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Christmas greetings

Let’s take some time off from my frustrated ranting about the music industry (new and old) and offer you all my genuine best wishes for Christmas and New Year. It’s been a weird year at BlancoMusic, typified by a supernatural strength in terms of music-creation, with a corresponding super-weakness at getting it out there, listened to, loved and supported. Over the last twelve months I’ve expressed a number of frustrations with the realities of the internet as a primary platform for fan outreach. Some of these have been opinions of my own, some were adapted from others’. At times we must have looked like a very hypocritical organisation, as the blog tracked our rejection, subsequent acceptance, and re-rejection of certain music platforms or concepts. All I can say in defence is that you’ve seen these decisions happen in real time, you’ve watched as we’ve tried desperately to find new methods of achieving the publicity and acceptance we crave, and you’ve also seen our frustration as the whole charmless edifice that is Music2.0 grows with every new low it achieves in its much-hyped contest to see who can prostrate their art to the lowest point possible in  the hopes of selling a few b(r)anded weed-grinders or t-shirts. (Phew! Deep breath.) If we have any real talking-point as a label, it’s that we are absolutely transparent with regard to policy and strategy. In an age where music has largely become a secondary marketing tool for monetizing branded lifestyle entities, BlancoMusic’s transparency and commentary appeals mostly to a fairly marginal group of people – many of them musicians, or in the industry one way or another, others of you are pure music lovers whose interest goes beyond the notes and chords you hear on the recordings. You’re the kind of people who read sleevenotes on albums. If you’ve come hear to listen to our music, to read my words or even just to use the comment board to tell me that I’m a deluded arsehole who should get the hell out of music, we sincerely love you for it. Because what it shows is that you care enough about music to have an opinion, that it’s not just some ubiquitous-but-ignored part of your life. We need more people like you.

What 2011 will bring, who knows? We have some astounding music on the way, that’s for sure, and no amount of debate about the future of the music industry affects that. Vanito Brown should have his album finished by February, which if there is any justice in the world, will be the album that finally brings modern Cuban music into the consciousness of music-lovers worldwide. The Cuban sense of rhythm is unique, and Vanito has it in his bones. It will be a very interesting record.

Piano Segundo will gather together the fruits of a winter spent performing and composing, to result in a split-personality album. Half funky Rhodes-washed dancefloor mayhem; the other half intriguing, pensive piano improvisation. We’ll be sending them out live to everywhere we can manage.

SubMachena will also put some more material out. In their case it’s more of a curation job, as they have mountains of material, and the challenge is picking out which to release. Two SubMachena tracks will be going out on George Solar’s Comfy Dub 2 album.

BudNubac’s second album is pretty-much completed, just needing a couple of licks of the producer’s magic brush to make it shine – that’ll be coming too.

Sara Garvey will be coming over to record another few tunes towards her own album. Having heard the demos, it almost feels worth putting them out in their raw state – her voice is just so rich and evocative. Nevertheless, production techniques can take a beautiful vocal track and either bury it in noise or enhance and enrich it. Guess which we hope to do.

There are some other projects in the works, but it’s far too early to say anything about them yet. A lot of recording, a lot of work, a lot of energy and effort coming in the next year. That’s why we get so frustrated by filesharing, streaming, Music 2.0 etc. And ANOTHER thing…..

Happy Christmas to you all, to your loved ones, and even to those who aren’t. A bit more happiness would do us all some good.

Sean, Robin and all at BlancoMusic.

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Get Off!

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.

