A Good Bet: Ben Rector’s Success as an Independent Artist

Audio Description

Why did Ben Rector like his chances best as an independent artist? Today, the prolific singer-songwriter and record producer discusses his unconventional career path and the business and marketing degree that hasn't been a total waste. As Taylor Swift fights to reclaim control of her music, Ben shares the calculated risks he took in deciding not to sign with a label. Learn how streaming rewards content, highlights from Ben's time as a coach on American Idol, and why recording a Christmas album in the blazing heat - during a global pandemic - was just what the doctor ordered.


00:08 - 00:54

Hi, everyone, and welcome to The Big Stage where we talk to athletes, artists, and entertainers about their lives and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Bernstein Managing Director and Co-lead of Sports and Entertainment. If the goal is to be the author of your own life stories, my guest today can share insight into successfully taking the road less traveled. He is a singer, songwriter and record producer who, as an artist, has released seven studio albums, including Magic, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Americana Folk Albums chart. He is a fellow Nashvillian, and so I've had the benefit of getting to know him personally. Please welcome Ben Rector to the big stage Ben. It's great to have you here, my friend.

00:54 - 00:56

Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

00:56 - 01:10

So Ben, I want to start from the beginning. You come from a family with a background that is perhaps the exact opposite of music. Your father's a banker, your mom is a psychologist. How did they respond to you pursuing music professionally?

01:11 - 01:53

I think to put it lightly, my mom took a little... it took her a little getting used to that, which I totally understand. Not many people in Tulsa are doing music. There was nobody that we knew that was a little bit ahead of me,,,, that's like, "that's what you could do". Yeah, I think she was nervous about it. And I totally understood that having kids now myself, I could totally understand if Jane... and it's different because I do music, but if I had been my parents and Jane was like, I want to like, try to do music, I'd be like, whoa, whoa, what are we talking about? But yeah, I think, you know, I'm a cautious person. I don't think they were worried about me being crazy, but it took a little getting used to. And then as things went better and better, their concern went down, to now I think they're not as worried about me anymore.

01:53 - 02:03

You do have a degree in business, in marketing, from what I've read. So did you actually see a career for yourself there or was it secretively or not so secretively like a fallback plan?

02:03 - 02:38

I went to college and started doing music professionally, like the second semester of my freshman year. I had a high school band and all that stuff. I was like gigging, quote unquote, traveling around and playing shows. At that point, I wasn't like, I'm going to do music. I don't think I really knew if that was a possibility. I did a commercial real estate internship the summer after my sophomore junior year. Like, I enjoyed that. I thought it was interesting. I don't think I would have been exceptionally good at it, but I dug that. I think maybe because of my parents, maybe just because of the way that I am, I wasn't like I'm absolutely doing music. I just didn't know if that was an option.

02:38 - 03:09

And as I did it more and people kind of reacted to it, I was a little more like, oh, I could do this as a job. So I think maybe if my mom hadn't been so concerned, I might not have finished school. If I drop out of college, she's kind of like and I don't know what she's going to, like, tear my guitar up or something. So I finished. But I ended up being a really great incubation period for me because I don't think I really would have been ready for some of the opportunities that I got after I graduated if I hadn't had those four years to kind of like get my game up a little bit.

03:09 - 03:15

What do you think you would be doing if music hadn't taken off for you any other career that you were shooting for?

03:15 - 03:40

I don't know. I might have been an entrepreneur of some kind. I do some real estate stuff. Nothing that's super crazy. I might have done that. I don't know. It's not that kind of thing where, like, I for sure would have been in the entertainment industry. I probably would not have been I probably would have developed real estate or I don't know what I would have done. I'm not one of the people that's like I would have done this or I'd be doing nothing else. I would have done something else.

03:40 - 03:48

Well, you definitely are an entrepreneur as an artist. Right. And I'm curious if you think your business background made you more comfortable as an independent artist.

