Internet Radio: Something Old Becomes New Again

It’s no secret that I am involved with internet radio.  I serve as an on-air personality for Music Mafia Radio, a gig that I thoroughly enjoy.  It’s an aspect of the business I never pictured myself in, but it has become one of the highlights of my week, as I get the opportunity to share some pretty incredible music with my listeners and talk about some of the great things going on for these artists.  So, for me to write about the possibilities internet radio holds for the recovery of the music industry might seem slightly self-serving, the reality is that this is an area of the business that merits discussion.  I say this because there are much bigger things going on than the workings of one small station.

Before I get into the meat, a brief music history needs to be laid out.  Before the turn of the 20th century, the distribution of music of consumers was almost exclusively done through the purchase of sheet music and live performances.  The Copyright Act of 1909 was enacted at a time when the commercial market for the sale of prerecorded music has not truly materialized yet.   ASCAP was formed in 1914 to protect the rights of the composers of the music that was being performed live and sold in sheet music.  The first broadcast on AM radio, a news program, happened in Detroit in August of 1920, with the first entertainment broadcast occurred in the UK in 1922.  FM radio followed with broadcasts in 1940 and enjoyed its heyday in the 1970’s-80’s, commonly referred to as the Golden Age of FM Radio.  With the advent of personal computing and the internet, a variety of internet-based music services appeared in the mid-1990’s, with Napster being the most notable.  In 1995, Radio HK became the first internet radio station, playing independent music.  In 2015, it was estimated that 183,000,000 people used internet radio.

In short, an amazing number of technological advances occurred in a relatively short period of time.  Listening choices and habits have changed dramatically over the same period of time, and the number of music listening options have grown exponentially and we now live in a society where music is always at the tip of our fingers.  And while a number of the listening options available provide the ultimate in convenience, the quality of music and the quality of the interaction leave much to be desired.  The ability of an algorithm to introduce new music will always have flaws.  Internet radio allows you the ability to find a source of music entertainment that is human programmed and the wide variety of options available means that you can find a station that caters to your particular style of listening.

I’ve been very vocal in my thoughts that music streaming, as we know it, is going to be a passing fad.  There is not a single company providing streaming service that is making a profit from it, and the need to move the price point to a more expensive tier to make money is going to prove extremely unpopular with a large portion of their current subscriber bases, as will the ultimate elimination of commercial based ‘free’ listening.  The revenue does not exceed the cost, and quite honestly, legislation needs to be passed to eliminate the ability of companies like Spotify to negotiate lower royalty payments based on the fact they aren’t charging the end user for the service.  A subject for another article down the road.

I spent some time last week exploring the Indie channel on Spotify.  I was less than impressed.  The ‘channel’ was extremely limited to a very narrow scope of musical styling and the production quality of more than half of what I listened to was garage quality at best.  The garage quality would not be bad if that was the desired sound, but most of the music I heard should be striving for more than that.  Yes, all of the indie artists presented were truly independent, but I could instantly come up with a dozen bands that deserved the spotlight more for each song played.  I was not left with a warm, fuzzy feeling and quite honestly will not waste my time with it ever again.

This is the point where internet radio enters the equation.  The platform, if utilized correctly, provides the ability to have a much more personable experience than streaming, and at the same time provide the listener with new music in a much easier to access format.  There are stations for any music style or genre, and a number of stations (like Music Mafia Radio) are breaking down the genre barriers and simply providing the best music available, regardless of style.  Internet radio also tends to be free of many of the broadcast restrictions in place for traditional terrestrial radio.  In addition, good internet radio brings some level of personality back into the equation, as well as the opportunity to become part of a social community of listeners and followers, whether through social media, web chat or a variety of methods not available in the streaming world.  On the independent scene, artists become easily accessible to listeners and fans unlike any other platform available.  New music is readily available and a true support network for artists is created.

Those that pursue the creation of an internet radio station often complain about the cost of creating a station, but the reality is that setup costs are a fraction of what it costs to create a traditional AM/FM radio station.  There are no FCC spectrum license costs, equipment required to transmit are a fraction of terrestrial radio (no tower to build), and many of the broadcast restrictions in place for AM/FM do not exist on the internet.