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Mil i Maria – Vivo en Penumbra

There’s only so much I can really say about the music industry. I’m not by any means a guru on the subject. Most of the limited notoriety I’ve so far earned as a commentator stems more from the partisan rage I can’t help but convey. I certainly don’t have any great depth of experience or insight into the act of getting soundwaves to move through the air in a way that, more or less, corresponds with the melodies and rhythms a given musician hears within their own minds. I don’t think anyone does. You’ll notice that I’m back to using the personal pronoun ‘I’ (to which I have a certain childish devotion) and that this blogpost is written in the voice of me (Sean, the label manager of BlancoMusic) rather than as some detached, bodiless opinion doggedly hoping that narrative anonymity might somehow fool the reader into accepting its opinionated guesses as being somehow authoritative. Writing about music has its tricks and its tropes, the same as any form of critical appraisal. What I’m doing right now: bringing you into a conspiratorial embrace by the use of semi-rarified vocabulary and register in a first-person, self-conscious narrative – is the undergraduate approach to a dilemma that faces anyone who chooses to write publicly about music.

The issue is not whether a writer can describe a piece of music to a reader. The truth of that is established. It’s impossible. Even if you and I were to sit in front of the same speakers and listen to the same piece of music, even if we were to go to great lengths to assure that the soundwaves you heard were identical to the ones I experienced, it wouldn’t make any difference. The little drums inside your ears are different to the little drums inside mine. As for the interpretative mechanisms that follow the physical inputs, those are a world of their own. The very keyboard rill which evokes an aching longing for a half-remembered joy sometime in my childhood could just as well remind you of the time you spilled hot spaghetti hoops onto your lap when you were ten. It’s all subjective, and can only ever be. So instead, the writer tries to establish a type of authority, something to convince you that our opinion matters. Ideally, that authority would be built up over time, with credibility enforced by a track record of writing interesting opinions about pieces of music that, even if you didn’t fully agree with them, were at the very least valid or worthy of respect. But as a blogger, relatively new to your acquaintance, that accumulated authority is something that I can’t hope to depend on. There are shortcuts. Being snide and hypercritical of musicians deemed too mainstream is one of those shortcuts. Being catty and arch works well too, just the way that bitching about a colleague tends to forge superficially pleasing relationships in the workplace. Dropping lots of references to music on the periphery of our knowledge is a good start. That’s a staple of the music-blogger’s approach – when the blogger feels the focus should be more on the blog than the music. Ten there’s the schoolyard music-bore’s method – dropping references to increasingly obscure acts from the past, as if littering the text with the names of 1980s Polish speedmetal bands guarantees a developed sense of critical appreciation in the writer. Knowing asides mentioning Cabaret Voltaire in a review of a synthpop act tend to work well, for other genres there is always the chin-strokey fallback if Zappa or Can. When all else fails, mention Nick Drake.

Doing it again, aren’t I? Getting into a froth about the posturing that typifies this industry. What else can we do though? All we want, any of us, is that you listen to our music. Whether you like it or whether you don’t is for another day, another string of therapy sessions. Last week I wrote about the industry, the marketing mechanisms, the rise of the South Korean music market (published the day before that country came under fire from it’s northern neighbour – horrible timing on my part). That piece was an effort to appear a little professional, detached, authoritative. Many thanks to Stuart Dredge of MusicAlly.com for picking the post up and running it as their opinion piece for the fortnight. This week though, I’m back to being me. A bit emotional, a bit susceptible to fits of ire and a bit too sensitive to moments of musical art that strike me as interesting. Can we establish, or at least indulge in the fantasy that I am a critical voice worthy of your indulgence for the next thousand words or so? I certainly don’t have a long history of music writing that you can refer to, nor do I write for a publication you already admire. I do have an option at this point, but it is not one I’m willing to exercise. Scorn, doled out at a well-picked target (something at the lower end of the public perception, building momentum, but without a sufficiently visible history of penury and graft), is a shortcut to the affections of the reader. A sneering propensity to damn with faint praise. A jaded cynicism about everything I hear, as if the trials of having to listen to a constantly growing pile of free CDs were somehow as laborious and drudging as clocking in for another eight hours of packing tomatoes into crates or manning a call centre cubicle. I don’t want to do that, or even pretend that I feel that way. One of the few jewels of the music industry as I have experienced it so far, one of the all-time joys which pisses on all of the challenges and disappointments and frustrations, is that I get to hear chunks of new music as it gets sent to me on the SoundCloud dropbox, or via the postie, or best of all, as it gets composed and recorded. So, instead of dwelling on the negatives or using cynicism as a vehicle to enlist the sympathy of the reader, for a change, I’m going to write about a song that really interests me.

