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Talkin’ ‘Bout This Generation: Filmmaker Bob Rose Explores How Today’s Musicians Find Success in ‘InstaBAND’
Since The Who burst upon the global stage more than half a century ago singing “My Generation,” the music scene — and how to succeed in it — has undergone radical changes. Bob Rose’s new documentary InstaBAND: Surviving the Streaming Revolution is a digital primer for how mid-level 21st century musicians can “make it” in today’s rapidly changing music industry.
This well-made 98-minute insider account comprehensively chronicles, in a highly informative, entertaining way, the challenges and opportunities this Brave New World poses for artists.
InstaBAND is a guidebook that shows how — thanks to the explosion and accessibility of high-tech tools — do-it-yourself artists can be their own Bill Grahams and Phil Spectors (but without the gunplay). Musicians who interviewed and seen in the film include: Paul McDonald, Sam Tinnesz, LaLa Antony, Nappy Roots, Charlotte Sands, Adara, Stealing Oceans, Amber Stoneman and Phangs, plus a special guest appearance by New York’s Naked Cowboy.
Florida-based filmmaker Bob Rose previously edited and produced many sports-related productions for outlets such as HBO and Showtime, and directed the 2016 nonfiction film Functional Fitness. In this stream of consciousness interview, InstaBAND’s writer/director discusses streaming, Smartphones, branding, how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the contemporary music business and more.
Rock Cellar: Why did you name your documentary InstaBAND?
Bob Rose: When we originally came up with the title we were really trying to find a way to merge these two very separate things: Social media and the music world. My teenage son is actually who coined the name InstaBAND, and it stuck. The tag is: Surviving the Streaming Revolution.
Rock Cellar: Who are some of the main musicians interviewed throughout InstaBAND?
Bob Rose: We centered in on the mid-tier artists, because those are the artists that are most affected by the changes in the music industry. They’re also the ones out there doing the most hustling. The artists we interviewed and follow along their journey include: Paul McDonald, he got his start on American Idol and was a finalist. He also had a song on the soundtrack of one of the Twilight films, Breaking Dawn — Part 2. Paul also did a music video for that.
Some other guys coming up are Stealing Oceans. A lot of these artists are based out of Nashville — Stealing Oceans just went to California. InstaBAND also covers a good gamut of music styles, as Stealing Oceans is hip hop and Paul McDonald is in the indie/rock field.
What makes Sam Tinnesz interesting is that he makes his money through licensing. You hear his music on everything from the Spider-Man Homecoming trailer to the NFL, MTV. Every single day he’s coming out, he’s like, “Hey, my song is on this show.” Sam actually has more streams than anybody in InstaBAND and he doesn’t even tour. So he does all of that through synch placements on film and television.
Adara is great, she’s also from Nashville and is big in the electronic scene. Adara is very much a “DIY” artist — pretty much all of these musicians are independent. But what’s interesting about Adara is she even creates all her own wardrobe, sets her own choreography and really gets into the whole show aspect.
At the same time, she’s doing all of that herself.
We did some shorter interviews, on-the-fly interviews, [such as] with Nappy Roots, an old school ‘90’s hip hop band, too.
Rock Cellar: Back in the early days of music, how did artists make it?
Bob Rose: Right now, as far as I’m concerned, we’re in the midst of the biggest change in the music industry since its beginning. From the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, all the way up through the ’90’s and the early 2000’s, the business model of the musician or band was pretty much the same. Which is, a lot of it was a lottery ticket — everybody knows that dream: I’ve got to get a record label, I need to get on the radio. The label at that point held all of the power.
So you really need these executives to get your music even seen or heard by anybody, to actually get it out there. Even going into the ’80s, you had to get on MTV, if you were going to make it. As we go into the ’90’s and 2000’s, we’re talking about multi-million dollar videos.
The big change was when Napster came along and demonetized music. And when Apple came back through and started charging 99 cents a track, that’s when things started to really change. It started to be: How can we make money here?
Napster was a file sharing service that came out in the early 2000’s from a guy in a college who made it so people could share files … It was the beginning of [web]sites where you could get things for free. The music really lends right to that, because then also you had the MP3 come out, which made music downloadable.
Up until that point music wasn’t even downloadable, we just didn’t have the [technical ability] to do that on a mass scale. So when Napster came out and made music available for free and people were able to pick up music and put them in their iPods and make their own CD, then the music industry, for lack of a better word, tanked. People just stopped buying music, because why would you buy when you can get it for free? … With Napster making this breakthrough of sharing the MP3, that was the catalyst that broke the music industry and then caused it to have to rebuild itself in this new way we deal with now.
