by CCP — 23 August 2022
Music management allows artists to focus their energies on creating the best music they can, while the music manager works behind the scenes to navigate everything involved in getting that music to fans. We caught up with Michael Morrison, Founder and CEO of Groundwork Artist Management in New York, for his views on the current state of the music business.
Is music a dying industry? If not, why not?
Music is decidedly not a dying industry. Music is actually more prominent now than it’s ever been. Music is in every TV show. Every movie. Every commercial. Every video game. Music can be accessed from phones, computers, cars. There are innumerable platforms from which music can be streamed. Music is easier to create and distribute than ever. There are millions of playlists. Terrestrial radio. Satellite radio. Internet radio. Countless stations. Artists tour. Artists can go live and perform on social media. Artists can transmit live performances through non-social digital platforms. Artists now give concerts in the meta verse. Music is very much alive. Smaller artists making real money from their recorded music via the traditional Digital Service Providers? That’s more or less what is “dying”. Artist’s used to tour to support releases. Now artists release to sell tickets, merch, build follower and view count that can thereafter be monetized in ways unrelated to music. The model is odd and somewhat broken, but the music industry is decidedly not dead. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, you should simply take a look at all of the hedge funds investing in labels and publishers and individual catalogues.
Did video kill the radio star? And if so, what’s the internet done for video?
Radio has become much less relevant, but, believe it or not, getting music on the radio, particularly in the pop space, is still the arbiter of an artist’s success, oddly enough. I had a major label tell me recently that they won’t even consider taking a song to radio if the song isn’t getting at least half a million streams a week. That indicated to me that radio is still considered the pinnacle. But yes, music has more and more become a visual medium. Music must be attached to a visual to be cast out on any social media platform. TikTok, Instagram, Youtube and so on. In fact, even Spotify now has something called a canvas, which is a three to eight second video that accompanies each song release and runs on a loop to provide some semblance of a visual. So, in a way, video, at the very least, has smothered the radio star.
How necessary, or relevant, do you think record companies are to an artist’s career in 2022?
Interesting question. I think labels still have a place, but only at certain levels and in certain genres. If an artist wants to be a global superstar, like a Taylor Swift or a Harry Styles or a Beyonce, he/she/they undoubtedly need a label. The pop genre, in particular, costs millions of dollars to break into, but more than that, the major label marketing machine, with tentacles in all territories around the globe, is a necessary amplifier for artists to get to a super star level. Labels used to be necessary just to distribute music, be able to afford to record music, properly market music, get songs on the radio. That has certainly changed. With the advent of certain technology, any artist with a computer and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) can record music. With the pervasiveness of social media and the development of independent distribution companies, artists can get there music onto DSPs and promote their music without the benefit of a label. With platforms like Kickstarter or Patreon, artists can often raise some modest capital to allow for additional levels of amplification. That is all markedly different than it used to be. That said, that convenience and access is a double-edged sword. Because creating, releasing and promoting music is so easily accessible, the artist is space is exceedingly crowded. So much so, that the problem is now standing out from all of the white noise. It is in solving this conundrum that labels are now most valuable – extra know how, more clout, higher level connections, money. These assets are needed now to stand out from the crowd as opposed to joining a much smaller crowd.
How do musicians make their money these days now that most people have stopped buying music?
Musicians of different levels and different genres make their money differently. Highly visible, larger, more successful artists can actually make money from streams. But the midlevel or developing artist will struggle to rely on streaming income (which is infinitesimal – i.e. under 5,000 USD per 1 million streams). That said, touring can still generate real income. Merchandise sales can generate revenue. As alluded to earlier, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or hybrid crowdfunding/fan club platforms like Patreon can result in an influx of financial capital. Syncs (licensing music to be used in conjunction with a moving image – movie, TV show, commercial, video game, etc…) can generate money for artists. NFTs are one of the latest revenue generating constructs for artists. Artists can also monetize social media following by endorsing products. There are many ways an artist can make money, but typically, achieving any sort of notable money making status requires a singular focus or effort, often times a luxury an artist cannot afford.
We hear a lot these days about the so-called “value gap” in music streaming, meaning the disparity between the revenues that platform operators like Spotify and YouTube extract for themselves from musical content and the revenues flowing to the music creators. Do you think it’s any worse than what record companies and radio stations have historically done, and if so, is there anything that can be done about it?
I am not someone who has gotten into the weeds on this topic. I am someone who has accepted the current state of the industry and worked to navigate it to the best of my ability. That said, I do believe the value gap is significantly wider now than it was. Don’t get me wrong, record companies and radio stations grossly underpaid artists for the value that the artists in turn created for those entities. But the micro pennies currently paid by the DSPs to the artists per stream is another level of undervaluing an artists’ contribution. My understanding is that this value gap was created by legislative Safe Harbor provisions, which ultimately exempted platforms like DSPs from traditional Copyright requirements. So to me, the only way to shrink the value gap or eliminate it entirely would be to revoke these safe harbor provisions. Now, I acknowledge that doing so would likely eliminate DSPs entirely, causing an overwhelming inconvenience for a populace that has become accustomed to having any song at their finger tips anywhere and at any time. So perhaps simply legislating higher payment rates would for streams would result in a happy medium, but again, this is just an oversimplification on my part. I am admittedly not well-versed in the latest nuances of the various global acts that govern this space.
With digital technology facilitating the capture and flow of data information these days, why isn’t royalty reporting from record labels or performing rights societies more accurate? Do performing rights societies use metadata to know exactly what’s been performed, where, and when?
