They’re still coming in, still clogging up inboxes. Today it was The Music Industry Report who sent out the day’s version of an article everyone in the music business must have read (in one form or another) at least a hundred times already. You know the one: ‘the field is levelled, independent labels and bands now have access to the same tools and technology as the major players, there really is no reason why you can’t all benefit from these new utilities and become the next big thing’. The article then goes on to list a few miracle tools that now exist for bands to develop their fanbase awareness (amongst which are YouTube and Twitter). At this point, that article, and all the daily variants thereof, are about as much use to a new band or independent label as a lighthouse in the middle of the Sahara. Brilliant, but useless. Then, sometime last week, the always-interesting Steve Lawson published a very succinct and concise evaluation of the music-consuming public’s reaction to having their social media areas bombarded with bands telling them to ‘check out our new tune here’. What Lawson wrote captured in prose form, a phenomenon that anyone who makes use of online social media has seen coming for quite a while now – it doesn’t work as a promotional device unless there is a genuine outreach from the act in question, a real reason to bother clicking the link for the user, and a pre-existing level of trust between the user and the entity posting the link. That takes a lot of time and effort from the act in question, and the discussion we may all be having soon is, ‘is the time spent courting fans via social media a help or a hindrance?’. Because to do it well, leaves precious little time for gigs, recording, practise, sleep, etc.
Lawson’s article examines and explains much, and there is no good reason to parse it here. The link is given above, the article is well-recommended. Instead, the rest of this blogpost is going to go speculative. Let’s take it as a given that the ‘levelling’ of the music industry is a reality, and that small bands and businesses now have access to the same tools as the majors. Theoretically, it’s true. Distribution: well, at least for digital downloads, there is no difference, except that the majors certainly don’t pay the full 30% cut to iTunes as the indies, they’ll have negotiated something far less. Recording: if anything, the majors pay more. Their studios are professionally-run, so there’s no hope of getting a few hours recording done free as a favour. Same goes for mixing, engineering, mastering, production, session musicians and all the rest. When EMI or Warner are funding a project, people tend to invoice everything up correctly. Independent projects depend on a lot more goodwill and liberal use of the phrase: ‘if it makes any money, we’ll make sure you get a share’ PR, promotion, publicity and performance. Well, theoretically, the field is levelled there too, although the fact is that all this stuff – from sending CDs to journalists to getting a pretty girl to stand behind a table selling t-shirts, costs an ever-escalating sum of money (although drummers tend to be an excellent source of pretty girls, no idea why). Anyway, flippant sexism aside, as long as the indie band or label can find a ton of cash to compete with the established PR infrastructure of major labels, it’s there for the taking.
The concentration of this blogpost (so far) on PR is deliberate. Considering that every other aspect of the music industry has been made level to all players (and, let’s be generous about it, it has), the most sought-after commodity in the music business in 2010 is public visibility. Not access to a studio, not rack-space in record shops, not the services of the zeitgeist-defining producer, but visibility: the ability to be noticed in the sea of competing bands and acts and labels. Neither are we talking about having a poster at the bus stop or a banner ad on a popular blog. Even that is becoming ever more useless. What acts need now is editorial, actual words written about them, by journalists whose opinions are trusted. Here’s the first inkling of revolution. It was a truism of the old music industry that ‘words don’t sell music’. In 1980, a profile in Smash Hits or Melody Maker was wonderful, but had nothing of the sales impact on a record as being featured on Annie Nightingale’s Radio One show. People bought music because they heard it, loved it, and had no other option if they wanted to hear it again than to go and buy it. The other recommendation option was getting a cassette from a friend. Very different from anonymous filesharing, the passing of cassettes from hand to hand was a genuine promotional tool, because it usually came from a source whose musical taste was trusted/envied. Now, in 2010, text written by journalists about music is about to become more important than it has been since somewhere around 1910. Listeners simply have too much material to choose from. The old paradigm by which ‘words don’t sell music’ is dead. More than ever before, they do. Or at least, prompt people to listen to something. If this blog had an autoplay feature, playing music automatically when the page is opened, the first reaction of the majority of readers would be to shut the music off, or click elsewhere. Music is now that ubiquitous. Another of Steve Lawson’s observations: if you receive a ‘listen to this’ link in your Twitter timeline from an act, you ignore it, right? But if the same link comes from a tweeter whose tweets you enjoy, or have been impressed by, or whose articles you have previously read and respected; you’ll likely open it. That’s the power of real recommendation. But it takes trust, and time, and effort, and lots of words which captivate the reader, and which rarely look like promotional text. This is why even the well-funded, major label acts, now spend so much of their time putting phials of blood into their boxsets, or releasing albums full of ukulele-accompanied Radiohead songs – because it gets words written about them, proper editorial, proper content, written by trusted journalists and commentators. Still, if an indie label can get some journalist contacts together, and get a press-release off to them on a slow news week, and cross their fingers and pray hard, some of these stunts can actually get some column inches, although time is running out for this approach – the public are getting sick of it. Nevertheless, let’s consider that aspect of PR level as well.