The record labels at that point were just scrambling. If you don’t adapt you’re going to be left behind. All of their money was in those $20 CDs that cost them 50 cents to make. At the same token, all of the rich white executives were the ones making the most money, and the musicians compared to that were making very little.
Rock Cellar: And how about in 2020?
Bob Rose: With streaming, the negative side is artists aren’t making much off of streaming — .008 cents per stream. The main streaming outlet now is Spotify, your music subscription streaming service. After that, you have Apple Music and Tidal. They’re all very similar. You can get a free Spotify with commercials. Typically, on the streaming services you pay $10 a month and you can stream all the music you want … The streaming services bought convenience and time.
However, streaming caused lots of the record labels to disappear, so we now have only the big few. Now all these musicians are coming out as independents. So artists today, versus in the ’50’s, they have the power to make and release music in their own house — something you could never do back then. Making music, recording, mastering and all these things was a very unobtainable thing, even 15 years ago.
Rock Cellar: Was that because musicians then would have to record in a studio?
Bob Rose: Right. There were a lot more gatekeepers and entry fees — you had to pay the price. So then, if you don’t have a record label and want to go record and get your music out there, it was a very expensive process.
Whereas now, kids are sitting in their bedrooms and mastering tracks and putting them out on computers, and can put it out on Spotify themselves. So gatekeepers are gone — you really don’t need anyone to get your music out there. At the same time, the flip side to that is we’re dealing with a more massive saturation of music than we’ve ever experienced before. You can drown in music on Spotify.
In the ’50’s, their dilemma was: “I just need to get a record deal, and hopefully not get screwed in the process.” So the dilemma of today’s artist is: “I can get my music out there, but how does my music rise to the top? How do I cut through the saturation? How do I build an audience?” That’s where all that grass roots, social media branding connection from the artist to their actual followers and fans is so important.
Rock Cellar: In addition to streaming, what are other ways contemporary mid-tier musicians can make it in 2020’s music world?
Bob Rose: The top ways artists are making money today are mainly from live shows. Obviously, since we stopped filming, with COVID coming into play, that’s a huge factor, negatively affecting artists and their main source of income.
They also make money through merch sold at live shows or sold on their websites.
Rock Cellar: What kind of merchandise?
Bob Rose: Some artists, the Ries Brothers, they still do really well selling their CDs. And a lot of the artists releasing their music on vinyl are doing pretty well with that, too … Vinyl is being sold more now than ever. It really depends on the artist.
Phang’s main demographic is teenagers to the mid-twenties. That demographic is not interested in buying a CD, at all. However, there are still people in that same demographic who spent $40 on a limited edition CD, and are never going to play the CD at all, and just want to own that piece from the artist.
Rock Cellar: What’s another lucrative source of income for bands?
Bob Rose: Licensing is also a big thing for artists today. Especially because there’s so much content being created on a daily basis, such as TV shows, movies, video games, commercials or content online, using their music. That’s a big avenue for quite a few artists. It’s one of those residual ones, where you can have a track put out on these services and constantly get little pings and revenue from that one song.
One [management] group in Nashville that works with a lot of the artists featured in InstaBAND is called Resin8, and that’s the main thing they do. Placement of songs from their artists in shows. That’s their job, to find the placement and get it out there so these people can pull it. Sam Tinnesz, that’s his primary income, is through licensing.
Rock Cellar: InstaBAND shows how technology negatively affected the music business, but your film also depicts how tech can positively affect some of these mid-level indie groups. What are examples of positive fallout thanks to high tech?
Bob Rose: Aside from your grungy guitar band back in the day, a lot of artists now have access to or have their own home studios. Including the ability to record quality sound and the ability to master and mix their own music. Probably over half the artists we feature in our movie either primarily record in a home studio or have done a decent amount.
Now, we’re in the middle of this coronavirus and these artists have been home for months and they’re recording music. Music is being made right now, which wouldn’t have happened five, 10 years ago.
Forest Fire Gospel Choir, one of the bands we talk to, I went into their basement home studio. Very, very DIY, equipment everywhere, rugs on the floor — the main reason they like that is because they didn’t want to be on the clock. They wanted to allow these artists to be more creative, because there’s not a time clock going on, and these guys can go down there and tinker with sound and just really go to places where they would never have gone in a [recording] studio with a guy looking at his watch every 30 minutes and see how much [money] they’re making.
Rock Cellar: How are artists using smartphones nowadays?
Bob Rose: One of the big lines I love from the movie is one of the artists says: “The smartphone is as important an instrument as a guitar is for our band.” Another one says: “We spend half of our time on social media and half of our time practicing” — again, that’s because of the smartphone.