I can’t answer this because my answer is, it should be. It is needlessly antiquated and complicated and I cannot tell you the frustration that most people in my position (and in particular, the artists’ position) experience trying to make heads or tails of reports from labels, distributors, PROs and the like. I can tell you that there are enterprising and brilliant people working on this very issue. I have a friend who started a company a few years ago the stated purpose of which is “to create a trusted data hub for the music and media industries, focused on helping creators and rights owners exchange, improve and collaborate on a shared truth across every vertical in the industry.” We have the technological tools in place now for pinpoint accurate reporting and global data sharing, so it is only right that the industry embrace these tools and do right by the very creators that fuel it. I’ll believe it when I see it.
How is digital technology used these days in music management? For example, how does it facilitate engagement with your clients, or the work you do for them?
We use technology a lot. We communicate with our clients on a weekly basis over Zoom. We use internal Slack channels to organize ourselves and communicate internally. We use shared photo and video albums to prescreen would-be posts for social media, comment on them, make caption and hashtag suggestions for them. We use various data and analytics tools to decipher demographic information, potential consumer interests and habits. We use pixels to track listeners information and create look alike audiences. I could go on and on but I don’t want to give away too many secrets. I’ll say this – digital technology is absolutely crucial to carrying out our responsibilities in the current music industry landscape.
What about for musicians? Is digital technology an enabler or just another challenge? Aside from producing and distributing content, is it useful in building a fanbase, and if so, how much effort has to go towards maintaining it?
Similar response to the above. I think communication is greatly improved because of technology. I think marketing is greatly improved because of technology. I think organization is greatly improved because of technology. Content creation, more than just production, is substantially easier because of technology. I think, if used and harnessed properly, technology is a key to success in today’s music industry.
How easy is it for musicians to use digital technology (e.g., pitch correction software or whatever) to augment their performance, and at the end of the day can an artist get away with “faking it”?
Look, things like autotune are pretty easy to use. Recordings and performances are often augmented by technology. That said, it’s not so black and white. It’s not either completely organic or “you’re faking it”. Because everyone has access to the same sorts of technology, at least on some base level, the playing field is somewhat even. So, within a genre, an artist still has to have real ability – to sing, to play, to write. Particularly in this “TikTok age”, authenticity has become something fans crave. The more an artist fakes it now, the less likely they are to connect with an audience. So I don’t think it’s really such an issue. The audience is now highly educated. I’ve found that younger audiences, in particular can sus out a “phony”. So I advise my artists to simply be their truest selves. I firmly believe that is rewarded in this climate.
How do musicians get “branded”, or endorsed, for merchandise these days? What is it that big name products or services are looking for beyond the music itself?
This is really just about eye balls. The more followers an artist has on social media, the higher the engagement on social media (through likes and comments), the more people will see a product associated with that artist. In turn, the more interested a brand will be in placing that product on, in the hands of or around an artist. Plain and simple. I would argue that brand deals for artists have never been about the music. They’ve always been about demographic alignment with the brand and then eye balls or impressions. If you can get a LOT of people to put eyes on a brand, a brand will pay you to engage with their product. Period.
How did you get into this line of work? What’s your background and how did you start off in music management?
My path is unlike any other path I’ve heard about. I started as a lawyer – a general commercial litigator. One night, with papers due to the Southern District of NY, I was pouring through tax code and insurance code and I felt my soul just exiting my body. It was just NOT what I was meant to be doing. Fortunately, that same night, I discovered what appeared to be a loophole in the insurable interest laws, so I left the practice of law and started a structured finance company based entirely around that discovery. Over the course of a two-year stretch, we generated over $2.5 Billion in tradeable assets. I didn’t make retirement money — nowhere close – but, at the very least, as a young person, I made enough to pay off all of my school loans, put a down payment on a home and have a bit of a nest egg/cushion. So I got to start over. I’d always been desperately passionate about entertainment since I was a kid, so I started my own record label and film company, learning both businesses trial by fire. On the film side, we produced one film – great experience, but I realized I’d rather watch movies then make them. On the label side, we were losing money hand over fist, but (call me a masochist) I fell in love with the music business. I ran that label for over three years and after losing quite a bit of money, I decided I’d rather yell at labels to spend money on my clients than get yelled at to spend money on someone else’s. So…simply put, I released all of my artists from their obligations to my label and started my own management company. So happy I did.
Any advice for up-and-coming artists? For managers?
Always a loaded question, because advice is just never one size fits all. One thing I would say is this – “making it” in the music business, isn’t just about being talented. It isn’t just a creative endeavor. It is not that different odds-wise than making it as a professional athlete. It requires pain-staking effort, singular focus, an unrivaled work ethic. It takes some amount of obsession. It takes very thick skin because rejection is as common as breathing. But most of all, it takes a village. I would tell artists and managers to talk to other artists and managers as much as possible. Seek out knowledge and best practices. Read industry books. Trades. Stay abreast of the latest music, platforms, trends. Let lessons learned guide you, influence you, but don’t ever stray from your authentic truth.
Finally, I’d say be kind to everyone. Give everyone the time of day whenever possible. The music business if fickle. An artist can go from obscurity to fame in minutes. The artist or manager below you today might be well ahead of you tomorrow. People don’t forget kindnesses. Treat everyone equally and treat everyone with respect, while simultaneously respecting yourself.
Founded in 2009 under its original moniker, Wanduta Management, Groundwork Artist Management is built upon the notion that true artistry can be unwavering and uncompromising and still connect with a broad audience. We want our artists to be exactly who they are. It is our role and responsibility to take that artistic truth and package it for popular consumption