Vivo en Penumbra translates as ‘I live in the shadows’. It’s a nine-minute saga. When Maria (the singer and songwriter) penned it, she had a whole story to tell – a whole scenario involving claustrophobia, agorophobia, self-imposed alienation, failed rebirth, atavism and longing. It’s a lot to get across in nine minutes, and it’s not at all comfortable listening. Should it be? Music is not always designed to soothe. At its worst, music is a superficial product, churned out on an industrial basis as a saleable by-product of a marketing drive. Recent changes in technology have shifted the emphasis off music as the primary by-product of that branding process – relegating it somewhere behind box-sets, figurines, fragrances, dancemats and iPhone apps, so it doesn’t even have the dubious privilege of being the focal point of a manufactured popstar’s market value. Let’s not name names, you can all think of someone. That’s music at it’s worst – not because the music is bad, sometimes it’s not – but because it is strictured by the parameters enforced upon it by other aspects of the marketing process. Popstars cannot be out of character for a moment, even the most avant-garde of them have to display a consistency in their ‘experimentation’ that tallies with the brand image they maintain. So, remember the bit about establishing credibility in the first part of this post? Well, here’s my only really useful claim to credibility. I can definitively say that Mil i Maria are in no way constricted by any aspects of the branding phenomenon. As the manager of their label, I have to admit that I do sometimes wish they would conform a bit to the branding process. From the point of view of marketing the act, it would be a whole lot easier if Maria would choose a look (psychobilly rockchick would work) and build a stage persona around that. The best branding happens when an act merely take a genuine piece of their defining spirit, and just exaggerate it a bit. Creating something completely alien and artificial has no value, because it it too difficult to sustain. An exaggerated stage persona works though, for the consumer and the act. It allows the members of the act to differentiate between the aspect of themselves that replies to interviewers’ questions from the aspect of themselves that buys milk at the cornershop. Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make, is that there is no restriction on Mil i Maria’s music from the point of view of branding or marketing. Musically, there is quality-control, production, arrangement, feedback. Of course there is that, but as a collaborative process, not as an imposition. You can’t coerce her, many have tried.

So, then. In Vivo en Penumbra you have the unsullied expression of a songwriter/performer who is free to record the song she hears in her head, without the restrictions of market, audience, branding. That may not sound like much, but it’s getting rarer by the minute.

The song opens with an opressive ticking – perhaps a clock, perhaps a heartbeat. The protagonist sings what would translate as ‘I live in shadow /I don’t recommend it / My house is small and I walk around it sideways – so that the mirror won’t watch me’.

There’s an autobiographical element to the song, it continues to describe a protagonist who spends the day in an untidy flat, filling notebooks full of short, aborted lines, tearing them up. Standard. But the repetition of the guitar line, and that invasive ticking hint at something more malevolent. With a songwriting flair that is unusual in a debut album, the song takes a twist at this point. The phone rings, our protagonist answers, is invited to a meeting, accepts. And on leaving the house, chaos, agorophobia, panic, fear:

ah, que miedo, alguien me punta con un dedo. Ah, que miedo!

Scared! Someone pokes me with a finger, Scared!

Outside it is bright, it’s crowded, it’s terrifying. But on encountering a busker playing flamenco, the scene calms. Something timeless and comforting in the guitarist’s music soothes the narrator. For a moment, everything is fine. What makes the song really interesting though is that, despite the breakthrough, despite the atavistic calm that descends on the song with the flamenco phrase, there is no happy ending. The song ends where it began, back in the small untidy house, terrified of the outside world and loathing of the oppressive regime it denotes.

