Originally published on Forbes.com.
When David Geffen signed the Eagles to Asylum Records, he told Glenn Frey, “Don’t worry Glenn, you’re gonna be rich. I’m gonna be richer, but you’ll be rich.” For many decades, that was how the music business worked. Even now, the richest people in music are not the ones who create it, as can be seen in the Forbes list of the top earners in music.
Teaching musicians the business skills they need to control and benefit from their talent can change that. In the previous two articles in this series I have written about why musicians are getting educated about business and what kinds of educational options are available to them. But there’s a cost. In this final piece I consider what gets lost when musicians to see themselves as small business owners.
“Today’s indie musician spends more time on the Internet, wrote Jill Krasnicki (known as Animalia) “than they do on their instrument.” Brendan O’Connell, whose Chicago-based band The Right Now plays contemporary pop-funk, told me, “I spend 10 or 20 percent of my time writing and playing music and most of my time is just band stuff.” He adds with disdain, “It’s not music. It’s like being an ad man.” Is running the band business the best use of a musician’s talent?
At stake is not only the 15% commission that managers get, or even who owns the rights to the artist’s music. It’s artistic identity. Music business educational programs are part of an ongoing redefinition of what it means to be an artist. The once uneasy union between art and commerce has become an aspiration, an arranged marriage that, in the best of cases leads to true love and in the worst, a sense of having whored oneself for success.
After the Sex Pistols dismantled, Johnny Rotten went back to calling himself John Lydon, formed Public Image Ltd. and wrote songs about what happens when artists become business people. “I’m crossing over into enterprise,” he sang in mock pride in “This is Not a Love Song,” wearing a business suit and dancing in a convertible. “I like my new role / I’m getting better and better and I have a new goal / I’m changing my ways where money applies / This is not a love song.” Once you’ve crossed over into enterprise, he seems to suggest, your song is not a love child but a product, a calculated device for making money.
Whether love or money inform artistic decision making seems to depend on how artists define themselves. In an article in the November 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review, Professor S. Alexander Haslam and colleagues show that people’s judgments of what is creative depends on which aspect of their identity is salient to them. They will evaluate creative output according to the values and beliefs of the group they most identify with.
Following this logic, if musicians’ artistic identity is salient, they will make creative decisions that uphold the values of their artistic community. They will make work that advances their journey toward self-expression. They will evaluate that work in terms of artistic integrity and will aim to conform to the aesthetics of other artists in their genre.
If, on the other hand, their business identity is salient, they will make decisions that advance their business objectives. They will evaluate their decisions based on the financial and strategic criteria that have traditionally been the primary concern of record labels. They will use data such as Facebook likes, Twitter followers, YouTube views, number of streams and downloads, radio air play, ticket sales and merchandise sales as data on how the marketplace receives their work, and they will use that data to modify their creative output.
In practice, artists have always had to strike a balance between market forces and artistic vision to remain commercially viable and artistically relevant. Many bands have abandoned a new artistic direction because people didn’t like it. But a business education may tip the scale toward commercial considerations over artistic ones to such an extent that artists become too cautious to innovate and too conservative to take risks. What’s more, they may end up too broke and frustrated to stick to music as a career. Small business ownership is not why people get into music. If anything, it’s why they get out.
When Glenn Frey agreed to let David Geffen make more money from his music than he would, Geffen freed him from doing anything other than make music. “I’ll take care of everything else,” Geffen assured him. And he did. Whether their deal was fair is debatable. Less controversial is that The Eagles and their millions of fans benefited from having someone else taking care of business.