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!
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.
If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do I make money from music?” this is for you.
Tens of millions of musicians want to make money from their music. Only one percent ever do. Why?
Ask most musicians how they plan to make money and they all say the same thing: I’m waiting for my music to be discovered. I’m waiting for a good manager, a good booking agent, a good label. I’m waiting for my moment, my big break.
Musicians would not be this passive if making money was the primary reason they made music. Almost all musicians would like to make money from their music, but it’s not why we make it. We make music because we have to. We have to express ourselves. We have to communicate something and connect with people. As Henry Rollins once said, “I’d rather be heard than paid.”
But we can get paid. In fact, we have more opportunities today than ever. But waiting for opportunities to come remains a losing strategy. Opportunities are made — our moment will only come if we create it, and only then if we’ve developed our skills to rise to the occasion.
There is a simple formula to making money in music and many other creative endeavors. The greater your skills, the greater your opportunities. Conversely, more opportunities allow you to further develop your skills. Amplifying this feedback loop is the way to succeed.
So what skills does the musician need to tap into the music economy? They boil down to four broad categories, and it’s no longer enough to be competent in one or two. There are simply too many musicians in the world trying to make money from their music. It used to be you could be a master of one of these skills and that might be enough to get you “discovered” and exploited. Today, we must be competent in all four skills, and masters of at least one or two to truly have a shot at making our own breaks and earning significant revenue from music.
There are more musicians creating more music than ever before in history, and most of history’s recorded music is accessible to anyone with a computer. The bar has never been higher for novelty and originality — it’s the old chestnut of “it’s all been done before.” As we learn more about composition, we realize the challenge is to create an original expression from musical building blocks that seem to have already been combined in every imaginable configuration. And yet out of these seemingly infinite combinations, we put our own spin on the patterns of popular chord progressions, lyrical motifs and song structure that emerge. We create by taking our influences and making something new of them.
Composition is truly an art in and of itself, and too many musicians simply brush it off to focus on performing and recording. Many musicians fail to make money from their music because they are not songwriters. They channel their influences so directly, nothing original emerges. They sell the song short.
The old adage “writers write” applies to composition as well. One must first write songs to write good songs. What album would you rather listen to: the first ten songs a musician wrote, or the best ten songs chosen from the first 15 songs the musician wrote? By the time you are writing great songs, you will have written many.
Composition not just “where the money is” from a copyright perspective, composition is the art of music that gives rise to the other skills: performance, recording and entrepreneurship. You are getting paid for your labor to create something completely intangible, so the profit margin can be enormous. But it’s also highly competitive with a significant “right place at the right time” component. To cut through the noise of more musicians writing songs than ever before, your song needs to be performed, recorded and “shopped” at a professional level.
Performance is the Holy Grail of revenue for musicians. It’s always been where the highest profits have been for the musician themselves. This has only become more true in the Digital Age as selling access to recordings has dried up as a primary revenue stream. Post-scarcity music distribution shows that sharing songs is not stealing, and the only thing a musician loses when their song is copied is a single opportunity to charge the listener a fee that most would not pay. In turn, they gain an opportunity to make a fan, which is far more valuable in the long run. In order for this equation to work optimally, the composition has to be great, and performance has to be a part of your plan, because it’s where fans show their most value.
Touring and T-shirts are nothing to scoff at — even though gas is more expensive and ticket prices have not increased by much, the profit margin is usually greater than sales of any recording. When a fan is at your show they are the most charged up on your music than at any previous moment. They want to leave with a T-shirt and talk about how awesome the show was, marketing your band and paying for the opportunity. It takes great performances to put them in that state.
The same advice for composition applies to performance: perform, perform, perform. Book any gig you can find. Performing is a process of “paying your dues”. There will be awful shows and huge mistakes, but eventually so much of performing will come naturally to you.
To the extent that performance is a challenging skill to learn, working on your show is a fun challenge (unless you have stage freight). What’s more of a challenge are the logistics of putting on a live show that looks and sounds great, not to mention the huge sacrifices that must be made to tour. As the age bracket gets older and older, there are fewer and fewer musicians who find touring manageable. Locked in a traveling vehicle killing time for most of the day, away from family and friends, is not how most people want to spend 200 days of the year. Touring makes it hard to have a normal life, normal relationships, a normal home and job. But performing musicians are not normal, and it’s a big part of why people are so attracted to them. There are plenty of us who feel that hour on stage makes all the sacrifice worth it. And with a properly managed tour, a we can come home with some money in our pockets, having made fans we can count on to support us not just when we come to town, but also in between releases and show dates.