I’ll stop here. I’m not a music critic, nor am I unbiased. I love the song and I want you to love it too.

Hear it at http://blancomusic.com/vivoenpenumbra

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Is the revolution almost upon us?

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.

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More clippings from my rants in GU comments

This must be a very disappointing blog to follow. LAtely I really haven’t been making the effort to write much, which is partly because I’ve been rebuilding the BlancoMusic website in between the times when my attention is focused on bands and recording and gigs and suchlike. The other reason is because the in-between times are getting fewer and fewer, which is a happy circumstance. It is, frankly, nicer to have a lot of business at the label, a lot of new projects and new music to deal with, than having chunks of time with nothing to fill it.

That said, I still rise to the bait like a chummed reefshark every time I see someone spouting uninformed rubbish on the Guardian’s blogpage. This time it was in response to Cory Doctorow’s technology column, which he devoted to a popular-science-meets-Jerry-Springer-style character assasination of Helienne Lindvall. Helienne had accused him of hypocrisy in her column, by citing that his 25,000 dollar fees for speaking at conferences, and how she felt it was at odds with his assertion that musicians should embrace the culture of free content. Well, it turns out that Doctorow ‘only’ asks for 15,000, a detail he seized upon to build a whining, disingenuous, mob-pleasing regurgitation of all the facile pro-filesharing arguments that everyone in the music business has been swatting down in flames for the past ten years. Of particular interest to me was his insistence that the internet be left to function in exactly the free and unpoliced manner that it does currently, and his implication that the unfettered use of the internet, for good or ill, be linked to peoples’ rights to freedom of speech. At this point it was probably all he could do to stop himself from singing the Star Spangled Banner, and whilst it is always a safe bet to cite the freedom of speech argument in your favour when you want public sympathy, it is a poor justification for malicious use of the internet. At the point where he claimed that having his ‘right’ to a free internet curtailed would mean he would have to make pictures of his two year-old daughter in the bath available to the faceless authorities he is so opposed to, I’m afraid I broke my promise (to myself) not to write about filesharing any more. Here’s what I said (the initial paragraph is in response to LaurelRussworm’s claim that the music industry betrayed the consumer by selling DRM-protected records, hence denying them the opprtunity to duplicate what was now ‘theirs’:

@LaurelRusswurm
As a non-industry consumer, it’s not expected that you should be conversant with copyright law, but the legal reality is that you do not actually buy a copy of the work when you buy a record, you actually buy a limited license to the use of the work. That license is limited to use for personal listening use. The license does not cover copying, distributing or altering the recording. These rights can be bought, but at different price points and through direct negotiation with the copyright owner. As I say, it’s easy for a consumer to be mixed up on this, so no drama. However, Doctorow, who has decided to use his technology platform to make comment on the music industry, has no excuse for making the same mistake in his article. Some of the fact-checking he whines so interminably on about when it applies to Lindvall might be well-applied to his own practices. The same could be said of his article above, which although he voices it as if he is an original thinker, has brought no new facts or opinions to the discourse on the impact of ‘free’ music to the music industry. Any regular reader of Helienne’s blog will have seen his points raised in the comments section numerous times, and will have seen them robustly dealt with by the contributors to what is one of the most vigorous and active conversations on the Guardian website. If Doctorow seems to be being treated by some commentators on here in a brusque way, it is simply because the points he makes in his article are so many years behind the current state of the debate that it is irritating to have to address them all over again. It wouldn’t be a problem if he were just another commentator, but as author of a GU piece, the bar is usually set higher.

Now, someone asked if there was anyone willing to comment on the state of piracy-stopping legislation/technology. That’ll be me then.

