Writing a Great Song Is No Longer Enough

Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. His sports column on ESPN.com runs every Wednesday. Send your questions to askduff@seattleweekly.com.
As I write this, I'm sitting in the exit-row seat of a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas. Thursday afternoon I will be speaking about the business of music to musicians and perhaps some industry types who are maybe interested in what I have to say, and the angle in which I shall try to deliver it all. But the real reason for my trip is that I will be playing my first public gig with my band Loaded since December 19, 2009.

The South-by-Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) started in 1987, and used to be primarily ALL about unsigned bands making their way to Austin in hopes of securing a record deal with the many labels who would also flock to that city hoping to catch a rising star. That made a bunch of sense for the music-business model that was in place at the time.

These days, the whole scope and breadth of the commercial side of music has observed a radical sea change. SXSW has changed along with it, and now the focus down there seems to be on news frontiers in digital music, film, and all things Information Age. The subject that I will be speaking on is the ever-changing field which a touring and recording band must adapt to. Most of the younger bands I know about have become mini-geniuses at things like inventory control, Tune-Core, and the price of gasoline in different regions of the country. You have to be smart and have the ability to adapt quickly these days, as WELL as write a great song.

Back in the 1980s, when I got my first major-label deal, I simply couldn't have cared less about how everything worked in a business sense. It all seemed so massive and beyond my scope of knowledge that I just sort of shut down intellectually and turned a blind eye to some really important things. I didn't realize that, as a principal business owner in GNR Inc., I was paying everyone who worked for us, and that they should have provided me with sober and clear-cut reportage of our growing empire. Luckily--and it was only by the fact that we sort of ruled by fear--no one really ripped us off. Sure, we overspent and were not that smart about our personal dough--but in the end, no one who worked for us blatantly stole. They could have.

Our Loaded gig Friday at the Austin Music Hall is a perfect example of how things are changing in my industry. Partnerships with outside sources are now just a personally agreeable way to make touring affordable. Monster Energy Drink is sponsoring the gig, and also sponsoring a bunch of our tour. It was mutually agreeable to me because Monster just wants to be associated with certain rock bands. They don't want you to overtly advertise or publicly pimp their product. It is just more of a word-of-mouth thing that seems to work.

Monster is by no means the only company doing this sort of thing. Chevy and Ford support a lot of country acts. Toyota and Coca-Cola are behind a ton of the larger rock and pop artists. Clothing companies are in on this thing too, and as long as it doesn't rub the fan in some sort of cheesy sales pitch, I certainly don't see the harm for a number of reasons:

1. Artists aren't making the money from records any more. Period.

2. Fans have less money to spend on T-shirts and such these days (hence, artists are not able to use that income to help offset tour costs).

3. I drink the SHIT out of energy drinks, so what the hell. Monster is a PERFECT partner for my band.

AxlReznor (a constant, if not sometimes cynical, commenter to this column) and I got into a fairly lengthy conversation about this stuff when he and I met in the UK a couple of weeks back. He was dead-set against this sort of tour-sponsorship thing. When I started to explain to him how much it costs to tour, and the dwindling revenue streams, he suddenly rose in his seat and partially saw the light. Even the most ardent "anti-corporation" fan like him understands the economics, and suddenly things just seem less offensive and crass. It's not as if I or my band is out there suddenly hawking condoms or jeans.

These are indeed changing times in my industry, and everywhere for that matter. I love to tour and play music live. There are people who still love to see live music as much as they can. More and more, there will be new ways for different industries to marry and help each other. The ultimate winner, I believe, will be the fan.

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