03:48 - 04:25

I think it didn't feel foreign to me, which was helpful. There's not a lot of crossover between what I learned in my degree probably, was really more marketing, but I think it was helpful that that stuff didn't feel... I feel like there's kind of a trope in the entertainment industry of people being like, I don't know anything about this. My business manager does everything.. I think it was helpful for me that that didn't feel foreign, but I'm not exceptionally good at that compared to like an actual finance person. I'm not an expert, but it was helpful that I wasn't like, I don't know about these numbers. That probably was helpful for me as an independent artist where, like, I didn't feel like I necessarily needed somebody to tell me what was going on.

04:25 - 04:33

We'll help our listeners understand what are the trade-offs to being an independent artist and have things changed over time as your career has taken off?

04:33 - 05:19

I would say just being an independent artist is really it's recent that a lot of people have done that because before there wasn't really a way to get your music out outside. It'd be like a local band. The only way to a larger audience was really radio and the people who are the gatekeepers into that world where record labels. So basically, if you wanted to have a real career and be like, I'm touring around, people know my music, I'm doing it, it was really more on a label and doing it or you're like, I am just playing in bars locally. And basically with the advent of streaming services before that, Napster and iTunes, before you were trying to get a physical product into stores, distribution is what they call it. And they still call it distribution, but it's just uploading it, which anybody can do.

05:19 - 06:05

So a lot more people are independent now. And the main difference really is if you're independent, you are financing everything yourself and kind of putting together a team to help you do that, release music, get at places, and the upside of that is huge because you own your music, whereas if you sign with a record deal, they own it. It's called your masters. They own those recordings forever. And you get a little portion of them, but they're going to own that asset. If you're independent, basically, if you take the risk and front the money, you keep it forever. That's the simplest difference. And a record label, they usually bring budgets for promotion and for radio or whatever. So if you're independent, you're fronting the cost of all of that. Not super complicated. If you're taking the risk, you're going to be rewarded for that. That's really the simplest synopsis of it.

06:05 - 06:11

And for you, was it an active decision intentionally to say, I'm going this route versus this route?

06:11 - 06:39

You know, I was never like, I'm hardcore independent. I'm never going to be on a label. It was really more just a confluence of iTunes was around and it felt like the ceiling for independent artists was a lot higher than it had been previously. So I was like, there's a lot of upside here, I might not... as an independent artist, probably hard to win a Grammy and have like a Top 40 single pop radio, you really needs some help with the machinery there, you can't just be independent and do that. But really everything else is on the table.

06:39 - 07:35

And so every record we release, we talk to labels. And it kind of just came down to, like, it didn't quite make enough sense to me. And some of it, too, is because I was on the tail end of singer-songwriter pop music. It was super popular when I was in high school. And then when I graduated college, it was not quite as in vogue or popular or whatever. And so some of it was just, this isn't exactly what's happening right now. And the deals that I was offered, they weren't super compelling to me.  The last two records, I essentially did what's called a distribution deal, which is, I still own it. And those companies lease the masters from me in exchange for a percentage of the income. They'll give me label services. I still am my own label, but did partner on the last couple of records, but it was never like I'm going to be independent. It was more just the landscape was shifting around and I liked my chances best as an independent artist. And so that's what I did.

07:35 - 07:59

Well, and this goes to one of the biggest headlines in music recently, which is, of course, Taylor Swift started rerecording all of her old albums in an elaborate move to reclaim her control of the music. So I'm curious, how is this hit you as an artist and especially as an artist who, like so many today, sold their publishing rights to a comment on both sides of that with Taylor rerecording hers and then the trend around catalog sales?

07:59 - 08:22

Yeah. So basically, I'm not an expert on Taylor's exact set up, but the way I understand it, I'm pretty sure she signed a traditional record deal. And I don't know what the specifics of that deal were, but a lot of times traditional deals will be like you saw, and they essentially are going to retain ownership of the master rights master side and publishing side or different publishing is like for the song.

08:22 - 09:05

And then the master is a recording of that song. Taylor, as I understand it, because she didn't own her master recordings. Like, why won't you gonna rerecord these songs because I want to do that. And for me, I basically on my older records, I sold the master recordings of Brand New and earlier and then I kept everything after that. But I still own the publishing, and that's kind of splitting hairs for people who aren't super in music. But older artists are selling a lot of publishing stuff because none of those artists, as I understand it, own their masters because that was back in the day where everybody was signed. Now you've got some people who own their recordings and the publishing, like you pretty much always on the publishing unless you have a publishing deal.

