Creators are afraid AI will replace them. This is a rational fear, but perhaps not for the reasons you immediately assume.
The vast majority of artists and musicians do not make significant money from their creations. For most, it’s a side hustle at best. Only a tiny percentage make a living, and only a tiny percentage of those creators sustain any semblance of a music or art career. This has always been the case, primarily because large parts of the art and music industries have always been high-risk and corrupt.
Most artists and musicians are hobbyists whose creations produce little to no value beyond themselves and their friends, family and perhaps a few fans. There’s really nothing wrong with this — I’ve been in a band that fits this description for 18 years — but a lot of musicians and artists act as if this was not a fact. Most overvalue their creative work for obvious reasons. Creative work is personal and one’s ego is typically intrinsically attached. For most, it’s a huge ego blow to calculate the amount of time and money poured into the pursuit of art and music, then compare that to the actual financial compensation. Art and music has the value the market assigns it. The feelings of its creators don’t factor in to what it’s worth.
Now that we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easy to see why AI makes so many artists and musicians uncomfortable. At the click of a button, generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney and DreamStudio are able to synthesize massive volumes of human creativity into new and original works that instantly humble to output of most creators. That’s enough to make the average musician or artist jump to the conclusion that their work, typically being of little value to others (and rarely equal to the value the ego-bound creator gives it), is instantly dwarfed by this new technology, or will be soon.
There’s no doubt AI will replace mediocre musicians and artists, and many folks you see complaining about it are doing so because on some level they suddenly and rightfully feel insignificant, if only subconsciously.
At present, AI is moving much faster to replace artists in comparison to musicians. But make no mistake: Music will experience the same revolution.
Will AI create better art and music than humans?
Detractors will dismiss this question with “of course not”, but the answer is not so clear in reality (and not just because we’re dealing with subjectivity.)
AI already makes “better” art and music than plenty of humans. Technically speaking, most of what AI outputs as art is far beyond the technical reach of most artists’ ability to replicate or match in terms of quality. Sure, AI still makes numerous mistakes when rendering more complex aspects of images such as hands, faces, or other details that human brains have evolved over millennia to detect the minute details of. AI has a silly tendency to render keyboard and monitors facing away from people sitting at them. It often gives animals extra heads, tails and limbs. There’s a vast universe of ways today’s AI screws up art, but that universe gets smaller every day.
As more artists and musicians drop their fear of AI and embrace it as a creative tool, the question of whether or not AI art is better or worse than human-made will become moot. There will simply be too few mediocre artists and musicians left to wonder or complain, having been replaced by the artists and musicians that evolved to use AI to push creative boundaries to worlds beyond what was possible prior to AI.
“Real” artists and musicians will not just vanish, in the same way that vinyl records didn’t disappear. Like vinyl, non-AI-assisted art will almost certainly experience a resurgence in popularity after AI-assisted art and music has saturated the market.
Most artists and musicians who fear AI haven’t used it as a creative tool
If you’re an artist or musician still shaking your head and pumping your fist, ask yourself: “Have I spent many hours using AI tools to be creative?” I have, and let me tell you, it’s hard to see the upside to being a luddite.
What entitles such people to have such a strong opinion of a creative tool they’ve spent little to no time using? Yes, social media algorithms encourage that kind of behavior, but if we’re being serious, unless you have 20 hours under your belt using AI, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
One of the biggest misconceptions from AI novices is that AI-assisted creators are using LLM tools to simply click and output art, music and writing. In reality, we’re using AI output selectively, sometimes simply as inspiration, other times cherry-picking the best bits to include in otherwise human-generated artwork, songs and articles.
After spending a bit of time with AI tools, most folks will begin to realize AI is a tool to extend and enhance creativity, not kill it. AI offers some mind-blowing new creative opportunities, but human beings are still in the driver’s seat of creativity and will be for some time. This town is big enough for the both of us. If AI ever does entirely replace humans as creators, there will be a long period of time before this happens where humans will be using AI to be more creative and prolific than ever.
We’ve seen this before
The backlash against creative uses of AI has many parallels to the backlash against free access to music back in the Napster days. Today, we have free access to music via Spotify, YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms. It’s ubiquitous. It has its problems (again, related largely to the top-down corruption of the music industry), but the modern musician that doesn’t make their songs available on streaming services is about as rare as the telegraph operator, milk man, and encyclopedia salesperson.
The modern artist or musician will soon to be like these anachronistic job roles, made largely irrelevant by technology. You can still send a telegram, get milk delivery and get an encyclopedia delivered to your door, it’s just way more of a niche service.
Even the idea of a “recording artist” is already anachronistic, as we’ve transitioned from musicians making the majority of their income on sales of physical music to earning the lion’s share from licensing and building/sustaining large online audiences to monetize in myriad ways. This is precisely why labels now sign artists to draconian “360 deals” that take a cut of all revenue streams.
You can’t copyright AI art and music (sort of)
Recently there was a significant court decision in which a federal judge ruled AI art wasn’t subject to copyright because it was mostly machine-made. At the same time, Getty Images and Adobe have launched generative AI tools which they guarantee are free of unlicensed images as source material. Things are trending toward AI-assisted art and music being fine for ephemeral uses, but un-copyrightable for monetization unless higher standards of transformation are met (versus the low bar of modern copyright, where even small transformations constitute a new copyright-protected work as long as they are human-made).
Nobody knows for sure, but it’s looking like copyright will remain the domain of humans for some time to come. This ostensibly means if I create an album cover or music video or song with AI, anyone is free to copy that and sell it themselves. Imagine The Weeknd releasing his new hit AI-generated single, and then anyone being able to sell it, sync it to their videos or remix it for free, without any licensing fees. Yeah, that’s going to happen over the music industry cartel’s dead body.
What’s actually going to happen is that real humans will use AI to assist in human-led generation of art and music. The Weeknd could have AI write the entire song — chords, melody, lyrics, drums, everything — and then just recreate that in a studio with different tools. It’s functionally the same AI-generated song, but now it can be copyrighted. Art is a little trickier, but plenty of artists are already using projectors to guide artworks, and some are starting to project an AI creations and paint them.
Some mediocre artists and musicians will use the AI tools to create works of far greater value to the market. Without a doubt, most of the top artists and musicians are not sleeping on these tools. Yes, we’re all waiting for them to get better, as they will, but if you’re not using AI now in a creative capacity, it’s time to lose the stubborn, antagonistic attitude and give it a shot.
Now, I could go on about the mistake of naming your band something that’s already in use, but I think the important thing is to recognize that any band that does this are by definition amateur, unsigned and independent. So these bands should be a truly representative cross-section of the lower echelons of the indie music scene.
Woth that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 5 nams to glean some psychological insight into the mind of the indie musician:
A whopping 59 bands on Bandcamp share this name, which actually makes perfect sense. Atlas has a double meaning that resonates with musicians. The Atlas of Greek mythology famously held up the celestial spheres, although the more popular bastardized modern version is that he holds all the burdens of the Earth on his shoulders.
Sound familiar, musicians? It sure does to me. Many musicians feel this way — like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and the only way to get respite is to make music that expresses this feeling. Musicians are highly emotional people who feel the world’s worries in ways “normal” people simply ignore. Since we have no choice but to feel the weight of the world, we have no choice but to play music.
The other meaning of atlas is the Rand McNally type — the world map. What musician doesn’t want to tour the world… particularly the naive independent musician just starting out on Bandcamp? Built into the band name Atlast is not just the idea of touring, but the idea that your music can serve as a map itself — a map of emotions internal and external, that helps listeners navigate the vast expanse of human experience.
Because of all these things, Atlas just sounds “huge”, and pretty much every band starting out wants to be huge.
Another nod to Greek mythology, Apollo also has the benefit of being associated with space exploration and the cosmos. Like Atlas, this double-meaning is important because it creates a mystique (albeit ham-fisted), so the band and the music can mean many things to many people. Even amateur musicians intuit this as the basis of great music. The myth-loving fan and the space-loving fan will interpret the name different ways, and both will be correct.
Apollo was the god of music, so it’s not hard to imagine many of these bands just took their Greek mythology lesson in high school and said, “Cool, let’s name our band that.” Sometimes — oftentimes, even — a band name is chosen more for sounding cool than for its meaning.
The Apollo space program saw humankind explore space and land on the moon, so in terms of modern mysticism and mythology, a musician would be hard-pressed to find a better representation. And, of course, we have the Apollo 13 mission, what might be considered the apex of human experience — surviving an accident in space that should have been a death sentence, only to return to Earth heroes. This directly parallels the indie musician’s dream of suffering the slings and arrows of obscurity to do the impossible and come out the other side a rock star.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but Apollo is both an ancient myth and a modern one. Music is quite the same — an ancient art, yet wholly modern.
