The recent bio picks of Queen and Elton John share a common villain – the music business.
Record labels and managers are shown at odds with the creative spirit. But without these business people, we likely would have never heard the music of these great artists.
In this episode, John discusses why you need to embrace business and marketing in order to get your music (or your teaching) out to a wider audience.
Episode 109 – The Business of Singing
Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Alright just a quick note, if you are interested in a deep dive in voice science, my most popular course, the New Science of Singing is on sale right now for just $97. It was previously $497 so it’s a pretty substantial savings. And this is the 2.0 edition. I’ve just added a brand new module of lessons that cover the newest findings in voice science and the newest things I find interesting, including vowel perception and vocal power. I also have certification testing and bonus exercises. It really is a great course if I do say so myself. It encompasses many years of study and teaching and masterclasses, kind of boiled it all into this in depth online course. Just go to the show notes, johnhenny.com/109 for more information. It will be on sale through the month of August. So that’s drawing to a close very quickly. So you want to jump on that.
Alright, today’s podcast covers the business of singing, and the reason this is top of mind for me is I recently saw the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody and the Elton John movie Rocketman and they share a couple of things in common besides the same director. The original director of the Queen movie, Brian Singer, got embroiled in a bit of a scandal and had to leave production and it was finished by the director of the Elton John movie, whose name is escaping me for the moment. But they do share the same director, but they’re both different movies in a way. However, another key thing they share is the villain of the movie, and the villain of both movies are businessmen; our management, our record label people.
In the case of the Queen movie, Mike Myers plays the hapless record executive who refuses to release Bohemian Rhapsody and I do have to say as a bit of fairness there were no six-minute singles leading up to that time and in the aftermath of Bohemian Rhapsody, there were not really more six-minute singles. It didn’t spawn a whole genre of opera rock. It kind of existed as its own little brilliant slice of music and I don’t blame any executive for looking at that or listening to it and thinking, this is not the single, this is not what we should release as the single. You’re My Best Friend would have been the more obvious choice from that album and that actually went on to be a single as well. However, I remember being a kid and hearing Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time and it just blew my mind and I was instantly a Queen fan.
Another thing these movies share in common for me personally is they represent musical firsts in my very young musical life. Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the very first album I bought with my own money. I think I was 11 or 12 years old at the time. And that was just a very, very big deal for me to go and purchase, from my hard earned allowance money, this album, which to this day still blows my mind with this brilliance, especially considering this double album was recorded in just two weeks and the songs were basically written by Elton in only three days. And their songs like Funerals For A Friend, Love Lies Bleeding, Candle In The Wind, Benny And The Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Saturday Nights, Alright For Fighting, Harmony. I mean, it’s just a true work of brilliance. It’s staggering how on point he was during that period of his career.
And Queen with Freddie Mercury was the very first concert I saw when I was 13 or 14 years old. There is news of the world’s tour, the album that had We Will Rock You on it. And so both of these artists were very important and personal to me, and that made the movies a bit of a challenge. You know, they always say, don’t watch a movie that covers a subject that you know about. Just like the movie Whiplash about the jazz drummer. Well, I was a drummer and I was in jazz programs and there were aspects of that movie that were so wrong, but I had to overlook it because the basic feeling of the movie and being in those intense jazz programs, I do think it captured even though in a really hyper non-realistic way, and both movies have errors.
I know that they did it on purpose. They have to create dramatic narratives and they put things out of chronological order. The one that really got me was showing Elton recording Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee at the very early stage of his career before he had John Reed as his manager. It shows John Reed showing up to the session as they kind of begin their personal and business relationship. And that song happened much later in Elton’s career. And it was also, it was a different style of music for him. He wasn’t making music like that back then. And I know that’s just me digressing and showing my age. But, and the other thing I thought of the Elton John movie, they obviously show his sexuality but they, I don’t think they really captured how brave Elton was with his sexuality in the 70’s.
Elton essentially came out to Rolling Stone Magazine and he came out slightly softly. He came out as bisexual. But even then, it was such an explosive revelation that the reporter offered to turn off the recording. He said, are you sure you want to do this, and Elton said, yes. And to give you an idea of the blow back back then, what the temperament was back then when that article came out. It was of course a bit of a scandal, but I was a huge Elton John fan and I didn’t care and I remember wearing my Elton John shirt to school just after that article came out and I literally was called homophobic slurs, taunted and kind of threatened to have my rear end kicked because I simply wore a shirt bearing his image. It was a vastly different world back then.
