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Indie Rock Musicians Suck at Business Communications, New Study Finds

Pitchfork Friday, 30 September 2016
Indie Rock Musicians Suck at Business Communications, New Study FindsA new academic study breaks down some of the business challenges facing independent musicians. Stephen Carradini, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State, surveyed a group of self-described indie rock musicians nationwide, ranging in age from 18 to 43. He found that their work included plenty of communications tasks—ones that probably weren’t what they set out to do when they decided to become musicians. Audience development, slow growth, and an uneven balance of power emerged as the key themes underlying these musicians’ accounts of their professional lives, according to the 24-page study, “An Organizational Structure of Indie Rock Musicians as Displayed by Facebook Usage,” which was published this week in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication.

“It’s one more call to arms of, ‘Hey, you need to know something about the business,’” Carradini told Pitchfork over the phone. “You can’t just go into it without having some background of how the industry works.”

When it came to developing an audience, the musicians told Carradini they spent time finding and maintaining their fan base through various social-media efforts, including Facebook advertisements, though not all respondents felt those ads worked well. Musicians’ networks, whether measured by Facebook likes or their contacts like managers, booking agents, and record labels, expanded only gradually, according to the study (“To be pulled from never heard of a band to going to see somehow is hard when there is just so much out there and so much going on,” one survey respondent said). The study also found an uneven playing field for musicians, where venues, labels, technologies, and other third parties surrounding the artists held all the leverage, partly because musicians couldn’t afford to hire publicists or booking agents.

Carradini, a music journalist who cites Michael Azerrad’s 2001 indie history Our Band Could Be Your Life in the study, acknowledged his findings aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but said he hoped his work would raise awareness about the music business among both listeners and musicians. “This is part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a musician,” he said.

One lesson for musicians, according to Carradini, is that, like it or not, they need to start paying attention to business communication. “So, thinking along the lines of business strategy: ‘How am I going to pitch this to my audience?’” he explained. “Thinking in terms of developing a brand. A lot of bands do that, but a lot of bands still don’t.”

For listeners, the study could be another reminder of the work that goes on behind the music that streams over their headphones. “It’s important to realize that these people are working in an environment that’s really difficult,” he said. “There are a lot of institutional barriers for musicians. And the more that listeners know about them, the more that they can make informed choices and, if they’re interested, get involved in some of the ways that the music business is changing.”

The paper is part of a dissertation that Carradini said he was currently writing, which will explore the business communication practices of indie rock musicians as well as classical musicians. 

Find out more about the study on NC State’s website.
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