If you’ve been following this blog with any regularity you’ll be aware by now that, although it started out as a platform from which to promote and publicise the musical acts recording with BlancoMusic, it has since become a place where larger discussions about the current state of the music industry take place. The last few posts I’ve written have been deliberately provocative, a little more ‘black and white’ than is necessarily wise, but they have at least generated response from the regular readers, as well as the public in general. It’s not that we’re rampantly anti-filesharing at BlancoMusic (although it’s true that we’d like see the likes of PirateBay become socially unacceptable), or that we’re being heinously affected by it. The truth is that I’ve taken a public stance against the practise because that stance reflects the opinions of every musician I’ve worked with. However no musician wants to condemn filesharing publicly, due to the outraged backlash of opinion that would ensue if they were to do so. That’s why I’m here, saying it. I have also spent some time and effort pointing out why I think the Music 2.0 business model is deeply flawed in its present form, and I’ll be doing a little more of that today, but I’m also going to do something new today – I’m going to enlist your help in designing, and hopefully building, a new music model that might actually work for the people who need it most. Those people are the musicians and the fans. Neither of whom are, as far as I’m concerned, getting a fair deal out of Music 2.0. On the contrary, the levelling of the field that Music 2.0 brought about has provided a working wage to only those acts who are willing to shout the loudest, write the most tweets, buy the most PR and spew out the biggest headline-grabbing publicity stunts. It does not matter a damn to me whether the one getting the headlines is major label (Lady GaGa, MIA) or ‘home-made’ (Amanda Palmer), the point is that the headlines are being made for reasons other than MUSIC. Unfortunately, Music 2.0 did not bring us a musical meritocracy, where the best musicians get heard and supported. Instead, partly because it is based around very low-quality listening equipment, and partly because of the vastly overpopulated display of wares that the music web has become – brand-recognition is the most diligently sought quality in any act, not its musical quality.
Make no mistake – it is crucial that a model for music be found. There is a lot of complacency in the public mind about this. ‘Music has been around for millennia, it won’t die out just because the major labels do’. ‘Sales are irrelevant – live is where the money is’. ‘Video was supposed to kill cinema, but it hasn’t, same for music’. ‘Cassettes were supposed to kill music, but they didn’t’. Well, cassettes didn’t kill music because they were swapped between peers, who met, and who knew each others’ tastes and it actually promoted the music, whereas P2P just acts as a free music shop, with no value or peer-interaction attached to the product. Video didn’t kill cinema because watching at home and going out to the cinema are vastly different experiences. However, a fileshared mp3 is identical to a bought one. Live music is lucrative only to the bands who can charge for tickets, otherwise it’s a massive expenditure. Major labels are a post in themselves, but let’s just say that they have kept a lot of people making music who would have long ago given up playing in the Music 2.0 model. Music will always exist, the issue is whether it will exist in a form where quality and diversity are nurtured. Let’s not forget that in the 1960s, average people bought books of poetry; newspapers published interchanges between poets in the same manner that Blur versus Oasis was a broadsheet topic in the 1990s. Poetry still exists, and still gets published, but it is not a cultural force in the public mind. Music could quite easily become the same. This is only a problem if you do not wish to see music become a marginalised, socially irrelevant artform; or if you are worried that the current business models for musicians tend towards a future dominated by a combination of mass-market pop and ever-contracting niche acts making a tenuous vagrant’s living from tiny amounts of very motivated fans.
So, instead of writing about how the Music 2.0 model does not work for independent acts, I’m actually going to write about who it does work for. Partly because Benji from PledgeMusic.com started a dialogue in the comments section of my last post (which I’ll refer to later, because there’s some damned interesting, and very heartening, information in there), but also partly because I need people to be informed and concerned about this stuff. It’s mostly opinion, observation and guesswork on my part, and my own bias is always going to be an issue. That said, I would like people to realise that when they read press releases or articles stating that Music 2.0 is opening up the world to new and interesting music, and that the demise of the old system is freeing up the market for independent acts, that it’s not quite as simple as ‘everybody wins in the new music model!’.
So, who really does well out of Music 2.0?
Acts which stand out
The simple cynical reaction is to scoff and say that all acts should stand out. For what though? For their music, or for their alternative use of crime scene tape in their videos? For their lyrical dexterity or for their BandCamp page? Which should be more interesting, the songs they sing or the merchandise they sell? All deliberately naive questions, but worth asking now more than ever. You know how horrible it is when someone asks you what kind of music you like, and you just don’t feel you could ever narrow it down to a one-sentence answer? The same thing happens in the online music market. Everything is there, no-one has a clue how to find what they like, or even define what they like. Recommendation services just end up coming back with MOR safe-bets, and your social web buddies are only into some of the same music as you are, so their recommendations are limited too. Eventually, we all end up listening to the acts who are most publicised. Unfortunately, that’s not a musical decision, it’s a default reaction to choice-exhaustion. In the Music 2.0 model, Nick Drake (for example) could not have made a living from his music, he just would not have been able to sustain the web’s attention, and thus would not have had an income.