09:05 - 09:43

But I think that people are selling right now, honestly, because to me it seems like a lot of people in finance are like, hey, this is an interesting space. We want to own content and catalogues and stuff. And I think for a lot of people, for me at least, it's like, hey, that's great. I feel like I take on all of the risk and all the parts of my business forever, touring, new records, et cetera. And for someone else to say, hey, we'd like to speculate on the value of this, to me and the people around me, we felt like it was a good thing. And I think a lot of other people are doing that. And there's tax advantages. And I think also some people feel like maybe those tax advantages could change. So there's a little bit more of a push to get that done earlier.

09:43 - 10:06

And from the outside, it seems like people in finance, I think obviously, are like, those assets are going to be more valuable. And so they're trying to buy up everything. And I think people on the music side are like, hey, this is a win-win. And as far as the thing with Taylor, I don't know what her thing is.. But as I understand it, it's different in my situation because I owned my records and she was signed to a label and they owned her records. That's the difference as I understand it.

10:07 - 10:22

Well, no, it's very well explained. And I think there's an interesting nuance there that I didn't even know about. Your transaction was that you still owned the publishing rights. So I was going to ask you if it was a tough decision to give up that control. But it doesn't sound like it was because you still owned part of it.

10:22 - 10:43

Yeah, they were also interested maybe in the publishing. And I was just like, I'd love to retain some ownership of my art. It was a little bit of a tough decision because it's just a big deal, but talked it through with as many smart people as I could find and ran the numbers as many ways as I could with those smart people. And we felt like it was, for me, a good move with all of the things considered.

10:43 - 10:53

I have seen a lot of the different numbers coming in for the different artists we work with, and it's got to be really nice to say, oh, wow, my music is worth that much money. It's got to feel really good.

10:53 - 11:13

Right. And I think the biggest thing for me was, as far as I can tell, streaming rewards, new content, Spotify and other streaming services, Amazon, Apple, etc, are incentivized just like any other media, like social media, whatever, to have new content be engaging. So if there's something that's reacting, they want to push that out as much as possible.

11:13 - 11:47

And so the underlying thought process for me was I love making music and I'm not super worried about like my best work is behind me. The growth of my career wasn't really built on one thing. It wasn't like, oh, this happened and everything changed. And I can never replicate that. It was really more steady growth. And so my thing was really like I think it feels probable to me that if I'm able to continue making good music, streaming services will reward that music the most. They'll be incentivized. If people are coming in and listening to it, I think they'll be incentivized to like, let's get this out to more people.

11:47 - 12:21

It would be different if I had had a brand new song of mine that outperformed other songs. It was on the radio and stuff, but it's not 10x different. It's like 2x different. It would be different if you were like the 90s One hit wonder. It might be tough if it was that was like we have one song that everybody listens to and nothing else matters. Your new stuff might not be pushed out as much, but for me at least, it seemed like from what I've seen paying attention to streaming since it's existed, there's really the possibility to continue to grow it. And because I retain control of all the future stuff, it feels like a great closing of that chapter.

12:21 - 12:38

now for another one. Yeah, it's a good way to put it.. Well, and for our listeners, we've had other episodes on this exact topic and we've published a ton of research. So you can go to Bernstein.com to find that and also check out Billboard, where there's some great articles that we've worked with them on. It's a fascinating topic and a heck of a trend in the industry right now.

12:38 - 13:01

Then I want to pivot because last year you released a Christmas album. And for my friends that are listening, they know how big of a Christmas fan I am. So I had to ask you this. By nature, Christmas music is pretty cheerful, right? So what was it like to conceive and execute that kind of an album during such a dark time of COVID, social unrest, and presidential elections And what was going on in your head?

