Smashing the Record
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Elizabeth Cawein worked as a publicist for the Music Resource Center until she left to start her own publicity firm, Signal Flow PR, in 2011.
“I started with one client last July and now carry between six and 10 clients at any given time,” Cawein says. “I have enough work to keep two interns busy each semester, too. I’ve also been able to build relationships with other PR firms and music businesses in and outside of Memphis that have led to partnerships, contract work, and other projects.”
Cawein’s experience at the MRC left her in a position to appreciate the challenges local musicians face in covering the costs and developing the strategies needed to succeed.
“Memphis is saturated with talented artists,” she says. “That, of course, makes this city one of the best places in the world to be a spectator of music — but sometimes it can be frustrating to be the one making it, selling it, and trying to earn a living from it.”
“Artists are often expected to play for free or for very little money, and not just when they’re starting out or new to the scene. I have artists on my roster who’ve been making music for five and 10 years who are still asked to play for less than they’re worth. Ultimately, if you’re booking a band to play for your event, you’re not just paying them for the one hour they’re on stage. You’re paying them, in a sense, for the time they spent rehearsing and writing and prepping for that gig.”
Mann has watched Cawein’s success and is excited by the emerging network of entrepreneurial activity in the Memphis music scene. “[Cawein has] really been able to get her business up and running and cash-flow positive, which is encouraging to me because it not only speaks to her ability, but also that there are artists who need it,” Mann says. “Not every artist is ready for a publicist. The quip from publicists is, ‘If you don’t have anything to publicize, how can I be a publicist?’ The bottom line is that her clients have something going on. She can help them maximize their potential.”
Cawein is quick to credit the MRC with her success.
“The staff at the Memphis Music Foundation and MRC have sent me about 50 percent of my clients, and the relationships I built with artists while working there were invaluable to getting my business off the ground,” she says. “They are an invaluable resource to the music community in our city. Most of the independent musicians in Memphis are a one-person team. They manage themselves, do their own booking, publicity, legal, everything. There’s so much room for error at that stage and so much you have to know. The MRC is the place, and has the staff, for artists to really learn how to be entrepreneurs and make that balancing act work, so that eventually they can get to a point, both professionally and financially, where it makes sense to start forming a team and really move to the next level.”
The market for recorded music has turned a corner … sort of. The unit sales of digital (downloads) equaled those of physical product (CDs) for the first time in 2011. Before you cue Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” you should know that the dollar value of the digital units were just more than one-third of the sales from physical units. From a valuation standpoint, the industry is worth half its 1999 peak worth. The pricing of the product by the market has changed the game.
The game was that a label gave an artist an advance, and the artist would pay a manager and make a record. The label would market the record and share the income with the artist after the costs of the advance were recouped from sales. Mind you, the game was played dirty and the label always won.
With the advent of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, artists can market good music to their fans at little cost. Since the music is easily distributed online, the distribution and marketing functions of the label are worth less to artists. With the combo punch of diminishing label budgets and social media, the artist has a lot of new power relative to the label. The problem is what to do with it. How can you afford a manager when you can’t afford a helicopter?