Most indie musicians’ core dream is to gain widespread exposure among loving fans. They may dream of overnight success (a myth), but deep down they know audience growth is tied to their growth as musicians. “Bloom” makes perfect sense in this context — it embodies the dreams nearly every musician has for their music and their audience to bloom.
Blooming is also a visual spectacle, something that demands attention, and nothing could be closer to how bands feel starting out. With so many other flowers in the garden, you’ve got to be the tallest and brightest to attract the bees and pollenate beyond your stalk.
Songs also “bloom” in the head. We rarely like a song on first listen, but second listen, then third, and all of the suddent the song is taking over our brains.
Naming your band Bloom is like saying, “I know we’re not much now, but just wait until you start listening to our music, supporting us, and watching us grow.”
This one is fairly self-explanitory. Musicians are one of society’s last remaining nomadic cultures, moving their “families” from city to city in search of sustinance.
It would be interesting to see how many Nomads are on tour right now. Continuing with the idea that this list is a cross-section of amateur musicians, my guess would be the name is more idealism than realism. But hey, you gotta start somehwere.
The double-meaning here is that musicians are often nomads in their own lifes, jumping between social circles. Or perhaps they are emotionally nomadic, exploring different personas and vibes with an opennes most people lack. All of these names are popular because they can mean so many different, yet equally prescient and precious things to musicians.
To be a musician is to live within a paradox. You see the world for what it is and have a knack for expressing that in a way that connects more intimately with others than almost anything else on the planet. And yet, you feel incredibly detached from the “normal” reality that so many others seem to find themselves in. You fit in by not fitting in.
Musicians are highly exalted socially — even indie musicians just starting out quickly learn the intoxicating effects of audience praise. Even small-time musicians get to walk into their local venues as one of the coolest people in the room. And yet despite this social exaltation, financial remuneration is almost non-existent. We can save a life with a song but we can’t afford health insurance.
Paradox is also a great title to put on a band because the listener can simply insert their own paradox. Because a paradox is by definition illogical, it makes the perfect subject matter for the language of illogic, music. Like the best band names, it means many things to many people.
I’ll leave you with one last paradox: These musicians are dedicating their lives to acts of pure originality and creativity, and yet they have chosen band names that already exist and can be googled in two seconds.
More music is being made and listened to with greater frequency, diversity and depth than ever before in human history.
But musicians are doomed.
Here are my issues with Byrne’s flimsy refutations of “counter-arguments” to building a business around free access to music:
“1. Recorded music -— and especially the idea of making money from it —- is so 20th century. Suck it up and move on.”
If not by selling access to recorded music, Byrne asks, “what is the alternative model for making a living” for musicians?
First, there’s the assumption that all musicians make money from recordings. Let’s acknowledge the many composers and performers who aren’t recording artists that are already making livings without exploiting their sound recording copyright.
Second, let’s also acknowledge that musicians never have earned 100% of their living from recordings. The bulk? Sure. Performance is an important and fast-growing part of the industry. Bands can and do produce and release successful albums in totality without any “team” helping them.
Third, there’s a complete lack of understanding as to how value is created around free access to music these days. For being such a musical visionary, Byrne doesn’t seem to realize that a new music business is dawning where fans directly patronize artists and fund their works. This is the era of the niche artist supported directly by the fan, the rejection of the hit song economy. It’s time to question corporate-hijacked copyright and government-decreed royalty entitlements as the basis of musician income.
Nobody thinks crowdfunding will “replace” royalties, that’s not the point. The point is that government-decreed, corporate-lobbied copyright exploitation rates are anachronistic in the digital age. We need new models. Byre, Lowery and the pro-copyright pro musician (but not necessarily pro-musician) cabal perpetuate the myth that music career failures are due to external forces (“piracy”) and not their own failure to adapt.
Alarm over the idea that value is shifting from the song to the fan is understood but unwarranted. Think beyond the numbers you see getting smaller on your royalty check. Right now, at this very moment, musicians are thriving. Byrne is the minority. We laugh at complaints about your royalty check, the epitome of a first-world problem. Most musicians never see a royalty check. Not because their music lacks quality or an audience, but because they don’t understand the music business, and the whole thing is set up to exploit them. Literally — copyright exploitation is how the old model derives value.
Thankfully, that will soon be behind us. The new model (well, really the “original” model of music before intellectual property law existed) derives value from the direct relationship between artist and fan. Technology brings us back to that model by allowing for songs to be produced, marketed and shared at costs that continue to diminish. We are all connecting, and the copyright regime is more of an obstacle than a boon to musical creativity and productivity.
Yet despite three labels owning ~70% of the rights to the world’s music (thereby largely dictating the terms that streaming companies do business), musicians aren’t just surviving, we’re thriving. More recordings are being made than ever before.
Again, for such a tech-conscious person, how can Byrne miss the recording studios in every musicians’ basement? How can he miss broadband and mobile? A world of ubiquitous, free flowing music. Each song an opportunity to be heard, and an opportunity to be paid.
Recorded music still has great value. Free or near-free access is not a genie that’s going back in the bottle, nor should it. Free access to music is best for most musicians and all fans. Some pros will get smaller paychecks — particularly those who relied on government-decreed royalty entitlements and lawyer/manager fees for squeezing blood from the stone-cold labels. That paradigm is shifting in a more ethical direction, and we should be championing it by adapting, not wringing our hands in paranoid nostalgia.
“2. The move to streaming services as the principal means of music consumption inevitably does some damage. That’s how the world works and how things progress. Progress is disruptive. One simply has to adapt to the inevitable.”
Well, yeah. Duh. Nothing is ever black and white. There are going to be benefits and drawbacks with any major change like this. Progress is both disruptive and inevitable. We have to look at whether digital music is a net positive or negative, and I continue to be stumped by folks who think music or musicians are at risk in a world of abundant creative production. The only thing being devalued is gatekeeping access to music, and there are numerous other revenue streams that musicians today are tapping into to power their careers.
Byrne makes it sound like all of the sudden, every musician doesn’t know how they’re going to make a living. All he has to do is take a look at the musicians succeeding by straddling the old model and the new, rather than fighting the future, which by definition, is inevitable.
Byrne goes so far as to categorize a group of people as “digital and technological inevitablists”, which won’t pass a spell check.
Some deaths are inevitable: The rotary phone… the fax machine… recorded music “ownership”. I mean, we’re not still using sharpened rocks to cut our meat?
So, obviously, Byrne says, “the content will run out eventually” if sound recording copyright loses its value.
Say what now? More music is being made and heard than ever before. On the whole, most musicians are taking advantage of the changes in the music business. There is a small but vocal minority of Byrnes and Ribots simply aren’t connecting directly with their fans and offering the kind of value that would render these worries of selling access obsolete.
Musicians are not under threat just because the musicians who can’t figure out how to switch from copyright exploitation to something else are blogging a lot about it.
Thousands of established artists have already embraced crowdfunding and taken control of their careers. They stopped wringing their hands and got them dirty taking control of their own careers.
“3. Scale will make the difference. Your concerns and fears are premature because if these services are allowed and encouraged to grow and reach their ultimate potential- they will be 20 times larger than what they are now in North America —- then artists will indeed make a decent living from this music consumption model.”
I don’t think anyone believes musicians will make a living solely from streaming music, or that streaming music will dollar-for-dollar replace CD sales or downloading.
I also think any reasonable person sees streaming music having endemic financial problems, even as it scales to enormous user bases. The record labels are just squeezing too much juice out of the system for tech companies to make a decent profit.
Byrne obviously doesn’t realize what he’s saying here: “Monopoly, however, has not historically been good for consumers or for innovation -— regardless what tech companies say. Power corrupts; it’s a given.”
So… uh… this is awkward, but, you know copyright IS a monopoly, right? The very right you’re defending has historically not been good for consumers or for innovation. So, yeah, thanks for making my point for me.
Byrne ends on a note that we need more transparency, which most people in the tech world agree with and are striving to provide. Meanwhile, ASCAP and BMI have magical secret licensing calculations and the labels hide from their artists everything they’re not legally pressured to show.
“4. The Internet has been good for artists’ independence. They are freer now than ever before -— they can record more cheaply and even control their distribution, if they want to.”
OK, so Byrne knows about the democratization of recording, distribution, marketing, sales, merchandise, instruction, licensing, and publishing.
Obviously a bad thing.
Byrne: “artists can’t really do a homegrown version of the on-demand streaming model.” Actually, they can and are actually doing that right now as we speak. Rabbit Rabbit and Deadmau5 are just two examples. I think it’s the future of all music. Bam! I just gave you the next big business plan in music. That’s how wolves… musicians… whatever… will make money as music streams like tap water. Each one of us will have our own branded “channel” where we directly engage and monetize fan relationships. This is a practical, logical way artistic control can be preserved in the transition from copyright exploitation to direct fan patronage. But it’s much more fun to say the sky is falling!