13:01 - 13:36

You know, when the pandemic started, obviously, everybody was like, what's this going to be like? How long is it going to last? And I think when I realized that we were going to be in that for a while, I was just trying to figure out what I could do with that time outside of just writing. I wrote a bunch of songs, but it takes a long time to record them and put everything together and release an album. So I was like, that's not going to happen immediately. And I've been wanting to make a Christmas record for a long time. I just hadn't really had the time. It was always, we could try to do it this year, but we don't really have, like, the window to do it. And so that just kind of became a project that was so fun to get to work on this.

13:36 - 14:02

And honestly, we recorded that when nothing was going on, we all wore masks and went in the studio. We'd all been pretty isolated. And so when we went in to record it, it was really interesting because it felt like it was the first fun thing that me and the guys had done because everybody was home. Nobody's touring, nobody's really doing anything. And it kind of felt like a fun little field trip or something to an alternate reality where it's like, oh, we're doing stuff again. But it was really, really fun to work on, so much fun,

14:02 - 14:25

In fact, we actually recorded the next volume of the Christmas record because we were like, it's so much fun, we should do it again. But yeah, I was like, well, this is kind of the time that I have in the foreseeable future to make a Christmas record. So I should just seize it and do it. And I mean, definitely with covid and with social unrest and stuff. But also weird to be making Christmas music when it's like super hot said I bought a Santa hat so we would feel like a Christmas.

14:25 - 14:40

, that's awesome. Looking at 2020 and looking at your career, and when you get to a level of success that you have, I'm assuming it does give you the ability to give back to your community more.

14:40 - 14:50

And I'm curious if twenty twenty inspired you in any way to do more of that, to continue to do what you're already doing in the sense or their charities or foundations that you hold near and dear that you support.

14:51 - 15:24

This is a great question.. And my wife, who is the most wonderful human, is like we got to figure that out more and like we give to our church and a couple of organizations. But I want to do a better job of making that bigger part of our life. And I feel like, honestly, my biggest takeaway from Twenty Twenty was it was the first year that I actually felt like I slowed down enough to be like, oh, I'm like a real person and a real place. It felt like I hadn't realized how much I had been in a dead sprint for like my whole adult life. And it was really interesting to be like, oh, wow, I don't want to make light.

15:24 - 15:58

or anything of the pandemic, because it was brutal, so many people like lost a lot of things, people lost their lives, in no way am I trying to be like it was great because it wasn't. But for me and my experience with it, it was actually a really reflective time. And for the first time ever, I was able to, I feel like, be present. And then obviously the biggest takeaway from twenty twenty for us was we had twins, which is just like two is a lot of babies. But this year, I mean I feel like the things I got done in twenty twenty were really the Christmas album, wrote some songs in Twins and that's it.

15:58 - 16:07

. I survived. One more sort of COVID-related question. So the world's reopening. How does that feel? Are you getting back out and performing? Tell us how the transition is going.

16:07 - 17:00

Yeah, I feel like it was funny because it feels like it's changed so fast because I was thinking about there's people like playing full-on shows now. If you had told me that, like, three months ago, like, do you think they'll be sports events that are packed with everything? No. Because I remember it's been interesting from like an agency side as far as like booking agencies, months ago, it felt like everybody was like placing bets. We were like, should we try to book shows in the fall???? Is that going to happen? Because I was on an acoustic tour when the pandemic happened and everything shut down, and me, along with every other person who was touring, was doing the weird dance of like, cancel the shows, reschedule them, reschedule them again. And that honestly, I felt bad because I couldn't give anybody any clear answers. I think some people like like, is this going to happen? What's the deal? And so I wanted to avoid that again.. And also the next proper tour will do will be in twenty two with the release of the new record.

17:00 - 17:29

So we didn't plan the full Ben tour for the fall, kind of because we're doing it again next year and also kind of because when people were making those decisions, it did not look like it looks now. It feels great honestly to see things going again. That feels wonderful for me personally. It's possible we'll play some shows in the fall from the tour that got cancelled. That was an acoustic tour. But not too much is going to change for me because we're going to wait for the next record cycle. But just from an outsider's perspective, it's been wonderful to see pictures of like people at shows. It's like, oh, yeah, that, it's great.

