Thanks to George Howard for being so kind as to share his knowledge with all of us. Thanks to Shane Hennessey (a user member on the site and a student of George) for arranging this. If you like what you see below, be sure to pick up George's book, "Getting Signed: An Insider's Guide to the Record Industry".
Frank: George, you've been around the business for quite some time. You've seen it grow, evolve and change. What are some of the main differences between the industry now, and the industry 10-15 years ago? George: It's interesting, if you think about where the industry was, say 15 years ago (1990), we were deep in the midst of the conversion from analog to digital (i.e. From vinyl/cassette to CD). You have to remember that the majors thought CDs were not going to be around for long, and were VERY reluctant to adopt them. There slow adoption of the technology that would ultimately sustain them over the next decade or so allowed numerous indies to carve out niches for themselves (the label I eventually ended up president of, Rykodisc, was in fact the first CD-only label). Eventually, of course, the majors did embrace CDs, but some of the companies that were early adopters of the technology that so threatened the majors are still around today. The parallel to today is, I think, obvious. The majors have until the past year or so really feared the new technology. Now they are embracing as quickly as they can, but in their slowness to move, companies (call them labels if you want) have take advantage of the opportunity. There's a pattern there, and I think it's instructive in this time of massive change to be aware of it. As it was in the late 80s and early 90s, it is now again a great time for entrepreneurs, and people willing to embrace the new tools.
There are other similarities. I was able to start my first label b/c there was an infrastructure created by bands and labels like Black Flag/STT, Minor Threat/Dischord, Butthole Surfers/Touch & Go, Replacements/Twin Tone who reacted against the major label system and created their own. This provided both media (fanzines, etc.), clubs, and distribution. I was able to insert the bands I worked with into the system b/c of the groundwork that these bands and labels created. (For a really excellent description of these times, PLEASE read "Our band Could be Your Life" by Michael Azerrad.) I think we're seeing sort of a similar thing now in the sense that there are tremendous numbers of people (bands/entrepreneurs, etc.) who feel disenfranchised and marginalized from the major system (these are powerful emotions). What makes this time really interesting (and comparable to the early nineties) is that, again, we have systems where these types of people can insert themselves. Be it myspace, pure volume, CDBaby or the countless blogs, once again, there are communities being built. This is what it takes for artists to connect w/ their constituents.
There are differences of course. The technology is obviously very different. Making records then, and I definitely made my records ECONO, was still expensive - just the cost of tape was rough. Mailing lists, fanzines, etc were expensive to create, update, and utilize, and printing record jackets and cd booklets was a much larger process. That said, it kept the market somewhat smaller. Not everyone could do it. Today, EVERYONE CAN DO IT, and while that's great, it also floods the market and makes it harder to stand out.
That leads me to the constant: marketing (be it by playing live, getting reviews, getting airplay, etc) is as important now, if not more important, as it was then. Those who did it well succeeded then, and will succeed now.
Frank:When teaching your students about the business, what are some of the most important general rules and advice you give them. George: 1. distribution follows marketing (people always want distribution, but if you get it and you're not an effective marketer - you're cooked. Much better to create demand - through marketing - and let retailers/distributors come to you).
2. The record biz is a pull through biz, not a push through biz. In other words, what are you going to do for your band to make people pull them off the shelf, or pull them down from iTunes. You can't push it out via distribution or anything else.
3. When considering signing to a label or doing a distro deal for your label, the more you bring to the table, the less they can take away. Bands are so eager to do a deal w/ whoever that they make bad deals. Much better to wait, do everything you can yourself for as long as you can, and then TELL THE LABEL THE TERMS YOU WILL ACCEPT.
4. Whether you're in a band, starting a label, starting a pr company, management company, whatever: do everything you can yourself for as long as you can before hiring someone else. If you don't do this, how will you know if who you hired is doing a good job?
5. If you're in a band or working w/ bands, you must have or create a story. It's simply not good enough to be a band that writes good songs. There are more than 30k records commercially released each year, there are over 200k bands on myspace. If you don't have a story (and that can be any number of things), you won't succeed.
6. The essential quality for any artist (or any artist that you will work w/) must be that they are absolutely convinced that their music must be heard. If they're not, they won't make it through the tough parts.
