Music 2.0

Breaking It Down with Bruce Houghton

by Alistair Dickinson

6 October 2010

PopMatters speaks with creator Bruce Houghton about how bands can make the new music landscape work for them.

As we all know, the development of technologies like cheap recording software and the internet have fundamentally changed the way the music business works. More musicians see their albums being downloaded for free while the number of artists going platinum with their releases drops further every year.

Obviously, times have become tougher for the major labels, who are struggling to find new revenue streams, but what about the thousands of unsigned artists and bands who see all these new outlets as a chance to succeed outside of the traditional industry mechanisms? Many of them build huge followings and convert MySpace hits into chart-topping record sales, while many more never make it out of the local dive bar, despite well-designed websites and Pro-Tools assisted home-recordings.

It can be hard to figure out who’ll go far and who’ll go nowhere with the rules having changed so much in the past decade, but there are many industry veterans out there who have taken on the task of examining “Music 2.0” to try and discern what works and what doesn’t. One such thinker is Bruce Houghton, whose years of experience as a U.S.-based booking agent have led him to deeply consider the ramifications of the new musical landscape.

One can usually find Bruce’s astute musings on his excellent blog,, where he covers everything from new initiatives at the majors to exhaustive breakdowns of new technologies available to aspiring recording and touring musicians. PopMatters talked to Bruce for our piece on bands playing Lollapalooza for the first time, but seeing as he gave us a far longer list of insights than we could share in that article, we thought we’d post his answers about DIY bands moving forward in their entirety.

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There’s a lot of talk these days about how touring is the new primary source of income for bands. Do you feel that as a result new acts should place a greater emphasis on showmanship, a memorable stage act, etc? What advantages and pitfalls have you seen come out of primarily being known for live shows?
Touring is the #1 source of income for most artists.  Second would be merchandise including CD’s sold primarily from the road.

Having a great live show has always been important, but that does not mean that a band should add tricks and gimmicks to try to achieve a “better” performance. Dancers fit with Lady Gaga and lasers fit with Roger Waters. But Ray LaMontagne’s stark and moody live show fits him and the seriousness of his music. Everything that a musician does must be true to his or her music and reflect their unique sensibility and image.

A lot of smaller bands still employ booking agents and have just employed publicists once they reach a certain point. With all the emphasis on new media and DIY over the past decade, what do you see as being the major benefits of employing traditional agents like these? Are there any tasks you particularly recommend a band keep in-house or farm out to their proxies?
I believe that a band should keep everything in house until they can attract and afford a great (and I mean great, not just good) person or company that is experienced and passionate enough about your music to take it over. Don’t just hire an agent or PR person or manager or whomever because doing that job sucks. It sucks for them too. And if they’re not passionate and professional, it’s unlikely that they’ll do a consistently better job than you will. 

Having said that, bands need a team to grow.  Just choose it carefully.

A lot of bands today have a hard time figuring out where to go with their recorded music. Many of the bands I talk to sell it for donations at shows, for fixed prices on eMusic and iTunes, and give it away free on their sites. They’re happy to have as many people as possible hear it, but are often unsure if their ultimate goal is a “radio hit,” TV/movie licensing, a Pitchfork “Best New Music” nod or what. They’re basically just pursuing all of them as much as they can, but admit that their greatest successes in any category have come when they’ve intensely focused on one particular sort of promotion. What are your thoughts on this issue?
The music industry requires that you walk down as many paths as you can, because you never know which one will get you where you want to be. But goals like these—“radio hit” and Pitchfork’s “Best New Music”—seem misguided. Goals like writing great songs, practicing, connecting with fans, even networking with more music supervisors are places to start. Do that and success will find you. To hell with Pitchfork. It matters more that 37 little bloggers in your niche think you’re the next Beatles and will stick with you long after the next “Best New Music” list comes out.

What sort of issues have you seen with regional acts trying to expand their reach nationally/internationally? Are any particularly successful?
Work outward in concentric circles or target a few cities that you can get to within a day’s drive.  This makes it possible for you to keep going back and build something.

Festivals are also great ways to build an audience.  But don’t just go on stage once and think you’re a star.  Stay all weekend and offer to play extra shows for free. Busk if you have to or hang out with fans and other bands. And be sure to hand out flyers for a show in 90 days at a nearby club.

You, and others whose writing you post on, often talk about quality music being the best tool a band can have in its belt. But obviously an artist or band has to do certain things that will allow more people to hear that music. Which, in your view are strategies that help “get people to the music,” and which are gimmicks that ultimately distract from it?
Don’t over-think this. If their music is great and they are doing the right stuff, then it’s all about persistence. If they keep at it, they’ll find an audience.

Are there any dangers you see in distributing music through multiple channels. Are there drawbacks to putting out too much music or putting it out in too many places?
Their music should be everywhere.  But I’m becoming a believer in staggered releases—a couple of songs a month at most. Do it often enough to keep people interested, but far apart enough so things have time to spread virally.

After talent, it all boils down to effort.  How hard are you willing to work at your craft—songwriting and live performance? How hard are you willing to work to connect with your fans and with the industry?  Will you make the most of every piece of luck that comes your way?
I know superstars who sign every autograph after a show and then wake up at 6am to do a morning radio interview.  That’s what it takes.

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