It sounds like the perfect world, but just like any emerging technology or industry, there are a number of challenges to be overcome before it can become a major player in today’s music economy.  The first of these is the over-saturation of the market with options.  There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of internet stations currently broadcasting around the world.  And while geo-fencing limits the reach of some of these stations, listeners are bombarded with directories listing hundreds of similar looking stations that span the globe.  The only way the industry grows to become a force is for some form of consolidation is necessary.

Literally, anybody with a computer, microphone, headphones and an internet connection can get on the air with all necessary licenses for less than $100 a month.  Granted, this pricing allows for a very small audience and requires the station creator to give up control when it comes to sponsor advertising, but it can be done.  Obviously, as the audience size grows, so does the cost of doing business, and that $100 quickly grows, not to mention the cost of a website, merchandise or any cost to promote the station.

However, at that introductory pricing, it draws many hobbyists into the mix, folks who do it just for the fun of it.  This dilutes both the market and listener base, making it difficult for those who are trying to build a sustainable business by making it hard to attract advertisers, which are going to be the key component in a robust revenue stream for stations, as well as artists.  You see, the latest round of copyright legislation allows royalties paid to be determined by revenue earned by a station.  More stations operating at a higher revenue level pay the artists more.

Internet music radio takes on a few different forms:

  • Hobbyists, who are doing it solely for their love of music.  They are to be commended for their passion.
  • The big corporate machines, who simply look at it as a revenue stream.  The funny thing is most if not all of the big players have yet to find a way to make it profitable.
  • Nestled somewhere between the first two are a group that is trying to build a successful business model that allows for some form of profitability.  They have the passion of the hobbyist and the dreams of the big players.  With proper industry consolidation, this tier becomes the future of successful internet radio.
  • Bringing up the rear are those that refuse to play by the rules.  They take on a couple of different modes of operation.
    • There are those that simply don’t pay royalties (pirate radio).  They figure nobody is watching, and quite honestly they are right.  The PRO’s don’t have the capacity to police the internet and unlike terrestrial radio, they do not fall under the umbrella of the FCC. Any effort to bring these stations in line would create the greater portion of consolidation necessary to allow the industry to be successful.
    • Then there are those that have resorted to blatant payola- the only way for an artist to get on their station is to pay the station for the ‘privilege’.   These people just need to go away, as they give the entire industry a black eye.  In fact, this practice needs to be legislated out of the business.  If this option was no longer available, many of these stations would disappear, further consolidating the industry.

I believe there is a robust economy for the hobbyists and business-minded owners that are all willing to play by the rules.  This may seem contradictory to a statement I made earlier, but the truth is the majority of hobbyists diluting the market are those that don’t play by the rules.  I also believe the quality of the product produced by many of these people would be seen as refreshing and entertaining by those that tune in to check it out.  So, look for a station that plays the kind of music you listen to and plays by the rules.  You never know- you could get hooked forever!

Nothing In Life Is Free

In America, you cannot avoid advertisements for the cellphone industry.  They are everywhere.  For many years, those ads promised free phones if you signed up with the particular carrier that was showing you what a great deal it had.  The truth is there was nothing free about the transaction.  The company paid the manufacturer for the phones they ‘gave away’, and the cost was passed along to the consumer in the price paid for the actual service.  The customer did end up paying for the phone without even realizing it.  But the one thing they did not pay was sales tax- because the phone was sold at a $0.00 cost, no taxes were added to the transaction.

Enter a number of state governments who realized they were missing out on a major revenue source in this (then) growing market.  In most states, the cost of the service itself is not covered by Sales Tax law, but the sale of a physical product (the phone) is.  Eventually, states started passing legislation requiring the collection of Sales Tax on all cell phone purchases and required that tax be based on the MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) of the phone being purchased.  If the manufacturer listed the phone as an $800 product, tax was to be collected based on that $800 price tag regardless of the actual cost to the consumer.  Sell the phone for half price, collect the full tax.  Give the phone away for free, collect the full tax.  Pay the customer $300 to take the phone, collect the full tax.  Government created a new revenue source and changed the landscape of the American cellphone market forever.

You may be wondering why the hell I’m talking about cell phones on a music blog.  Hopefully, you’ll get the correlation by the end of this article.  We live in a society where getting things for ‘free’ has become an expectation of the consumer.  As different segments of the world economy have become hyper-competitive and the reach of any business has taken on a global playing field, companies have been forced to rethink their marketing strategies, in an attempt to gain visibility with the consumer market. “Free” is a commonplace word in advertising, and as a result, the average consumer does not recognize the negative economic effect the word can have when used in the wrong places.  After all, they are getting something for nothing.

