Reflecting On T Bone Burnett’s Observations: Are You An Artist Or A Salesman?

Earlier this month legendary producer T Bone Burnett was featured in American Songwriter, one of the more respected music industry publications at our disposal. He apparently created a little riff with some folks when he talked about young musicians he referred to as Milk Carton Kids, saying this:

“Self-promotion is a horrible thing. As soon as an artist self-promotes he ceases to become an artist, he becomes a salesman.”

He was talking about the idea that to be an artist musicians must be at all costs creators. Yet the indie movement under the “DIY model” has created a generation — a huge one — of self-promoters who’ve embraced the idea they ultimately know everything there is to know about becoming successful in a business that has increased eleven fold in 13 years.

During a business meeting on Music Row in November, 2013 a record label exec shared this: In 1999 there were roughly 10,000 new albums distributed commercially. In 2012 that number increased to 110,000.  When I find the actual documentation, this post will be updated pronto, but I’m fairly confident this is accurate. It’s the executive’s job to know these things.

So the DIY musician has 110,000 times the work to do on his own to build global name recognition without a staff of record label professionals, just to establish brand awareness.

This, plus writing the songs, booking and performing at gigs whether they are local or require travel. Arrange and hold interviews, oversee production in and out of the studio dealing with everything from making a recording itself to some involvement in mixing and mastering,  arranging and getting ready for photo shoots, artist development, writing professional copy. Then there’s overseeing  art direction for album covers, digital graphics, and posters. And the list goes on and on. It’s a huge process just to put out one CD or even EP.

Some musicians handle it effectively enough. Others not so much. The latter category typically has the most musical talent.

Most musicians outsource at least some of the work usually at a ridiculously reduced rate causing a product that  requires 100% effective marketability to be less than perfect due to cutting too many corners. Historically musicians have never had enough start-up capital to get through the process, hence the existence of the record label system.

The net result is usually a motley crew  out to prove themselves in an over saturated market with an inferior product, making much less than minimum wage whether it’s their main source of income or not.

Indies struggle intensely through the process, sometimes insanely, micromanaging every step instead of allowing those they hire to do their jobs. It’s really very sad to witness. Ask any photographer, graphic designer, web designer, manager, publicist, radio promoter, or booking agent worth their salt their opinion on being micromanaged by the DIY artist. Get ready for a discussion-like  ride to hell and back.

Then multiply that by 110,000.

The professionals exist to create the best possible outcome for the raw material they’ve been given to work with. Most of the time that information is inferior from the start. Ninety nine percent of the raw material can benefit greatly from at least one professional on board to help the musician see where flaws and errors can be avoided. To be fair, from the list of pros above, “the team players” all have their specialties, and can provide a wealth of knowledge to musicians.  Yet in most situations they never get the opportunity because the DIYer insists he can control the mayhem. After all he created the music, and he’s footing the bill, therefore, he has the last word.

This is not an entrepreneurial spirit hell bent on winning.

The indie profile has turned the musician into a manic manager of tasks he’s not equipped to handle, and one who then has the arduous job of selling an inferior product. He is then swimming, if not drowning,  in that overcrowded pool with 109,999 others attempting to achieve the exact outcome, quite often to the exact demographic base.

And everyone wonders why CD sales are down.

At any given time roughly 100,000 inferior products flood the music market, with substandard packaging, marketing and promotion. The internet has subsequently displaced sound quality, distribution, and more importantly, the audience who buys the product.

Only 40% of visitors to iTunes make a purchase. When there are too many choices, the consumer generally makes no choice at all — which by some standards is the best decision.

To those who are critical of T Bone’s remarks on self-promotion, I hope this clears things up. There is a world of difference between being a musician and being an artist. Burnett leans heavily on the arm of art, while everyone else is lost in a daze and the confusion.


About scout66

2017 marks the 33rd year of Janet Hansen’s career as a music marketing specialist. With three Grammy award-winning campaigns to her credit, Hansen has also contributed to the legacy of two of history’s most popular songs. “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams is the most-broadcast instrumental tune in history; and “Louie, Louie” by The Fabulous Wailers is the most-recorded rock song in history. In 2009 Hansen launched the unique music platform Scout66 to encourage reviews of live shows from the ticket-buying public. You may contact Janet at for information on consulting, campaigns, and tour support. Please follow us on Twitter at
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5 Responses to Reflecting On T Bone Burnett’s Observations: Are You An Artist Or A Salesman?

  1. frannej4 says:

    I almost cried. I’d like mention some things that have jaded me but I still enjoy the work. The majority of musicians I’ve helped with only one exception, have expected full blown miracles out of me. I often make the analogy that they believe it to be like Sea Monkeys –add water and poof. It is a huge volume of work and it’s constant. I’m a ’boutique’ business and by no means have the same resources or the like as a large agency. I don’t get paid as much as big agency either. See the trade off. By far the most common lunacy is the assumption that ‘they’ should make the same amount of money in any market. Why do they assume this of a market they’ve never played in, have no press out, and no airplay? No one knows who you are! They want to market themselves but have no idea of the realities. Fair? Oh please grow up.


  2. Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay.
    I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to
    new updates.


  3. Pingback: “Art Is A Holy Pursuit” T Bone Burnett and The Value of Music | Scout66com's Blog

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