Oh, another understatement of the decade: “There has been a flowering of creativity and possibility somewhat thanks to the web.”
That’s like saying, “There was a great deal of reading and writing somewhat thanks to the printing press.”
Byrne is missing the point that the web is us. I’m all about respecting my elders but I’m not sure we should be taking cues for the future of music from a 61-year old who stands like a pale, naive foreigner amongst the digital natives.
“5. Streaming services are like broadcast radio, which music folks worried about at first, but eventually decided that it actually helped promote musicians work —- so some fees were waived.”
When broadcast radio came along, it threatened and co-opted labels. RCA bought Victor in 1929. The labels came fighting back, and a decade later we had BMI opening to lure artists away from labels and onto radio-owned properties. The standoff was settled by the government and that’s why we have this ridiculous entitlement system that was always broken and is now crumbling.
Eventually labels used payola to buy out radio and control the music marketplace and were able to get a final leg up on on radio, but not before they dumped a huge portion of their profits into independent promoters who greased the palms of broadcast programmers.
Today, corporate ownership of media and record companies is so consolidated, most negotiations are done behind closed doors with no input from musicians whatsoever.
This is the industry Byrne is defending in his piece.
Suggestion #1: “What if there was no free on-demand streaming (unless the artist is directly controlling that access through their own site or as a publicity endeavor).”
Byrne answered his own question, he just put parenthesis around the answer for some reason?
If you were being serious, then we have a unicorn to sell you. There is no world in which free on-demand streaming of music does not exist. Or rather, there is, and it’s a scary totalitarian dystopia where we’re likely to have bigger problems that stimulating musical productivity and creativity.
Suggestion #2: “Artists should get 50% of the income streaming sites now pay to labels”
Ha ha ha. We have a herd of unicorns to sell you.
Why does a post demonizing the music tech industry pose a solution that points out the real exploiters, the big three labels? Music rights corporations and industry organizations are clearly responsible for low musician wages, not tech companies.
Suggestion #3: “The artist should have approval whether his or her work can be used.”
Again, this is a label problem, not a tech company problem. Independent artists have total control to pick and choose each individual distributor. This is widely known… most musicians are independent. Welcome to the future of the music business: independence. It can be scary for people used to mailbox money, but we like it.
The only way to have total approval over whether your work is used is to not make it. Music is free. One way to create value around it is by controlling access through copyright law. But don’t confuse music with copyright.
Suggestion #4: “Transparent accounting and data sharing.”
Again, the labels are obfuscating. The tech companies are trending more transparent.
Is this whole thing just a Machiavellian scheme by labels to transfer their unethical history of corruption and exploitation onto a tech industry that wants to turn consumers into creators?
What is Byrne thinking? If the musicians that look up to him follow his lead, they’ll be more broke and confused than they were before they started blaming their own fans for destroying their music careers by sharing their songs out of pure love for the music.
Imagine a world in which there is only bottled water. Then, quite rapidly, changes in technology connect every household to a municipal water line so they can have tap water.
Suddenly, you don’t have to pay for water every time you want to drink it. And even though you’re paying a small monthly fee for access to the municipal water line
This is what’s happening in music. We’re hooking up and turning on the taps. We’re reclaiming the water as a public resource.
Recently there was a putrid click-bait post on Digital Music News titled “Why Streaming Music Isn’t Like Bottled Water“. It’s part of a trend — albeit a trend quarantined to snarky music bloggers and obscurity-fearing professional musicians — to paint streaming services as the great evil.
What bothers me the most about knee-jerk demonization of tech companies is that record labels are really the ones to blame. It was the labels that used lawyers and lobbyists to bring copyright under corporate control. Don’t hate the industry that’s trying to make it more fair!
I would agree it’s naive to think tech companies would have anything but their bottom lines in mind when it comes to decision-making, just like the corporate oligarchy controlling music copyrights. Nonetheless, look at all the great music that has come out of the labels despite them being largely evil empires. The same will be true of tech companies, but they still have a long ways to go before they can compete with the unabashed exploitation of musicians at the hands of the labels. Remember McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”
Sure, making music more fair means the 1% of musicians who earn 95% of the profits in the music industry are going to have to take a hit to their paycheck. That’s the shift caused by technology in many corners of society, in music it is embodied by the streaming services. The record labels are the ones who want to see the 1% hold on to their money, because they collect over 50% of their revenue before it makes it to the artist! Who’s screwing who?
Back to bottled water. It’s been a popular thing for technologists to say that “music is like water” because… well… it is. It’s kind of common sense and obvious. Tens of thousands of people have agreed. This is why the click-bait trolling article was written in the first place, like a kid kicking a bees’ nest.
If you visit the link, you’ll notice I started to refute the article point by point before getting overwhelmingly bored. I’ve been fighting against the trolls who demonize the music tech industry for years. It’s getting tiresome. What’s more, the world I talk about — the world in which music flows like water — is already here. We’re never going to regress back into the world that the copyright maximalist musicians are trying to complain us back to. This much is clear in their total lack of advancing any workable solutions for increasing the value around music.
Here’s the problem: Musicians (and many others) are confusing copyright with music.
Music is Free
If you don’t understand why music is free, please take a second to hum a song. Now try to put a price tag on it. You can’t. You need some sort of way of gatekeeping access to that song in order to create value around it. There are two ways: build a fence to keep people out, or build a fence to keep people in.
Copyright is the fence built to keep people out. Patronage is the fence built to keep people in.
Copyright Productizes Music
Copyright has been the way we’ve generated value around music for roughly 200 years, first by protecting sheet music, but most importantly by protecting the song recording. For the first time in the music business, the gates didn’t have to be physical to create value around song. Prior to the invention of the recording, the only way to create value around music was to attract patronage — the main way of doing so was to be paid for a performance. The way to create value in a performance is to charge those who pass through the entrance. The gates were physical and literal.
With copyright, the gates became more like music — ineffable, conceptual. Over time, listeners and musicians were brainwashed by the copyright industry to combine copyright and music into a single concept — “sonic product” — the idea of music as a product to be packaged and sold like any other consumer good. The free music, like that on the radio or TV, was just promotion for the sale of the product — a free sample.
But the product of music isn’t like consumer packaged goods. The “packaging” is copyright, a law that you can’t touch, smell, taste or hear.
That’s where the bottled water analogy comes in.
Streaming music is tap water in a world where bottled water used to be the only choice. Oh sure, you can saddle up to the water fountain of radio, or the office cooler of music television. But to have on-demand access to the water that you want, a bottled-water system makes no sense when tap water technology is here. Sure, plenty of listeners will continue buying bottled water because of its perceived convenience or quality, the rest of us are thirsty and just want a drink.
We’re undergoing the same kind of fundamental shift that happened when music moved from performance to recording, from patronage to copyright.
Of course, the multibillion-dollar bottled water will fight with all its might to protect its profits. This is the true crisis in music — corporations ruining music just for profit. Tech companies are also trying to profit, but they’re doing it by building walls that keep people in, not walls that keep people out. The tech industry is building the music taps, the listeners want it, the musicians want it — only the bottled water industry wants to fight it. Unfortunately, the bottled water industry (and the labels) have lots of money and lawyers to ruin society with!
We need to stop confusing copyright with music. Music exists independently from the access-control mechanisms we use to create value around it. This is not to say the forces of business and technology have no role in shaping music. Quite the opposite is true — we tend to underestimate just how much commerce and technology shape creativity.
But when it comes time to talk about what music really is, the cacophony of music bloggers and complaining professional musicians drowns out the truth.
Music is like water. It’s a free but precious resource necessary for human life that must be maintained and made fairly accessible for humanity to progress. And like water, it is constantly under threat of corporate control for the best interest of the corporation, not society.
The record labels are the water bottlers. You pay a premium, and you feel it in your wallet every time.
The streaming services are the tap. You pay a small monthly fee, and metering makes sure the costs and revenues are evenly distributed.
But guess what? The water analogy doesn’t stop there. Do you see the ocean?
In the music analogy, the ocean is the sea of musicians — the majority of musicians — who don’t make a penny playing music. Forget money, they don’t even get a chance to be heard.
Right now, the sea is undrinkable unless you build an expensive system to filter it. This is exactly where the music industry is right now. We’re trying to figure out a way to filter the millions of musicians playing across the world and deliver something of value to the listener. Or, in water terms, we’re trying to desalinize the ocean.
We’ve come to define the hit song as the pinnacle of music, but that’s not true. The pinnacle of music is in every musician being heard, whether it’s by one person or one million. We’re getting there, and it starts with moving past the bottled water industry.