Enter Spotify with their free tier of music streaming service.  The consumer pays nothing to listen to as many songs as they wish for as long as they want.  It is no wonder that this service has become wildly popular with music listeners because it provides an endless supply of music (including brand new music) at absolutely no cost to them.  Spotify creates their revenue stream through advertising and paid subscriptions, and this revenue is used to subsidize the cost of providing free service to a growing share of customers.  In the end, this looks much like the old cell phone strategy.  However, the outward appearance is the only thing that follows that business model.

To understand where I am going with all of this, we need to come to agreement on one thing- music is a product just like a cell phone.  It may not take on a physical form you can hold in your hand, but it is still a product, a commodity.  It is the result of human effort and a very creative process that is unique to musicians.  In the perfect world, the creation of music is the lifeblood of the musician, just like the cell phone is the lifeblood of the worker that assembled it or the engineer that designed it.  Now, back to our story.

Unlike the cell phone, the free Spotify user is not paying an associated cost that can be used to subsidize the free service.  The service is completely free to the consumer.  This is a decision made solely by Spotify, as a way to gain market share.  It is a brilliant marketing strategy and one that has been hugely successful for the company.  Unfortunately, it comes at the detriment of the musician.

Somehow, Spotify has been able to create a two-tier royalty schedule, paying significantly less for the activity of the non-paying customer than that of the paying customer.  Their justification is that because they are deriving no direct revenue from the free plays, they should be able to pay less to the musician. I won’t get into the argument of why Spotify and other interactive on-demand streaming services should be paying significantly higher royalties than just about any other music service (a topic for another article), but what the company is doing here is forcing the artist to subsidize a business model that cannot sustain itself.

Spotify alone made the decision to offer a free tier of service.  Spotify alone made the decision to price unlimited paid service at $9.99 a month.  If that pricing model is not enough to pay for the cost of doing business properly, it is not the responsibility of the musician to subsidize the company by taking less than their fair market share for the product they created.  By keeping their pricing artificially low in the name of being number one, they have convinced the PRO’s and major record labels that they need to lower the price paid to artists and that it is the right thing to do for the industry as a whole.  They have also convinced that same group that because they choose to offer their service for free, those plays have less value in the marketplace than those that are paid for.

Spotify is quick to boast that 80% of their revenue goes back through the pipeline in licensing fees.  What they fail to point out is the failure of that 80% to replace the lost sales resulting from the creation of streaming services.  The cost of producing music has not gone down, but it is now produced in an environment of diminishing returns.  They also fail to point out the insane number of hoops an independent artist must jump through in order to get paid, hoops designed to take the legally required reporting burden off themselves and save money.

This two-tier approach to royalties has to stop.  Their convoluted formula for determining how artists get paid needs to stop.  No product in any other market or industry is less valuable or less costly because one company decides to offer it to consumers for free.  In addition, this type of on-demand service should be required to pay a significantly higher licensing fee than those types of music services that are non-interactive in nature, whether they are getting paid or providing the service at no cost to the consumer.  Just like the cell phone industry, companies like Spotify should be required to pay fees based on the value of the product and not by the price point they are in full control of.  There are many other ways they can monetize the business to recover the cost.  If they choose to undercut the market on pricing or not explore other ways of showing a profit, it should become a decision that affects only their bottom line and not the bottom line of the artist.

Companies like Spotify need to absorb the cost of providing a service for free and not pass it along to musicians.  They will say it makes it unprofitable and is unreasonable for them to play by these rules.  They fear the loss of subscribers if they go to a pay-only subscription model that is priced at a level providing more financial benefit to the artist.  My response is that the music industry flourished before streaming, and will flourish again if the business model of music streaming is found to be fundamentally flawed and incapable of making money.  In fact, I can build a very solid business case for the exponential growth of the music industry in a world totally devoid of streaming services.

Don’t get me wrong.  Spotify is not the only one taking advantage of the market, but they get all the attention because they are the biggest player in the game.  Apple and the major record labels are just as much to blame.  It’s time for sanity and common sense to return to the music industry.  Any other industry would be knee deep in antitrust litigation with the type of business practices in play here.  The big players in the business, like Spotify, have made it clear they have no desire to do so.  Maybe it’s time for them to be told to do so.