Filesharing. Yes, that old bugbear once more. At least 90% of all music ‘owned’ by music consumers in 2009 was illegally downloaded. It’s the single reason why the major label music industry still exists. By now, independent acts should have swept away the old system, which should no longer be necessary, and reclaimed the music industry for themselves. Unfortunately, along with the ability to record and distribute music, the internet also made it simple to own that music without paying. So the way to make sales happen was to control the PR and relationship-forging channels (which are what now drive sales). That’s a lot easier for companies with the clout to pay advances to X-Factor winners, or buy advertisements in national newspapers, etc – the majors win again. What would happen though, if filesharing wasn’t such a significant factor? What would happen if a band’s promotional efforts went into making sales, rather than making curious people download their music illegally (or listen to it on YouTube, or Spotify, or Mog – which is financially no more worthwhile to a band than filesharing anyway, or as near as dammit)? That would be the revolution that Music 2.0 promised us. Let’s speculate a little, shall we?
It’s hard to know if we’re still approaching the revolution, or if we’ve already had it and are just about to enter the reign of terror. The major labels are dead, vive le revolution! Perhaps, peut etre, who knows? This isn’t a post about finger-pointing or blame, there’s been more than enough of that lately. One thing Napster and PirateBay and LimeWire did do was shake things up a little, rattle the crowns of Warner, Sony, EMI and Universal. It may have been enough, depending on what the goal is. This is all still panning out. If musicians can now get their music made, played and distributed to people who want to hear it without having to depend upon the capricious whims of major label a&r men, well, there’s obviously a benefit there. Not that the capricious whims of a&r men deserve to be scorned either. Their job was always straightforward: find the act that will turn a profit, and then find another one. If the acts that didn’t fall into that small category now have a viable means of reaching an audience, that’s great. Humans are a diverse lot, we deserve diverse entertainment.
So we went and destroyed the music business as it was. There’s no need for statistics or pi charts here, the music industry of the 1990s no longer exists. That’s a good thing. Complacent, monopolistic, indolent. Good riddance to it. None of us liked paying £15 for a CD, however life-affirming the music may have been. It’s hard though, stepping back a little and examining trends and statistics (and pi charts) to see anything that suggests that the music business of the 2020s won’t still be dominated by Warner, Sony,EMI and Universal (likely joined by Apple and Google).
The nations of the world are, one by one, legislating against online copyright infringement. That has implications. Check out the music industry numbers at IFPI.org for 2009 and have a look at South Korea and Sweden. In a music market that is shrinking globally at a rate of 7.2%, Sweden and South Korea are showing a GROWTH of 10-11%. What do they have in common? They both legislated against internet piracy in the previous year. There is no doubt whatsoever that anti-piracy laws have been clunky, unworkable, unfair and ineffectual in every country they’ve been introduced to. There is no doubt that half an hour’s web-searching will provide any user with a multitude of ways to circumvent the piracy detection process. People though, are people. We tend to know when the game is up. Even if we know we’ll get away with it, most of us don’t park on double-yellow lines. There’s a deeply-rooted tribal atavism in the human condition that accepts, somehow, that rules usually benefit the group. That the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Sweden and South Korea look like confirming that. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps they’ve all just had other things to do over the last year. Let’s not get into the filesharing debate, the rights and wrongs, the wronged parties, the shouting and the abuse. It’s not what this post is about. This post is about revolution, and whether or not we’re having one.
Why is it, that if we’ve all destroyed the hegemony of the major labels, and democratised the process of musicmaking, and toppled the historical might of the conservative dinosaurs that stifled creativity and fed us mass-marketed pap, that the biggest-selling act of the year will almost certainly be EMI’s well-loved beat combo, The Beatles? The Beatles are great, but they’re hardly new, hardly the embodiment of the zeitgeist, hardly fresh. But they are what the people who actually pay for music want to own. There’s a failure somewhere here – a failure in the public for wanting to pay for new music, a failure in musicians and labels in not making the public want to pay for new music. Why have we squandered the chance to make everything level and let music stand out and become successful (or, if you like, LUCRATIVE), merely on the basis that it moves people, that it is good? Why are the charts dominated by the products of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and acts chosen for their sexual appeal, when virtuoso musicians have access to the same tools and outlets? The internet was supposed to have destroyed corporate money’s ability to dictate musical culture, it was supposed to bring about a new meritocracy. Why didn’t it?
