Music 2.0

Electron microscope view of a groove cut into vinyl.

Music 2.0. There are many theories and ideas being thrown around about how music must adapt to a new marketplace. Just last week we had the very smug Brian Eno telling The Guardian that the era of being paid for recorded music is over, gone, tough. It’s nice that Brian, still wallowing in the millions he pulls in from his Roxy Music days and his current role as the man who makes all those U2 records sound so similar to each other, can make such sweepingly soundbite-friendly comments about an industry that continues to put food on his own table. I digress.

Not many days go by here in the social media world without someone barking at me that my ideas about music sales are antiquated and untenable. I like to think of myself as reasonably open to the concept of Music 2.0, to new strategies of monetizing the musical works of talented individuals and groups working within the musical arts. There are those, however, who feel that even the principle stated above, the monetization bit, disqualify me from the debate. We get abusive e-mails at BlancoMusic from individuals accusing us of trampling on their human rights, no less, by asking that our artists be compensated for the work they do. By charging for reproductions of the music, you see, we are depriving consumers of free access to art, culture, ideas and the artistic expression expression of world culture, which, obviously, belongs to the world. Mean old us. The fact that musicians had to be hired, studio time found, electricity paid for, as well as producer, studio engineers, mastering engineer, mixer, sleeve designer, printer, cd manufacturer, postal service, web designer, website-server, telecommunications provider, label administrator and endless mugs of coffee, is rarely acknowledged by the usually-anonymous ‘freedom fighters’. Well, they’re welcome to pull the music off e-Mule or whichever file ‘sharing’ site is de mode at the moment, frankly, karma will do the rest.

I’ve said it before, and I will do so again now. I do understand why the filesharing thing happens. The music industry has been incredibly successful at creating a demand for its product. Imagine you could download poor-quality reproductions of visual art, or literature. What, you can? Well of course you can, have been able to for years. Do people wander around with 40 gigabytes’-worth of poetry or portraiture clipped to their belts though? Course not. People just want to have more music in their lives than they can afford to buy legitimately. In that respect the music business should congratulate itself. Demand created, demand definitely created. Too much demand. I’m going to re-iterate my call now, for everyone to listen to no more than ten tracks of music per day for the duration of Lent. Just to highlight how much music you actually listen to on a regular basis and don’t even notice. Most of us won’t actually be able to do it. That’s how voracious we are in our consumption of music, so not surprising that, in a world where music is ubiquitous wallpaper to our lives, that any institution that has the audacity to restrict the permaflow of product, or expects to gain profits by doing so, is reviled with a hatred more usually reserved for environmentally destructive megacorporations, corrupt politicians, traffic wardens, boybands etc.

Now, at this point, a caring-sharing independent label is expected to wring its hands and denounce music-industry profits as ‘obscene’, and the exploitation of artists as being akin to indentured slavery etc. And both those accusations have been true on many occasions. But I always hope to be a little less obvious in this blog than most, and so I’m going to do something here that most labels will never do – try to justify some of the percentages that record companies take. First off, BlancoMusic splits all sales and royalties with our artists on a 50/50 basis. Their own publishing incomes (i.e. their statutory share of income as songwriters and as performers) are untouched by us, and vice versa. So we’re fair. We’re also small and don’t take risks on acts that we don’t feel sure are good enough to pay their own way, and we don’t advance royalties to acts on the understanding that those royalties be paid back at rates of interest that would see most bankers put in prison for the mere suggestion. So we’re not like a major label in that respect. Most of what we risk on an act is the cost of items I listed above, which are, in the greater scheme of things, modest. So with no outlay on advances and no major promo campaigns to pay for, we can afford to be magnanimous. If we gave advances, things would have to be different. We’d have to find that money from somewhere. Probably from other bands’ sales. So we’d need to take a bigger cut from the other bands. We’d have to pay salaries (because at the moment most of the people involved are working on a percentage, and are willing to hold their breath for a while to see how much comes in). We’d have to start thinking along the lines of a bank, or an insurance company. If one act flopped, or their lead singer entered a silent monastic sect, we’d not be able to recoup the advance on that act, so we’d have to start paying lawyers or write off the debt. Perhaps nothing bad would happen, and we’d all end up megarich. Or perhaps only two out of every ten bands went nuts on hotel rooms and demanded full orchestras on tour or missed gigs or turned up trashed and unable to play. But the other eight did fine, or even well. How long would it take to recoup all the advances? Ten to fifteen years, usually. So, as a record company, you’re putting your assets into high-risk, long-term investments, spreading them across a portfolio of acts in the hopes of not losing too much on any one, and you’re trusting the opinions of your a&r people to guide your hand. If it were your money, you’d want to see some pretty massive percentage returns. More than unit trusts anyway. Look, there’s loads more that I could say on this, and I do actually think that major labels are for the most part, exploitative bloodsuckers, but it’s not often anyone tries to defend them, I thought I’d have a go.

Anyway, Music 2.0. Tricks and tips for new bands hoping to make a living as musicians. Most of them are as exploitative and demeaning as anything the majors ever asked. ‘Post your music for free but sell more merch at your gigs’. What, are they clothes shops now? ‘Dedicate the songs on your album to cherished fans’. Last seen in the Italian renaissance when patrons expected to see their own faces painted onto the saints in biblical scenes. Fine, if the cherished fans are paying you a stipend. ‘Raffle the chance for fans to come and record the hand-claps on your album’. Well they’d better be damned good at clapping.

I’m sick of it. How about: ‘Make good music, retain some dignity, and ask your fans to pay for the music they enjoy’.

BudNubac ‘See the Sunrise’. Vinyl 2-disc album, available for pre-order soon. Just music.

Preview here: http://blancomusic.com/see-the-sunrise

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