It’s All About The Teamwork

In an earlier article, I wrote about the mountain of responsibilities that come with being an independent musician.  It was a daunting list, but an important one.  To their credit, many bands split up the responsibilities, which makes thing more manageable.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are bands where a band “leader” ends up taking on the lion’s share of the list.  Somehow, most are successful, no matter which approach they take.  However, there is a third option that I don’t see utilized often that adds layers of perspective and accountability that are sometimes missed in the world of trying to make music.  This leads to my question for today- have you thought about building a team? Everything done by the Cozmic Debris brand is the work of one person- me.  I do all of the writing, social media, website upkeep and promotion.  I listen to dozens of hours of music a week, looking for more musicians I can get behind, and still find time to get on the air anywhere between 6-8 hours a week.  Of course, that requires time to put each show together.  I can get it all done, but whether or not I do it well is a subject for debate. Compare that to my work with Music Mafia Radio.  We have people to handle the website.  We have another person that does an incredible job of maintaining our social media accounts, a person who also produces eye-catching graphics.  We’ve got people who take care of all the organizational stuff and make sure Rick and I know what we are supposed to mention on air.  We have a person who handles the business aspects of the station.  I handle the stream programming.  While I dabble in parts of the rest of the list to help out, all I really need to do in any given week is flip on the mic and start talking and playing music.  Everything gets done with much more polish and much less stress than my activities in the Cozmic Debris world.  And it happens because we have built a team. Building a team around a solo musician or band can be a long process.  The first hurdle to clear is finding people that can be trusted without hesitation.  After all, your career and reputation are at stake, and you will be asking your team to promote your brand.  You will be looking for people that serve as ‘experts’ for a particular portion of the responsibilities. They need to take your idea and run with it in a way you may not be equipped to do.  They need to understand the music and the philosophy of the band and demonstrate a true passion for your music.  You also need to find people possessing these traits who are willing to volunteer their time, because the reality is that you probably can’t afford to pay anybody to help out.  The reason it can take some time to assemble a team is that you need to be able to check off every single one of those boxes, and the trust piece can sometimes be hard to come by Don’t get me wrong- all final decisions on anything should remain the responsibility of the musician or band.  After all, it is YOUR career and YOUR music.  That’s the whole point behind being an independent musician.  You are not looking for these people to take over the decision-making process.  Instead, you are looking for people to put the decisions already made in motion. Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, what kind of people do you need?  Here’s a basic list you can consider: The Social Media Guru:  This is the person who handles all of your social media accounts.  A person who knows how each platform works and knows the tools that make working on those platforms effective and efficient.  A person who knows how to get the most visibility.  As social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter continue to change the rules of engagement in a way that makes reaching your current and potential fans almost impossible, having someone who knows how to get around the roadblocks becomes even more important.  Finding the right social media person can have very positive effects on your brand image. The Mouthpiece:  This is the person who handles all of the real world interactions and publicity.  They are the one to help you find and talk with venues, work with radio stations to get you airplay, find bloggers and interviewers who are willing to put the spotlight on you.  This is the person that can explain the music to anybody they come in contact with. The Techie:  Developing websites, creating mobile apps, building Alexa skills… there are skilled people that consider these things fun hobbies, and the chances are high you know one of these people.  Your brand value and awareness can grow exponentially with a professional looking web presence. The Organizer:  This is the person who knows every aspect of what the band has going on.  They are the person that reminds you of upcoming interviews, upcoming gigs, studio sessions… they are the person that tells you what you need to wear and what you need to know for wherever you are going. The Mentor:  This is often an overlooked part of the process, but can be the most important.  Typically another musician, this is the person you seek advice from when things appear to not be going in the right direction.  You run available options by them to get an unbiased analysis.  Ideally, this is the person whose ear you trust the most, someone you can take honest feedback from when it comes to your music.  You don’t want a cheerleader.  You want somebody you respect enough to take critical feedback from if it is warranted because you know they have your best interests at heart.  This person should fall outside the entire music creation process (including recording and mastering). They need to understand music on a level that allows them to provide meaningful feedback.  This only works when the trust and respect levels are extremely high. There you have it- the perfect team to help you get back to the business of making music.  Even if you can’t find somebody to fill every one of these roles, just getting a couple of them will help free up your time to work on the more artistic side of the business. One of these days, I’ll build a team to help with Cozmic Debris.  Until then, you are stuck with my jack-of-all-trades approach.  Who knows?  Maybe when I finally do build an incredible team, I’ll have time to write that book that’s been rolling around in my head for the last year.

