Behind the Myth - Doing it Yourself

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

A lot has been made about the decline of the record business, particularly over the past five years, and those concerns are not without merit. With the digital world on a fast-track to making much of the business overpriced and redundant, one can easily be concerned with where the future might lead.

In the wake of this diminishing climate, many artists who had been struggling to survive in the major label system, began to applaud enthusiastically. It would seem their day had finally come, and the end of an era was imminent. Artists concluded their contractual obligations with large labels when they could and set out to build their own financial reality, on their own terms.

The first artists who ventured outside the traditional business were watched closely -- many livelihoods hung in the balance of their success.

Over the course of the new few years, a few facts have come to light. For some, continuing to build a self-sustaining base is as far as they wanted to go. Others have wanted to see their band branded, sponsored and sold to the highest bidder. Still others were not content until their latest single was heard on local radio.

Regardless of the career path an artist chooses, here are a few realities in the do-it-yourself world. First of all, everyone must serve somebody. The more independent an artist is, the more important their relationships with the trade are. A closed business to the majority of outsiders, the record business requires tenaciousness, talent and continuing focus to get inside.

The second truth is that the road to financial independence can come at a high price tag. Few artists ever contemplated the actual costs involved in launching a record before. Most are surprised to learn they'll need to risk money on the CD manufacturing, the marketing, the radio promotion, the publicity, the retail visibility, the merchandising and the touring.

Even with the thousands of dollars spent there, they'd need to mine those special relationships with radio stations, retailers, online outlets and press to make all those components work together at the optimal time.

Then, as they surpass these obstacles, they'll need to tour the country in hopes of maintaining visibility and selling their CDs. At this point, often a cruel reality sets in. Though they might see more money then they ever had in the past, there's an inherent problem in artists doing it for themselves. Their bank account might be initially larger, but chances are, they won't be able to grow their audience this way. One of the great advantages to the large labels is their large staff, working in tandem to command so much of the trade's attention. It is this kind of concentrated effort that leads to greater sales, and continuing growth in sales is critical for a band's overall development. Rarely do bands ever return from sizeable declines in sales.

Many major label artists are taking a hybrid approach. They're exiting their big labels, opting to sign with some of the bigger independent labels and consultants.

In this way, the artist gets the best of both worlds -- freedom to do what they want, and expertise to grow it. Jackson Browne, Garth Brooks and Natalie Merchant have all chosen this road.

It may not be do-it-yourself, but it's also not do it by yourself.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.