Doctorow, like a great many bad science-fiction writers and technology pundits, is great on the tech/mech stuff, but completely blind to the human side of things. Of course the internet will be patrolled and restricted in the future, we can see that already in the way that certain online RPGs no longer allow anonymous accounts for players. The internet is new technology, bolted onto a society which has evolved its ways of existing over millenia. So far the internet has not threatened our society in any significant way (the income of the music/film industry is unimportant in the grand scheme of things), and has been all-but ignored by the legislative bodies of the western world. The concept of punishing repeated lawbreakers with nothing more stringent than the need to spend ten minutes on the phone changing their ISP shows how very little the UK government care about online copyright violations. Why should they? As Doctorow points out – online music theft is the musicians’ problem, let them deal with it.

The internet will not end up being policed because of film/music theft. It is a new technology that has yet to be dealt with by law in any significant way. Right now it’s like the early cars that appeared in the 20th century. No doubt, when potential car owners were told they would now be expected to pass tests, hold licenses and not drive under the influence of alcohol, they felt their rights were being curtailed. But society demanded it because society was fed up of going to road-death funerals. Technology is always given too much credence by technology commentators as something which will fundamentally change the world, but the truth is, the vast majority of technology does very little to fundamentally change the world. Handguns are a piece of technology that make it very easy to finish an argument. But arguments still happen. Why? Because, at least here in the developed world, society outlawed the handgun. Certainly the responsible and less-responsible handgun owners felt that their rights were being curtailed, but after Dunblane the demands of UK society was that these things be collected up, destroyed, and be banned. An unrelated case? Not really. People have already committed suicide due to the depression brought upon them by internet abuse. Certainly, the internet is just a communication medium, and as such cannot be blamed for peoples’ misuse of it. But that anonymous misuse can, and will, be stopped.
To (ab)use Doctorow’s example of his 2-year old in the bath. At some point a kid somewhere will figure out a way to break passwords so that he can get free porn. He’ll share that info. That info will eventually be used by paedophiles to access personal photos. Those photos will be shared. A child will be abducted, later we will find that internet info was used to facilitate the crime. At that point the anonymity of the internet will be stopped.
This will not be condemned as ‘draconian measures of a big brother state’, but will be demanded, howling, by our society. And then, of course, the new laws will be expoiited by copyright owners.

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Rainy Day

Sometimes it’s near-impossible to come up with anything to say about our music, other peoples’ music, or the music business in general. I’m sitting here watching an FTP uploader in progress, trying to re-write the BlancoMusic website from scratch, because the last version of the site got mercilessly hacked by a bunch of freeloading scumbags who thought it would be fun to help themselves to the music files on sale there, plus distribute a whole gamut of their own content on various nodes of the site. We just had a chat here in the office about music, and our part in it. How far and distant we are now from a year ago when we started out. Back then we had the naive view that as long as the music was good enough, that people would hear it and buy it. Well, the music’s good enough, but it turns out that the decision that most people make to buy a piece of music is more often prompted by the publicity and promotion that surround it than by how it actually sounds. We knew that was the case with the likes of Lady GaGa, we just really believed that there was a contingent of people around the world who were more savvy about music than that.

So now, when I should be enthusing you about the new music that’s being made here at BlancoMusic (lots of really astounding Piano Segundo material, plus some more from Vanito Brown), I’m actually trying desperately to get the label’s public face back to where it was a month ago. We should be building, instead we’re repairing. It doesn’t make me happy or optimistic about the future of music. We’ve had the filesharing debate on here a number of times, and you all know that I’m not a fan of anonymous individuals distributing the work of an artist without their permission. Imagine how I feel about someone coming to our website, hacking into the unprepared site I spent weeks building, helping themselves to copies of music that took months to write, compose, play and record (and from which a number of people I consider to be my friends had hoped to derive an honest income), and probably, ‘sharing’ those files with innumerable faceless, anonymous fucktards all over the world. Hey hacker guys, thanks for doing your bit in ‘liberating’ the art. Really altruistic. By the way, I hate you.