(Famous Before the Internet.) Acts with well-established fanbases, live experience, media contacts, promoter friends and their own studios have very little to gain from the old, major label advance/recoup model. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Peter Gabriel fall into this category. Although they are hailed as pioneers of the Music 2.0 experience, they are not really a very useful role model to the vast majority of musicians, as the difficult and expensive part of their career was subsidised by the record labels who first invested in them. FBIs can benefit from Music 2.0’s ability to reduce costs and cut out middlemen because, although the model sells fewer units, the proportion of retail price making its way to the musician is much higher. Having had a small percentage of a larger customer base in the past, it is viable to reduce that customer base but increase the percentage taken, seeing as the residual customer base costs very little to maintain. The work is done already. Another serendipitous aspect to being an FBI in the Music 2.0 model is that PRS and licensing income from earlier works is unaffected by whether or not the act stays with a major label or goes it alone. Essentially, once the doors are open, keeping them open is a lot easier.
It’s a terrible label, one that could be applied to 17th century Irish jigs, as well as to beatless minimal techno soundscapes. We really need to work on nomenclature. However, the type of music that can be made quickly; which reacts to trends; made by one or two people in a bedroom studio; which sounds good on a crappy mp3 player because it has no analogue component; and can make people bounce up and down, can do pretty well. I’m not necessarily talking about anything as ambitious and well-executed as Aphex Twin or Autechre, perhaps something more on the level of Crazy Frog. Actually, we all know that there is a huge range of dance/electronic music out there, some of it very fine indeed. Having been developed alongside the technology that made it possible to record, it’s not surprising that the genre has done well in adapting to the new parameters of the market. Apart from the obvious efficiency of the genre – no need for the time-consuming business of recording live voice or drums (at least not on the material that uses samples), there is the wonderful fact that a dance record will be played out in clubs and bars. As I wrote in my last post – the effectiveness of a band’s live performances as a promotional tool is restricted by their inability to be in more than one place at any given time. A club hit will reach more ears in a single night than most bands can play to in a year.
Disposable, danceable pop and rock
Niche acts connected to a social/cultural movement
Become the soundtrack to the skimboarding scene of New Jersey or the CyberGoths of Huddersfield and your fanbase will grow with it. Flippancy aside, a social scene where physical interaction and word-of-mouth recommendation takes place is worth a million Facebook ‘likes’.
Niche acts not connected to any movement
If your music was never going to appeal to more than two or three hundred people anyway, you have a much better chance of getting it heard now than you ever did in the old music industry.
Small, ‘lightweight’ acts
If it’s just you and a trumpet, or some other small instrument that can fit into a suitcase without incurring excess baggage costs, touring like crazy is a viable option.
Surprised? Skeptical? Don’t be. Despite the fact that the majors are being hit hard by falling sales and piracy, they’re doing better than anyone else out there. Although they’re using a fall in income to justify a lot of cutbacks in staff, investment, artist support and non-mainstream acts, they’re actually poised to do really well out of the Music 2.0 upheaval. Remember that the real commodity now is visibility. Majors have entire buildings devoted to press-liason, advertising, radio-plugging, club-promo, PR gimmicks, etc. The most oft-proposed model for the future of music revenue is the ‘band as brand’: the idea being that the band’s actual music be seen only as a part of a larger commodity including t-shirts, box-sets, personal phonecalls, customised ukuleles etc. The major label version of this Music 2.0 credo is called the 360 deal, by which the act mortgages their ‘brand’ to the label. If t-shirts are the new rock and roll, the majors will do better out of it than anyone.
So that’s who does well out of it. It’s probably not a comprehensive list, jump in on the comments if you have anything to add. Even in itself, I don’t like to think that those are the types of musical acts that will form the mainstay of the future’s musical fodder. Where is the challenging, reclusive, engaging-yet-difficult stuff? Where is the music that is the product of virtuosos, the ones who spend more time practising their craft than they do honing their web profiles? Where’s the classical? Most classical musicians now make almost all their income from live performance. How sad that only those who have the opportunity to witness a live performance will get to hear the musician’s work.
Who does badly out of Music 2.0?
