Wednesday, April 17, 2013

An Interview With Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture Blog
Derek Sivers’s life has certainly been interesting so far, from working as a musician/ringleader of a circus to a stint at the publishing giant Warner/Chappell to being on the road as a touring musician to creating and running CD Baby, one of the most widely used music-distribution services today. After selling CD Baby in 2008, Sivers now spends his time thinking of new ways to help musicians. In this excerpt from my Music 3.0 book, you’ll see his insights are as thoughtful as they are cutting edge.

"What trends do you see today that you think will influence the distribution and consumption of music as we go forward?
Now that there’s absolutely no barrier to entry for every person on earth to release every noise they make, there is a huge flattening of selection. Instead of 100 people making $1 million each, the future music biz may be 1 million people making $100 each.

How do you think the audience has changed?
They’ve changed because they can’t be spoon-fed anymore, and they can’t really be sold or persuaded as much as before. Because they have endless selection, they only receive and act on recommendations from trusted sources, usually friends.

Radio used to be one of the things they trusted. But now it’s transformed into something that music lovers can’t even tolerate, so real music fans don’t expect FM radio to turn them on to new music like it once did. Therefore, for new artists, radio is moot.

What’s the best way to break an act today?
First of all, an artist has to have the right attitude, which maybe is no different than it ever was. What’s new is that the artist now must also have the ability to learn, adapt, and communicate.

You’ve got to touch lots of people. You’ve got to resonate emotionally with them, then communicate sincerely. A lot. Fans really do like using their favorite artist as a bonding, cementing group maker. It’s part of your job as an artist to encourage your fans to talk to each other and make a “tribe” (to use Seth Godin’s word) around you. And after breaking, you have to solve problems and improve your skills weekly to keep your career developing.

That being said, to be a great musician you have to learn how to focus. You have to look at yourself yourself objectively to notice what needs improvement, and have the dedication to improve that even when you think you can’t.

But to be a successful professional musician, you have to learn how to look at yourself through others’ eyes. You have to understand why the venue owner is really booking artists, why this person really signed your mailing list, and why people really go out to a bar at midnight on a Thursday night. It’s an amazing learning experience, and as you’ve noticed, I’m endlessly fascinated by these things.

Do you have any promotion tips?
Hundreds. Please see, where I took a few months to write them all down and share them all for free.

As for tools, I’d try to find ones that aren’t already saturated with music: maybe an artistic use of Twitter or Improv Everywhere. But whatever I used, I’d really make sure that I was always in a real three-way conversation with my fans. It’s three-way in that I’d encourage them to talk with me and with each other and make my success their success, just like Obama did in his election campaign.

What are your feelings toward the major record labels today? 
It’s easy to look at them as buffoons (like we do politicians), but most of them are surprisingly smart. This last ten years has been humbling for them. It’s shaken out the people that were only in it for the money, so most of the people at labels today are in it for the right reasons and are more entrepreneurial.

If you look at the current biggest sellers, they’re almost all on major labels, so it’s just bad logic to say that the labels are doing everything wrong. They still may do many things wrong, but not everything. Their different expectations change their costs, so they have to get incredibly lean and efficient so they can actually profit off something that sells only 10,000 copies. Most indies can profit off of 10,000 sales, but majors simply can’t right now.

Do you think an independent artist needs an agent or a manager today?
Most musicians feel if they just had a good manager, agent, or promoter they’d be all set, but most managers, agents, and promoters will tell you that most artists aren’t ready yet.

I think it’s the artists’ responsibility to develop themselves to the point where they’ve proved their persistence and ability to make music and to put on a show that people love. Once they’ve got more bookings than they can handle, it’s a good time to hand that job to an agent.

As for a manager, I think that should be like a business-minded band member whose sole job is to handle the business and marketing. It doesn’t have to be a professional manager. But yes, someone of that mind-set should definitely be included always. Don’t go too long without one!"

 Visit Derek Sivers' website at for lots of ideas and inspiration.


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