How 21st Century Musicians Are Becoming the CEOs of Their Own Careers

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Music Contracts & Law

Or, How to Be Your Own Frank Ocean

When historians look back at this era in the music industry, they will characterize it as a Great Awakening — a time when artists discovered that their options were unlimited.

Sure, it’s also the Dawn of the Digital Age, and much ink has, and surely will be spilled in chronicling the chaotic and tumultuous transition from selling music in a physical form to putting tunes on the net and in the cloud.

But I want to focus on the upside of this chaos we’re living through.

As the music industry has evolved into a much less record-label-centric ecosystem and distribution platforms have multiplied, we have seen artists and musicians begin to experiment with new, freeform business models. No longer tied to a single game plan for building a successful career, artists are now discovering that there are limitless options for how they release their music and monetize their craft.

It’s not easy. It never will be.

You still need focus and drive and creativity. Oh, and genius. Don’t forget about the genius. But the difference today is that you can now be the CEO of your own business. And that is because the barriers to entry have all but disappeared.

Music is undergoing a radical transformation, much like the film industry a few decades ago when it abandoned the studio system of Old Hollywood, in which a handful of major studios strictly controlled the production and distribution of all films, leaving the artists — actors, writers, designers and directors — sometimes feeling like indentured servants.

Major record labels had similarly vast powers over the lives and careers of the musicians they signed, until recently when we experienced the great paradigm shift in the industry. No longer is “selling records” the primary component and singular yardstick of success for a singer, band or musician. No longer are concerts essentially a vehicle for selling records.

That model has been turned on its head. Now many artists — from garage bands to Grammy winners — see the release of their recordings as a way of marketing their concerts (and augmenting ancillary revenue streams).

Of course, the major record labels continue to be important, but their primary relevance is in the area of mainstream commercial radio – e.g., “Top 40” – where their promotion dollars and clout still hold great sway in building careers. For artists not playing this sandbox, the role of labels generally has changed. They’re outside the ecosystem now and anybody can self-release their music in today’s market, the non-major label options are virtually limitless and fascinating.

Knocking down the barriers of entry sparked an explosion of talent. But at the same time, it opened the floodgates to a glut of mediocre product as well, calling to mind the classic Bruce Springsteen song “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).”

And the diminution in the role in the major label has, while opening that floodgate, at the same time taken away a sometimes valuable “filler” that fans and consumers could appreciate. That said, the industry is shifting to provide curation in other aspects of the foodchain — think Pandora, streaming services, playlists, hyper-segmented channels on SiriusXM, etc.

Still, there’s reason to be optimistic. Nearly every day brings news of creative new ways of doing business and new players entering the arena with business strategies that can feel like game-changers.

For artists, this is an exhilarating time. More than ever before, musicians have the potential to captain their own ships and look at the business side of the art as a blank canvas just waiting for an individual mark to be put on it.

And there’s money to be made. Monetizing music has never included so many possibilities, from video games, YouTube, TV and commercials to ring tones and myriad licensing opportunities. And streaming — the prevalent form of consumption in 2016 — continues to grow at encouraging levels, and the hope for critical mass to be achieved remains high.

Although some of the “old dogs” we have known for years are dying hard, it is thrilling, in this Great Awakening, to see artists beginning to recognize that a career path is nearly always an uncharted concept.


Tim Mandelbaum is an entertainment lawyer and a partner in the New York office of Fox Rothschild LLP, a national firm with 750 attorneys in 22 offices coast to coast.

photo by David Hwang, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license