And I’m just so thankful that has changed. But getting back to the businessman is a villain, and poor John Reed features in both films, and my dad who was Scottish, he was always so proud. You know, I was a huge Elton John fan. There I am 11 years old and my dad would go, you know, his manager, Scottish John Reed’s a Scotsman, he’s just, he loved that but John Reed doesn’t fare very well. And in truth John Reed and Elton had a business relationship long after it was kind of suggested in the movie, although it did fall apart with Elton claiming that he had misappropriated funds. But business is why we know Queen. Business and businessmen and women are why we know Elton John. It is the business of music that enabled this little shy young man, Elton, I don’t mean little in stature. I meant he just, he wasn’t well known at all. He was playing in a little backup band to become a household name, to sell out stadiums.
It’s what took Freddie Mercury from being a baggage handler at Heathrow airport to being one of the most charismatic front in all of rock and roll. It was business. That is how we consume music. That is how we become aware of music. And music and commerce, art and commerce has always been at odds, but it’s a relationship that needs to happen. If you want your art to go beyond just you and your immediate circle or if you’re a voice teacher, if you want your influence and reach to go beyond just your little local area and your studio, you have to embrace business and you have to embrace sales and you have to become an entrepreneur.
Now, entrepreneurship is a little bit of a hip thing these days. So it’s not quite the dirty word, but within artistic communities. Ooh, it’s just something we dread. Going commercial is always just so stigmatized and unless you’re really expressly a pop artist, it becomes at odds with your creative, artistic spirit. But I am urging you to embrace this because the reality is everything is changed in the music business. If you watch the Elton John movie, you will see that very early in his career, Dick James, who had Dick James Records put Elton on a salary and Elton was a songwriter, and they paired him up with Bernie Taupin who became his longtime collaborator. And Elton actually became the singer because people weren’t recording his songs and Elton said, then I’ll sing them myself. He didn’t start off looking to be the world’s biggest pop star.
But these arrangements don’t happen anymore. If this was 1971 and you wanted to be a recording artist, you would move to L.A. You’d go hang out at the Troubadour, which is featured in the Elton John film. You get up on the open mic nights. There would be A&R people, label people hanging out there. There’d be Jackson Brown, and members– the guys that ended up forming the Eagles, or Eagles. There’s actually no “the” in front of that. I never remember that. And then these A&R people, they would likely sign you to a little bit of a production deal, much like Elton was getting. It’s just they tested and there was more patience. Elton, they show Elton recording Your Song very early, but there was actually an album before that called Empty Sky which you see briefly, he’s signing it for someone in the movie.
But Empty Sky came up and I don’t even think it was released in the U.S. and didn’t do that well. And so these days, if your first album doesn’t do well, you often just get dropped. But there was more patience back then because frankly there was more money to be made on the backend. And so the record label handled the artist development, all of those things in the sales. Well, that’s now on you. You actually have to develop yourself as an artist and you have to go out and build your audience and prove that you are a winnable commodity, and a commodity you are. At least your art is. It needs to be sold and there needs to be an audience for it. You have to test it. When a McDonald’s is going to come out with some new concoction to clog your arteries, they will test it in certain markets.
They don’t take it wide and there are many times there are, you will see large brilliant companies come out with something that fails. Jeff Bezos and Amazon came out with the fire phone. It was a flop. I remember Steve Jobs coming out with this Apple sound system. I even forget what it was called, but he said it would rival, you know, thousands of dollars worth of speakers it didn’t sell. And what companies do so they don’t get these really, really big flops is they will do very small test marketing. Well, in the music business, they don’t want to spend the money test marketing you. They’re going to go out and they are going to find people who are already getting a buzz. They’ve got a following, they have an audience, and now it’s on you to build that audience. And voice teachers, if you want to have a reach beyond your studio, you’ve got to build an audience.
But here’s the beautiful thing. You can build an audience of the people who most want to work with you. This podcast is designed to create an audience of singers, and as it turns out, voice teachers, although that wasn’t my original intention, but singers who want to approach the voice on a more informed intellectual, hence intelligent, level rather than people who, Oh, just give me some exercises I want to sing. I want to reach out to those people who really want to understand the voice and really be serious about it. And then if a certain percentage of you, if you really connect with me and you start to purchase my products, or you get on my online teacher training course, so you buy my book or you end up studying with me. I know I’m attracting people I most want to work with. I really want to work with smart people.