Even as mainstream culture grows even more monolithic, one by one, people are waking up to this new way of thinking about how we create value around what we create. Control is moving from the corporation back to the individual as profit takes a backseat to community. Music isn’t a product to be sold, it’s a service we provide to each other.
It’s the most exciting time to be a musician… and it’s a pretty exciting time to be a human in general.
So pour yourself a nice, tall glass of tap water and toast to the future of music, where all musical thirsts are quenched!
At last year’s Rethink Music conference, I peppered Spotify CEO Daniel Ek with questions about their failure to be transparent about artist payments. I saw the makings of what would be a PR nightmare for the company in 2013, just as the now-infamous artist payment infographic started making the rounds.
Spotify must be finally listening to public opinion, because it has started an all-out assault on all the negative press it’s been getting. Mainstream artists like Beck and Thom Yorke have been complaining in public about how the streaming music model simply doesn’t work. Documentaries are being made about the so-called “demise of music” (utter rubbish), mostly filled with more complaining artists that provide no solutions, only ire. Spotify is often the voodoo doll in all this streaming music hate, though a special place in hell is reserved for Google and their indexing of file-sharing websites.
The new Spotify for artists website is ground zero for musicians to learn about how Spotify really works (at least, how its PR staff would like us to think it works). I recommend checking it out though, because so much disinformation has been spread about streaming music royalties.
Still, we’re missing the big picture here — not surprising since we’re talking about the music industry. One of the cardinal rules of the people who make the majority of money in music (hint: it’s not the artists) is to obfuscate all the financials.
That’s why Spotify’s move toward greater transparency is pretty amazing. I’m led to believe it’s just beginning, with the company planning on offering automatic audits of royalty payments so artists can see exactly what they’re earning.
Let’s recap how the music industry traditionally worked so we can see how lack of transparency is one of the roots of artist exploitation. This is not the path every artist takes, but it is the status quo:
1. An artist’s music and career shows promise, either by gaining popularity, having the right industry connections, or just being an act that’s profitable to “sell” to the public.
2. Artist signs the rights to their music over to record labels and/or music publishers so they can be exploited. They hire multiple team members to handle various aspects of their business, each taking a cut.
3. The majority of artists never see a dime because they never recoup the cost of producing and marketing their album, which is required before receiving royalty payments from their label. Even then, their payments are a small percentage of total revenue. Publishers take 50% of all licensing revenue. Managers take 10-25% of most revenue. Booking agents take a similar percentage of ticket sales. Other royalties are collected by PROs like ASCAP and BMI, who keep a secret percentage of all revenue to pay their employees, fly them to conferences on exotic islands, and otherwise run the business of collecting and distributing artist revenue.
4. If the artist is in the right place at the right time with the right people, they may be lucky enough to sustain a career, even after all the percentages and cuts are taken out of their revenue stream. At this point, the rights to their music are worth exponentially more than they were when they were signed. Unfortunately, the way the record labels operate — and the way they have lobbied to structure copyright law — means that artist rarely gets to cash in on the true value of their music. The labels, lawyers and businesspeople are the true profiteers of the music industry. Worse, the musicians and their music are treated as mere product to be sold and consumed. This is the true devaluing of music — exploiting artists at a low point in their career while simultaneously reducing music to another consumer packaged good.
The music industry, on the whole, is still unquestionably corrupt. As we all know, transparency is toxic to corruption. Shining a light on secret practices benefits us all.
All the traditional players in the music industry are stained by mostly hidden corruption. There’s a rich history of collusion, price fixing, price gouging, payola and other patently illegal practices that almost always result in settled lawsuits and no admission of wrongdoing. (The same practice has infected virtually every large, modern industry — corporations are really just instruments to gain market favor and profitability.)
Record labels are well-known for stiffing artists on millions in royalties through backroom accounting, legal loopholes and business-savvy manipulation. Even the PROs — vigilant protectors of artist’s rights to profit from the exploitation of their work — have a totally secret formula (some say no formula at all) for paying artists. We really have no idea what percentage ASCAP or BMI is keeping for itself. Even worse, because the labels and broadcasters and other multinational media conglomerates have the most leverage with PROs, the average independent artist is gets screwed — in the dark, thanks to the lack of transparency.
A minority of artists hate streaming music largely for two reasons:
1. They see their royalty payments shrinking.
2. They equate this with the “devaluing of music”
At the Future of Music Summit this year, the theme was basically “is music being devalued?” Those artists that saw their royalty payments shrink generally answered “yes”, those who saw them grow (like most musicians) answered “no”.
Here’s the deal: Music is not devalued by streaming technology. First of all, the value of music should not be measured in dollar signs. I know that seems a little kumbaya-ish, but it doesn’t make it untrue. We musicians and fans know that the value of music is in how it shares experiences, creates bonds, provides catharsis, sets a mood, heals our psyche, etc. One cannot equate (as anti-“piracy” advocates often do) the value of music to the value of a consumable good like food or energy. Music is not consumed, it is free. Labels package it and market it for sale, but it is never actually consumed. It is free to share, free to listen to, free to be played.
Over the last 100 years, the music industry has set up barriers to sharing, listening and playing in order to profit. This was done ostensibly to protect musicians’ ability to make money and thus continue playing music, but a quick glance at history shows the utter hypocrisy of this view. Shadowy accounting, non-transparent business practices, litigation and legislation aimed at grabbing a bigger piece of the pie — these are just a few of the corrupt actions that are status quo for those that exploit musicians for profit. This is the real devaluing of music.
Let’s look at the actual market value of music. Surely we can agree that the market value of music is going down?
Absolutely not. The market value for music is actually rising.
What’s devalued — in the sense of the market — is paying for access to music. Copyright creates the barriers that prevent sharing, listening and playing music. Corporations control these barriers through technology, law and the market. The technology is the apparatus of control. The law (such as the perpetual extension of copyright term length) is the framework that prevents technology from getting too far outside their control. The market is what allows them to acquire music rights for next to nothing, and then reap all the benefits (and to be fair, suffer the risks) of inflating and exploiting the value of those rights.
The ‘Wizard of Oz’ pulling the strings on the whole facade is still the record labels — primarily the majors that own ~70% of the rights to all music on the market. Is it not plain to see that the last decade has been about the labels using streaming music to rebuild the industry of exploitation, to stem the bleeding that free access to music inflicted on physical sales and downloads? Is it not totally obvious that artists should be complaining about their onerous contracts, the ones that take all the value out of their rights and leaves them with a small percentage?
The always incredible Billy Bragg is just the latest artist to point out that the artist uproar over Spotify payments is ridiculous, given that the labels are the true culprits of artist exploitation. We need more voices like his.
Here’s why the Yorkes and Becks of the world are upset: they sold out their rights for large royalty checks that are now shrinking. They’re 100% wrong to point the finger at streaming services. Come on, who do you think negotiated those royalty payments in the first place? The reason these stars can’t blame their labels is that they are complicit in the exploitation business. As technology tears down the barriers to share, listen and play, the value of exploiting one’s rights shrinks. This is why big artists are defending their labels, crying that the sky is falling, and using fear and negativity to somehow scare fans into… what… buying CDs again?
This is the core problem of the “music is devalued” camp. They have no solutions! I’ve been debating these folks for years, and the only thing I’ve heard them come up with is “stop piracy”. If that were even possible — which it’s not — all it would do is protect the rights held by record labels. It does nothing to help most artists. It’s purely self-centered around one’s own paycheck. It does nothing to stop the system of exploitation, it only adds fuel to the fire. Regardless, study after study shows free access to music encourages sales.
That’s why Spotify’s move towards transparency is so important. It challenges the industry status quo of anti-artist secrecy and empowers musicians to actually see how their revenue is coming in. This is something that’s simply not possible with labels and PROs, unless you are one of the few artists with the legal or market might to apply pressure for an audit.
Transparency is coming to the music industry, and fans and artists are loving it. It’s actually increasing the value of music. Take another example: crowdfunding. In the past, artists funded their albums by signing their rights over to a label, and in return the label would take the financial risk of paying for its production and marketing. Of course, “risk” is perhaps a strong word, because most labels just let 9 out of 10 bands fail and then put all their money behind the one that showed market traction.
Today, artists are increasingly using crowdfunding to replace the role of the record label, at least from a financing perspective. With digital tools, bands can market themselves with virtually no budget. Distribution is democratized. For independent artists operating on small-business scales, there is less and less need for the exploitation of a label.
What’s best, crowdfunding is completely transparent. In the past, the fan would buy a CD but have no idea how much money got to the artist. Now at least they know that Spotify pays artists 70% of their revenue, comparable to iTunes. But crowdfunding is even better — on most platforms, fans see how much the album will cost to produce, and know that almost 100% of the funds are going to the band (the real figure ranges from 80%-95%, still a great improvement over the ~70% status quo).
