There’s a little bit of a pun in today’s blogpost title, which seems only fair. ‘Get Off!’ is the title of a tune by Prince, and although I really don’t make a habit of writing about the guy, today it seems apt to acknowledge him. Today, I’ve started the surprisingly complicated process of taking BlancoMusic’s web-presence off the social networks of the World Wide Web. I was just about to type the title ‘getting off the internet’ when I remembered the Prince song. Apt, because it was he who famously referred to the internet as ‘dead’ way back in July. Although his statement was clearly timed to coincide with the release of his ‘2010’ album, and drum up some publicity, there was a truth in what he said that has been playing on our minds here at BlancoMusic for some time now. Bit by bit we’re dismantling our online footprint and focusing our energies instead on all those things that a record label really should be doing with its time. Things like meeting with our acts; working on their stage presence; contacting people who will book them gigs; sending their music to people who might actually be interested in hearing it and who might spread the word. Social networking doesn’t do any of those things. Maybe it did once, but it doesn’t any more. It’s not just the case that Facebook users are bombarded with so many links to music that they really can’t be bothered checking them out any more. That’s certainly true. But that’s not the problem – all that circumstance shows is that the people sending the music out need to be a bit more appealing in the way they present their product. What bothers us is the whole idea of giving away music, and the whole relentless pressure upon musicians and labels to do so.
Bringing your music to a place where the most common listener experience is a snatched moment at work, through crappy earphones, in an environment which is dull and stale does not serve the artists’ interests in the slightest. Let’s turn this around and think about exactly how a musician hopes you will experience their work. Maybe they’d like you to hear it through a really good hi-fi system, in the comfort of your own home, as the primary focus of your attention. Perhaps they’d prefer that you heard their music in a nightclub, surrounded by beautiful people and in a state of euphoria, the music accentuating that rush. A lot of acts would love if everyone could hear their music as they play it, live, in an interactive experience between artist and audience. I’m sure there are plenty of variations on the ideal listener environment. I very much doubt that the typical social network experience figures very highly in the list. Musicians aim to bring their listeners into a different headspace for the time they are listening – to create an experience that lifts the listener out of the everyday and offers them a moment or two of transcendence. That applies equally to the most vacuous pop record as it does to orchestral symphonies. How is that served by the social network experience where, when a link to music is received by a user, that user’s first assumption is that the music will be yet more crap that they don’t want to waste their time listening to? How is the artist’s wish to bring the listener into their sonically-created world served by having the music heard in a rushed, habitual, complacent environment? This is why the internet is dead for musicians. It reduces music to something as easily and as readily ignored as the banner advertisements that are the true function of social network spaces.
Social networks exist online as a means of making their founders rich. They sell advertising, that is their primary function. Good for them, we don’t have any axe to grind with social networks per se. They are a good place to keep up contact with friends and family. But putting music on there, in the hope of creating some visibility for your act, really looks like it’s had its day. As a way for musical acts to keep in touch with their fans it has it’s uses, although I do think they’d be better-served by building their own webpage and updating it as and when they feel like it. But really, do people actually get excited by receiving a Facebook update from an act they like which reads something like ‘Greetings to all you lovely people. Mistakes are the lessons of humanity, it is how we recover from them which is the true measure of life. Hey, check out our new outtakes compilation and be sure to pre-order the album‘? Do people get excited enough by those messages to put their reputation on the line and recommend them to their friends? Are social network recommendations as worthwhile as someone meeting a friend for coffee on a Monday and telling them about an amazing gig they were at on Saturday? We’d much prefer to have more of that sort of buzz – the buzz generated by our acts playing amazing gigs and blowing peoples’ minds. It’s harder to create, and it is not as quick as blasting out a mailshot with a bunch of links in, but it is far more powerful a tool for raising awareness of an act. The next step in the same thought process is – why not just take it all offline? Or as much as is realistically possible?
You see, we really, really have looked at the Music 2.0 phenomenon. We’ve looked at it so much that we’re cross-eyed. Music 2.0 could really work, if it weren’t predicated upon giving people music for nothing. But giving music away for nothing in the hopes that it will promote a desire in a user to buy your other records is a sales strategy built upon the loss-leader concept used by supermarkets. They sell a product at less than cost price, publicise it, knowing that everyone has to do their shopping somewhere, and if they get you through their doors to buy an artificially cheap product, you’ll likely continue buying the products that are full-price. How can that be expected to work with music? The user gets some free music via a social network link (it’s probably the act’s best tune), checks out their webpage, listens to a preview of the tracks on sale there, then goes to YouTube or Spotify to listen to them again. If they really like the music, they can go to a torrent somewhere and download them for free, or just use a streaming recorder to grab a copy from somewhere. The whole Music 2.0 idea is based upon the predicate that the music itself is unimportant, that what artists really need to do is create a brand that people will be loyal to, and which can be used to sell physical products like t-shirts or box-sets. I’m not even convinced that this works either. To get someone to shell out fifty quid for a box-set takes a very serious level of devotion – devotion that I do not believe can be generated by social networks. And anyway, musicians are supposed to sell music, not t-shirts and box-sets. Giving away music for free is like a taxi-driver ferrying people from place to place, in the hopes that they might appreciate it so much that they’ll pay him. If the taxi driver decides that only the first ride is free, what’s to stop people from just taking a different free taxi next time instead? Why would they bother coming back to his? In this analogy, the taxi driver would hope that there was something special about his taxi that meant people would only want to use his taxi. In music, every musician wants his music to stand out from the rest, to be utterly compelling. And it quite often is like that for some fans. For many though, the ubiquitous availability of free music means that there never has to be any sort of perceived relationship with the musicians who create it. It’s simply there, and if it’s not, something else will be that is similar enough. Why would any act wish to throw their music into such a maelstrom of chaotic indifference?
I was on YouTube last week and watched a Drugstore video. It was their single – ‘El Presidente’, which they recorded with Thom Yorke in the 1990s. The video had been played some 45,000 times, presumably by Radiohead fans, because the rest of the Drugstore videos had play-counts in the hundreds. This is the level of complacency we’re trying to fight. Almost 45,000 people were just not bothered enough by Drugstore’s song (including a vocal by Isabel Monteiro) to check out their other songs on YouTube. Not curious enough to wonder who they were, what they sounded like. It’s a chilling example of just how worthless, or close to worthless online buzz really is. We could throw every piece of music we’ve ever recorded onto the web, spend hours and hours pushing it down peoples’ throats via social networks, blogs, podcasts etc. The truth is, it has very little effect other than to make people go ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of them, they’re pretty good…oh LOOK, it’s a picture of an owl in a party hat! COOL!’ There are plenty of music ‘fans’ who howl and protest and say that music has to be free, that they have to be able to hear it before they’ll buy it, that free music is great publicity and it’s only the dinosaurs who don’t know how to innovate who suffer. Fine, the rest of the music industry can go chase them. We don’t do chasing.