Wanted: Alchemist to Make Bread from Music, Newsletter #90, October 2008

"Manage for Success" is a free monthly newsletter for record label executives who want to operate their companies efficiently and successfully. It's published by Keith Holzman of Solutions Unlimited, a management consultant, troubleshooter, and trusted advisor, and is based on his many years as a senior executive in the music industry.

Copyright 2008 by Keith Holzman, Solutions Unlimited. All rights reserved.


We have a guest writer this month. Kathy Geisler is the producer/director of Well-Tempered Productions, a label established in 1991. I thought you might like to read how one entrepreneur-record label owner has dealt with a common problem facing most independent labels.

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Wanted: Alchemist to Make Bread from Music, by Kathy Geisler

Music is a technology. It is a means to transfer words and meaning directly into a part of the human mind and soul, that part of us that the Greeks also called the psyche. Music has been useful as a secular tool for memorizing vast amounts of information as well as an accompaniment to repetitive tasks, and as a sacred tool for creating the state of mind and being necessary to fulfill a connection to an inner universe. Music is a key to an otherwise secret garden.

Over time, music went from being a common tool to a specialized skill. In the 20th Century, music became subject to radio transmission and duplication into various recorded formats and, as the backdrop for culture, it had become a central cultural phenomenon all its own. Music was everywhere and had achieved a physical format. It was 'bread.' You could buy some and have a personal music experience -- no musician necessary.

There wasn't anyone who did not want to partake of music. It was like the fifth food group. It had trade value, and it had become an industry.

As we were about to enter the 21st Century, someone figured out that you could have it all, and you could have it all for free. In almost a flash, gone were a few thousand years of music as a valued part of culture. It was as if everyone had decided they could make music for themselves and not buy it anymore. In truth, they were just taking it, as if it had been thrown out of a plane into the streets for anyone to grab. Music had been diminished as a commodity and as an art. Now, as it has become nearly valueless, we are experiencing a music ecocide.

In one of the largest single acts of irresponsible behavior, what seemed like an entire generation, embraced the sharing of music as some kind of rite of passage, with absolutely no thought given to any consequences. It was mass unconscionable behavior. Suddenly the value of music had gone -- disconnected from the human factor to the point that no one cared to notice that people were involved in creating it.

Soon, there were hard drives full of the stuff that we call music -- none of which had been purchased. Music had floated into a format that could no longer be controlled. And music had quite possibly lost its true value forever.

Recently I had a brush with fame. An obscure work in my catalog was used as the floor routine music of the medal-winning gymnast Nastia Liukin at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I hadn't known about this in advance, and because the work was so obscure, I had to spend several days posting on blogs -- everywhere from news websites, to gymnast enthusiast sites, to Yahoo, to let people know what the music was, since hundreds (possibly even thousands) of people wanted to hear it again, and at that time the track had not been credited anywhere. What was striking to me was how many people wanted to know not just what the piece was but where they could download it -- for free. All of a sudden helpful comments were popping up with a myriad of sites that you could go to that would enable you to download not just this song, but any song, and for free.

Because I am not really involved in popular music, this was the first time I felt truly sick about this mess -- the mess that the music business is in. Well, I should say that I have been acutely aware of it, but I hadn't had this direct of an experience of it before.

For the past several years I have been trying to find the cause. I'm like one of those scientists from the 19th century who sets up a lab in her house and starts looking for a cure for something. I have a vantage point in that I have been working in the most difficult field of music marketing there is: classical, and so I'd been looking at the problems that music has in our culture well before this disaster occurred. For me, it hasn't just been about how to turn music into bread, but how to get music into a culture that seems not to notice or value it. This has long been a fundamental problem for classical music, way before the big bang of internet-music culture-collapse.

What I want to tell you is this: the thing that needs to happen, that we need to be doing, is to reconnect with the meaning of music. That is precisely what I'm working on. I'm trying to come up with practical ideas for this in my business and in my life, and I'm still experimenting.

For example, something simple, like acknowledging people when they do something that is constructive to maintaining and creating meaning in music, seems like a small thing to do, but can have a great effect. It may not be like giving someone a MacArthur Foundation grant, but a little positivity goes a long way.

Also, I have a friend who has been putting on house concerts for at least the past ten years. They seem so important now -- getting people together to listen to music in a place where they feel comfortable, and with a group that they can socially connect with. Like the resurgence of vinyl records, it seems so novel to be doing this nowadays. House concerts are a great way to connect, so I want to encourage people to host them.

And, I’ve decided to start a new online magazine focusing on music and its place in culture. I'm interested in all kinds of music and how different artists are connected to what they do. The categories for discussion are about the meaning and future of music, and technology and its influence on how we experience music and other forms of communication.

The 'features' section includes articles on music and musicians and, what is really the prime focus, talking with musicians about their connection with what they do. The name of the site is 'fresh digital produce' and will be accessible from <http://www.welltempered.com> when it's up, which will be soon. (In the meantime, please send me an email <mailto:kathy@welltempered.com> if you want to be alerted to the official launch.)

I hope you'll stop by the new site and throw something into the mix. I am of course continuing to produce recordings, but I think it's important to begin to look at the ways we connect to music and consciously look at what is meaningful about it, at least meaningful enough not to feel that it's something to take for granted so totally that it should be accessed for free.

Copyright 2008 by Kathy Geisler

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If you enjoyed Kathy's message or wish to comment on it, feel free to contact her at the email address above.

And if you need advice on how to profitably run your label, or are suffering from so much work and day-to-day problems that you no longer have perspective on your label, then email me at <mailto:keith@holzmansolutions.com> so we can discuss how I can improve your business.

Until next month,

Keith Holzman -- Solutions Unlimited

Helping Record Labels Manage for Success.



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Copyright 2008 by Keith Holzman, Solutions Unlimited. All rights reserved.