The Road to ‘Success’: Change and the Music Industry

Singer-songwriter Clare Bowditch reflects on a changing music industry – and a shifting reality for musicians.

Singer/songwriter Clare Bowditch

Singer/songwriter Clare Bowditch

When I was a teenager, the road to ‘success’ was fairly well paved. You joined a band, rehearsed your guts out, started playing small gigs, recorded a couple of songs onto your four-track, burnt them onto CD, sent them to community radio stations, started playing slightly larger rooms, and then tried to convince your husband’s brother’s friend’s cousins lover who worked for a record company to come down to your show and sign your band. Then Molly played you on Countdown the same week your album was released, people bought your album, and you instantly became a rock star. Forever. All pretty straightforward, right?

Not that ‘we of the late 90s’ did it that way – not at all. The gig and recording parts were fine – I had that ‘down’ from 17. It was the “record company” bit that freaked me out. Record companies were full of bastards, who wanted to change me. Or if they didn’t want to change me, they certainly wouldn’t think I was thin enough. Not that I’d ever spoken to anyone from a record company. At all. I’d rather not think about it, and keep making music. That was my attitude.

Over the years, one of the things I’ve observed in Australian contemporary music is, things change. For one, there’s this little thing called the internet. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but back in the early 90s this singer/songwriter called Ani DiFranco started using it to good effect and managed to completely side-step that whole “record company” hoopla, and release her own albums. Sold a few million. Well done on that front.

Then a little closer to home, a young busker called Johnathan Butler hopped onto the independence train and, after joining forces with friends The Waifs, decided they’d also release their own albums: once again, bombs away, the experiment worked. Two thumbs up on both counts.

Whether you like these musicians' music or not, you have to agree, they certainly shook things around a little. Respect where respect is due.

Which brings me back to how I overcame my fear of record companies. There’s nothing like ‘being vulnerable’ to make you open to suggestion. This is true for me and it’s true for record companies. My vulnerability came in the form of little life journey called “parenthood”, where one realizes that they’re going to have to make a living at precisely the same moment they become incredibly short on time. Flexibility is a plus. As is “Setting a Good Example”, such as meeting people before you hate them.

At the same time, record companies realised they weren’t immortal, artists were no longer willing to enter into long, inflexible, stupid, paralysing record contracts which exploited them. The result was that my management were able to negotiate for me a little thing called a licensing deal, which is where I retain the ownership of my music but allow a third entity to release my music on my behalf. This is why, after three independent albums, we decided to sign a deal. We do what we’re good at (songwriting, singing, recording, touring) and they do what they’re good at (marketing, promoting, gathering random sums of money into small herds for me to shepherd). Works for everyone.

The only rule today is that there are no rules. Although the question of “How to make your living out of music?” once pretended to have an answer (that little story I presented at the beginning), in reality, it’s always been a hard hard game, both in the mainstream and on the fringes. The great challenge of our time is not “how to make people buy CDs again”, but whether or not we so-called “Creatives” can adapt our thinking in time to embrace the complexity and possibility of an age where, really, the mainstream is dying. On the surface, this rapid change appears to threaten our very existence. In reality, doesn’t it just push us ever closer to the question of whether true creativity still exists. And if so, can we muster up a little? Ever heard the saying ‘Adapt or Die’? Worth keeping in mind, me thinks.

I’ll end with a brightening trend: I don’t really see the ‘terror of success’ that those of us coming up through the ‘90s ranks’ had to suffer. This generation of musicians seem far more confident that whatever they negotiate, it will work for them.

It’s gonna be a fascinating decade.

Portrait of Clare Bowditch

Clare Bowditch is a singer, writer, and master storyteller, who first began performing in Melbourne pubs when she was 16. Seven albums later, Clare has toured the country a million times and been awarded EG Best Female Artists (2011), Rolling Stone Woman of the Year for her Contribution to Culture (2010), Yen Young Woman of the Year (2008), and an ARIA Award for Best Female Artist (2006), plus half a dozen other ARIA nominations for her albums.