ran labels, did management, some film stuff and even worked in the artworld. The thing I noticed is the music business is a decentralised network, which is pretty unique. That is why I think if you can master that environment, you can handle anything.

Think of what it takes to be “successful” in music, that is to say making a living. You could be an independent artist or a band signed to Universal. For things to work out you need some undefinable combination of talent (I nearly wrote skill yet those are very different qualities) and attention.
Who gets, creates and or demands the attention? You, the artist. When starting out you do everything yourself: make music, release music, book shows while trying to figure out what works for you to get noticed. That is unless you give up because you or no one else cares. Let’s say enough people end up noticing before you give up, then you’ll probably get some help: a manager, a booking agent, maybe a label. With some of the bigger artists I worked with there could be 20 plus people in planning meetings, each representing different areas. We’re talking national radio, press, tv, retail, online, management, label types and international people representing an endless possibility of territories.

Fastforward and things are going well. You’ve got all these people together in some giant boardroom, in the pub or on Zoom, wherever people have these meetings. Each one has an idea about what you should do next. Who is in charge though? Most would say you, the artist, is in control. Though who represents the artist? I say the manager clearly does yet the manager doesn’t hold the purse strings, the label does. Does that mean labels control an artist’s future? No one sells records anymore, artists make money by touring (at least up to March 2020). So do booking agents run the show? They certainly act like they do.
Contrast this to the binary arrangement in the visual art world – where everything is 50/50 artist and gallery. The artist makes the work, the gallery markets and sells it. There are a lot of factors driving success in visual art but nearly everything is arranged by the gallery who perceive themselves as the artist’s caretaker. The artist’s studio is run as a feudal system with external representation frowned upon. Collectors and institutions hold influence though they are simply sales and marketing.

So what effect does a decentralised network have over binary relationships? Tension, meaning mental and emotional strain, is what makes the music business work.

Every situation, release and artist is different. The balance of power isn’t always clear. A small artist’s team might have nothing to lose by pushing as hard as they can, a bigger artist might be afraid to rock the boat. Even worse, those bigger artists might think they have all the answers. Having your ideas challenged, which single to lead with or which support tour to take, or simply being pressured to make a decision increases tension which brings new and unexpected results. I remember many times when someone on the team would pull some crazy result out of a hat: a festival headline, magazine cover, I mean this would happen on a weekly basis. First, my heart would sink, then I’d go deliver the same. These results come first from a belief in the artist but also from the tension created by feeling surrounded by the rest of the team..

Compare that to my artworld description. If the gallery is the sole caretaker then there is no tension in their work. There is no one to show them up, embarrassing them to deliver at an even higher level.

I appreciate this is an overly simplified model. One could easily argue the book publishing business works in the same way as music. However, music is unique not just because the balance of power is decentralized but because the revenue streams are as equally decentralized and unique to different artists and genres. Publishers and galleries are selling products, but are they the caretakers of the artists themselves? I would argue not. So here is another way tension is introduced, each key player in music’s decentralized network thinks they have the artist’s best interest at hand: the manager, the label, the booking agent.

A testament to decentralisation being advantageous is the fact that no one can reliably recreate success. I touched on this in my first post. If there really was a winning formula then everyone else would be repeating and refining it – we’d all be successful. This is the reason I get cynical by all the talk of “data”. There has always been “data”, there is simply more of it today. If “data” was all we needed then wouldn’t it be easier to find “success”? I would argue that it is in fact the opposite today, success is even more elusive, even with access to all this new information.

A lack of appreciation for the creative tension in music is why I get a laugh out of tech-startups trying to automate all kinds of processes in the music business. These are the same people who just can’t get their heads around the idea that some people might not need, want or even give a shit about blockchain for X or smart contracts for Y. Automation removes friction, but some systems have this built in for a reason so why remove it. One artist might want to give everything away for free, other artists might not want to give anything away at all, or at least hold out for the highest price. That is their choice.

All this is why I question my “no transferable skills” friends’ thinking they couldn’t work in another industry. Surviving in a decentralised and tension driven environment is no easy task. Getting any sort of meaningful results from it is a constant struggle. People underappreciate the unique skill set needed to juggle managing personalities, information and timing to create something magical. People outside of the music business simply don’t appreciate how its structure is actually the key to its success, and not a hindrance.

MB / Stockholm May 13, 2020

"The thing I noticed is the music business is a decentralised network... that is why I think if you can master that environment, you can handle anything."