7. When worrying about downloading, etc. the only answer to the problem (and all problems of the industry) is that bands must make an emotional connection w/ their audience. When they do that, they don't have to worry about any of the "problems" facing the industry (downloading, etc.).
Frank: Is the music business as rough as a business as people make it out to be? George: It ain't easy. There are easier businesses to make money in, and if that's why you're getting in this biz, you deserve to fail. People do music/work w/ music b/c they can't imagine not doing it. So, you do it, and you realize every day that you're extremely lucky to even have the chance. That said, too many people in the industry don't apply essential business strategies to music ventures - I don't know why - and they fail. They fail, b/c some people do apply these principles in the industry, and they eat the others for lunch. That's hard.
Frank: These days, there are very few artists who have a lasting sound. In your opinion will there ever be another Bob Dylan, or Beatles? George: It's hard for me to talk about Dylan, as I believe he (and Miles Davis) sortof are in leagues of their own. But I get your question, and I'm certain that there will be, yes. Whether you're a fan or not, what Connor Oberest has done (and Saddle Creek) is pretty amazing, he seems poised to have a long career. This does NOT imply that I think Bright Eyes is comparable to Dylan or the Beatles.
You also have to understand that it is easier and easier for niche artists to have long, sustained, artistically and financially successful careers today. They may not have the breadth of impact individually, but collectively they create a large lasting sound(s).
Frank: Bruce Springsteen's first few albums flopped horribly, and nowadays, he would've been dropped in a heart beat. U2 has admitted they wouldn't have "made it" if major labels had the mindset they do now, back then. Do you agree with how major labels handle things now? George: Generally speaking, I do not agree w/ how the majors handle things. they are doing what all public companies MUST do: attempting to increase shareholder value. The problem is is that they have quarterly earnings that must confirm to expectations, and rock-and-roll and conformity should never be uttered in the same breath. On the other hand, you look at what's happened w/ Modest Mouse, it'll be interesting to see what happens w/ Death Cab too, and you see that at times it does make sense.
To speak to your example, neither U2 or Springsteen would make sense releasing the types of records they first made on a major now, BUT I think both would today find a home w/ an indie (or do it themselves), and I think they could have eventually (ala Modest Mouse) signed to a major.
Frank: The independent music scene is thriving right now, how is it compared to the early 90's? Did an independent mindset even exist back then? George: Did it exist???!! That's where it came from (well the late 70's and 80's is more accurate), but it exploded in the 90s. Sub Pop, Matador, Merge, Dischord, etc. etc. all had huge success in the 90s.
Frank: Ten years from now, based on what you've seen over the past ten years, where do you think the music business will be? Do you think internet will play a dominant role in the future of music? George: Ten years from now, we should be closer to a frictionless distribution system. Bands will be able to get music to their fans more efficiently, and this will increase margins so they will be able to make more on less sales.
That said, there will be more and more people who have access to the systems b/c of tech, and it will be those who market (as always) and who have a killer live show (and that's important, no matter where the tech goes - and it will advance - the live show will always be the most important part) will succeed.
Also, preference engines will have advanced, and tech that were seeing from people like de.lic.ous will be much more part of people's lives, and, in theory, we'll be able to discover bands more easily.
Again, it will still take marketing, and while we may not call them labels, we'll still have entities who market and promote bands (maybe starting w/ a single band - but economies of scale will cause them to team up...label).
Publishing will continue to be hugely important, and will only grow in importance.
Frank: How was it working with Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records)? George: He's someone I'm lucky enough to call a friend and a mentor. No one is better w/ artists. No one values creativity more than he. He's a soulful man.
Frank: If there's any last words, stories, advice, etc. that you'd like to share, please do so.
George: Do everything you can to get to a fan base of 150 people in your home town, then look to bands who are doing about that number in nearby towns and trade shows (i.e. Have them come and open for you in your town, and do the same in their town). Get to 150 in another town, and repeat. 150 is a significant number, and when you can start connecting communities of 150 people, good things will happen. Just make emotional connections w/ them.
Last, there is magic in motion. Get out there and do stuff. It WON'T lead you where you think it will, but it will lead you somewhere cool.
Really last: strive to affect the culture in a positive way over the long-term.