Here’s the real key to this debate: the value of a fan is going up for artists. The value of a fan is going down for labels, because their revenue is based on exploitation and they have less opportunity to gatekeep. For artists now directly connected to their fans, crowdfunding is a viable and transparent way for fans to know their money is going to the artist. And because of that, they give a lot more of it. Nearly all artists who try crowdfunding find that instead of taking a small percentage of an album sale, they can make 10x the profit by taking money directly from a fan. Part of this is that the fan knows the money won’t get caught in the non-transparent, behind-the-scenes corruption of the music industry. But the fan also wants to feel like they are the label, like they are participating in the creation of the artist’s music. Patronage has far superior value to the fan than exploitation, not to mention its ethical superiority.
Spotify is trying to be a meritocracy. They want to take the whole royalty pool and split it up evenly based on plays. That’s why artists are seeing line items for thousandths of a cent. But it adds up. More artists are seeing their streaming revenue grow than shrink, but those who are seeing it shrink have market dominance and a loud voice. The exponential growth of crowdfunding and streaming music payouts is evidence enough. Anecdotally, I’ve seen my band’s streaming revenue double year over year.
Ultimately, I’m no grand champion of Spotify. I am in the camp that thinks they’ll never be profitable so long as the labels scarf up all of their revenue. Long-established streaming music sites like Turntable.fm are already being shut down by the music oligopoly for not scaling to big enough profits. I see access to music gradually approaching free again — the next step is already underway: the bundling of streaming music with consumer electronics. Eventually, music will be a utility like water — paid for by distributing the costs across the total population, and rarely a conscious expenditure. People still buy bottled water and folks will still buy physical product. But make no mistake: While large corporations will fight it with every lawyer they have, no one can stop the web from bringing music on tap to the people of Earth. With streaming music, we’re already seeing corporations reluctantly embrace freer access, so long as they can still negotiate their onerous terms for artist payment.
Let’s be clear. There are plenty of people at the labels and at the streaming music sites that are fighting the good fight for artists. They realize the system is compromised and corrupt, and they are trying their best to work within that paradigm to eke through positive change. But anyone who’s trying to fight this move toward transparency is anti-artist, period. Spotify may only be doing this to protect its bottom line — if they were true crusaders they would expose the labels as the reason artists see little of their streaming revenue. But the labels keep the lights on, and Spotify still thinks it can be the alternative to “piracy”.
Sharing, listening and playing music ought to be free activities, because they actually increase the value of music. Artists are moving past the point of needing barriers to exploit rights, but labels have no other choice. I expect the transparency wars are just beginning — and I will be there tugging the curtain down with millions of my fellow musicians.
TL;DR: Transparency increases the market value of music — it combats music industry corruption. Ending piracy is not a solution — it perpetuates the corrupt status quo of artist exploitation.
The Summit is 2-day conference for music industry professionals and musicians, and is organized by the Future of Music Coalition. The FMC is a non-profit that advocates for musicians’ rights, and helps educate musicians on issues that are important to them, even though they may not realize it. Besides giving musicians a voice in Washington, they may be best known for their Artist Revenue Streams research project that gives incredible insight into the details of how musicians make money in the digital age. The Summit will begin with the latest analysis on that treasure trove of data.
I’m also looking forward to the rest of Monday morning, where conference attendees will be serenaded by government leaders in intellectual property, followed by a counterpoint on copyright from musicians and music businesspeople.
I’d like to ask the copyright panels how they would reform copyright to balance the needs of the individual and the culture versus the need to profit from corporations who have all the legal and lobbying resources to shape the law. Shouldn’t we decriminalize song sharing by adopting some of the ideas successfully employed by Creative Commons? Don’t we have enough studies showing that “piracy” actually increases fan engagement and spending?
I would also question whether virtually infinite copyright terms perpetuated by corporate lobbying have anything to do with the original intent of copyright. I would ask the musicians if copyright exploitation is perhaps a less ethical business model than direct fan patronage, and now that technology has enabled the latter, we should focus on what technology now enables rather than stifling innovation to protect anachronistic models.
Finally, I would posit that free access to music is a net benefit for promoting all of the underlying tenets of copyright: the right of the individual to be compensated for their labor, the right to own and control one’s personal expression, the right of society to benefit from creative works, and the right of a culture to use those works to perpetuate itself. Has anyone noticed how our copyright system works against these ideals by hoarding wealth at the top, appropriating our personas, creating a large deadweight loss in music consumption and denying cultural re-use of creative works, in a culture increasingly based on re-use?
All that will probably have to wait for the cocktail party. Maybe I can get the person who curates the copyright panels drunk and you’ll see me and Larry Lessig up there next year wrestling some lawyers from the Copyright Alliance and the Center for Copyright Information. The gauntlet has been thrown.
The lunch breakout session is the “Band as a Business” workshop, which is funny, because that’s almost the same name as my free “Band as Business” video course on Udemy. I reached out to workshop facilitator Paul Rapp when I realized he was 2 hours north of me in Albany. I asked him why crowdfunding wasn’t covered, considering it’s the next big thing in how musicians can make money. I also dropped the whole copyright spiel on him, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised I didn’t hear back. Looking forward to taking the workshop nonetheless, as there’s always something new to learn, especially for those who teach.
The rest of Monday is dedicated to the “Future” part of the Summit, where we’ll be discussing the cutting edge of music markets and marketing. I expect artist discovery and fan engagement to take center stage here. Over the last few years, we’ve really seen the music industry embrace the kinds of marketing best practices that were developed by natively digital companies. In particular, the idea of a “fan lifecyle” (analogous to a “user lifecycle”) is central to any modern musician’s business strategy. Success comes from identifying target fan markets, coming up with strategies to engage those fans, and then creating a system by which those fans drawn into an integrated marketing funnel, generating more revenue the deeper they go. Digital tools and services can go a long way to facilitate marketing and conversion, and I’ll be curious to see which names from that industry are dropped.
The last panel of the day is the one I’m looking most forward to — a discussion of streaming, crowdfunding, and the future business models of music. Most people are confused when it comes to this topic, and I understand why. But I’ve been a digital native all my life, and I’ve dedicated my life to music, technology and the intersection in between. The “future” of music business is, without a doubt, many different streams. The days of one dominant stream from copyright exploitation are leaving us. When we talk about the “old” business model dying, we’re not just talking about selling CDs or MP3s, we’re talking about paid vs. free access to recorded music, and things are moving inexorably toward free. It’s a net benefit for fans and musicians, and more music is being made and listened to than ever before. It’s awkward and sometimes devastating to professional musicians who are having trouble adapting, or who put their heads in the sand and blame their own fans for their career woes.
At the same time, the “new” business models like crowdfunding are revolutionizing the band as small business… and it’s all just the tip of the iceberg. We have seen but a fraction of the potential for new music markets and models. Perhaps if the market wasn’t mostly controlled by a handful of enormous corporations, it would be agile enough to shift. But no matter, individuals will flip the paradigm and enable new categories of paid musician that defy the dominant “professional” title. Indies will continue to innovate. The majors will hulk along collecting back catalog royalties until music is a utility like electricity or water… and we’ll be there sooner than you think.
We’ll need a drink after that one. Lucky for me, Mailchimp‘s buying.
The second and final day of the conference features a potpourri of unexpected topics.
I’m also looking forward to the panel on music and social change. MC5’s Wayne Kramer (who makes an appearance in my Band as Business course) chairs a particularly interesting pursuit involving instrument donation to incarcerated people. I’m a huge fan of music charities, and music’s ability to provide meaning, healing, joy, comfort or entertainment to people who are aimless, suffering, unhappy, uncomfortable or just bored. It’s the reason we have music! Too often we lose sight of music’s true purpose in pursuit of profit. As such, the following panel on “Nonprofit Models for Supporting Independent Music” shares similar potential for being an awesome eye-opener.
Before lunch, the Director of External Affairs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will run out on stage and scream, “Musicians can afford health care now!” and then disappear in a flurry of pyrotechnics. Or not. But either way, I can’t think of a better place to tout the Affordable Care Act than a conference for musicians, even if I can build a better website myself, for hundreds of millions of dollars less.
The breakout session I’m headed to after lunch is all about how we can provide a better career education to musicians. That’s my mission too! I just launched the Songhack website to do just that — educate musicians on how they can “hack” the music business and make their own careers. My work with John Snyder at Artists House Music (we did the Band as Business course) has given me a unique look into the realm of institutionalized music career education, and the huge challenges it faces. I look forward to gaining more insight from the panelists of this talk… because despite the best efforts of the FMC, most musicians don’t have any idea how musicians make money!
Tuesday wraps up with a more philosophical take on the issues from our distinguished hosts and a group of accomplished musicians. Diving deep on the cultural value of music with the Producer of Blue Oyster Cult sounds like a pretty sweet ending to me.
