My Latest Thoughts on the Music/Record Industry

From “Atlas Unplugged” (

Sara Hickman
Championing the Indie Spirit

interviewed by Diane Gershuny

Sara Hickman celebrated a milestone in 2007: 18 years of making a living at making music. Whether it’s as a solo artist creating music for adults or children (including the 2-disc, 3-woman side project collaboration from the mid-90s entitled Domestic Science Club), Sara has succeeded in this dog-eat-artist world perhaps from her tenacity, talent and DIY spirit.

Armed with a BA of Fine Arts from the University of North Texas in Denton, she opted to pursue her dream of becoming a recording artist in addition to that of a fine artist. Her first foray into the world of labels happened through Windham Hill Records, when Will Ackerman courted her for a compilation CD over her song “Salvador”, an ode to the artist Dali. Her first self-created solo outing, Equal Scary People, landed her accolades and a deal with Elektra Records, which licensed and reissued the record. Next came Shortstop in 1990, followed by Necessary Angels. Although Sara had toured extensively and worked hard at promoting her music, Elektra decided to shelve the project and drop Angels. Fans came to her aid and raised almost $50,000 to buy the album back, which was eventually released on another Warner/Elektra/Atlantic label, Discovery, ironically started by the very founder of Elektra, Jac Holzman.

By 1997, Hickman had released three discs on Shanachie Records: Misfits, a licensed collection of odds and ends, the Adrian Belew-produced Two Kinds of Laughter in 1998, and Spiritual Appliances in 2000. She also has released numerous limited-edition discs on her own Sleeveless label, including This Christmas Wish, Faithful Heart (in collaboration with Strings Attached), a live CD Ready to Pop, and a slew of award winning children’s albums Newborn (1999), Toddler (2001), and Big Kid (2003). Last year, saw the release of Motherlode, a two-disc compilation of songs concerned with the issues of womenkind.

Sara’s multi-faceted interests range from community issues to music, and she is not one to shy away from using her time and talent to get involved and to help others. Her outreach work and concerts are dedicated to numerous charities, addressing issues such as child abuse, breast cancer research, AIDS, illiteracy, and the homeless. She has been awarded the prestigious Humana Women Helping Women award for her contributions to such organizations as Safe Place, Habitat for Humanity, House the Homeless, the SPCA, the Race for the Cure, and many other animal and human rights organizations, including the Tanner Romanian Mission (which adopts Romanian orphans and gives them a lifelong, loving home in their native land).

We caught up with Sara in between shows in California to tap her (very opinionated) views on the state of the recording industry today.

So, what IS the state of the industry as you see it?

The recording industry is in great flux. Major labels still have the bulk of monies to expend on production/publicity, but the Internet and home recording processes have changed the capacity for anyone to be a part of the music industry. Blogging, e-newsletters,, CD Baby,, and file-sharing make it easy for people to reveal their creations and to build an audience and/or fan base. You also have Taxi and Music Supervisor pitching to television and film, so where it used to be an elitist industry (serving only those who had major label deals and connections), now anyone can have a chance just by working hard… Oh, but still having good music!

How has the role of the producer/engineer changed in the past few years?

I think you are asking two separate questions. Producers have changed in that there are still the big names that are hard to get in bed with unless you have the bucks or the major label backing. But there are more and more talented people taking risks on unknowns and helping them build great productions around their music—a lot of younger producers who are musicians, themselves.

As far as engineers, yes, there are still big name engineers. But so many people can make home recordings or go to a smaller studio on a budget and create great stuff. Accessibility has replaced inability to get in the door.

With DIY recording capability, will producers become obsolete?

No. People will always want the help of others with more experience and wacky ideas!

How has your role changed in the eyes of labels? Artists?

My role in the eyes of labels and artists… hmm! That is a funny question. I’d like to think I’ve been in people’s line of sight, but who can say!?

I have not been with a label in almost ten years, and am truly enjoying working really hard on behalf of my creations. I have all the freedom I could want, and I can hire independent promoters, publicists, etc., to help upon release. I have an in-house group of dedicated assistants that help with daily agendas (mailings, phone calls, emails, setting up appointments, bookings, etc). So, my role in the eyes of labels has probably been forgotten, as I’m not someone they ever have to deal with as an artist or businessperson (unless I am licensing something to another label, which does happen on occasion).

As far as my role in the eyes of other artists, I feel I have accrued the respect and support of my fellow musicians. I think a lot of them understand how hard I have been working the last 17 years, on and off labels, and many of them are in the same position I am in… they are all working on their own projects through their own labels, too! So, it is good to know we can call each other and be able to utilize feedback, consideration for a project or have support of one another in co-writing or performing. And we don’t have to go through labels for permission (except our own).

How would you define the Record Industry vs. The Music Industry?

The ‘record industry’ is quickly becoming the ‘download industry’. I believe in the next few years, CDs will be a thing of the past. Certain aspects of my packaging, and for some artists ALL their packaging/songs, is available on the website. Anyone can download a song and keep it on their iPod or in their computer. I think the recording industry made some major faux pas’ in their fight against Napster, and they are scrambling to make up for it. On the other hand, I do think that protections need to stay in place on behalf of songwriters, composers, arrangers and artists, so having the recording industry (including the Recording Academy/NARAS) work hard with and lobby Congress to protect rights is very crucial. It is hard to create change with one voice, but a large group of concerned artists can make sure we are receiving our fair share of a multi-billion dollar business.

