The Times They Are A-Changin'
by Mary DawsonBob Dylan has long been considered the Prophetic Musical Voice for our generation, but in my opinion, he was never more "on the mark" about what is presently happening in the music industry than he was when he penned lyrics like these over forty years ago...
Come writers and criticsI have been involved in many phases of the music industry for over twenty years. The first fifteen were spent learning how things are done in this business, and the last five have been spent un-learning almost everything I once knew!
Who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'1
Let's just take some time to examine a few of the major trends sweeping music today and consider how they may affect us as songwriters on our journey to success.
Toto, We're Not in Nashville Any More
You remember the story! A tornado touches down in the middle of Kansas, and suddenly a young girl named Dorothy and her dog, Toto, are transported from the familiar Kansas landscape to the mysterious Land of Oz. As Dorothy becomes aware of her new surroundings, she realizes that although she isn't quite sure where she is, she is dead-sure she is no longer in Kansas!
Artists and songwriters are having much the same experience these days. Long-held theories about how to succeed in music are changing daily. For most of the 20th Century it was believed that real success in music was only possible if somehow you were able to sign a recording or publishing contract with a major music company. To even have a decent shot at such a possibility, aspiring artists were encouraged to move to one of the three main "music cities" -- LA, New York or Nashville -- where it would be possible to develop relationships with music industry insiders who could then "get you a deal."
From the days of Tin Pan Alley -- up to the early Eighties -- this was typically the way success was achieved. And at first, it worked pretty well. Musical innovators in every genre were on the lookout for the next talented writer or musician. It was not unusual for ambitious young artists to simply walk in off the street, play some songs for a publisher and walk out with a "deal" the same day. Competition between companies was healthy. The industry was young and hungry and opportunities were plentiful. When a promising new talent was found, the publisher or producer would invest time, effort and money to help him/her reach maximum creativity.
Although this mentor/mentee model between the music company and the artist created some "control and dependency issues," it worked pretty well for both sides. The music company would provide access to great studios with expensive high-tech recording equipment, skilled producers, and engineers and -- when the recording was finished -- national distribution to all major retail outlets. All the writer or artist had to do was keep creating hits.
As the Century drew to a close, however, mergers of music companies created larger and larger corporations with increased overhead and the need to succeed financially just to keep afloat. Pressure at the "bottom line" caused companies to focus their time and attention primarily on their "proven" artists who could insure a profit at the cash register. Less and less time was given to searching out and mentoring new talent. Gifted aspiring artists found their potential careers helplessly dependent on the fickle whims of powerful music companies for the product distribution, studio facilities and tour support required for national success.
Many began to think they might have a better chance of "making it" by buying a lottery ticket!
The Mouse that Roared
It started very quietly at first. Quiet like a mouse….only this mouse was attached to a computer!
I remember going to a music conference in 1990 where I attended a demonstration of a music software package called Finale. While it was very interesting, it looked really hard -- way above my head. A gentleman sitting next to me must have seen my confused expression because he nudged me and said, "Don't get one of these things now. Just wait a few years. They will make it so simple that even we can do it."
That man was absolutely right. Computer technology has become the "mouse that roared" in the music industry. Over the last decade or so, advances in technology have changed everything. Home computers are becoming so affordable that now almost everyone has one or has access to one. Digital recording equipment, which once was available only in the most expensive professional studios, has now become attainable through software packages that make the most sophisticated sounds and effects only a "click" away. With a little hard work and sweat equity, even the novice can learn to produce recordings that are competitive with those from major music companies -- and they can do it at a fraction of the cost.
As artists and writers have become more pro-active in creating and manufacturing their own CD's, they are also finding that they are not so dependent on a far away publisher who may give them little time and attention. Instead of the traditional "mentor publisher" figure of the past, songwriters all over the country are beginning to mentor each other through songwriters organizations. Members share their songwriting skills as well as their recording and computer knowledge to help one another in much the way the old-time music publishers did. As a result, "music cities" are springing up in places like Tulsa, Austin, Denver, Memphis, New Orleans -- places with their own great musical heritages, their own identities and their own sounds. Writers and artists who are committed to excellence are finding each other and creating incredible music together.
And then -- enter the internet! Wow! If you thought things were changing fast before...you ain't seen nothing yet! Every day new music resources, new music companies and new music opportunities emerge, which are the result of creative minds that didn't have a major music company to depend on. Capitalism is kicking the old-guard music industry in the slats and instead of a symbiotic control-dependency model, we now see artists and writers taking responsibility for their own music and their own destinies.
As in any change, the key is getting in front of the wave and riding it into the shore of success. That will mean learning some skills you may never have wanted to learn...trying some new approaches...studying the trends and taking some risks. It will mean attempting and failing...and attempting again until you find a way to use the new technology to accomplish your goals.
In summary, I personally believe that this is a fantastic time to be alive and making music. Whether you are an unknown but aspiring songwriter or artist -- or you have been a fixture in the industry for decades, the changes we are seeing today can be considered exciting opportunities or terrifying threats -- or maybe a little of both. But one thing is certain: if you choose to weather the storm, you are in for a hell of a ride, and you had better make sure you have fastened your seatbelt!
1 Dylan, Bob, The Times They Are a-Changin'
©1963 Special Rider Music
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.