I’ll be missing the conference-closing NPR All Songs Considered Listening Party. Gotta hightail it back to New York to keep the entrepreneurial machine running. But while I’m there, I’ll be tweeting up a storm and posting daily updates, both here at Mediapocalypse and over at the Songhack blog. Please join me!
Are you headed to the FMC Summit? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am about free access to music and throw a drink in my face? (I know there are some of you out there!) Or have you seen the same bright future for music that I have, and want to join forces to spread the good vibes? Leave me a comment or drop me a line on Twitter and we’ll hang.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair
It’s the latest fad: rock stars hating digital music. Well, not really — it started with Napster. Back then, a lot of artists held their tongues, realizing that it would be mega-uncool to call their fans thieves just for being fans. Plus, the major labels had screwed them repeatedly, and it was schadenfreude to see them suffer because of their own greed and ineptitude.
Flash forward over a decade, and the labels have figured out how to continue to profit from gatekeeping access to the world’s music. Sure, they’ve seen their market share slip versus the indies, and now only own the rights to around 70% of recorded music. But they’ve once again managed to control the means of mass distribution, this time by dictating the terms of digital music streaming services so that they could not exist without the majors, legal or financially. (I’s also the reason why streaming royalty payouts are so low for most artists — the major labels, as always, take the lion’s share.)
The rock stars realize they’re being screwed again by the majors (what did they expect?) David Byrne is the latest to pile on While many famous musicians point the finger at tech companies ad exploiters du jour, Byrne’s piece rightly acknowledges the majors are culpable for setting the terms of streaming music. Nonetheless, he speaks in concert with many other high profile artists when he blames digital distribution of music for destroying music, saying “The internet will suck all creative content out of the world”. I respect Byrne as a musician and a well-spoken, well-written, thoughtful musical provocateur, but this is too much.
Most of the complaining is just reactionary vitriol, the same way journalists deride blogging, or photographers bellyache about Instagram. There were probably some pretty pissed off monastic scribes when the printing press came out.
The problem with creative professionals complaining about changes brought about by technology is that they’re focusing only on their careers. I don’t blame ’em. Only those with a laser-like career focus can find any long-term success in the creative industries. As it relates specifically to the music industry, I never would have expected vaudeville performers to welcome recorded music, or for Tin Pan Alley to welcome radio, or for the record and radio busiensses to welcome digital.
When rock stars and professionals make the digital music debate all about their paychecks, they not only pass culpability from the major labels that deserve it to the technology companies that enable freer access to music. Tragically, when music professionals make grandiose statements about how digital is killing music, they measure the decline only in the dollar amount of their paycheck, and they denigrate music in the same way the major labels do. They reduce one of humankind’s greatest evolutionary and expressive triumphs to mere profit, and they fail to ignore the benefit of digital music to everyone else.
Put simply, more music is being made and listened to than ever before. Digital music combines the best of recording (accessibility to high-quality music performances) with the best of radio (free access). It’s the best thing to ever happen for fans — and make no mistake, fans control the music industry, though more often than not they may not realize it.
There is no doubt the professional musician is on the decline, which is bittersweet. Most career musicians are working-class survivors, a group of ~50,000 musicians in the U.S. who have fought their way tooth-and-nail to profitability. Only a fraction enjoy profitable careers lasting more than a few years. A generally non-vocal majority of professional musicians are busy adapting to the changing market, but a handful of very vocal complainers are raising an awful stink about their shrinking paychecks. Again, I don’t blame them for being protective of their livelihoods — but look what good paywalling did for newspapers/journalists. Successful pro photographers found out ways to embrace Instagram, not fight it.
My biggest gripe with the anti-free access to music, professional musician mentality is that what little time it spends focusing on solutions, those solutions belie any understanding of the change that has already taken place, and ignore those who aren’t professional musicians — namely, the tens of millions of music fans that make their paychecks possible.
It’s absurd how many artists, Byrne included, just complain. At least crusaders like David Lowery are trying to articulate solutions, though they often reduce to useless catch phrases like “stop artist exploitation” or “piracy is stealing”. What is all this doing except making professional musicians look like entitled, out-of-touch geezers to their fans?
The other troubling development is that these activist musicians end up bolstering the exploitation-based business built by major labels, by virtue of the fact that major labels control the market. Every dollar musicians fight to earn back by more strictly enforcing copyright law is $99 that goes into the pockets of the labels. Even the labels are finally realizing after 125 years of fighting piracy, that the War on Piracy is like the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism. To the extent that battles can be won, the cost of doing so — both financial and in the hearts and minds of fans — is unsustainable.
What these money-focused musicians miss is so obvious: it’s not about the money. As Henry Rollins said, “I’d rather be heard than paid.” This is not something that only professional musicians feel. Every musician feels this. Even fans feel this. And I think what every professional musician needs to realize is that their careers are transforming because digital technology awakens the musician in all of us. Music professionals no longer enjoy a monopoly on the title of “musician.”
Free access to music empowers the amateur and the aspiring musician to earn income on scales that were not possible before. It reverses the trend of music without context — instead of digital files floating around in the cloud, creators are now compelled to create imagery, video, and other media around the music, enriching the fan experience.
Free access to music is blurring the line between fan and musician, creating a new culture of creator-consumers, remixing and mashing up several generations of recordings to create a new art form. They curate playlists to become the new DJs. They sample at will to electronically create entirely original compositions with embedded links to music history.
Free access to music rebalances the world of music more toward performances, away from the hegemony of the recording. In a post-scarcity economy, copies of performances lose value, original performances gain value. This rewards the generation of new music without having to rely on messy copyright law. EDM is explosively huge, and so much of it exists outside the copyright exploitation paradigm.
Free access to music allows musicians to focus on what’s really important: their relationship with their fans. Gone are the days when fans were measured in dollar amounts. Success in music is now measured in attention, in engagement.
Free access to music de-emphasizes the ethically compromised business model of copyright exploitation in favor of direct fan patronage. It may not scale to gold records, but the only people that seem to care are the rock stars, and those that still believe in the rock star myth. And if you’re hell-bent on copyright exploitation as your main source of revenue, there are plenty of academic studies showing free access to music increases sales of access to music.
I get that it’s counterintuitive — especially for professional musicians — to see their disappearing careers as a good thing. But it is. You just have to consider that music is bigger than the ~50,000 professional musicians in the U.S. There are fifty times as many musicians creating music right now for no money, and waving it all away as crappy music is a defense mechanism. They are finding their audiences. They are supplementing their income and breaking even. They are being heard even if they aren’t being paid. And if they’re really good composers, performers, recording artists and entrepreneurs, they are getting more chances to be heard, more chances to build a career.
There is no doubt that free access to music is inevitable — if not here already — and will continue to be the major force in reshaping music. To the detractors and complainers, I’m afraid the question of whether that’s a net benefit to humanity has already been settled. The fans have spoken. They want the music back.
But Rabbit Rabbit Radio is just the entrance to this rabbit hole. Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt are partners in music and life, with decades of collective experience playing for some of the most interesting and inventive indie bands on the scene. They are supporting themselves and their growing family through music, which necessitates a wide variety of money-making strategies and an entrepreneurial attitude.
I spoke with them recently about the challenges and opportunities created by the rapidly changing business of music. Independent musicians would be wise to pay attention. Instead of bemoaning the changes brought on by the digital age, Matthias and Carla are pioneering the new music career as real-deal, working-class musicians. Or, as Carla puts it: “At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.”
By adapting their lifestyle and business model to best serve their dedicated fan base, Rabbit Rabbit is an inspiring example of triumphant musician-entrepreneurship.
Can you tell me a little about your musical background, and how Rabbit Rabbit Radio came about?
Matthias: I played in a lot of bands. Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots, made a lot of records with people like John Vanderslice, St. Vincent, Tiger Lillies, Pretty Lights. I played music with my wife Carla — she’s a great violinist — in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and The Book of Knots. We had a kid, we have a second kid on the way. We decided since we’re not touring as much, why not start this thing that keeps us in touch with our fans. Especially because we’re basically removing ourselves from society and moving to the far reaches of Massachusetts.
Carla: I too have played in a lot of different projects with a lot of different people and had a pretty super-fun and very hydra-headed, multifaceted musical life including Tin Hat, The Book of Knots, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and with our friend and compatriot and hero Fred Frith — various recordings and projects of his. Lots of classical music and contemporary classical music. We’re kind of musical omnivores in that way.
I used to tour ten months out of the year with various projects. That clearly is not the best way to raise a kid, unless you’re a millionaire and can bring your school and your nanny along with you. So that’s in part why we’ve done Rabbit Rabbit Radio. It’s been super-fun and challenging, and we totally made it up as we went along. We kind of pieced together our livelihood via various things. Rabbit Rabbit Radio at this point is a tiny fraction of our actual living. Basically, it makes enough money to pay for itself. Which is great — we wanted to get there in the first year and we did. I also teach at New England Conservatory part-time, and I do a lot of commissions. Matthias writes a lot of music for various things.
