The Internet Will Make You a Star: Fact or Fantasy?

Interview with Steve Corn, Co-founder,
Big Fish Media, Part 2

Interview by Michael Laskow
internet music star
Let's talk about ringtones for a minute. I know there's a huge world-wide market for them, but am I correct in assuming that there isn't much of market for ringtones from unknown, unsigned artists?

You're absolutely right, and it's been really distressing to me. I actually started pushing ringtones because I saw the possibility of pushing these great-sounding grooves out that my music library clients had—Indie music stuff. If you can license an instrumental version of a Chuck D song, then why can't you license another instrumental? The answer is having the Chuck D name has prestige value, and to this date there has not been a successful exploitation of Indie music or DIY music for ringtones in this country, or anywhere else, for that matter.

Let's assume for a minute that an Indie artist has a bit of a fan base and gives away his or her ringtones on their own Web site. Might that be a good marketing tool if one friend hears another's ringtone and asks, "Who is that?"

Sure, I can see that happening, but it's going to be kind of small in scale, and I wouldn't want to make anybody think it would change their career. I'm really disheartened that the ringtone market hasn't been able to really service the Indie music scene as much as they really could, and that if a band has a thousand fans, they should be able to sell a thousand ringtones. But with where the technology is right now, it's not really a great right time for Indie artists to take advantage of that aspect of the Industry.

That's a great lead into my next issue and my next question, which is my favorite subject of late: Indie musicians and songwriters making money on the Internet, fact or fiction? Because the major labels are on a downhill slide due to a number of things, including illegal downloads, bad choices in what they sign, radio playlists that are too tight and other forms of entertainment like the Internet and video games impinging on the music buyer's time—there's a lot of talk on the street how this is the beginning of the Indie revolution. That being said, have you seen any of the three million bands that MySpace says are on its site, have the kind of success that a major label hit would have or anything close?

No. That was a great question and a very simple answer. MySpace is launching a program with Snocap that will enable Indie artists to sell, I believe, something like 15 tracks—and I hope they go up to 30, and maybe even more. So if you have four CDs, you're not going to be able to sell your whole catalog. But I think something like that is going to be the real proof in the pudding if visitors to your MySpace page are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

A lot of people say that they support their favorite artists and bands. I was at a conference two years ago where a panel of teenagers said that they support their band in ways other than buying the CD. One said, "Oh, I go to their concerts. I see them whenever they play."

Then, the moderator asked, "How many times have you been to a concert this year?" And everyone said "Once," because the ticket prices are so high. So, they really don't support their bands other than maybe blogging. The play counts on MySpace are a little bit misleading because it triggers whenever you open the page. But I'm waiting to see if people hear that and go, "I like that song. I'm gonna buy it now," when it becomes possible. If they actually don't buy it now, it's really going to be disillusioning, because how else can Indie artists get their sales? I'm hopeful that it will translate to a fair amount of sales.

I recently asked our mutual friend Ted Lowe, "What's the big difference in concept between going with an Indie label or a major label—with an Indie label you could sell 50,000 units and make money, right?" He said, "Yeah, but at an Indie label you will never ever be able to sell platinum and reach millions of people worldwide." So if you really want to do that—forget the Internet and streaming—I mean, if you really want to reach millions of people and be like the major label success story like you mentioned in your question, I don't think that MySpace or anybody else other than a major label is set up to do that. If anybody would be, it could be MySpace. But I think that is going to be really difficult to pull off.

People often tell me how excited they are that someone from Finland found them on the Internet and bought their CD. Yet in a room with 300 musicians at my seminar in Chicago this past week, nobody raised their hand when I asked the question, "How many of you in this room have made $100,000 selling your music independently?" Then I asked, "How many of you have made $10,000?" Still no hands. Then I asked the question, "How many people have made $1,000 selling their music on CD Baby or anywhere else on the Internet?" I think I got one hand in the two cities I did the seminar in. So, out of a total of more than 600 people, one person claimed that they'd made $1,000 selling their music on the Internet.

That's a shame.

