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Big George's Guide To Commercial Success: Industry For Innovators, Not Imitators

Feature | Tips & Tricks By Big George
Published June 2000

Can you believe it? This month Big George is temporarily lost for words. This is the 10th article in a 26‑part series.

Over the past few months I've painted a pretty depressing picture of the music industry: record companies who will never sign you up, TV executives who are buffoons, advertising agencies run by mind‑altered maniacs, high‑street record outlets who only stock the Top 40 and so on.

Well, I was talking with a big‑time industry pal of mine the other day and although he agreed with me wholeheartedly on the above, he also reckoned that the rotten, stale periods of the music industry's history (like now) are when the best things can happen. I argued that as soon as someone finds a new way to crack it (whatever 'it' is), the path that they forged gets blocked by a trillion others trying to copy. He agreed, but added that the music business is an industry for innovators, not imitators. I was stumped. Me, lost for words. (The nation is stunned...)

Laying Foundations

Of course, you might argue that there's not much evidence of innovation in the charts at the moment, and plenty of imitation. But we're talking about business and not about rearranging the same four chords. You want to jump above the thousands of other people in your situation, but the question is how do you do it? Is it luck you need? Well yes, but you make your own luck, good and bad. Is it contacts? To an extent it is; not being part of the Oxbridge elite will almost definitely scupper your plan to become the head of a major corporation, but valuable music business contacts can be made at all levels every day. How many usable contacts have you made so far this year?

I can't tell you exactly how to be innovative, but I can tell you this: you're unlikely to ever get the chance to exercise your talent for innovation if you're ignorant of how the aspect of the business that you're interested in works. If you ain't prepared to put in the groundwork, how do you expect to revel in the spoils? Do your homework! Find out who controls the mechanics of your chosen sector of the industry. Identify and target the people and organisations you'll eventually need to do business with once you identify your particular path, and find out how they conduct their affairs.

If you're a dance‑music maker, go into the shops which stock your flavour of music, find out who supplies their stock — individuals or distributors — and get their numbers. Then ask questions about which acts get onto which compilation CDs, and who releases these records. If you want to get into music for the media, find out who runs the production companies who make the programmes/films/adverts you're into and make a point of knowing the principal producers they use, and what work they've done in the past. If you want to produce the next boy/girl band who can't sing, can't dance, but do want to bounce up and down on video singing along to a '70s cover, you'll find Peter Waterman's number in the music industry directory you own (you do own a music industry directory, don't you?). Alternatively, if you have a guitar‑based band with a fistful of classic songs which the blank generation will live by — er... build a time machine to transport yourself back to the good old days.

Once again Big George gets cynical, but the truth is there are so many bands out there that no‑one, apart from the band themselves, is interested in. Having said that, U2 did it in the '80s, the Manics did it in the '90s, and so far the 21st century is still wide open!

Map Reference

After you've got yourself briefed up about your sector of the industry, act on your information. This means putting your hand in your pocket. This is a business, and to get started in any business costs money. Even if you've spent a couple of grand producing your work, you can't expect it to promote itself. You have to sell — your records to a distributor for them to supply to shops, your music to media producers, or your ability to a star‑maker.

Imagine trying to get from one side to the other of an unfamiliar city, with your eyes shut. You'd be lucky to get 50 metres up the road before you bumped into a wall. But open your eyes, get hold of a detailed map of the area, spend a little time walking about checking out different routes, and the whole situation changes. Not only would you find out most, if not all, the ways to get around, you might come across a shortcut no‑one else knows about.


The purpose of this month's column is to give you just cause to find your own way into the business, and not to reminisce about how other acts carved their big break. But detailing the methods the great and the good (and the not so good) employed to secure their place in the annals of music history would make a great future column. So if you know an innovative way in which an established artist propelled their career into the stratosphere, let me know. You can write to me here at SOS, email, or visit my website (, which has links to nearly all of my previous SOS articles.