A Restatement of Purpose

As I stated in a recent article,  I took some time away from writing for most of 2018.  Part of the reason for doing so was to digest a wide array of knowledge I was gaining on the industry as it stands today.  Doing so allowed me to not only better understand the players in the game and their roles in the current upheaval in the music economy, but it also gave me the ability to identify those things that need to change or simply go away.  Some of the answers did surprise me, but I feel that my understanding of the mechanics will allow me to be a much better advocate for musicians everywhere.

There was another reason for my sabbatical, a much more important one.  Recently, I’ve needed to reexamine my commitment to the core reasons for jumping back in and making myself a part of the music community again.  It is important to me that the musicians I support remain the primary focus of anything I do.  This whole Cozmic Debris thing works only if I remain the man behind the curtain.  That doesn’t mean I can’t peek out from behind the curtain from time to time, but only when the music has the attention of whoever is around.  The music and real talent are what this is all about.  It’s really easy to keep the political and social commentary of the day out of the mix.  The music runs deep enough to keep the focus in the proper arena.  The problems occur when the persona takes precedence and becomes more important than the reason the persona exists.

My ‘methodology’ is simple and one that I am not willing to stray from:

  • I scour the internet, looking for the best music out there.
  • I use this website, social media and my time on internet radio to make people aware of that music.  The choice to take advantage of any of this is in the hands or the reader/listener.
  • I make my commentary on the industry available here.  Some people will agree with my positions, others will disagree.
  • In all cases, any ‘fame’ or notoriety any of this gains will be the result of an organic reaction by those that come in contact with my efforts, not from me shouting “look at me” from the rooftops.  I am fine with letting the quality of my work determine my destiny and not the volume of my own self-appreciation. And if the fame never occurs, I am satisfied simply with the impact I’ve already had on artists I’ve come to know and love.

All too often, I see folks (other than artists) getting into the music scene who spend more time and energy in a “Look at me!” mode than they do promoting the wonderful music they’ve experienced.  The satisfaction comes from being able to associate their own name to something, rather than the satisfaction of spreading the word.  The goal is to get their own name in lights, and self-promotion becomes more important than music promotion.

I understand there is a place for personality in the business.  Radio stations need personality to gain a competitive edge and add listeners- the product has to be entertaining.  Hell, a certain portion of my own personality comes through in my writing.  My personal mantra is that there is no need to draw attention to yourself if the product you are producing is good enough to gain attention without an overabundance of self-celebration.  Any fame or notoriety gained in this manner is the result of an organic movement that results in a more sustained and powerful momentum.  If you find yourself having to constantly point to yourself to get attention, the product is probably not that relevant to begin with.

Over the last few months, I’ve had to shed some of my own humility and accept that my ear for music, view of the industry and ability to help artists are all respected and appreciated by a growing number of artists.  I honestly don’t get it and I think you’re all crazy, but I’ve learned to accept it.  That is all the recognition that is required for me to continue on.  If something more comes of it, that’s fine, but nothing further is required to keep the fire lit.  I love what I do, I love my position in the business and I love the people that have crossed my path on this journey.  No amount of recognition can replace any of that.

Every day, I get to discover, listen to and share some incredible music with a growing network of people, in the hopes that more people would listen to that music.  That was the initial goal and remains the goal to this day.  I’m living the dream.  I just needed to take some time to realize that.

Free Music For Everybody- Except The Artist

You have a free Spotify account and consider yourself to be a rabid fan of independent music, listening to hours and hours of music, interrupted occasionally by an advertisement or two.  It costs you nothing.  Spotify got the songs you listened to directly from the artists for free.  They didn’t pay for them.  It cost them nothing.  Because Spotify doesn’t pay royalties on a traditional scale, there is a decent chance two hours of listening will generate a total of about two cents in total royalty payments to the artists you listened to.  It pays the artist next to nothing.

We have become a society that truly believes music is an art form that should come at no cost.  Free streaming has crippled the music economy and made it impossible for anybody but the top 1% of the industry to earn a real living.  What gets lost on the listening public and most of the industry leaders is the true cost of that seemingly free product.  It is far from free to the artist.