On the music and on the creative side of things — and I never thought about this going into the movie — but several artists said I don’t know what I’d do without a voice memo on my phone. They will go and just have an idea, and just start singing into their phone and just tinker around with it enough, that if they save that idea, as opposed to just singing it and trying to do it later in a studio — or even just do a rough little song, then you’ve got this great little starting point for when you do go into the studio.
The second most important thing for them is the connection with their fans. Because of that smartphone, because of Direct Messaging and Instagram and things like that, they’re constantly getting feedback from their bands and getting one-on-one communication with them, which is super important for an independent band. Because you have to go out there and create your own buzz, and get your own following and that cellphone is the way to do it.
Rock Cellar: Adara stresses how important that personal connection — which is enabled through social media — is important to her as a human being and artist.
Bob Rose: Absolutely. That sound byte and way of thinking was echoed universally throughout by everyone in the groups [interviewed for InstaBAND]. They’re all constantly… doing their own social media. That’s another thing, it’s how important authenticity is. That phone is the tool that lends to everything we talk about in the movie. That’s why to me it’s one of the most important parts. Because when you’re talking about branding, social media, connection with your fans, there’s a section in the film about how important Instagram is — they all come from the phone. None of these artists are sitting down and doing these things. They’re all going through the phone. From that to actually creating music with their phone, it’s one of the most important tools for a musician today.
Rock Cellar: What are the most important social media outlets for 21st century artists?
Bob Rose: Instagram, which is a social media outlet that derives its power off of the image … is the social media platform that’s most universally used. It’s based on pictures that are posted and reactions to that. Even when these artists are talking to their fans they’re talking to them through Direct Message on Instagram, nine times out of ten … Instagram is the main thing — almost the only thing — the artists spoke about.
A little bit Twitter, which is like the water cooler conversation happening now.
Facebook can be a picture, article, clip … Facebook has tended to get pretty negative. Especially whenever we get too close to a political season. Whereas Instagram tends to be more positive.
The Ries Brothers actually really embrace Facebook quite well. Every Monday they do a live interaction with fans for about an hour, and they’ll take requests, play music and hang out with them. They’ve been doing this for quite some time and they’ve built that audience there. For most artists, depending on where they built their audience is where they hang out.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about branding?
Bob Rose: Branding is the image, the feeling of who you are as an artist. It’s hard to put a finger on, like I don’t think it’s something you see or hear, it’s the overall feeling you get from that artist.
Rock Cellar: Is branding an identity that sets the artist apart?
Bob Rose: Absolutely. That’s why it’s so important. People hear this music — but really when they see the artist, and more importantly, see what that artist is all about. Those days when musicians came out with albums with cover art where you don’t see the artists and what they look like, you just have artwork — those days are long gone. Now, fans not only want to see the people they’re listening to, they really want to know what they’re all about. Do their beliefs align with them? That’s why a lot of today’s artists are very transparent about what they’re into. It helps with that connection to the art.
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Instagram is one of the best ways musical artists can brand themselves. And Adara really hit that well. She can’t always get across what her brand is, what she’s all about, just from someone immediately seeing or even listening to her music for a little bit. But when Adara’s on Instagram, with some of the imagery she has there, it really brings you into her universe.
Rock Cellar: Before COVID brought it to a screeching halt, how important was touring for today’s mid-tier musicians?
Bob Rose: Crucial. Typically it’s the number one avenue for revenue for any touring artist. The majority of musicians in InstaBAND go on tour quite a bit … We had people at different stages in their careers. Like Charlotte Sands, she was really just getting on her feet when we interviewed her, now she has a record deal and would have gone on tour — obviously things are on hold now. Touring is crucial for money, but also crucial for that’s how you expand your viewership, your audience, you get out in front of people … and fans can shake the artist’s hand and buy a T-shirt, which is how they make a lot of money as well.
Bob Rose: At the same time CD sales are going down, vinyl sales are going up. It goes to the “craft culture” we have now, where people want the craft beer and coffee, and vinyl slides into that. It’s a specialty thing, it’s a quality thing, it’s an organic thing. When you listen to a vinyl, it’s an organic, scientific process. There’s chemistry going on … the richness you get from the sound. You always have your collectors and they’re growing exponentially. Now you have these younger people who are buying and collecting vinyl — and don’t even have a record player. They just like the artist …
One of the things we feature in InstaBAND is Record Store Day, a huge event that really helps out the small record stores, which were quickly going the way of the video stores. Just disappearing. Record Store Day celebrates vinyl. It’s a really exciting time for that … I think it’s a trend that’s going to continue. And it’s great to know there’s a future for physical media.
Gravitas Ventures, a Red Arrow Studios company, will release InstaBAND across North America on all VOD/Digital and Blu-Ray/DVD release platforms beginning July 28, 2020.
April 9, 2021