Time for some artists to have their say on digital music opportunities, in a panel session at Midem on building sustainable music careers in the modern industry.

The panel, moderated by Jeremy Silver, comprised music manager James Barton, artists Zoe Keating and Paul Van Dyk, and Beggars Group digital boss Simon Wheeler.

Keating kicked off: she has built a fanbase on her own, rather than relying on a label. Partly because labels saw no market potential in her “layered cello music” when she started. “It’s been very serendipitous,” she said of her career strategy.

“My career has really just followed the internet. My EP came out in 2005, which was the beginning of Myspace. So I just put it all up on Myspace, and on my own website.”

After a few years, Keating was starting to “make a decent living” from selling music, and has focused on making strong connections with her fans along the way. “I want my career to last for a long time… Each connection can almost map how they got to me. A friend told a friend who told another friend… So I think that’s the way to grow.”

Over to Barton: would he ever recommend to an artist that they don’t need a manager, wondered Silver mischievously. “There’s no way you can say to her [Zoe] you need a manager, because you patently don’t… In professional services if you can add value to what someone like Zoe is doing, there may be a role for you.”

Barton said that managers do take on a lot of risk early in artists’ careers – but that in turn makes them very selective about who they work with. “Are these the sort of people who share your values and who are likely to build a sustainable career? There’s no point going into this with a short-term view.”

Wheeler was asked a similar question. “We’ve got to be able to add value to something… there’s no point being involved if we’re not going to help creating something better. We are firm believers that record labels can add value and help develop artists, which is what we’re doing.”

Van Dyk talked about his career, and how he created a team around him, and didn’t sign to one big label, but worked with individual licensing partners in different territories – “to work with people who really understood the music and liked the music”.

Meanwhile Barton pinpointed a trend over the last five or 10 years, where major labels have “cut down the numbers of staff and lost certain skillsets”, and that this means managers have to fill the gap. “Individual managers have had to develop skillsets that previously existed inside the labels”.

Keating is all of those people, of course, in terms of her career. “The internet, social media, Twitter, Facebook etc – that is my projection of myself,” she said, before adding that “I’m a nerd, I tend to try things out from a curiosity standpoint” – so she uses different social media sites not purely to promote herself, but more in a personal capacity.

She also talked about how she used Twitter when she released an album two weeks after having a baby, and so wasn’t doing many press interviews or any gigs. Twitter provided a way to stay in touch with fans at less of a personal cost.

She admitted that she is currently spending more time organising her business life, and may need more help. But there are concerns. “I care so much about how I’m represented to the world, so it’s really a challenge to find people to work with who will be as true to what you’re doing as you are. It’s a challenge that any small business will have, not just music.”

How about Van Dyk – has he lost any of the intimacy with his fans the more popular he has become?

“My most important dialogue with my fans is when I play with them,” he said. As in playing on-stage. “All this tweeting and Facebook thing, as much as I know this is part of it, I had to learn… I’m not really interested in someone in a restaurant having a good meal…”

But he has learned to love social media – for example touring in Mexico and asking his fans there what they want to hear.

Wheeler said that for artists Beggars worked with, the most important thing is focusing on making the best music that they can, and while some artists find tweeting comfortable and natural, others “absolutely hate it”. And this is an area where labels or managers can help  – acting as the intermediaries for the latter.

Can streaming music provide artists with a sustainable career, given the current debate around artist payouts from services like Spotify?

“Streaming is an increasingly important part of the mix, and it’s certainly getting to be sustainable revenue streams. But it’s still a young part of the business… Two of our top five digital partners by revenues are streaming businesses.,” he said. “Sustainable on its own? Probably not, but there’s never been only one thing that sustains an artist’s career.”

Keating said “it’s still more important sometimes to be heard, although half of my income is music sales. Streaming is just another way for me to be heard, so it’s great, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be a sustainable part of my income. It’s up to me to convince those listeners to support me, like they would support their local farm.”

We think she said ‘farm’ – it might have been ‘firm’. The point holds either way though.

“Record sales is just a revenue stream,” said Barton. “It’s an error to limit how you might succeed in the music industry when you just focus on record sales. Zoe’s a great example: just create art, and build a business around it.”

Both Keating and Van Dyk agreed that their art is really the central thing in their careers, rather than fretting constantly about business models and distribution channels.

“It’s not about the technology… it’s about people and the relationships that you have,” said Barton. “Artists making art, fans consuming it, and the only people adding value are great people in between.”

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  1. I think managers can still be useful for people who either don’t want to do that part of the job, or (to be honest) for people who don’t have that particular skill that Keating seems to have in abundance alongside her musical ability. Some people have a knack for it, and I’d guess that others don’t. I’ve already designed the cover of my first CD only because I’ve worked as a graphic and layout artist and designer, among other things, for nearly two decades at this point. I started back when Photoshop was a twinkle in the developers’ eyes. But not all musicians or composers can do that. Most will have to pay someone else to design and execute their graphics, from website to shirts to CD case.

    There’s always a place for talented people, managers included.

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