On a recent trip to Nashville, I had the opportunity to visit with an artist and bandleader.  I sat in his living room as he fielded phone calls about band business and verbally tried to lay out a routine that would allow him to get everything done that needed to be done to keep the band relevant.  It was an eye-opening view into the real cost of making music for the masses.  I was caught off guard because even as someone who feels he has a good pulse on the industry there were things that had completely escaped me.

As independent musicians, many take on all of the responsibilities of writer, performer, manager, publicist, promoter, producer, and finance company.  To give you an idea, here’s a short (and I’m sure incomplete) list of things that need to happen:

  • Coordinate and schedule rehearsals
  • Have rehearsals
  • Time to research and find potential performance venues
  • Time to contact potential performance venues
  • Time to confirm booking with venues
  • Promote upcoming appearances
  • Setup, sound check, perform and break down at every venue
  • Design logos and merchandise
  • Order and purchase merchandise
  • Promote and sell merchandise
  • Coordinate and schedule studio time for recording
  • Pay for studio time and record
  • Pay for production and post-production work
  • Pay for physical copies of music
  • Create and maintain distribution channels for the music
  • Ship purchased physical copies of music
  • Register music for royalty purposes
  • Create promotional material
  • Distribute promotional material to every blogger, radio station and influencer they can think of
  • Contact every blogger, radio station and influencer they can think of to ensure the promotional material was received
  • Maintain and update social media accounts and websites
  • Contact bloggers and radio stations for potential interviews
  • Find time to conduct interviews
  • Oh yeah, somebody has to write the music
  • Do something else to pay the bills and put food on the table

These are just the basics, and there is more than a full-time job listed here, not including the pay the bills piece of the equation.  The amount of work to get that ‘free’ music to your ears is staggering.  And it is all lost on the listening public.

It gets lost on those of us inside the business as well.  We create unnecessary steps and hurdles for the artists to overcome to maintain visibility and traction.  We find it easier to make everything the artist’s responsibility, instead of taking the time to keep ourselves informed, educated and up-to-date.  It is very easy to take an attitude that the artist will reach out if it’s important to them, rather than doing due diligence and reaching out to the artist first.  We lose sight of the fact that we are one of the dozens, if not hundreds of contact points for each musician we come in contact with, and we all live in a short-sighted and close-minded world where we should be that number one point of contact for every artist we cross paths with.  The exact opposite is true- to truly help the artist, we should be the first person to reach out to them and be their first point of contact in the business, each and every time.  We take a lot of time off that to-do list if we, as music professionals, take that approach.  That goes for artists we have already developed a relationship with, as well as new artists we are finding along the way.  Our jobs should be to make the artist experience easier, not more of a challenge.

You’ll also notice the word ‘pay’ used frequently in that list.  Besides investing thousands of dollars in equipment, musicians have to maintain that equipment (guitar strings don’t grow on trees).  In many instances, bands pay for rehearsal space.  They pay for every aspect of the music recording process, pay to ship music and merchandise.  The general consensus is that the average cost to just produce a single song is somewhere around $1000, and that is a pre-distribution cost.  Some venues have resorted to requiring minimum gate receipts, with a deposit towards those receipts to be paid by the artist in advance.  For most bands, any money made from performing is simply rolled back into the music, used to fund everything artists need to pay to make the music that reaches your ears on that ‘free’ music stream.

So, the next time you go to listen to some of your ‘free’ music, give it a second thought.  Everybody, including you, wins when music is paid for.

Album Review: The Cliff Wheeler Band, “To The Bone”

Yes, I know, it has been FOREVER since I’ve been in the right frame of mind to write an album review, and this is one I’ve been wanting to write for a few months now.  Hopefully, I haven’t lost my touch!

I believe everybody needs a little outlaw in their lives.  For me, it is binge-watching old episodes of “Sons of Anarchy”.  For you, it could be your favorite police show on television.  It could be the latest crime drama book you are reading.  Or, it could be that you’ve stumbled upon the sophomore release by The Cliff Wheeler Band, “To The Bone”. This album helps to define contemporary southern outlaw rock in a fun and interesting way and provides the listener with an infectious listening experience from beginning to end.

