Rollo & Grady Interview // George Howard

Rollo & Grady Interview // George Howard

In his 20-plus years in the music business, George Howard has been a musician, author, educator and producer. In 1993, while in graduate school, he founded the Slow River Records label. Slow River eventually merged with indie powerhouse Rykodisc (Morphine, Medeski, Martin and Wood). In 1999, George became president of Rykodisc, where he signed and/or guided the careers of Robert Cray, Tom Tom Club, Josh Rouse and many others. He also developed the Rycodisc catalog of holdings.

Howard has contributed to the start-up of and works closely with Wolfgang’s Vault and Daytrotter. He is both the current Vice President of Artists House Music Foundation and Editor of Howard is also a professor and Executive in Residence in the College of Business Administration at Loyola University and a professor at Berklee College of Music’s online program. He has written two books for Berklee Press, “Getting Signed! An Insider’s Guide to the Record Industry” and “Music Publishing 101,” and is now working on his third, “The Artist’s Dilemma… and a Way Forward.”

Rollo & Grady Interview // George Howard
George with his daughter Annabelle

R&G: What are your thoughts on the current state of the music business, in terms of the new business model, digital distribution, digital downloads and do-it-yourself musicians?

George: It’s a time of optimism and excitement for me, both from the standpoint of being entrepreneurial and working with artists. There’s a larger cultural thing that is going on. The days of creating something and then handing it off to some larger entity or larger company to market, promote and distribute are over for the most part. Digital distribution has created a place where you can efficiently go from content creator to constituents without handing it off. With that ability comes a whole host of challenges that are reshaping the nature of creative output, for good and bad. The good part is that it’s forcing people to be entrepreneurial and understand some business practices and things that can help them succeed. The bad part is that it’s forcing them to do those things and not be able to devote their full energy to creating. Most people were never able to devote their full energy to creating anyway. It does provide cognitive dissonance when you are the creator as well as the businessperson. The only way it succeeds is by leveraging efficiencies largely brought about by technology. It’s an exciting time, but it is certainly not a time without challenges. We hear a lot about emerging middle classes of artists, which I like and believe to a degree. But what’s being forgotten is that there is a base of knowledge any businessperson needs to understand or acquire to succeed in business, whether a restaurateur or a musician.

R&G: Apple recently hit their billionth mobile application download. What is your opinion on the music business moving into the mobile space?

George: The App store is no different from iTunes in some respects, except for that the smart people are using the applications. Hugh Macleod, who has a great blog called, throws around this term “social objects.” I’m stealing it from him, and he borrowed it from somebody else. It’s a term that’s been around forever, but he writes very eloquently on it. The smart companies using these apps as social objects to connect to something greater – such as Pandora – are pushed over the edge to success. Bands need to do the same thing with their music. This last day or so, there’s been a lot of talk about how now that the variable pricing has gone in on iTunes and the tracks are being sold for $1.29, sales have dropped off. There is an elasticity of demand going on there, and what people are failing to realize is that these are just social objects. Whereas the CD or maybe the download was seen as being it, now they are the means to some other end, and that end is really leveraging these social objects, the songs, whatever you want to call them, as a way to give your constituency – or as Seth Godin would say, your tribe – something to rally around.

R&G: Terry McBride has been discussing cloud-based servers. Will they be a reality sooner than later, if consumers think downloading is a hassle?

George: Probably. We’re in a time of constant productivity, where you can upload your entire library of music and then access it from any PC, Mac or online computer. There are services out there such as Lala that are doing that right now. The moment they release an iPhone app to access your collection in the cloud, then it’s a very easy segue to, “Okay, you have these songs in the cloud, complete your collection or use preference engines or whatever to get you to the next logical musical choice.” Then the transaction is seamless. Your credit card information is already entered in, the music is already there, and you just click OK. Lala’s onto something. They’ve gone through various business models, but this one makes sense, and it’s very much a cloud-based approach. I don’t know all the back-end licensing they’ve had to go through to make this do-able. They do need the iPhone app, and that would put them over the edge. There may be issues on the licensing side with that.

R&G: You were involved with the revolutionary company TuneCore. Can you explain how that technology benefits musicians?

George: TuneCore is simply a service. It’s grown into much more than that, but the initial premise was that it’s very, very hard – still is impossible if you are an artist – to get your music up onto the digital retailers, whether it’s iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, what have you, without being signed to a label. Jeff Price, the founder, and I were talking, and he and some others and I – and I give him all the credit in the world – developed this idea that “Why should you need a label to do this?” There was obviously the issue that Apple, while they wanted as much stuff up on iTunes as possible, they didn’t want to go through a filtering process. TuneCore became that filter. What gave TuneCore its competitive advantage is as philosophic as anything, but TuneCore provides a service, you pay us for that service and once we’ve performed our service you stop paying us. All the other companies, like CD Baby, Ioda or Orchard or whatever, that help get your music on iTunes take a percentage of your sales. If you put up a $10 record and say they take 9%, they’re taking 90 cents on every sale. I’m sure they have their arguments. I’m sure they’ll say they’re doing some sort of advertising or whatever, and maybe they are. I didn’t see it that way. It’s hard for me to justify that kind of back end, and it resonates too deeply with an already screwed up business model. So, TuneCore is a model where, again, you pay whatever the fee is to get up onto the digital music services, whether you sell one copy or a million. That’s a distinction that’s pecuniary or financial on one level, but also goes back to the point that we’re in a different cultural climate now. You as the artist have to get comfortable with the fact that you are also the businessperson. Part of that comfort level comes from keeping the profits, but also figuring out how to reinvest that profit in your business and not rely on some “partner” or label to make these business decisions for you.