Exactly the people who were expected to be empowered by the new model are the ones who are suffering most. Major labels no longer invest in talent that doesn’t already have a following, but gathering that following in an overcrowded market takes the type of promotional expenditure that only the major labels have to throw around. Bear in mind too, that the general public is becoming very apathetic toward the very idea of new music as something valuable. Even as influential a source as Drowned in Sound complained just a month or two ago about the drudgery of having to promote new music. A twitter comment from the site’s founder asked why the mere fact that a piece of music is new was considered something of value in itself. A fair query, and if we all received as many new tracks per day as Drowned in Sound, we’d probably get pretty jaded with new music too. However, apathy is yet another wall to break down if you’re a new act.
Can we take it as read that certain acts are less musically talented than others, and that virtuosity doesn’t, in itself, lead to commercial success? It’s far worse now than before for the technically brilliant musicians who don’t really see the mainstream as their market. Sheer ability to play an instrument well is no longer a means to a viable career in music. Talented musicians can make a living – there will always be enough enthusiasts to form a niche, but as far as mainstream success is concerned, the market has changed. There could be many reasons for this, amongst them: low-quality mp3s played through crappy players or computer speakers; the gradual devaluation of music as a standalone product; the inexorable rise of stage image at the expense of stagecraft; the marginalisation of listening to music as an activity in itself; the social isolation of the listening experience on ear-buds; the erosion of musical sophistication in listeners caused by the track-by-track sales model and death of the album (no obligation to buy the more challenging album tracks). At the moment, and this may change, the top forty is populated with acts which make good videos, wear interesting costumes, mirror the mood of their audience or have aspects of their production that are the flavour of the moment. All this is fine, it’s always happened, but it is more to do with marketing than musical ability.
The super high-profile dinosaur acts who stuck with the majors
With advances in the millions, based on the days when they still sold millions, the dad-rock acts are getting hammered by filesharing and piracy. When advances are made on the assumption that a band will sell 10 million albums, but the band ‘only’ sell 7 million, serious debt (and 360 deals where they sell off their intellectual property rights) ensues. Unfortunately, it’s not the big names that suffer, even though it’s mostly their music that gets ripped off PirateBay to make that drive to Ikea a little more palatable. The massive revenue from those big acts was where the majors got the cash to risk on those ‘might be huge, might flop horribly’ acts that just don’t get deals any more.
Big, ‘heavyweight’ acts
BudNubac has eleven members. Getting them to a gig, getting them fed and bedded, getting them back. You’re looking at nigh-on a grand per gig, just to break even.
Piano Segundo has one member.
Guess which one plays more gigs.
It’s getting harder and harder to find music that you want to listen to. Sure, it’s out there, but finding it is getting to be an effort worthy of a full-time job. Sure, scrobbling is a start, online social networks help, but finding that piece of music that is so good it makes you actually feel like throwing up (or is that just me?) is incredibly difficult, despite the vastness of choice (beware the concept of ‘choice’ being pushed as an unquestioned benefit – it can paralyse as well as motivate). And then there’s the horrible exploitation of fans who are enthusiastic enough to pay Amanda Palmer $650 to sing Radiohead songs down a phoneline. That’s a sickening, revolting manipulation of the fan’s devotion – a devotion so valuable that it ought to be cherished and rewarded, not milked for ridiculous amounts of cash. Seriously, is this a better deal for music fans?
Let’s leave it there, shall we? There are plenty more things to say, but even if you don’t agree with everything above, you’ll surely agree that some of what I’ve said is plausible. Music 2.0 is broken, how badly depends on the individual’s opinion, but it’s broken nonetheless. Fixing it is going to take a lot of effort and commitment from musicians and music lovers alike, but the opportunity is available now to start doing so. It’s time for Music 3.0. I mentioned Benji from PledgeMusic earlier, and I’ll do so again now. The average pledge received at PledgeMusic is 92 dollars. That is amazing news, and surely it means that there are people out there who truly care about music, who truly want to support it, and who are willing to pay real money in return for a commitment from the musicians they support. That’s a contract of sorts, one which has to be honoured both ways. Next post, I’m going to see if I can draft some sort of template for a social contract between musicians and fans. Something we can get off our chests. Something like ‘I promise to pay for a track as long as you promise to mix and master it properly’ or ‘we promise not to pull bullshit PR stunts like ‘limited edition boxsets’ if you’ll pay us a fair price for the album’. OK, not great examples, a bit biased towards the musicians so far, but I’ll work on it.
Any chance you could help out a bit? If you are going to pay for music, what do you want from the band in return? Or, how much do you think a record should cost? Stick it in the comments and I’ll respond. Promise. How many record labels will promise that?
See you then.