The Cliff Wheeler Band consists of a group of musicians that love playing together, which makes itself evident in their music.  Led by frontman/singer/songwriter/guitarist Cliff Wheeler, the band hails from Lemon Springs, NC and has become a regional favorite throughout the Carolinas.  Joining Cliff on the album are his son Garrett on bass, Kevin Humphries on drums and Gary Orlando on lead guitar.  The band’s first album, “Wheeler”, had a more traditional rock to feel to it and produced internet radio hits “Vicous Cycle”, “Judgement Day”, “Find My Way’ and my personal favorite “Long Time Gone”.  The chemistry of this group was evident in this debut album, with a solid musical foundation created between the work of Kevin on drums and Garrett on bass, and the great interactions between the two guitarists to complete this great rock sound.  Cliff and Gary have played together long enough to have formed a great chemistry and play off each other fantastically throughout both albums.  Adding the cherry to the top are the very real vocals of Cliff Wheeler, whose voice adds a very believable and essential raw edge to each song. Put them all together and you have one kickass band that requires the volume to be turned way up!

“To The Bone” is a stylistic departure from their debut release.  Cliff and the band started experimenting with a new sound that draws influence from the great outlaw country and southern rock of generations past while adding a modern twist to make the music unique to the band.  The fear with changing the sound of a band in this manner is that the new product does not live up to expectations.  No such fears exist with “To The Bone”.  In fact, it is as if the band found its true voice in the outlaw world.

The album is filled with a great variety of songs that make listening to the entire album an almost automatic action for the listener.  Every song tells a story. Some happy, some not so much.  From some of the fun songs on the album, like the infectious “Son of a Son” (you can hear Cliff’s dad speaking in the audio before the song starts) and the musical response to an unappreciative crowd in “Ode to a Hater”, to the more serious songs about the struggles of life (“This Old Hat” and “Hard Living Man”), the band perfectly portrays the real emotion needed to make each of the songs believable.  Of course, none of it would work without great songwriting, and Cliff Wheeler provides the kind of storytelling that allows for some personal introspection and a greater appreciation for life.

Musically, the album flows effortlessly from song to song, and the high level of musicianship shines through to enhance the overall listening experience.  The production quality is worthy to note and provides a finely blended band.  The challenge with producing music that requires a raw feel is finding the sweet spot.  Make it too raw, it sounds like it was recorded in a basement.  Polish it too much and you lose the edge that makes the music work.  The mastering of this album successfully walks that tightrope.  From the very first listen, I found myself digging into the mix and breaking it down to its individual elements, each of which worked perfectly in every song.

The best measure of a two-guitar band is the ability of the two instruments to blend together while each defining its own space and distinctive sound in the overall mix.  Cliff provides solid rhythm guitar mixed with creative leads, while Gary Orlando continues to prove why he is one of the most technically proficient and tasteful lead guitarists in the game today.  His use of throwback techniques and sounds fill the arrangements out in a way that completes them.  One listen to his leads on the album will have you falling in love with his style!

If you’re looking for music with a pop feel, you’ll have to wait for another review (maybe more than one).  If you’re a fan of Culture Club (do fans of Culture Club still exist?), this probably won’t be your cup of tea.  However, if you’re looking for the kind of rock music that makes you throw the car windows down and throw the volume up, “To The Bone” is the perfect addition to your collection.

I categorize this as one of the must-have albums of 2018.  You will not be disappointed.

You can purchase “To the Bone” and learn more about The Cliff Wheeler Band on their website,

Summer Vacation is Over

You’ve probably noticed, but I took a break from writing, spending most of 2018 really looking at the music business. When I decided to jump back in the game in late 2016, I reentered a world vastly different from the one I had walked away from decades earlier. While the music I discovered was spectacular (and continues to be), many of the obstacles artists face today required some examination to understand their role in the new ecosystem. Well, the time for examination is over. It’s now time to pass along my observations.  Some, if not most of this will sound familiar, but it is important to me to keep these discussions ongoing.

There is no doubt the entire music economy has crashed to levels not seen since the advent of recorded music. Sure, the big labels are still able to cash in on their very rich catalogs of classic music. But, for most of the rest of the industry, pickings are slim. Thanks to the power of Apple, music sales are stuck at a price point reminiscent of the 1970’s, with the bulk of that price point remaining with a company that had absolutely no part in the creative process. Add to that the options for consumers to stream unlimited music for free from places like Spotify, who purposely keep their prices far below what is needed to be profitable, and you quickly see an environment far different from the pre-technology era. Musicians can no longer rely on the sale of their ‘product’ as a means of support, and in many cases resort to giving away their music for free to stay relevant and visible.