R&G: There are so many options to choose from like, Pandora, MySpace Music and music blogs, etc. Due to time constraints, we’re in desperate need of a filter. What are your thoughts on that?

George: From whose perspective – the artist or the customer?

R&G: The customer.

George: The only reason people do anything is when a trusted source tells them to do something. So, the companies that succeed either become trusted sources themselves or leverage their customers to be trusted sources for other customers. Your blog is a trusted source for many people. People come to your blog and gain knowledge of the business and get exposed to great music, etc. It can scale. Amazon seems to be succeeding at a certain level. It is a challenge. I think people have to realize that we associate things and our associations come from trusted sources. It’s all word-of-mouth, so all these technologies – Twitter,, etc – are attempting to build on the foundation of the science of marketing that’s been around since people were living in caves. That gets lost amidst the fetish of technology, and I’m as much a fan of technology as you can find, but technology that’s used indiscriminately without an understanding of some of the science of marketing, the science of entrepreneurship, the science of management – and I’m not talking about managing a band; I’m talking about business management. Yes, you can succeed if you don’t know any of these and you happen to be the Pixies, but if you don’t you’re at a distinct disadvantage. It’s the hubris of the music business that for so long has gone on this premise that they are somehow above basic business concepts. That’s where I get frustrated. That’s where we started this conversation, with the idea that now these artists have to be business people. Artists tend to be very, very reluctant to putting in the time necessary to understand fundamental business approaches. I understand that it’s perceived to be dry or boring, and that’s cool. But the alternative is never to have the competitive advantage in the market, never to have that slight advantage that allows you to market yourself a little bit better than somebody else. I often get criticized for thinking about the business rather than the art, and it distresses me because all I want to do is to help, to some small degree, so that people can make the music they want on their own terms forever.

R&G: What are your thoughts on ISP’s monitoring of users’ downloading habits?

George: This is a huge topic, but boy, that scares the hell out of me. There is an expectation of privacy, and there needs to be cause for people to monitor your behavior. If I’m sitting inside my house on my laptop, I would like to believe that I have a reasonable expectation to privacy, that without probable cause no one’s watching me.

R&G: What about AT&T and Comcast? They’ve publicly gone on record that they are working with the RIAA.

George: I know, but my opinion is that it’s not right. Certainly, the pushback is, ‘What about child pornography?’ or things like that, but there has to be probable cause, which is why there are all these undercover agents in online chat rooms posing as kids. God forbid any of us should have to deal with that, but they develop probable cause, seize the records from the ISP, and then prosecute these people, as they should. I suppose you could do a similar thing with music downloads, but short of that I worry about our civil liberties in that type of situation. The bigger issue is complicated. To say that copyright is outmoded is naïve. To say the current issue is working is wrong. To say that the Creative Commons is more of a viable solution than it actually is – a purely theoretical thing that few people understand – is a failure of marketing. If you don’t think bands are unfamiliar with the music business, try to get one to explain how the Creative Commons license works. Again, a lot of this comes back to education on the side of the bands and artists.

R&G: You are currently working on a new book. What’s it about?

George: We’ve covered some of concepts in the interview, but the book is called “The Artist’s Dilemma… and a Way Forward.” It’s based on the premise that before the world changed, artists, artisans, or whoever could make their music or movie, write the book and hand it off to someone else to market, distribute and sell. Those days are gone. So what is an artist to do? That’s the dilemma. Now, if they say they’re going to be a businessperson and artist, their art suffers. The focus of the book is to help artists learn to scale and create a sustainable business around their art, to create on their own terms, to try and disabuse them of the harmful idea that they’re left or right-brained and therefore can’t be good business people. I believe in the next five years we’ll see more outsourcing of the so-called “hard sciences”, like accounting. We can outsource that shit. What you can’t outsource is creativity, and that’s our greatest ability moving forward. These artists and creative types, if they’re willing to put in a little bit of effort, can disabuse themselves of the idea that they can’t do math or whatever and can start building sustainable careers. That’s the beginning and the general framework of the book.

George Howard – Getting Signed! An Insider’s Guide to the Record Industry (Amazon)
George Howard – Music Publishing 101 (Amazon)

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