In the last few years the number of new acts breaking into the mainstream has considerably dropped.
But in our changing times when absolutely everyone with no more than a video recorder on their mobile phone can be up on YouTube within minutes, how do we measure success, a short search online reveals many many young (and not so young) talented, unsigned artists.
I spoke to Acoustic Jim (whose music immediately charmed me into wanting to hear more) about making music, and whether along with the raw talent of a musician, you also need the skills of a music producer to get your own music out there, plus the savvy of a manager to get your sound heard above the plethora of music on the web.
Jim Hustwit better known as Acoustic Jim is a 31 year old British singer songwriter, amazingly he has only been writing and performing for about four years, and decided to hang up his marketing manager hat and be “Acoustic Jim” full-time last year
After playing the guitar for many years he decided it was time to give writing and performing a go, so he borrowed a multi-track recorder from a friend, had a rather disastrous first performance at a open mic gig and decided this was something he not only loved but wanted to get really good at!
Like so many talented musicians, Jim has had to find his own way around, being unsigned means you don’t have a entourage of people making the decisions for you, your success is down to not only your musical ability but the ability to record, manage and promote yourself – it almost seems as though the musical talent comes a second to being able to get your music heard.
For a man who says he never had an ambition to perform Jim's music certainly belies his relatively short time in the music industry, his sound being a self-confessed mesh up of “its acoustic but not strictly speaking” and “its folky but not traditional”, along with “a catchy fusion of soulful acoustic pop with a hint of funk and a drop of reggae”! I suggest having a listen yourself and deciding! (we have included a free track at the end of this article, to whet your appetite).
So with the deserved platitudes over with, I got down to asking Jim about how hard it really is to realise that dream – going from borrowing your mate's multi-track recorder to being a full-time singer/songwriter…..
I found Acoustic Jim, by searching through looking for artists specifically for this article, and once I had his name it was easy for me to find his music on YouTube, MySpace and Jim's own website – but how hard I wondered is it to actually get your music heard when you are not a household name, so I asked Jim if he needed to become a “jack of all trades”, self promoting, recording and producing his own music?
'Getting heard is the single biggest obstacle that faces artists today. On the one hand the internet provides a platform for everyone to be heard but it also means that there are millions of artists vying for attention. Filtering through that is very hard to do and we rely on opinion leaders like radio but also blogs – getting their attention is key but also very hard to do.
Getting radio play is still the way to be heard by thousands of people at the same time, that whilst probably being the oldest way is still possibly the best, I have been played on some local BBC stations, and would be very happy if one of the major stations gave me some airtime!! Commercial radio has advertisers to keep happy so they tend to stick to the tried and tested well known and popular artists.
I think that essentially record labels, management companies and publishers are much more risk averse in light of the dwindling revenue from music sales. That means they are no longer willing to take a punt on an artist and their development. Now they want the finished product. You have to have recorded an album, be selling out 100+ venues and have a huge fan base.
In short you need to create a massive buzz which they can cash in on….it’s business. It’s like stepping in to the dragon’s den. So a modern artist has to be a writer and performer but also a manager, marketer and business development manager.'
Whilst the number of singer songwriters has gone up, conversely, the number of new musicians making it through to the mainstream, has dropped, so did Jim think there could be negative side to the “YouTube self production” culture?
'I think that it is symptomatic of reduced revenue streams from selling records. It used to be sales of millions of records would get you to number one. Now it’s several hundred thousand. Less revenue means less money to pump into other artists so I think record labels consolidate resources into successful artists. I don’t think there is a negative side to the YouTube age. The internet has changed the musical landscape and as artists/labels we simply need to adapt. If anything YouTube gives people a chance to be heard which before only came about through ‘getting signed’'
Acoustic Jim regularly performs live, live music is now where the money is in the industry, so can he see a change coming where success is measured in a different way? Where being “number one” in the “album charts” not being a way to guarantee monetary success.
'The music industry is about monetising music whether that it be live performance, sales of CDs or merchandise. It’s about the bottom line and it needs to be as big as possible. I would say the industry’s definition of success will probably differ from that of the artist.'
I wondered how Jim would measure his own success? Was he looking for a major record deal and stadium tours, or actually perhaps in our digital age a successful career can be had making the music you love and being somewhat more in control of your own destiny?
'As an artist I deem success as being able to write, record and perform and earn a living doing it. I absolutely want to play stadiums and big festivals because as a performer it must be the ultimate achievement.
I’m 100% DIY and have done everything myself to date. I’m not looking for a major record label although if one came knocking I’d always have a conversation. I’ve done everything on my own so far and intend to continue….it’s a learning curve. For me, management is more important. A manager can act as the conduit between art and commerce and leave me to concentrate on the art….which is the bit I love doing. As it is I find it difficult to find time to write.'
The way music is listened now is much less tangible than it used to be, for instance, I no longer have rows of CD's lined up (and I am old enough, that as a child I had piles of records!), instead my IPod holds my music and my Itunes manages it, Jim's music is mainly bought via download, so there is nothing tangible to hold and covet, did he think this was ok? Or is the goal for a unsigned musician still to have that CD lined up on the shelf.
'I think music transcends the format that it’s presented on. If it’s a great album I want the CD but then I, like you, am quite old school. There are a lot of fans out there who want that tangible product but then I think they are the ‘super’ fans. Most other consumers of music just want to listen to it. In fact today with services like Spotify etc owning it is not even a necessity… it’s about access. I just want people to listen to and enjoy my music. I’m not too fussed about the format. That said, a format that generates revenue for me is preferable because until I cover the costs of my first album I can’t afford to record the next one ;-)'
As someone now perhaps well versed in the music industry, I asked Jim if he thinks there is support out there for a new musician, and what his feelings were towards programmes like Xfactor, are they helpful, or do they in fact simply perpetrate a throwaway culture for musicians.
'There are lots of organisations out there to help musicians and artists. BASCA, PRS, and the Musicians Union. I can’t stress enough the importance of understanding how these organisations can help in terms of networking, support etc.'
Xfactor for me is not about music. It’s more about entertainment in the form of reality TV which uses music as a back drop. Simon Cowell is a very savvy business man and a master of PR. That said I do think there are some talented people on it but Xfactor is all about popularity within a very fickle market. If you are an artist looking to build a long-term career in music it is probably not the best route. If you are looking for short-lived fame which is monetised by someone else…. then go for it!'
So what is next for Jim? Well his album “Hanging up my Cape” is available for download on Itunes, and he is making tentative plans for a tour of America perhaps the welcoming home for the singer song-writer! He admits its a hard slog, but after talking to him, I don’t think he will give up, he is enjoying the ride so far too much!
Dont take our word for it! Have a listen!