The music industry… Well, it used to be that A&R (artist & repertoire) folks really knew, and loved, music. They lived and breathed and cared about the acts they signed. They fought for them within the labels. With the decline of career artist labels (like Elektra and Capitol) and the lack of educated A&R, you will see more and more artists becoming savvier and savvier on what they need to accomplish because the onus is on them (and/or their management, if they have management).

I have already seen the changes on the panels I have been on the last 17 years. From general questions of “how do I get signed?” in 1990 to the very specific marketing and production questions I get now. Acts want to protect themselves, make a living, and make the kind of music they want to make. But the music industry is more than labels and A&R. It is also publishers, publicists, radio, marketing, TV, film, writers, arrangers, Web designers, management, personal assistants, booking agents, artists, and fashion…. There are a lot of careers within the music industry that would take a long time to chat about here.

Are their interests in conflict or compatible?

Well, the recording industry has always seemed to me to be about the labels, not the artists. And with that said, I should say it has always been about the CEOs and their unbalanced, grandiose share of the monies the artist’s create. That is why good management (and/or a great lawyer) is so important. Checks and balances, if you are an artist that can create major sales, are crucial to surviving and making money off your music. The music industry is about money, too. Everyone wants the hot thing, the new sound. With this said, I think in this way they are compatible.

However, with the rise of a variety of artists becoming more sophisticated and accessible (meaning any artist), here is where the conflict is coming into play. A great example would be Bonnie Raitt, standing up for blues musicians who had been taken advantage of [The Blues Foundation]. As an artist who is very successful, standing up for the rights of others who were cheated out of incomes…. this is an artist who took the time to educate herself on behalf of musicians she loved and cared about. I think more musicians want to be able to take care of themselves, now and long-term, by protecting their interests and understanding what they are signing.

I also think the music industry is changing, along with the record industry, finding new ways to accommodate artists and their fresh approaches to business. There’s lots of licensing (instead of ownership of the masters in perpetuity) and a lot more creative joint ventures. Artists are starting to have more power, in some ways, by being educated.

That said, you have to also look at empires like MTV who will want to use an artist’s song and not pay them anything because they are “trading” airtime that the artist wouldn’t normally get. I think artists have to be brave and unite. They have to say, “No, my art is worth something, especially in the face of your garnering millions in advertising. Please pay me fairly.”

What changes (technological, societal, etc.) have had the most positive impact/most negative impact on your business? On the industry at large?

Most Positive: full production via local/national businesses that I work with and pay independently, i.e. I can arrange, record, master, package, and duplicate on my own, and in the process, I am helping other musicians/engineers/businesses thrive by utilizing their services. And I own my masters! So, I can license to film/TV and actually make money, or create more copies of CDs when I need more at shows/for Internet sales without a lot of headache and begging from a label. The wonderful acceptance by society that an artist can be talented and worthy and NOT be on a major label.

Negative Impact on my business: People who rip and burn and I don’t receive a cent of my hard work. That hurts me financially. But, what I find is a majority of people WANT to support me in my endeavors and will pay full price to me because they want me to keep making music. The consumers, by and large, are more educated nowadays, as well.

What have you done specifically to adapt?

Returned to being an independent in 1998 and relying on the Internet, word of mouth, independent publicists, live shows.

Will record labels become obsolete?

Hmm. Probably. They already are! They are all being eaten up by Germany and Japan. WEA is the only American conglomerate left, I believe.

As royalty rates are being examined do you think producers should also receive royalty payments?

No, not any more. I think they should be paid for their time and compensated for their ideas. That can be arranged ahead of time, contractually, between artist and producer. Look at it this way: many musicians play on an artist’s album, and none of them get “points” like producers do. And they bring a lot to the table, sometimes coming up with an instrumental hook or cool sound that would not have existed without their input. Also, engineers who work tirelessly, and generally thanklessly, generally don’t get points.

I think it is ESPECIALLY disparaging that an artist who produces themselves when they are on ANY label like I was (major and larger indie) NEVER got paid for my time to self-produce. Nor did I get points. Maybe my bad, but it is my understanding that this is the standard in the industry.

On a scale from 1-5 (1 being the most important) please rate the following impact on the success of a release:

I will replace “Producer” with “Production”. I think that the finished production of a CD is the #1 selling point. When you first hear a song on the Internet/radio/CD, the thing that affects a listener the most is how it makes you FEEL. That is what great production is all about, so I credit the producer/engineer first and foremost. You can have the most ridiculous song, a simple song, a song that is formulaic or base, but if the production rocks, emotes, moves the listener… you have a winner. (On the other hand, there are great songs out there that were destroyed by a bad singer, bad arrangements, overkill with reverb, etc. All production woes.)

#1 Producer/Engineer/Band
(Think U2, REM, Joni Mitchell, Motown, Weird Al Yankovic, Randy Newman, Norah Jones, Dixie Chicks—all great production values that ENHANCE the songs)
#2 Songwriter
#3 Promotion
#4 Singer
#5 Distribution
#6 Label

For more information on Sara Hickman, go to:

Diane Gershuny is a freelance writer and publicist who has written about music and musicians, instruments and pro audio for over 20 years. Diane worked for some of the top MI/Pro Audio companies in the world, including Fender, Mackie Designs and TASCAM. Diane also has experience with event logistics and artist relations. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

One Comment “My Latest Thoughts on the Music/Record Industry”

  • Shawna


    I love these articles because you help teach me specific reasons why NOT to download/share music for free without just saying “don’t do it because it’s against the law”. You make it personal and help us to see all the ‘layers’ involved in creating music.

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