M: We do radio documentaries, I do video game music. We definitely make it up. Our goal is that Rabbit Rabbit Radio should be a bigger part of the monthly income stream. It’ll never be passive income given how many man- and woman-hours go into it every month. We have to generate the content freshly every month. We’re just chugging away. There’s a steady but slow climb up. Certainly the Times article, this summer’s tour and the publicity surrounding that really helped get the word out.
You’re clearly doing everything you can to make money from music, and that means doing a lot of different things. Musicians often have this attitude of “if I make great music, I’ll get signed and that will be that”, which is definitely not the case. What advice would you give musicians who want to follow your model?
M: In the Times article, there’s that quote from John Schaefer of WNYC where he said, “If Radiohead did this, it’d be huge. They’re already millionaires, they’d be gajillionaires.” We had the benefit of touring a bunch in a total grassroots style, earning one fan at a time.
C: We had an interview yesterday with someone who had read the Times article, I think she works for YouTube. The reason she wanted to interview us is because they want to do something similar, and kind of steal the idea. (laughs) It’s an idea worth stealing and we’re not protective of it, because it’s an idea a lot of people have been thinking about. We just decided to pool our resources and really make it happen, build it from the ground up. It is complicated and hard.
I think there’s a few things that made it work for us. One is that we signed on two team members, one of whom I’d already been working with: composer and arts administrator George Hurd. He helped us do all the research for the behind-the-scenes stuff that no one ever sees, like the companies that take the payment information. There’s all kinds of things like that which you’re never aware of as a subscriber. His partner is a wonderful graphic designer who we’ve already worked with a lot. She designed the site. So basically, the team is the four of us.
We have a few other things working in our favor. We crafted it to suit our very specific set of interests, and not every musician’s interests would be the same as ours. For example, I’ve always loved the written word, photography and visual art. I totally dove into learning how to do video editing. I really love that part of the site that’s not just the music. Not all musicians want to spend all that time on the stuff that’s not music. I really enjoy that part of it — putting music into a bigger context.
We’ve been touring collectively for some decades already, in very self-made, grassroots operations. [The YouTube interviewer] was asking questions like, “How do you get fans?”
M: There’s no “get fans” button. (laughs)
C: There’s no Facebook button that says, “Get totally devoted fan here.” You get fans by touring 20 years in various high-level, really committed, interesting, engaging projects and devoting your life to that — stepping off stage, talking to people afterwards, interacting with people at the merch booth… years and years and years of a whole life around being committed to creative music. Our fans are not the people who just care about the Billboard charts are saying. They care about deeper content and richer musical experiences.
M: It works for someone who has done this. If you’ve had a band that’s done well, like a reasonably successful indie rock band that has some fans, it can work. If this model came out as a more codified platform, a lot of bands would get lost in the fray. You need to be out there playing and meeting your fans for it to work.
C: The important thing about it has been the whole idea of context. Music has always lived in a context, in a community, with a community of players and a community of fans and listeners. We moved out of a really rich, really varied music community (New York City) to a place fairly far removed. And digital music, for the most part, people find the track they want and download the track. It has no context at all the way that LPs did, for example, where you’d have liner notes, photographs, imagery that went with the songs, lyrics… various things that gave you more of an idea of what the whole project was about. Our intention is to bring context back in a digital format — to bring an analog context to a digital format.
M: Our personalities are suited to a more magazine-style release every month because Carla’s a great photographer, because we like writing, because there are things other than the song. I think you have to have had some exposure out on the road touring. You also need an interest in other things that will buoy up the content of your song every month to make it interesting.
C: I don’t think having all these different facets is a prerequisite for making it work, I just think it suits what our interest is and what we enjoy.
M: But because of that, I think it makes it an interesting thing that could grow to accommodate more people — because there are five subheadings within the monthly issue. It feels like a template for someone else, it could really work as opposed to a single WordPress page with a little embedded play button and a single sentence.
One thing that stands out about your approach is that you’re thinking about your music like entrepreneurs. I think that’s really lacking in musician culture. Many musicians think, “I’ll focus on my songwriting, my performance, my recording” but they can’t make a music career happen because they’re not running their band like a small business.
C: Yeah, the world has really shifted in terms of what skill set you need to be not just a musician, but an actual, viable musician. This is for better and for worse. Nowadays you have to have some sense of what goes into graphic design, you have to understand how fundraising works. You have to understand how PR works and how to gather and keep your fans and your people resources. You have to be a travel agent.
And it means you have less time for music, it really does. I wish I could say it didn’t. I wish I could say that I can actually muster some hours every day to simply work on some music. It’s not true. A huge amount of the time I spend on music is spent on the business of music.
Everyone started complaining twelve years ago, bemoaning that the record industry is dying. The fact is most parts of the record industry didn’t serve the independent musician that well anyway. I have a lot of stories under my belt of little bands like Tin Hat that get picked up by the big label — “Woohoo! Success on the horizon!” And then the guy who brought us onto the label, who’s passionate about our music, who worked for that big label for 25 years gets canned at Christmas because his label got bought by Warner Bros. So when the record comes out, no one’s there to care.
It’s kind of a fallacy that now we’re in the end of times because the record industry’s dying. It’s like now, what are we gonna do about it? At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.
Do you think you can grow Rabbit Rabbit Radio to the point where you can bring other people in to manage the business aspects, freeing you up to dedicate more time to making music?
C: I hope so. I have to say, I love doing the film every month, even if some months it comes together totally last-minute. We created our own little gerbil wheel, and I’d love to get to the point where we’re a month ahead, which isn’t quite where we’re at now. For sure, we could use another team member.
M: It’s been a rough few months. We’ve made our deadline, but it’s been a scramble. We just had a really busy summer of touring, and writing other music for other things. We’ve done it, but it would be helpful to have another pair of brains.
C: There’s a lot that needs to be done. George Hurd, our co-manager of the site, wears fifteen different hats for what he does in Rabbit Rabbit Radio. We pay him a nominal monthly fee plus a percentage, so he has a vested interest in helping it grow. I have to give credit that we haven’t given yet to our unofficial fifth member, and that is a friend of ours named Jon Evans. He has a studio that we work in a lot here on Cape Cod. He’s got a beautiful studio. He’s a musician, producer and engineer. We do a lot of our recording with him. Every once and a while we also work with our friend Joel Hamilton from The Book of Knots, who runs Studio G in Brooklyn. He’s further afield, so sometimes we send him mixes and he mixes them. But we actually do a lot of very hands-on recording work. That’s why the quality of the recordings is so high. Sometimes we do stuff at home in our living room, but often we get to work with Jon and that’s been a huge help. it’s really helped us keep the baseline quality of the recordings really special, so it doesn’t seem like we’re just throwing something together every month on our little SM-58 in the living room. But I love doing that too.
How do you plan on growing the fan base? How do you plan on marketing Rabbit Rabbit Radio?
C: All sorts of ways. It’s good old-fashioned touring every now and again. It’s reaching out when you have a show in a specific city to the two or twenty people that you know would love to know about it and will tell their friends. It’s keeping occasional photos and posts on Twitter and whatnot. It’s inviting special guests to be a part of the issue on some months and then asking them to spread it to their fans. We are literally trying every possible way.
If we had another team member, we could probably be a whole lot more cohesive on how we approach that. That’s what another team member would be partly responsible for, helping us strategize that. Right now we’re so close to it, and so up close with our own deadlines, it’s hard for us to think further ahead than month-to-month.
Musicians are constantly debating whether the changes in music brought about by digital technology are good or bad. It seems very polarized. On the negative side, people complain that quality is suffering, that freer access to music exploits musicians. On the positive side, folks point out there is more music being made and heard than ever before, and more opportunities for independent musicians to make money without being exploited. What are your thoughts on the digital music debate?
M: I think it’s great that more people are making music. I think it’s great that people are getting a shot. There’s always going to be crappy music. I feel like everyone deserves a shot. We’ve lived on both sides of the issue. I think this is a far more rewarding way to own your output completely.
C: I think in terms of quality there’s always been great music and shitty music. There’s been a lot of high-budget shitty music, and there’s been a lot of really wonderful low-budget living room music. So I don’t really see that the financial continuum always reflects the quality continuum. I think it can. I just finished a recording session in New York for four days with Ben Goldberg from Tin Hat, and he pulled together a budget to record at one of the great studios. It would have been a sacrifice for that project if we had to do it in a living room. It’s a nine-person band. So there are some projects that really do need a support budget behind it.
