Vinyl sales grew 39% in 2011 and projections for the future are even higher. This is huge for musicians.
Here’s the dirty little secret you probably haven’t read much about: Look more closely and you’ll quickly realize that the music industry is 75% controlled by four labels. Musicians are not the majority rights holders of music — four labels are.
Does that make any sense in an age when the cost to produce, market and grant access to music is a fraction of what it was 15 years ago?
For the other 25% of rights holders, vinyl is huge. For indies, vinyl is a shining beacon of hope. For independent musicians, vinyl is becoming super-important to their bottom line. For these musicians, charging for access to one’s music no longer makes sense (it quite literally makes cents), particularly when attention is a form of payment in the Digital Age. A chance to be heard is a chance to be paid. A chance to be heard is too valuable to paywall for the 25% who don’t have huge stables of lawyers and lobbyists, or enormous marketing budgets and payola arrangements to manufacture popularity.
Music innovators Feedbands have recently come under friendly fire for this op-ed on Digital Music News in which they slay all sorts of bogus stats that washed-up pro-musician bloggers like to tout when they complain that fans sharing their music are killing their careers.
For those who don’t know of Feedbands, what they do is allow users to vote on a vinyl release for the month. They then pick a winner, press up their EP, and send it out to all their subscribers for the reasonable price of $14.95. For the bands that make the cut, it can be a huge windfall of new fans, not to mention Feedbands cuts them a nice check and does the pressing free.
What I love about Feedbands, and what will save the music industry (at least the 25% that matters), is not the vinyl records themselves, but the ethos:
We at Feedbands believe that music is essential and should be shared.
This simple sentiment has been completely lost on piracy-obsessed blogger-musicians at The Trichordist and I Am A Scientist, who believe sharing music is akin to stealing — a concept that came and went over a decade ago. And anyone who thinks RIAA and IFPI have musicians’ best interests in minds is dangerously out of touch.
There are two simple reasons why “killing piracy” will never save the 25%, or the 75% for that matter.
- “Piracy” can’t be killed, period, and it’s naive to think otherwise.
- “Piracy” helps musicians (at least the 25%) because a chance to be heard is a chance to be paid.
There is still a healthy demographic of musicians who blame their career woes on their own fans’ sharing of their music and on ad-supported, unauthorized music distribution platforms. They want to eliminate free access to music and force fans to pay. It’s a great way to never be discovered and to piss off the people who love your music.
Instead of incentivizing fans to pay by offering something they can’t get free off the Internet (vinyl is just one example), they would rather kill the free access discovery process in order to get a tiny minority of those fans to pay 30% to the digital distributor and then let the money trickle through an exploitative label contract. They want to increase the deadweight loss and alienate the people in a position to support their careers by dictating the terms on which their art is appreciated. It’s not a winning strategy. Vinyl is.
I don’t need statistics and studies to tell me vinyl will help save musicians. My band raised over $4,300 on Kickstarter to fund vinyl production. Every musician I talk to now is excited by vinyl. It has reintroduced scarcity (vinyl is often released in limited collectible editions feature awesome art and crazy coloring), but more importantly, it’s a way for fans to express their love for a band financially and get something tangible in return.
Some people will tell you that modern digital files sound great and the sound quality of vinyl does not make the difference. I’m not sure what to say to those people. I’m no vinyl snob, not even a collector, but even I can’t argue that for many types of music, vinyl just sounds better. I was so blown away when I heard our band’s vinyl after we got it back from the plant, I went out and bought a record player. Say what you want about sample rate, but analog audio is natural and digital sampling ain’t. You can’t argue with a brain that evolved over millions of years to interpret a continuous sound signal vs. a purportedly indistinguishable succession of digital samples. Whether it’s the “warmth” of the intrinsic distortion of vinyl or any other trick of physics, the sound speaks for itself.
There’s something else the haters are missing, and that’s the ritual of vinyl. Even with cassettes and CDs, there was a ritual. We’d have to select the physical media from our collection, and place it in the physical player, and then we had to listen. Straight up, true fans want to listen to music.
People are having religious music experiences upon hearing vinyl. I first heard our vinyl album on cheap computer speakers via a USB turntable, and it still sounded better than my hi fi car stereo. The ritual helps establish the attention to listening, so I’m not sure how much of it is psychological, but our brains are all we’ve got so I’m going to listen to mine.
So spread the truth. If you want sound quality, vinyl offers an experience wholly different than digital and preferred by many.
The cost of production, marketing and giving the public access to music has never been lower. There are more independent vinyl pressing plants today that before most of us were born, and you can get 250 records pressed up for about $1500, then turn around and sell those for $15 apiece minimum. Higher quantities yield higher profit margins. It just doesn’t even compare to the margins on streaming and downloads, which are only going to shrink as access to music is bundled with telecom service and mobile contracts. With enough litigation and legislation, the major labels might be able to get a bigger cut of streaming revenues, but good luck seeing that income trickle down into all but the most previously successful musicians’ pockets. Isn’t the purpose of copyright to create a healthy music culture, not enrich creators who are no longer relevant creatively?
There’s one more log I’d like to throw on the fire, and it’s last but not least. Fans know that when they buy vinyl, the money is generally going to the artist. Fans know that when they buy digital, a good chunk goes to a large corporation simply for serving up the file. They’re just about as happy with price-fixed digital files as they were with price-fixed CDs.
In this business of music, who are we trying to save exactly? The multi-billion dollar media conglomerates who write off their recorded music losses against military-industrial complex cash cows? Or are we trying to save the actual musicians responsible for creating the music we love?
Nobody wants to save the music industry, the 75% owned by the big four. Well, the pro musicians who profited from it do. The lawyers and lobbyists do. The executives who successfully manufactured the popularity of 1 out of 10 musicians they singed do. But I’m not sure how much clearer of a message fans could send to the music industry than a $3B loss.
To be clear, vinyl alone will not save musicians, inasmuch as they need saving. Last time I checked, there was more music being made and listened to than ever before in history, and so-called “piracy” was still rampant. There are other important revenue streams that copyright-obsessed musician-bloggers like to ignore. Crowdfunding and tipping are growing exponentially. Licensing has never been more in demand and accessible. It’s never been easier for a musician to cut out the middleman on all kinds of merch and physical product and make huge markups. Live music generates more significant revenue now than it has in years. Fans are still paying musicians, they’re just over paying for access. Musicians make music to be heard first, paid second, so where’s the conflict in digital technology finally making that dream a reality?
If you want to save musicians, buy a record, burn it to MP3, and share it with your friends.