That's reality. If the Internet and digital music is ringing the death knell for the major labels, why does it appear that nobody is doing landmark business with their music on the Internet?

I disagree with the death knell statement.

I asked this question at the seminar the other night, "How many of you think that the beginning of the end is here for the major labels?" And the room was applauding.

Hand me that Billboard on your desk, and let's see... year to date, overall total units—which include digital tracks, albums, singles, everything—is 775 million units, up 23% from the previous year. Physical sales of albums are down 5%. The digital tracks are up 73%. So, the Internet is not the death knell of the business, it's the lifesaver of the business. I can guarantee you that of the 398,278,000 digital tracks sold year to date, according to Billboard, 90% of that is major label content.


So, that being said, the other 10% is an awful lot of money and units being sold. Everyone keeps estimating that the digital music portion of the music business is around 8%, give or take a percentage point. It doesn't even matter—use 12%, I don't think it's that much, but it's still a very, very small percentage of business. So people can't ignore the non-digital aspects of the business. It's still very real. But I'm really disheartened to hear that in those two rooms that only one person is making $1,000. As you know, with my company, Big Fish Media, we have only independent content, and I'm happy to report that over the year we probably write 20 checks to 20 labels for over $1,000, and all of them are as Indie as they can get. So, in our little microcosm of labels, which is probably a much smaller sampling than your two seminars, I would say that one-third of our labels are making $1,000 per year.

Big difference—they are actual labels. You term them to be the Indiest of Indie labels, but they're labels, not DIY artists. Are the artists that were in that room that night...

Can I speak to that point? That's a great distinction because—and I asked this of a music industry friend last week—everyone wonders what is left for a label to do. "Why should I go with a label?" And the key question is of marketing, of consumer awareness. The label, whether Indie or major, is responsible for making consumers aware of your music. So if you're an Indie artist and you put out your own CD on your own label, guess what: It's your responsibility to let people know that you're out there. And if you don't, you're not going to sell.

CD Baby is a wonderful company that you and I both admire. We're both friends of Derek Sivers, its CEO. Derek would be the first to tell you that only a small percentage of artists make significant amounts of sales and dollar volume. It's somewhat analogous to the majors. People at the head of the curve are making the big bucks—and a lot of people in what is termed by Wired magazine's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to be the long tail, with sales in the onesy, twosy, 10 and 20 range. Why aren't people making significant sales with their Indie music, and what can they do to be noticed when they're in that long tail?

It's easier to answer the first question. Why aren't people making more digital sales, I'm presuming you're asking?

Yeah, but in the case of CD Baby, they're actually selling physical goods, too.

Let's speak about the digital market. It's a little easier to explain it than the physical market. In the digital market, CD Baby has 500,000 or 600,000 tracks, roughly; the Orchard has, they claim, more than a million tracks. You add all the tracks that companies like mine, our competitors, the major labels... iTunes claims that it has 3,000,000 tracks online right now. It's hard to find music. It's simply hard to discover music you don't already know—what I call "accidental discovery." Derek put it very well: "To be a success, do cover recordings." I'm paraphrasing him, but one of our best labels is a great Jazz label and does nothing but covers of Pop songs like Beatles and Stones, and they're being found because people are looking for the real McCoy, and they found these cool covers, then they buy it and they get to know the artist. It's part of discovery. I have a really, really great Polish Jazz label, and these guys are phenomenal. They put out about 10, 12 albums a year, and every one of the albums is genius, and I can't sell them. Quite honestly, it's hard to find them accidentally. You're not going to search for a Polish name; they have all digital material, so there are no accidental song titles that are the same as somebody else; the artists aren't known, and on most services you can't search on the label. If you find a track you like on the label, there are very few services where you can go and find other albums that that label has released, and that's a downfall I think. I've been trying to rectify that. The quality of musicianship on this label is phenomenal, and they're selling single digit units every quarter. They're probably doing OK with physical units, but maybe not. I'm not involved with that.

