The music world has seen monumental changes in recent years with the rise of technology and online music upending record label-centric business models and coronavirus pandemic shutdowns putting a dramatic stop to live concerts and festivals.
It’s a brave new world for musicians and musical acts with the rise of home studios, self-produced records and increasing reliance on social media to build fan bases and followings.
Somewhat gone are the days of larger and powerful record labels scouting, signing and cultivating acts.
“There is a much smaller window of when you are going to sign to a label,” said Megan Brickwood, a folk singer and songwriter, who recently relocated from California to Oregon and released a new extended play (EP) record.
Brickwood said social media — in particular YouTube Music and some other platforms, such as TikTok — can give musical artists a megaphone to market themselves and build followings.
Brickwood said record labels will show interest in artists “who blow up and go viral.”
Finding talent online has somewhat replaced the scouting of acts at venues. It is one of many changes confronting the music industry and performing artists.
“There is good and bad. There is just kind of an open, free-for-all landscape,” said Brickwood, who has worked with Bear Creek Studio near Seattle on her recordings.
Bear Creek Studio has been the recording home to the likes of Soundgarden, Lionel Ritchie, The Lumineers, Metric, Vance Joy and Train.
‘Proof of concept out of the gate’
Jonny Hawkins, a founding member of San Antonio-based rock band Nothing More (which has released six studio albums since forming in 2003), said some of the basic tenets of creating and producing records remain, even with all the changes.
“Some of the longstanding norms of the industry are still there, in a sense,” said Hawkins, who has played drums and serves as lead vocalist for the Grammy-nominated band. “If you are a quality producer, you are still producing quality bands.”
But the new normal means musicians are expected to have healthy social media and ticket-buying fans, requiring more marketing and promotional efforts from the bands themselves.
“They expect you to have a following,” Hawkins said of the need for bands to grow footprints on YouTube Music, Instagram and other platforms. “They want to know you can sell tickets.”
That is a change from when larger record labels would lead marketing and promotional efforts for bands.
“Now, you are expected to develop yourself,” Hawkins said. “Record labels kind of want proof of concept out of the gate.”
But some music industry veterans worry about the upheavals and changes making it difficult for both new and veteran artists.
Karla Bonoff has been a singer, songwriter and backup singer in the music industry since the 1970s. She’s written songs for and performed with Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Wynonna Judd.
“I’m just kind of mostly touring these days. Making records is just a whole other world. You kind of have to support it yourself,” said Bonoff, who is based in California and has upcoming performances in Georgia, Tennessee and New England.
Bonoff, who has worked with and opened for Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne and Peter Frampton, said the current marketplace has record labels focused on the biggest of acts — such as Taylor Swift — frequently requiring more artists to “make your own CD in your household.”
“There’s no middle class in anything any more,” Bonoff said of the record business and broader economic inequality trends.
Home studios and independent paths
The growth and expansion of technology and affordable music software and equipment offer musicians the ability to build their own home studios.
“The sky’s the limit if you have the money to build a whole studio,” said Brinkman.
Estimates for how much home studio costs vary.
She said professional music software and equipment can cost as little as $1,000, and there are more musicians learning the production side of the business for their own music, as well as for career opportunities.
Hawkins said basic studio equipment, including microphones and software, can be had for as little as $2,000 total, and can still offer good production value.
Other musicians and production experts peg the lower end of start-up home studio costs at $5,000.
Still, that can offer some acts a more cost-effective alternative to labels and producers, as well as a way to professionally produce their own music without a record contract — and its costs and potential drawbacks.
“It can be quite expensive to work with a producer. It’s all over the place. I have had it cost as little as $500 a track up to $20,000 a track,” said Brickwood, who moved to Oregon in part to be closer to the Seattle music scene.
Back on tour — all at once
The lifting of pandemic shutdowns and returns to pre-COVID normalcy resulted in a wave of musical acts and artists hitting the touring and performance circuit.
Pandemic shutdowns are in the rearview mirror for music venues and artists.
“They seem pretty close to back to normal,” Brickwood said. “I was at a friend’s show recently, and it was back to normal.”
But the post-shutdown situation saw live shows and tours go from zero to everyone quickly after public health restrictions were lifted.
“The market kind of got flooded,” Hawkins said of the post-COVID shutdown waves of acts getting back out for tours and performances. “The market was so saturated because everyone was coming out at the same time.”
That created logistical and booking challenges, including finding supporting bands and musicians for performances and tours.
Some musicians and artists moved geographically and changed genres during the industry and pandemic upheavals.
Some acts relocated to Florida and other states where concert venues were more likely to be open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others relocated out of more expensive big cities.
Brickwood relocated from Los Angeles to northern California and then to Ashland, Oregon. She’s also evolved her musical genre from alternative to more folk and Americana singer-songwriter music.
“I try to make what feels true and honest to me. If you are chasing a trend, you are really behind it,” she said. “Having the world kind of shift definitely opened me up to new ideas.”
Songwriting and changing landscapes
For industry veterans, songwriting can become a challenge, especially when touring and industry changes — including a bigger focus on having artists more focused on social media and marketing — bite into the creation of new songs and compositions.
“It’s harder now,” Bonoff, 71, said of songwriting, compared to when she was younger and breaking into the business and L.A. music scene. “When you are 20, you are always writing.”
Hawkins said all the upheavals from the pandemic have given more people — including musicians — more perspective and insight on their personal, creative and professional paths.
He also said the new landscape of making and promoting music bites into developing new music and lyrics.
“Once we get on the road, you get so busy,” said Hawkins, whose band has upcoming concerts in Canada, the Pacific Northwest and California. “Time is our biggest challenge — time and energy now.”