A decade in the music industry

,  4 September 2012

What challenges do musicians, unsigned bands and record labels face? Louise Dodgson, editor of The Unsigned Guide, looks at the industry's changing landscape.

Louise Dodgson, editor of The Unsigned Guide.
Louise Dodgson, editor of The Unsigned Guide.

From the music industry’s perspective, the past decade has been interesting to say the least – a rollercoaster ride, some might say! 

During this time I have spent nine years working at The Unsigned Guide, a comprehensive directory of the UK music industry. It is targeted towards bands, artists and anyone aspiring to forge a career in the music business.

Developments in technology have definitely impacted the way we work here. The most significant change was moving from producing a printed directory to an online-only version. We switched to a subscription-based business model last year.

The interesting thing about working at The Unsigned Guide is that you do get a very broad overview of the whole industry from quite a unique vantage point. Researching the music companies we feature every year, you start to see interesting patterns emerge.

Adapting to change in the music industry

Over the years we have adapted the content The Unsigned Guide covers to embrace the changes that developments in technology have brought about in the music world.

We contact the music companies listed in our directory fairly regularly, so changing trends in the way businesses want bands and artists to get in touch, and the formats they want music on, soon become very apparent.

“How do you prefer to receive demos?” is a question we are constantly asking.

These changes affect all areas of the industry. From those we see rapid growth in right through to those that are, in some cases, sadly disappearing before our very eyes as companies go out of business.

The internet is the main source of most of the advances that have been made, and the knock-on effect can be vast. Here is my summary of the transformations I have observed over the past decade.

Submitting a demo to a record label

This is one of the primary reasons bands and artists use The Unsigned Guide – to get their music into the ears of various music industry professionals.

“How do you prefer to receive demos?” is a question we are constantly asking when speaking to radio stations, record labels, music publishers, artist managers and so on. 

When I started at The Unsigned Guide, a three-track CD and biography was pretty much the standard, but now it’s an open playing field!

There’s still an element of music companies who prefer to receive physical CDs in the post, but these days it varies widely. Many prefer to be contacted via email with mp3 attachments, or links to downloadable music for those who find mp3s clog up their inboxes.

Other record labels prefer to have tracks directly uploaded to their SoundCloud or to an alternative dropbox via their website.

Gig promoters often prefer to have tracks posted on their Facebook wall. It really does fluctuate across the industry, so make sure you always check the preferred method and format of submission before sending your music to everyone.

Changes in music consumption

Of course, we’re all aware of the huge impact that changes in music consumption have had on the recording industry.

The recent sale of major label EMI and its accompanying debt was headline news. But beyond the major labels, I have seen a definite increase in bands and artists who have set up their own small record labels wanting to be listed in The Unsigned Guide.

Musicians themselves are embracing the technology available to them to release their own music, and are on the lookout for other interesting artists to promote and work alongside as well.

Always check the label's preferred format before sending them your music.

Another much less positive change I have seen is the sad deterioration, year on year, of The Unsigned Guide's Record Shops section.

Once upon a time I remember making an editorial decision about how chain record shops such as HMV, Virgin Megastore and Music Zone should be displayed in our printed directory, as to list each individual outlet ate up so many pages!

Since then, Virgin and Music Zone are long gone, and I’m not entirely convinced we will need to list HMV at all in the future. When it comes to the independent record store trade, although some shops are still thriving, I continue to see many go out of business each year. Let’s hope this is a tide that turns in the coming years.

The rise and fall of MySpace

I vividly remember introducing an area in each Unsigned Guide company listing for a MySpace profile to be included. A few years back it seemed that simply everyone, no matter what area of the music industry, had a MySpace page set up. Many promoters, managers and producers were also keen for MySpace links to be sent to them so they could hear new music.

In the space of three years, this burst of MySpace excitement pretty much vanished, leaving me with a heap of out of date MySpace profile links to be removed from our database!

I’m led to believe that a MySpace comeback may be on the cards, but regardless there’s no denying that they triggered a social networking trend.

Most of the companies listed in The Unsigned Guide are now keen to include links to their various profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, SoundCloud, Last.fm, Flickr and a whole host of other platforms, which we make sure we include in the directory as necessary.

How the internet has changed the music industry

In the past two years we have added a swarm of new sections to The Unsigned Guide to cater for the huge upsurge in digital services available to bands and artists.

You can do everything online now. It sometimes surprises me that bands have to leave their house at all, apart from playing gigs – which they could always stream on YouTube live from their bedrooms if they so wished!

Musicians are embracing available technology to release their own music.

Tracks can be recorded on your laptop, then uploaded to an online mastering service to complete the finished product.

Producing and selling merchandise, releasing and distributing music, and direct communication with fans can all be achieved from the comfort of your own home, and affordably too!

There is no longer a need to employ an expert in a certain field to assist you. It’s possible to find digital services and platforms allowing you to easily create your own website, build mobile apps and much more.

There’s such a wealth of online facilities available that we divided the Web Resources section of The Unsigned Guide into 15 individual sections. These are fully dedicated to areas such as Digital Stores and Distribution Tools, Online Licensing & Songwriting Resources, Online Management Tools, and loads more.

Whilst it has been a topsy-turvy time over the past ten years, The Unsigned Guide is always here to help independent artists, bands, musicians and anyone trying to break into the music business. I am confident we will be around for the next ten years too – no doubt with some more interesting observations and transformations under our belt.

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