At 54 years of age, Willie Wisely has just released his eighth studio album and is on tour again. For Willie, success didn’t happen overnight, or through a YouTube discovery. Instead, he’s kept on a long journey of upskilling while balancing his act with music creation and performing.
Fortunately, living in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the music business, has given him an advantage: he was an early adopter of new music technology, including digital distribution. So how did it start for this Minneapolis native, who at the age of 15 just wanted to “get on stage and rock out”?
As a teenager, Willie worshipped Paul McCartney. Even now, several other musical influences later, McCartney remains his North Star. In his mind, in order to be a proper musician he needed to write his own songs, just like The Beatles (and so many others) did. So he picked up a guitar, learned to play, and went onwards to the next natural progression: booking gigs and recording music.
With this DIY mindset, Willie needed to immerse himself in the world of promotion and music production. Thankfully, there were digital audio workstations for recording, to offset the prohibitive costs of studio rentals. As it turned out, he still appreciated music from the aspects of creating, recording, performing and touring. So what’s next?
To some, “self-marketing” may sound like a dirty word — but to entrepreneurs, it’s a survival method. As a musician, Willie had arrived at a crossroads. He needed to learn about design, branding, website building and HTML. He did the work and learned the business side of the industry, saying “I now have a career at a large record label and music publisher because as a 9th grader, I wanted to get up on stage, rip off my shirt and sing. I didn’t write this life’s path. It logically created itself.”
Not every musician can follow this path, no matter how talented. It takes a long-time commitment and constant adaptation. Looking back, Willie recounted of the time he was booking his next show at a payphone in a snowy parking lot. He then shifted to build his business by not only performing gigs at bars and clubs, but by engaging his audience to host private concerts in their homes, offices, businesses and family events for respectable fees. Due to their intimate nature, he was able to play the shows on his own, and even used the same method to tour Japan. Willie also credits this method of performing for the success of his merchandise sales. What a way to extend his brand!
However, with time comes change. By the 2000s, Willie’s Beatle-inspired pop was considered antiquated. Now, he’s content that the popularity of streaming today has reduced ageism and genre discrimination. He feels more accepted today by music lovers of every generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z. “Kids are given a digital service with 50 million songs on it in their tweens or earlier” he says, “and are told to have ‘a go at it’. And thank God, I’ve certainly benefited from this open-mindedness. It bodes well for music and art generally, but also culturally and politically.”
While Willie was smart enough to be an early adopter of digital distribution, he did mention that “the process of reviewing and understanding statements was no easy task.” He’s been exposed on both fronts as an artist and as a businessman — including work as the manager of Billie Holiday’s estate — he’s been deeply immersed in the fields of royalty collection and copyright protection. Most artists don’t have this opportunity. They struggle to comprehend an infuriating amount of terms and conditions and ‘hidden fees’, only to end up feeling that they missed out on what could and should have been their fair share.
This is common, because it takes a great effort for a non-specialist to review contracts and understand the wide variety of means by which musicians get compensated. “Publishing royalties, writer royalties, artist royalties, master licensing income, neighboring rights, merchandise, sync income and a ton more granular areas of expertise are required if you’re really interested in knowing why your earnings seem low.” says Willie.
This means that while technically they all might be transparent, that is only, as Willie pointed out, “if you feel like going to school and then getting in the ring with all the business partners and collaborators, plus the service providers you’d be working with. You’d be putting on the gloves and making sure you have proper splits with everyone. On top of that, the wherewithal to memorialize everything, in even cursory contracts. For these reasons, it may never be truly transparent. Blockchain seems to promise otherwise.”
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