This leads to your second question of how people can help to increase their sales. Well, a stupidly simple thing is that on your MySpace page the first thing you should see is a link to your iTunes album, or eMusic, wherever your album is available for sale. For digital downloads, people will link to their CD Baby page. That happens. I see that from time to time. But I can't tell you how many times I have to tell my labels to put their iTune links on their MySpace page. Now, when you can start buying directly from MySpace, maybe that'll change. But there are some really obvious deficiencies that labels and artists fail to take advantage of because they're not thinking as a business person. They're thinking like an artist.

Well, most musicians feel that once they finished recording the music, their job is done.

Their job is done if they have a label that's releasing their music and they can trust the label to do the marketing. But even most labels still require the artist to go out there. I mean, when John Travolta finishes filming a movie, he still shows up on E!, at Entertainment Tonight, on ABC, and he does interviews. He does the press junket because he knows he needs to help drive awareness of his movie.

When the Rolling Stones finish an album, they do a nine-month worldwide tour.

And guys like Travolta don't get paid to go on Entertainment Tonight. He does it because he's going to make more money on his current film, or next film if his current film is a success. So that's part of his business effort. An artist needs to be a businessman, even if they have a label releasing their music. What that means is you e-mail every friend, every week, or every month and tell them where they can find your music. And you ask them to e-mail every other friend. You give away a hat if someone can prove that they e-mailed 10 friends. You've got be creative. You can't just make an album, put it in Virgin Megastore in the rack somewhere and stand by the door and hope that a thousand people are going to walk by and find your album. You have to point to it with big, big fingers and neon signs saying, "Here's my music."

Most musicians think that selling something is creepy, that to sell is evil. It's almost Republican in nature.

In a class I was teaching a couple of weeks ago, were talking about P2P technology, and everyone in the room has used some P2P technology—Limewire or whatever—and I think only one person used a subscription service, and I think it was Rhapsody. And very few people had bought anything from iTunes. I said to them, "As songwriters, musicians, as copyright owners—which you are, even if you don't know it—you are making an ethical decision that has to be consistent. If you want to get your music for free, you should be willing to give away your music for free. But if you want to sell your music, you need to buy your music." And I felt that it's OK to make either decision. That could be arguable, but don't get music for free and expect someone to buy your music.

I get calls and e-mails from hundreds of artists per year that say, "If TAXI can help me get my CD to a distributor who will then get it into every record store in America, then I will be very successful." Is that fact or fantasy?

That's fantasy. Distributors are not the same thing as marketing. That's the same thing with the digital world, but especially in the physical world, again getting your CD in Virgin Megastore is wonderful. It's never going to sell unless people know it's there. It's not the distributor's responsibility to tell the people that you have a CD in Virgin. It's you as a label, or if you're the artist, it's the label, it's still your responsibility to get people to know about it.

But the musicians are often heard to say, "It doesn't matter, man. I am so good, my CD is so much better than that crap I hear on the radio, that if it were in every record store in America, I would sell a million copies."

I don't comment on quality.

It's not even a quality issue. Again, it comes back to the marketing. You could have a record that's better than the Beatles and in every record store in America under the letter "T," and it'll still be a flop because nobody knows it's there.

Right. I mean how many brilliant artists, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers have died penniless? And they were amazingly talented. And how many incredibly untalented people get rich?

So, what would you suggest to an Indie artist trying to earn his or her living by just selling their music?

Two things: perseverance and humility. The sense that your music could be enjoyed and treasured by millions of people doesn't necessarily mean that it should or deserves to be. It's something you have to work for. I think the greatest musicians out there are probably writing for an audience of one, they do it sincerely, and it happens to touch the right chord with more than one person.

Has the Internet and digital distribution lowered the bar for songwriting, or is great songwriting still the key to consumers hearing about you and spreading the word among their friends?

Great songs seem to find outlets regardless of the production values, regardless of the medium—whether it's live, acoustic, digital, or physical. I would say a good song doesn't ensure success, but it greatly increases the chances of success. Conversely, I would say that a bad song decreases the chance of success. The stuff that ends up on the radio is generally of pretty good quality in some aspect—production, singing or songwriting. The quality has to be there. But if you don't have all the other elements, and you end up with just the song, and if the song isn't good, you have nothing.

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