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From The Guardian’s ‘Behind the Music’ blog

As always, I recommend Helliene Lindvall’s blog on The Guardian as a place to get the inside scoop on how the music industry actually works. The comments section is always a firepit – a true congregation of twisted souls clothing their rabidly-held, self-serving personal opinions in the jargon of the pseudo-intellectual, ‘academic’. I’m not being unfair here – my own replies do the exact same thing. You know the sort of approach: nobody ever actually calls you a cunt, but they might say ‘your argument shows that you have marked tendency to the vaginal’. Nevertheless, it’s a good gauge of how trends move, how the pro- and anti-filesharing arguments are developing. If you think that the comments section of the BlancoMusic blog gets heated on occasion, you ain’t seen nuthin’ til you’ve seen Helienne’s blog. Anyway, not that I want to drive traffic away from my little corner of the internet particularly, but I do recommend it. Here’s my comment for the day, in response to the side-them in the comments of whether filesharing can ever be curtailed:

@Helienne
Thanks for writing this piece, I’ve been looking forward to it.

With regard to whether filesharing can be stopped, and whether western governments will apply the draconian measures it would necessitate to do so, I believe we’re all guilty of the sin that the filesharers accuse the record labels of committing – backward thinking. Google will almost certainly enter the music market as either a streaming or untethered download retailer before Christmas (or so hums the grapevine). I do not for a moment believe that Google will tolerate unlimited access to the same product they are selling, via PirateBay or Rapidshare etc. Techie and legal types will butt in at this point and say: ‘they only control a search function, not the internet; darknet and swapped hard-drives will continue; they don’t have the legal means to stamp out providers’. To which I would say – you’re dealing with multi-billionaires who have proved (with their attitude to copyrighted literary works) that the legal and technical restrictions which apply to the rest of us, have no bearing whatsoever on their actions. If it suits Google to stop filesharing, Google will doubtless stop it. At the very least, they will make music-filesharing the province of only the very IT-savvy elite, or those passing physical material from hand to hand. If that’s what they choose to do at this point. They may well wish to see their competition further weakened before they act.

As I wrote in a previous blog (to which you linked, thank you) – Google entering the music industry is somewhat scary. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think it should be looked upon as a hostile takeover, and that their timing on the move will be chosen to coincide with the point at which they consider the industry to be at its weakest. Their previous dealings with the concept of copyright-protected product doesn’t speak well for them, and I don’t believe they will be content to pay any publishing society’s mandatory minimum royalty rates. Expect to see some serious shafting done in the next few months.

The speculation is my own, nothing more than a (jaded and jaundiced) reaction to a piece of news I have been expecting for some time. As a mere piece of speculation it is not robust enough to withstand the kind of aggressive peer-review that comments on your blog often receive, and I’m not going to bother defending it if that happens. Apologies for that in advance – I’m a bit busy right now. It’s just an interpretation of a rumour, make of it what you will.

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Hang in there

Hi all,

I’m back in the office now, finally, after a summer spent doing related, but not office-bound stuff. I will get back to writing blogposts very soon, and will keep them coming as best I can. Just give me a day or two though, to clear up all the mess that as accumulated whilst I’ve been away.

Back soon.

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Can we start building Music 3.0 now please?

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.

FBIs
(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.

Dance Music
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
As above.

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.

Major Labels
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?

New acts
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.

Virtuosos
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.

The Fans
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.

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A career in live music, possible?