With the switch to an online listening habit, more focus is being paid to royalties and performance fees, which is where I want to spend a good portion of time in this article. There is a sub-culture that believes these are the meal ticket when nothing could be further from the truth. I spoke with one artist a month ago who had gone over their royalty statement. After releasing a new album, it was streamed in Russia and royalties were paid on those streams. For right around 7700 streams, the artist received 97 cents. Not 97 cents per stream, 97 cents in total for those 7700 streams. I’ve said it before and will say it again- no artist has ever become rich off performance royalties. At the current payout rates, most artists will never see more than coffee money for their efforts.

This appears to be a continuing trend, as all new legislature concerning performance rights in America give the keys to the car to the big corporations to monitor and administer the process (see The Music Modernization Act). The rich will get richer, and the emerging artist will continue to see a pittance in revenue for the works they have created.

Add to this the growing number of pirate “radio stations” popping up all over the internet that openly flaunt the rules, and you have an ecosystem where the consumer expectation is that music is now something I never have to pay for. Once that mindset is created, it will take decades to level the playing field. Why should I pay to hear a song, when I can over to Bobby’s internet station and request it. Because of the non-existent policing in place, Bobby isn’t paying a cent in royalties and is gaining quite the following because he allows listening behaviors that fall outside the established rules, and in many cases draws revenue in doing so. Meanwhile, those stations that are trying to play by the rules struggle, both from a financial and visibility perspective.  I will be expanding on this subject in a future article, as I believe this sector of the industry is a key component to the success and recovery of the music economy.

I’ve actually had artists argue this last point with me. Artists that are very vocal about the right to get paid for their art (and rightfully so) are willing to look past the fact that Bobby isn’t paying them. To those artists, I say this- you can’t have it both ways. If you want to earn your rightful share, you need to demand that equal share from everyone that uses your music. Quite honestly, you gave up the right to make that decision when you registered your song for royalty gathering (check the agreement you signed with whatever PRO covers your material). By openly supporting pirate radio and allowing it to operate, you are effectively shooting yourself in the foot. This, by the way, is the only of conversation where I lay any type of blame at the feet of musicians.

So, the artist cannot rely on music sales to earn a living, nor performance royalties. Fortunately, they have live performances to line their pockets, right? That would be a ‘no’. For most artists, performing live consists of playing in establishments that, like consumers, feel they are entitled to next- to-free music, something that will draw people in and drink lots of beer, maximizing their profits, but barely putting anything in the artist’s pocket. Tip buckets have become the order of the day, and in many venues, the main source of revenue for a musician. The bar is ringing up hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in sales, and feeling good about slipping the band $100.

However, there is a new wrinkle to the live performance dilemma- people do not seek out live music, as they did years ago. Live venues are disappearing, because they are no longer drawing the crowds they once did. The computer age, an age where I can listen to music whenever I want, also allows me the ability to go to a site like YouTube and find live footage of the bands I like, and do it for free. There is no incentive to go out and find live music. As a result, the live performance revenue stream has been severely hampered for most, making it impossible to earn a living playing music.

The problems are many, but the solutions are few and make sense to all but the big corporations that control the business:

  • Music pricing for the sale of music needs to join the 2018 world economy, and not be stuck in the 1970’s.  Companies like Apple have already established their cost of service (by requiring nearly all of the 99 cents charged for most singles) so the increases can be passed along to the artists.
  • Free unlimited streaming of music by companies such as Spotify needs to be identified as an anti-competitive practice that only benefits big business, and these companies should be compelled to offer a pricing model that allows for profitability, instead of baking quarterly losses year after year because of the rock bottom pricing.
  • There needs to be a concerted effort to clean up the internet radio industry, an industry I firmly believe can be at the forefront of the new music ecosystem going forward with the proper controls in place.


I’m going to stop here for now, because there are another bunch of lessons learned during my summer vacation, which I’ll save for the next article.  That article will deal with the attention seekers that are popping up all over the place and deflecting the attention away from the music and the incredible burden placed on artists to create and market their music, among other things.  It could be an interesting read.