The project that Rabbit Rabbit Radio is based around is just the two of us, and sometimes our friend Jon — so it’s very malleable. We can do recordings with just the two of us in the living room if we need to. We can also go work with Jon or work with Joel and augment it, make the recording production bigger. Either way, we are in charge of our own production quality control. And either way, we would do everything we can to make it as great a musical experience as possible.
How has the transition to family life affected your music career?
C: That transition forces all kinds of new ways of thinking. (laughs) The funny thing is, I don’t like touring on that incessant level the way I used to. I used to really like it. There’s something hormonal that changes in you where what’s not good for your kid isn’t good for you anymore.
That said, we know people like Nils from Sleepytime and his partner Dawn have a duo together called Faun Fables. They have two kids and a third on the way. They’re touring as much as they ever did. They load into a van with a “manny” and they just hit the road. They’re making it work. And I think the kids are enjoying it and getting a different kind of worldly education. Our daughter had been to Europe five times before she was two. She’s a relatively well-traveled kid, and that has also been a part of her growing up, in a cool way. I think every family has to find where that line is for them, and for us it was a little closer to the less touring side.
M: We’ve started to get selective. There are certain projects that can go out for a third of the time now, and make three times as much money. It used to be Sleepytime had to go out for six weeks. We’d start breaking even at four weeks. The last two weeks were the profit. Because of how many people were in the band, we had to go out for these long periods. That’s exhausting. We’ve gotten a little smarter in that regard. We’ve worked long enough that certain bands can go out for less time and still make the same or more money.
C: I always wrote music at the service of touring — writing it and going to rehearsal because our band’s going on the road. I’d always been in the service of that model. Now, I’m really enjoying a deeper, more involved identity as a composer that needs more home time and needs a little more solitude. It’s also that I’m ready for that now because I’m not just answering to me, I’m answering to the family and our daughter.
I always go on tour with three books and a whole bunch of manuscript paper, and my headphones, and my this and my that, with five projects I’m hoping to get done. I never touch any of it. Especially not now when we’re sensitive to the fact that our daughter really doesn’t like it when we disappear every night to go out on stage for a while. So during the day I try to give her as much as I can, so there’s no day time. When the day is done and you’re off stage, you’re too wiped out. I always go with my total unrealistic optimism and it never pans out, so I’m actually enjoying the kind of productivity we’ve been able to have at home. The whole gerbil wheel has been great because it keeps us in line creatively.
Indistr.com, a company that promised to let “independent artists sell their music directly to the public and the musicians receive 75% of the sale”, is toast. How could they fail with such a catchy URL?
Most of the links end up at 404s, 500s and domain parking pages.
Yes, the internet is littered with the carcasses of digital intermediaries trying to take their ~25% of musicians’ revenue by democratizing the music industry. Kind of makes you wonder which of the over 100 digital products and services currently being marketed to musicians will still be around toward the end of the decade.
The survivors tell a tale of acquiescence and acquisition.
Amie Street was gobbled up by Amazon in a traffic grab in 2010. Before they were absorbed and shut down, the company had a really cool demand-based pricing model whereby the price of a song would increase as downloads increased. Fans could also earn store credit by flagging songs they thought were hits, which aided in discovery and curation. It was all kind of ahead of its time, and I’m not convinced we’ve seen the last of that model. Read about its legacy on Wikipedia.
A couple sites were still up but clearly abandoned. Only two sites seemed to have survived on their own. Unsigned.com is still a free music distribution platform open to any unsigned artist that cares. Artisttopia.com, billed as “the ultimate music experience” is still spinning personalized radio stations for people who have never heard of Pandora.
The price of music is… well… schizophrenic. A single track can be simultaneously obtained for free on BitTorrent, or purchased on the iTunes store for $1.29. Or you can stream it for next-to-nothing on Spotify, or for a fraction of next-to-nothing on YouTube. And you can still buy the CD for $14.95 to get that one song you like, if you’re a masochist or retired.
The free music debate is often framed as an epic battle to save music itself. Proponents of stricter copyright enforcement claim that keeping these price points high is necessary to keep the quality of music high. Without the proper funding, musicians will make less music, or if not less, at least worse.
I think we can all agree that while the price of music is effectively (with streaming) or literally (with torrenting) free, the cost of producing music is anything but. There is real labor, real expense involved in producing an album.
What does it cost to produce music? Whatever you want to spend, or can afford. That’s the problem with putting the pricing debate in perspective — the costs to produce vary as wildly as the results. There have been plenty of multi-million dollar flops and home-recorded hits, so how can one ever put a definitive cost on music production? We can only assign a range of possibilities, but doing so does help illuminate the debate.
Before we talk production costs, there is something important to be said for the fact that costs vary wildly. It would suggest that pricing of music ought to vary wildly, at least somewhat in line with the cost to produce it. And yet, the basement DIY record and the multi-million dollar Rhianna album both retail for $1.29/track on iTunes. This is because the price of music is fixed by the big 3 record companies that control around three quarters of the global music industry. And yes, those same three major labels were the ones who negotiated how much artists get paid on streaming services — an amount that as we have seen is so paltry as to only be sustainable on a large, major-label market scale.
Point is, music should cost whatever the artist and their business team wants. This idea is often invoked by detractors of free access to music. “You can make your music available for free, that’s fine,” they say, “but I have the right to charge for mine.” Which is true, and copyright makes it so — artists enjoy a monopoly over the right to distribute copies of their music at the moment they record or write down a song. The intent of copyright is to create value around this right, so that production costs (both in labor and materials) can be covered, and the production of music can flourish. So it would stand to reason that the value created by copyright would not remain fixed as production costs fall.
Nope. The major labels have consistently fixed the value of music copyright by litigating and legislating against any force that threatens to devalue music access fees. They have extended copyright terms to draconian lengths. Any technology that is outside of their price-fixing controls is sued out of existence, and the law is changed if it does not suit their litigious needs. Forget free access to music, the powers that be don’t even want variably-priced music!
Major labels have enjoyed an effective monopoly over the monopoly that copyright grants artists. This happened because the value of copyright was not intrinsic, rather it was hitched to the ability of a business to exploit it. In the past, it was incredibly difficult for the artist to exploit their own copyright to create value — they had to sign their rights over to a label to be exploited. They didn’t have access to the apparatus of production, marketing and distribution like they do today. Thus, the value of music copyright was in the value of being exploited.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a major shift in the value of copyright, due in no small part to the falling costs of production. The cost of recording technology dropped to a fraction of what it once was. You can still spend a few million dollars building a state-of-the-art studio, but more and more are recording for less and less. Modern recording technology also speeds up the recording process considerably, so there are fewer labor costs.
Music listening is becoming a more participatory process, and more music is being made (via remixes, covers and mashups) just for fun or expression, without commercial intent. You can still spend a year writing an album, but plenty of musicians are vastly reducing the labor involved in composing an album by using technology to demo as they write, with feedback and collaboration happening at a faster pace.
Marketing costs are at an all-time low thanks to social networks and the ability of bands to connect directly with fans. You can still spend millions on a national marketing campaign (or get a consumer electronics company to underwrite it), but it’s now possible to market an album guerilla-style, and catch on virally without spending a dime.
And don’t get me started on distribution. Since the Napster days, the cost to distribute digital music has been effectively free. The real expense that these streaming sites have is not server bandwidth (a point that would be largely mooted by peer-to-peer technology). The exorbitant expense is in the labor required to seek out rights holders, get them to sign a digital service license agreement, and the accounting behind tabulating and paying out their share of the streaming pie. And when you’re talking about having to negotiate with the big three majors, you better believe the expense is going to be as exorbitant as the top entertainment lawyers can manage.
Digital distribution is what truly democratized the music industry, and the genie is never going back in the bottle no matter how much the RIAA continues quixotically to cram it in. I can distribute my music worldwide via any number of retail aggregators (CDBaby, OneRPM, TuneCore, DistroKid, etc.) for the cost of a magazine subscription. I can certainly distribute it worldwide absolutely free as well. The cost of digital distribution is near zero, and has been for quite some time.
So, there we have it. The labor involved in songwriting (to the extent you can call it ‘labor’) has been slightly decreased by technology. The time and cost of recording has been drastically reduced. Successful marketing can be achieved at a fraction of former costs. Distribution is nearly free.
The cost to produce music is much lower than it was just a decade ago. Shouldn’t the price of music adjust accordingly? Isn’t the pricing of streaming much closer to what’s fair for consumers? Doesn’t the declining cost of music production dictate that we charge less — even nothing — for access music? When you factor in new opportunities in direct fan patronage, a growing live music market and greater demand for licensed music, shouldn’t we continue to develop the intrinsic value of music as a service, and relax monopoly distribution rights on the music product in order to do so? This would be disadvantageous for the big three record labels, but a boon to most musicians and their fans, because a chance to be heard is a chance to be supported.