My last post started to examine the value of record labels in the Music 2.0 industry, but was left somewhat unfinished. Well, I won’t be finishing it today either, because there’s far too much to examine to do so in one go. I do think that labels have a continued value to artists, but it is the responsibility of labels, and musicians, to figure out exactly what each one of us can do, and what our new roles ought to be. Some things are now easier for musicians than ever. Making a recording, getting it onto iTunes, creating an awareness of their music online, all far simpler than it ever was. So simple, that a band really doesn’t need to go mortgaging their careers to a major label deal just to get those things done. Labels now have the responsibility not of making the product, but of getting it heard, sold, loved. Again, the musician also has responsibility for that, in the Music 2.0 industry, where fans demand levels of interaction with their musical idols that were unthinkable twenty years ago, it’s actually pretty demanding for the band to achieve. It’s another moment where the whole series of demands that consumers make in the Music 2.0 model seem more difficult than they should be, and are stacked in the favour of the consumer rather than the providers. Since writing my last post, I attended a really enjoyable live gig by Rob Sawyer and his band, and was well impressed by both the quality of musicianship and the stagecraft of the act. At the end of the gig, there were CDs for sale, and a healthy queue of people lining up to buy them. Clearly, there is still demand for recorded music, on CD. I’d say that some thirty or so people bought an album, at ten euros each, myself included. Quite a good result for a Wednesday night gig. Looking at the CD itself, it’s in a simple cardboard cover, the type that costs about a euro eighty or so per unit to manufacture. The gig itself was at a venue that pays around two-hundred euros per gig. There were three members of the band, plus one selling merchandise. Sawyer seems to have based himself on this stretch of French Atlantic coastline during the European summer months, and then tours his native Australia during the southern hemisphere summer. It’s a great strategy, aided by the fact that his music fits very nicely into an acoustic/roots/rock mileu that is now the soundtrack to the surf lifestyle. He’s seen his audience and he’s chasing it hard. Nevertheless, the next morning I saw him and his bassplayer emerging from a pretty ratty campervan, so it’s not a life of immense luxury. The problem is that the approach Sawyer is taking is textbook Music 2.0. Every discussion I have read about music, and how difficult it is becoming for musicians to make a decent living now that there is so much music, so little attention, and so many ways of getting it for free, includes at least one petulant voice saying that ‘recorded music is not real music anyway. Playing live and selling your merchandise to a loyal fanbase is the new way forward’. Well, it might pay for a few campervan summers for a singer in his twenties, but it won’t put food on the table when the sheer inconvenience of endless touring becomes intolerable. There is an invisible wall that can keep a band playing pubs and small festivals for its entire career. Usually it ends with one or all of the band’s members deciding that, seriously, they’re not going to be able to do this forever. That wall is based on the fact that, if you have to actually perform live to make sales, your income is restricted to the amount of punters you can physically put yourself in front of. Fine if you’re playing three stadium gigs a week to fifty-thousand or more fans, but not fine if you’re pulling in a very respectable three-hundred or so. Even filling a hall with three-hundred people is beyond the capability of most bands or acts, unless they have some sort of a professional promotional platform. The ‘buzz’ created by a live performance is not enough to deliver any significant fanbase growth without some serious legwork on social web, radio play, print media and television. This is the flaw in that other great hope of Music 2.0 – the fan-funded revenue model. If you consider for a moment the Slicethepie or PledgeMusic models of generating revenue, the invisible wall becomes more obvious. Say you need ten grand to record an album, and you have a thousand fans willing to split that cost, you’d feel pretty happy about that. Unfortunately, once the album is recorded, and your thousand loyal fans have their copy (which they were loyal enough to pay for up front, and wait for), who do you sell the rest to? Your loyal fanbase already has its product, and quite possibly does not want you to become so successful that you move beyond the small venues where they can chat to you after the gig. You have the CDs to sell at gigs, but the fans already have them. You could go back onto PledgeMusic and ask that the fans come up with the cash to help you promote and distribute the album, but, frankly, what’s in it for them? So your big hope is to make enough money out of live performances to live on. How many live performances can you do a week? How many can you actually get? How much can you charge for each? How many people at each gig will be new fans who might buy a CD? How do you get the time to compose and record new work when you’re gigging all the time? Without the additional revenue of record sales (sales that take place around the world, without you actually having to be at the point of purchase), fanbase generation from gigs is a closed circuit. Truly, if we condemn our musicians to a life where sales of recorded music are only realistically to be expected at gigs, the rate at which our favourite artists start giving up on music as a career will be astounding.

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