In an attempt to improve my knowledge of business, i was reading richard branson’s The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership. All concepts were laid out by Branson so smartly and “can do,” that it almost makes you feel like you should have asked your mother to murder you at birth, because here you are as an adult who doesn’t own a multinational business conglomerate, and, well, a private island to call your home. Yeah.
But the book did trigger three less personally harmful ideas: Do what you love, screw the naysayers, and always keep an eye on the future. The current challenges of making a living as a musician somehow loomed large across those topics, and to tackle that question, I thought of guitar’s own Richard Branson-type, the ever-busy multitasking marvel that is John 5. He was up for the idea, and, more importantly, he was also deep into charting his own course for the new realities of the music business.
“Not everything has changed for the worse,” says John. “There are a lot of incredible options out there. But I’ll tell you this: Nothing will ever go back to the way it used to be. It will only get ‘more different’ as the future unfolds.”
So here is a basic primer on the “John 5 Way”—a proven strategy that, to date, has kept John waking up every day, playing guitar, and making a living.
GO DIGITAL NOW
Talking strategy at Center Staging in Burbank, California—John 5 (left) and GP Editor in Chief Michael Molenda.
Back in the day, I released my first two solo albums through Shrapnel—the usual artist/record company arrangement that has typified the music industry for decades. But I thought, “This doesn’t seem right.” So I released my third record, The Devil Knows My Name, independently, but I still went through a distributor to get the CD in stores. Fastforward to my newest record, Careful with That Axe, and times have changed so drastically that I decided to release it digitally—no physical CDs. I mean, there aren’t that many record stores left, and the ones that are still around have limited shelf space, so I’d need a distribution deal to “maybe” get my CD placed where someone might notice them. So I’m my own record company, I’m only selling digital downloads, and it totally worked! Sales are crazy good.
The other trick is to realize that we’re kind of back in the 1950s as far as selling music. What I mean is, for the most part, people are not downloading full albums. They are cherry picking the songs they want, and they are buying singles. It’s like going to a record shop in the ’50s or early ’60s to check out the 45 rpm discs to see what you like So if my fans want to buy just the singles—perfect. I’m going with the flow. My strategy is to release a song with a video, and in another month, release another song with a video—all as promotion for that month’s single. I’ve found that you can’t listen to what the record companies and distributors are saying—you need to look at what the consumer is doing.
LOWER YOUR BUDGET
When you’re selling downloads at 99 cents a pop, you’re probably not going to be bringing in “album level” revenues. So don’t expect to see a profit if your recording budget is out of whack to your projected earnings. What I do is I train like a fighter to go into the studio. I get the song down so tight and so perfect that when it’s fight day—the recording session—I can knock that tune out in two or three takes. I pay the engineer by the hour, I pay the bass player by the hour, and I pay the drummer by the hour. I’m usually in the studio for maybe two hours at the most, so my sessions are very, very inexpensive. And even very good studios can’t charge what they used to charge the record companies, because those budgets just don’t exist anymore. Deals can be had at most studios. And everybody has a home studio these days, so overdubs can be almost free if you do them yourself. Save money on the recording, and you’ll have a better chance of making money on sales. I don’t know why so many musicians find that concept so hard to grasp.
KNOW THE MEDIA
You don’t have to be famous to get people to hear your music. YouTube is an incredible tool—maybe millions of people will see you. It’s certainly a lot better than passing out flyers on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood! There are also wonderful services for getting your music out there. I use TuneCore, and it’s great. You pay a ridiculously small yearly fee, they place your songs everywhere digital music is sold, and you get to keep 99 percent of the money. It’s relatively easy to make a profit from selling even modest amounts of downloads. Even better, all you need is one picture to use as a cover. You don’t have to hire art directors and expensive photographers to design CD packages.
FIND NEW & EXCITING WAYS TO THRILL AN AUDIENCE
People always ask me, “Are you gonna tour?” Well, it’s too expensive to do a solo-artist tour with my band the old-school way, so I decided to livestream my concerts and make them like television shows. My first one—which was October 18, 2014—was hosted by Chris Broderick of Megadeth, and it included crazy playing, a real-time Q&A, giveaways, crazy commercials, and all kinds of fun stuff. It was sponsored by LiveCast Entertainment, Boss, and Dean Markley Strings, and I was even able to hire some of the guys who worked on The Tonight Show to do the video production. Basically, I was just trying out the concept to see if it would work, and it was really enjoyable, affordable, and profitable. But it was also about looking for new ways to bring my show to the people, and how cool is it to just turn on your computer and be able to see a concert? You can’t be held back by an industry that doesn’t really exist anymore. You can only be held back by a lack of imagination and ambition.