Guest Blog: Tamara Schlesinger

imageMy name is Tamara Schlesinger I am the singer/songwriter in 6 Day Riot. I have also been running my own record label "Tantrum Records" for over seven years. During that time I have released three albums, an EP and various singles for the band.

The music industry has changed so much since I first began releasing my own music. When I first started (as a solo artist) I remember making the BBC news website in the entertainment section, as it was almost unheard of for a woman in the UK to release their own music. I had set up my own record label, hired a PR and plugging team and sorted out distribution - all because I wanted to get my music out there, the way I wanted it to sound.

Now more and more bands are going the DIY route. Not only because they want to release their own music, but because it is harder than ever to get a major label interested in signing artists, or for those artists to actually make any money.

Although many independent artists create great music, what I have learnt over the years is that this really doesn't actually matter. In this business, it tends to be money and contacts that really do the talking. The bands that the general public believes have "broken through", on their own merit, have actually been backed by a good manager with contacts or by big indie labels. It is a losing battle for a band that wants to create its own music, in ways that they want to, on their own.

We are always facing the same old problems as a small label (and band): trying to be taken seriously, trying to maintain support from various DJs and journalists without offering incentives (as we all know the majors do) and just generally trying to let the fans we have know that we have a new album/single coming out with little or no budget to promote it.

When we get a great album review, of course we are absolutely delighted. And with our recent album release we kept getting the same lines from journalists: "the band deserve recognition". This ended up becoming quite frustrating for us. What more can we do to get recognition? If DJs and journalists that have backed us can't break down the barriers, then how can we?

Trying to get the bigger mags, papers and blogging sites to cover your release on the same terms as an artist that has lots of money behind them can be a difficult process. Perhaps your record is incredible, average or even just plain rubbish, but there is no way that you have a chance of getting that feature that you so desperately need as it is near impossible to be taken seriously. Over the years we have been lucky enough to have had support from The Times, NME, Uncut, Clash - and of course, TMF - but still we have been unceremoniously booted off the (confirmed) cover mount CD of a well known mag for refusing to pay £1000 for that little honour. Clearly other labels could both afford to do so and thought there was nothing wrong with doing so. More fool us for thinking that you could be offered a cover mount CD because the magazine actually liked your music ...

imageThen you have the much coveted support slots, that so many bands want and need at this level. We have had some great opportunities and have supported the likes of the mighty Belle and Sebastian, Paul Heaton and even Deacon Blue and had really successful tours and a wonderful time. But what you don't often hear about is the bands – certainly none of those mentioned above - that are happy to rip off the small independent bands and happily charge a support act a buy-on fee to come and play. How can an independent band be expected to find upward of £3,000-£10,000 just to get the chance to share a stage with a well-known band? If this doesn't create exclusion zones for just the well-funded acts then I don't know what does.

The music business is not in a great state, very few artists are able to survive from touring and CD sales anymore, certainly if they do not have a big label or following behind them. So where does that leave bands such as ours?

No-one seems to want to actually pay for music these days. If people are not downloading music for free, they are listening to music streamed on Spotify. I wonder how many people know how little money an artist really makes from Spotify? A few months ago we had 12,000 plays and made only £10, that would mean that as an individual, I would have to have over 1 million plays on Spotify to make £1200 a month (and as a band of 6, we would need 6 million plays a month). If we sell just one album we can make the same money as having 12,000 listeners on Spotify. The number of listens on Spotify has very little effect or no effect on digital or physical sales. After all why would you bother to pay for something when you can have it for free?

So many articles in the newspapers and magazines have harped on about the fact that “live” is where the money is. Give your music away for free and people will come and see you play. Really? What, during a recession? Or a period of uncertainty where no-one knows how long they will have their job? I don't think so - maybe if you are Kings of Leon, but not if you are a regular band trying to make a living. And how can live performance work if most promoters are just not willing to actually promote you, or pay you properly for entertaining audiences?

All the hype about Radiohead going against the grain and releasing their album without the usual 12-week lead time amused me. Of course they don't need the usual lead times. They are Radiohead, they can give their music away for free and still make a fortune playing live and they can decide that their album is out next week and the whole world will sit up and listen. Any band that has so many fans and the music industry at their feet can do exactly what they want. But this model works for no-one other than a band at their level. They are certainly not showing us a new way forward as very few artists could do what they do.

With more and more artists taking the independent route surely the industry must start to adapt. A good place to start would be for the mainstream media to listen first and foremost to the music and not just check the name of the record label before deciding whether or not to review or play a single/album. Every time we release a new single and it goes up for playlist we know the results ahead of time. The head of playlist “really likes” the single, it goes up for playlist, we get a call back the following week, oh dear, not this time, but maybe another. If we had been on a bigger label or perhaps had a little more clout, I am pretty confident that we would not be bashing our heads against a brick wall with each release. At present it is just a self-protective charade.

imageThe problems for smaller artists do not lie simply on the shoulders of the music industry. It has become more and more apparent that without some kind of change in the habits of the record buying (or not buying) public, musicians will just not be able to make music sustainably anymore. It is simply going to become increasingly difficult to fund recordings or touring. Of course you can use funding options such as Pledge and it is great that fans are willing to invest in your future album, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.

In the end, the choice of continuing in this business comes down to one thing. I love doing what I do. I love making music and playing live and I have no intention of stopping. With all the bands out there at our level there will inevitably be some casualties along the way. For sure, this route is not one that everyone can sustain. But those that are passionate about what they do will remain and will find ways to make ends meet.

We will continue to tour, promote and release music and play festivals and radio sessions this year and we will have a bloody good time while we do it. We are lucky enough to have a great fanbase - they support us, buy our music and come to shows. But the reality is that thousands of people have our music on their iPods and have not bought it. Unfortunately if this continues bands like ours will not be able to afford to create anything new for you to listen to.

imageAbout The Author
Tamara Schlesinger is the lead singer and songwriter of 6 Day Riot. She has been involved in the industry running Tantrum Records for the last seven years and has received widespread acclaim for her musical work. She has also lectured on the subject of running an independent record label. Tamara co-wrote the music used in the trailer of Danny Boyle's film 127 hours with Deadly Avenger.

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