And there are, and I’ve worked with great singers who aren’t necessarily smart and I enjoy working with them, but there’s just something that I love about people who really want to know how their voice works. And I love teaching this and showing how it can really supercharge your singing. It can really help you correct faults and analyze yourself. I’m just a big proponent of this. So this podcast attracts a certain audience and you as a voice teacher, you can attract the audience that you want through all these mediums that we now have available to us. And if you’re an artist, your reach now is global. If you’re in a small town, it no longer matters. You don’t have to necessarily move to Hollywood right away. You can start building your audience right away. You have the tools, they’re out there, you have the reach.
I’ve said it before, but your smartphone is a more powerful studio than the Beatles ever had. What you have, the technology that you have available to you is amazing and you can now create material and get it released the same day. Elton John wrote an entire double album in three days. You could do it in three days and on the fourth have it out to the world. You can write it, you can record it as you’re going, and you can get it out. And the thing is, you can start to test, you can put out material that you’re not sure about and see how people react to it. Start putting things out. See what people respond to. It’s interesting on that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, Elton wanted the first song to be Candle In The Wind. Now that did go on to be a huge hit for him.
Actually became his, I think one of the biggest singles of all time. But at the time, the record label said no, Benny and the Jets, and Elton really fought them and the record label won. Unlike the Queen movie, Elton didn’t quit his record label, and Benny and the Jets was a huge hit, and he became the first white artist to appear on Soul Train, which was quite a remarkable achievement. That song just crossed over so many lines and it just opened him up to a really wide audience and it really was the right move. I don’t think, especially in America, if Candle In The Wind had been the first single that they pushed, if it would have had quite the impact. So in that sense, the business people were right about Elton’s album, and in retrospect they would have been wrong about Queen. So Queen fought that fight, and Bohemian Rhapsody launched them into the stratosphere.
But you, now, you have to be that business person. You have to find that audience. And so you can– you test this, you try things, you see what people respond to. You may not think a song’s going to work. It may not, but it will be your Benny and the Jets, that suddenly that’s the one that takes off. And you go, okay, there’s something here. There’s something about the way I sing, the way I express myself, the way I arrange my music that goes with this style. This is connecting with people. But you just gotta start putting stuff out there. You should start looking at how to advertise on social media, whether it’s YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, so you can start to build that following. Don’t think that people will come and you. They won’t.
Alright. The chances of you going viral are incredibly small, and Facebook doesn’t really care to make you a viral superstar. They want you to pay, but it’s actually not that expensive. And if you want to do this for a career, you’ve got to invest in yourself. I mean, you wouldn’t want to open a restaurant and think it’s not going to cost you anything and everybody’s just going to hand you the keys to a functioning restaurant and say, go have at it because you have talent. Absolutely not. It takes a lot of investment and it takes a lot of work, and you need to look at your music in the same way if you want to do this as a career. And also as a voice teacher, if you want to grow beyond your small area– Now some people are perfectly happy and that’s fine, or you’re teaching voice part time, that’s beautiful.
But if you’ve got that drive to make it bigger, you should learn how to use these platforms and advertise and really grow that influence. In fact, I am just finishing up my next book. The tentative title is Voice Teacher Influencer. I’m hoping to send it to the editor next week. Little bit of dangling ends there. Some chapters are still a bit sloppy. I want to tighten it up. But it’s all about how to grow and expand your influence. It’s an exciting time and as they say, the best time to get started was yesterday. The next best time is today. So embrace that you have to be a business person, embrace sales, embrace marketing, embrace self promotion and then when you hit a certain point, someone else can take it over. But you will have a little extra something that a lot of artists back in the day didn’t. You’ll know how it works, and you can be more involved in the marketing of your music rather than just blindly handing it over to someone else and leaving it completely in their hands. You’ll be more informed, so you really need to learn this stuff.
Hey, if you want to know more about me, go to johnhenny.com. Again, my new Science Of Singing 2.0 course is on sale. Just go to johnhenny.com/109 for episode 109. I’ll have the link there. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.