Lady GaGa gets a lot of marketing budget. So do Take That. Is that why they sell a lot of records? No. Would Mil i Maria sell as many records as Take That if they got the same amount of marketing? No. What’s happening, is that we look at things the wrong way around, and blame the relative obscurity of small acts on the fact that the big acts get all the marketing budget. After all, in a market where anyone with a laptop can get an album onto a digital retail platform, visibility is the difference between success and ignominy, right? It’s hard not to labour the obvious point here, but it’s not really like that. Even for a huge megacorporation, a multi-million dollar marketing campaign doesn’t come easy. It’s not going to get squandered on an act that no-one’s going to like. Lady GaGa, Take That, Susan Boyle, Beyonce. That’s what people like. You can squirm and argue and deny all you like, but this stuff is what people want to buy. It does not matter if your favourite indie band sounds like the music at heaven’s gates. Unless it’s something that moves people to buy their records or buy their concert tickets, no amount of marketing effort thrown at it, no amount of destroying the hegemony of the major labels is going to make any difference.
We probably haven’t destroyed anything anyway. If anti-piracy legislation is having such a striking effect on music sales in Sweden and South Korea, there’s no reason why it won’t do so elsewhere. If that’s actually the case, and UK and US music consumers decide that they’d prefer pay for recorded music than take it for nothing, then the landscape changes again. If people are going to pay for music, surely the CD becomes a viable proposition again? Downloads are convenient and quick, but there’s an attractiveness to a CD – the cover art, the case, the small print on the back cover, the satisfying aesthetics of a wall stacked with visual proof that you are a discerning music lover, and that this is the music that moves you. There are arguments for and against both formats, my point is that relative economics of free versus paid may soon no longer be a significant one. Right now 90% of all music consumed is not paid for. Even if ten percent of that figure comes back to the domain of the paid product, we may have something worth getting excited about. Think about it for a moment. If a band can now make an album in a home studio for next to nothing, and get it onto their own website shop for next to nothing (even if they don’t want to learn how to make a commercial wordpress site, Bandcamp will do it all for a paltry 15% anyway), and puts that album on sale at , say, £7 a go, they only need to sell a few thousand to make a career from music. Everyone has different needs, but a lot of musicians would settle for £20 grand a year if it meant they could embrace music as their primary profession. Surely, surely, this would be a good thing? Three thousand albums sold per bandmember, it really doesn’t look that hard, but in a time when 90% of music is unpaid-for, it’s a gargantuan task. Not impossible, but one which depends upon the band becoming a brand, a cog in a marketing machine that demands more time and effort than making and playing music does. Take that aspect away, break the equation where all a band’s PR activity is focused on creating a 90:10 ratio of ownership:sales, then we might really start to see some interesting things.
The music is never going to be enough. The 21st century music consumer demands that a relationship be developed between themselves and the musician before anything even approaching a monetary transaction might be considered. This is the genius of X-Factor and it’s like. Rather than hope to sell music for it’s musical qualities, the talent shows instead uses music as a small, purchasable product associated with a sympathetic entity created in the public mind by the challenges of the show’s format. Advertisers and marketers have been learning this for decades: ‘sell the advantages, don’t sell the product’. Perfume commercials don’t try to interest their target audience in perfume, they try to interest their target audience in a lifestyle which includes prosperity, health, beauty, allure, and their perfume. Successful musicians have done the same for decades too, whether it was John Lennon’s cheeky quips to Eric Morecambe or Lady GaGa’s hats, musicians have long known that getting to the big money takes more than just having a good record, it depends upon creating a persona with which the buyer wants to associate themselves with, enough to part with cash to be reminded of that association. It exists in Music 2.0 too, more so than ever before.
But imagine if an act could make a record, and sell it just because it was good. Imagine if music was all the musicians had to worry about, and all the other stuff was unnecessary. Imagine if the bands who wanted to sell five million records still had to do all the hoop-jumping, wear the silly hats etc., but the ones who just wanted to be musicians only had to sell 3000 albums each. Not reach 300,000 people who wanted to own the music, just reach 3,000 people who wanted to buy the music. A decent band could do that just through gigs. They wouldn’t even need a Twitter account. That would be a revolution.