17:29 - 17:40

Well, I know a lot of our listeners probably did actually get to see you during the pandemic, which I know I did, because you were on American Idol as a coach. Just quickly tell us about that experience.

17:40 - 18:40

It was super fun, man. And honestly, I feel like, usually TV stuff for musicians, at least that I've done,, if it's like a late show or a morning show, you stand there, sing the song, and then you're out, you are not talking or doing anything. That was actually super fun to get to, like, actually interact and to, like, do stuff. And then my biggest takeaway from the whole thing was the two people they paired me with were just so awesome, I am still in touch with both of them and I want them to succeed, when they were like coaching or mentoring. I'm like, I don't really have anything. You guys are great. I don't have anything to tell you. I told Wyatt, they were trying to get him to perform without a guitar, which is uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for me and I could tell he was  trying to figure out what to do.. I was like, put your hands behind your back and act like you figure skating. And that looks like you're doing something. He was like, oh, cool. But like everything else, I was just like, you guys are awesome. This is easy. It's fun to sing the song with you. But it was great. The show is super well run. And the biggest difference was just that I got to actually interact, and it wasn't just, Ready. Go. You done. Get out of here. It was a fun experience.

18:40 - 18:46

That's awesome. Yeah, I think it was great because people got to see your personality too as you were coaching. So I really enjoyed seeing it.

18:46 - 18:47

It was a blast, man.

18:47 - 19:02

Well, something we ask all of our guests. But I'm especially curious to know for someone who has spent so much of their career behind the steering wheel of their own business, what is the best financial advice that you've received and continue to implement in your life today?

19:02 - 19:49

Oh, wow. That's a big question. I'll answer the super honestly, because the truth is, I only know how to do it the way that I did it. And there's there's upside to that. There's also downside because of the way that I've structured it. I have more control of it, and it's a leaner business. I don't have as high overhead, it's like maybe some people, but there's also limitations. It's like the difference in making, like, a leveraged bet and not, where like, with the way I structured it, I probably so far I'm not going to be like, oh, I made a billion dollars this year and I'm everywhere. I'm just not set up to do that. So I would give that as like a precursor to any advice I would give anybody is just like I didn't make McDonald's. I made something with less locations than McDonald's.

19:49 - 20:17

And that suits me OK, because I kind of get stressed out by having to manage like a zillion people and razor thin margins. That feels uncomfortable to me. I just feel like I've always tried to, like, do things a little bit leaner than other people because I think a lot of people get into the music industry. It's like a poker tournament where they're like, I only really get to cash out if I win the whole thing. Those odds don't feel great to me. So I just set it up a little leaner to where it's like I don't have to win the whole tournament. I want to leave the table. I can.

20:17 - 20:50

So, yeah, I think, like, everybody would probably be well served to really pay attention to if you're doing things as efficiently as possible. Because generally, I don't know very much about other side of the entertainment industry, but the music industry is not set up to be super efficient. There can be a lot of people on your team who may or may not be adding as much value as you are compensating them for. You can spend way too much money on recording or touring. I think that's sound advice would be just like, hey, make sure you're doing this as efficiently as you want to. But my advice might not be any good because people that have done way better than I have. So I don't know.

20:50 - 20:56

I think that's good advice for almost any business. Before we let you go, can you give us a hint on what's next for you?

20:57 - 21:33

Yes, we're going to do the next volume of the Christmas record this year, and then we're going to release the next record in some form in 2022. And I'm zero percent a hype guy. I Feel like people on my team are usually like, are you excited about this? I'm like, this is me being excited, but I really am excited about the next record. Just feels special and unique. It feels different in a way that I'm really excited about and I'm just like so pumped to start that record cycle, which I never am. If you ask me that on the record, psychological stress, I don't know if it's any good or the first time. I'm like, I think it's going to be great.

21:33 - 21:37

Awesome. Well, we can't wait to hear it. And Ben, thanks so much for joining us on the big stage.

21:37 - 21:38

Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

21:41 - 21:44

Thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage.

21:44 - 21:58

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Adam Sansiveri
Senior Managing Director

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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