Music

How Will New Artists Learn to Navigate the Music Business?

Don Passman had been teaching a course on music law at USC for several years when he realized his class notes were the outline of a book. “Because musicians are oriented to their ears,” he says, there was an opportunity to write “an easy-to-read overview of the business for people who don’t like to read.” Think “big print, lots of pictures, analogies, simple language.” When the first edition of All You Need to Know About the Music Business came out in 1991 — the 11th edition arrived this past October — “there was only one book on the music business at the time that was of any consequence,” Passman recalls. “And it was a bit difficult to read.”

Recently, however, music business education appears to be an increasingly hot topic. Thanks to technological advances, the number of aspiring artists releasing songs with little-to-no understanding of the music industry has ballooned. Many of these acts start releasing tracks in their early teens, long before they might get the chance to take a college-level course on the music business, much less master the nuances of copyright law. And they often hire a similarly-inexperienced friend to serve as a “manager,” ensuring that even their closest advisors lack experience in navigating the industry.

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As a result, there is a dire need for quality, accessible music business education. Many of the platforms that allow artists to create, listen to, or distribute music today see educational initiatives as a way to foster loyalty and community — which will in turn help them stand out in the neverending battle for users and attention — and possibly as an additional revenue stream as well. 

Some of these educational efforts are in their early stages: Spotify started testing video learning courses in the U.K. in March, for example, while TIDAL has said education will be a cornerstone of its new era as it works to build financial tools for artists. (It was acquired by Block in 2021.)

The company Creative Intell is further along — it has raised money from around the music business and created an animated series to teach young artists the inner workings of the industry, from record deals to publishing. And the platform Bandlab, which allows its 100-million-plus users to create songs on their phones, has been releasing a steady stream of free tutorials and blog posts.

Helping aspiring artists grasp the intricacies of the music industry is “something that we’re investing a lot in,” says Krevin Breuner, Bandlab’s head of artist development and education. “The industry is more complex than ever, and understanding the business from day one is not just an advantage; it’s essential. Bandlab has such a young audience, it’s growing, and we want those artists to feel like they have a partner — somebody they can trust.”

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Austen Smart agrees: The DJ, who co-founded the U.K. music-education company PLAYvirtuoso in 2020 with his brother, sees “huge potential in this space.” “I look at it like, there will be one in eight people, at least, learning at home,” he says, and a portion of those will be interested in the music industry. 

Creative Intell co-founder Steven Ship divides the music education field into three buckets — how to create music, how to market music and the business of music. While YouTube alone is littered with free videos on the first two topics — not to mention all the Reddit threads, blog posts and TikTok tutorials — finding reliable and accessible information on the third is more challenging. “The business of music is probably the most important; it has to be the most accurate, and it’s often ignored,” Ship says. 

If an aspiring artist produces a track poorly or markets it clumsily, that song probably won’t do well — a temporary setback. In contrast, if they don’t understand how the industry works, the consequences can be far more damaging: They could sign a contract with a manager, label, or publisher that cedes control of their output for decades. “Artists were horribly taken advantage of in the early days of the music business, because they just didn’t know what they were doing,” Passman says. And today, “the industry is changing so fast,” Breuner adds, making it even harder to “know what’s important and what’s not.”

When Smart signed a major label deal with his brother — just “two hungry young artists living in London” — he admits the pair “didn’t have the knowledge and the understanding of what we were ultimately signing.” An attorney would have helped, but they didn’t have the cash “to engage with lawyers who could help us interpret it.”

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Contracts are often “murky and complicated,” Smart continues. “You get offered a relatively big advance; it’s quite a big number when you’re 25 and 22. What does it actually mean? What does it mean ten years later?” 

If he could rewind the clock, he imagines going through the process again — but this time, “we’ve got that course on understanding label deals” available. And if necessary, he could “book a one-on-one session with someone for 30 pounds” to help provide extra context. This is part of the reason that one of PLAYvirtuoso’s “three pillars” of educational material centers on understanding the music industry. 

PLAYvirtuoso is one of four companies that partnered with Spotify initially to provide courses on a variety of topics. The streaming service’s decision to test new education materials came about because it saw data indicating that some users were eager to acquire more knowledge. 

“If I take you 10 years back, most of the people that came to Spotify came with a single intent: listening to music,” says Mohit Jitani, a product director at Spotify. “But in the last few years, as we brought on podcasts and audiobooks, people started to come to Spotify to listen to an interview or learn leadership and finance.” 

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Currently Spotify’s courses are offered via a freemium model: Users are able to access the first few lessons for free, but they must pay to complete a full course. 

While Spotify’s exploratory foray into education stemmed from the fact that “people started coming to [us] for casual learning,” as Jitani puts it — and it potentially offers the platform another new revenue stream — TIDAL’s recent drive to help artists raise their business IQ is driven in part by its new owner, the payments company Block.

“Building tools and services for business owners, we saw that the moment that you get a little traction outside of your friends and family, the world becomes a lot more complicated,” says Agustina Sacerdote, the TIDAL’s global head of product. “You have to start to understand your numbers to understand where the next big opportunity is going to come from.”

The same principle applies to artists. Understandably, they tend to focus on the art. But as Ship notes, “The moment you release a song, you’re in business” — whether you like it or not. So TIDAL has started offering webinars and rolled out a new product called Circles, which Sacerdote likens to “a very curated version of Reddit, where we have the topics that we believe most artists have questions about,” including touring and merchandise. 

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For now, TIDAL’s products are free. “Once an artist does get a really good piece of advice that they would have never gotten [elsewhere] on Circles, then we’ll start to think about, how do we monetize?” Sacerdote says. 

Creative Intell’s materials on the music business are currently far more comprehensive than TIDAL’s or Spotify’s: The company has created 18 animated courses to help aspiring artists — the vast majority of whom don’t have a manager or lawyer — “understand what they’re signing, learn how to monetize themselves better and learn how to protect themselves,” Ship says.  

Creative Intell releases some materials for free and charges for access to everything ($29.99 a month). It’s also aiming to work with distributors like Vydia as marketing partners. Vydia is not the only company looking to provide this type of resource — Songtrust, for example, has built out its own materials to help songwriters understand how to collect their money from around the world.

“Other industries have all kinds of corporate resources for training and the music industry is lacking those,” Ship says. “We’re trying to fill that void.”

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