The internet has enabled musicians to book their own shows and tours, but many have not mastered performance. It’s an art in and of itself, a combination of equipment, stage presence, focus, charisma, mystique, emotion, crowd interaction, and a host of other factors. They’re difficult skills to teach, but come naturally as you play more and more shows. To maximize your opportunity to create value from your music, performance is critical to the overall strategy.
By now you probably see the pattern: the internet affords you incredible new opportunities, but they can’t be taken advantage of unless your skills are well-developed. Recording is no different in this sense, but it is very different from composition and performance in how one develops the skills.
That’s because unlike composition and performance, which are accessible to anyone with an instrument and an imagination, not everyone can record whenever they feel like it. To be sure, home recording technology has completely transformed the way musicians record, and more than ever have the ability to record themselves. But it’s a small minority of musicians who can produce, engineer, mix and master their own recording at a level of quality consistent with professional releases. It is getting easier as the tools get better and listeners being appreciating a wider spectrum of audio fidelity.
Today, every musician should have some way to record at least demo-quality recordings at home. A big part of learning the skill of recording is learning how to perform under the magnifying lens of the studio. There is also the task of “getting a sound” in the studio, a process often wholly unique from its analogue in developing the sound of one’s live show. And there’s no better way to get what you want from the studio you’re paying than to play them a rough idea of the sound in your head.
Every musician should have some way to demo songs in order to work out as much of the recording in advance as possible. Even when done at home, recording a song or album is a big production. It only happens once, in the sense that the recording you make is the recording you’re stuck with until the end of time.”
Ultimately, most musicians will find themselves paying a professional to create a professional-level recording. Your closest fans may accept less, but it’s hard to build a substantial audience around music that is recorded poorly. Fans want to listen to your music all the time, the better the recording, the more attractive it is to listen to over and over again. A chance to be heard is a chance to be paid, and you increase your chances with a great recording.
Most musicians intuitively know they need to write and perform great songs, and record a great version of them to win fans. Entrepreneurship is the art and science of building a business around those fans, and the compositions, performances and recordings they want.
It used to be musicians waited to be discovered and signed by a label. The label would provide the business services to run their careers. Nine out of ten failed, and those who succeeded were often ruthlessly exploited, but it was the only game in town until the internet disrupted it all.
Independent labels can still make good partners for bands that grow their businesses beyond several thousand fans, but increasingly musicians are making their own income directly from fans. Though the Digital Age has made this possible and even easier, but it is still not exactly easy.
Entrepreneurship requires waking up every morning ready to tackle the tasks that lead to accomplishing your goal of making money from your music. It requires understanding and development of the skills needed to accomplish your tasks. You must set specific goals that lead to making money.
In the pursuit of making music, composition, performance and recording come naturally. In the pursuit of making money, entrepreneurship must be learned. You will draw on your natural abilities to be social and network with people, and develop those relationship-building skills if you lack them. You will become a master at exchanging value, the fundamental concept that underlies all business. Marketing and PR follow from the skills acquired in building these connections, and are critical for getting people exposed to your compositions, performances and recordings.
This ultimately leads to building enough fans to finance your business, either directly through crowdfunding or by attracting a working partner who believes in your business, such as a manager, booking agent, producer or promoter. Do it yourself does not mean do it alone, and entrepreneurship is all about making the personal connections that will sustain your music as a business.
(Note: If you’re into learning these skills, you might like the Band as Business course I co-produced.)
Here’s the dirty little secret you probably haven’t read much about: Look more closely and you’ll quickly realize that the music industry is 75% controlled by four labels. Musicians are not the majority rights holders of music — four labels are.
Does that make any sense in an age when the cost to produce, market and grant access to music is a fraction of what it was 15 years ago?
For the other 25% of rights holders, vinyl is huge. For indies, vinyl is a shining beacon of hope. For independent musicians, vinyl is becoming super-important to their bottom line. For these musicians, charging for access to one’s music no longer makes sense (it quite literally makes cents), particularly when attention is a form of payment in the Digital Age. A chance to be heard is a chance to be paid. A chance to be heard is too valuable to paywall for the 25% who don’t have huge stables of lawyers and lobbyists, or enormous marketing budgets and payola arrangements to manufacture popularity.
For those who don’t know of Feedbands, what they do is allow users to vote on a vinyl release for the month. They then pick a winner, press up their EP, and send it out to all their subscribers for the reasonable price of $14.95. For the bands that make the cut, it can be a huge windfall of new fans, not to mention Feedbands cuts them a nice check and does the pressing free.
What I love about Feedbands, and what will save the music industry (at least the 25% that matters), is not the vinyl records themselves, but the ethos:
We at Feedbands believe that music is essential and should be shared.
This simple sentiment has been completely lost on piracy-obsessed blogger-musicians at The Trichordist and I Am A Scientist, who believe sharing music is akin to stealing — a concept that came and went over a decade ago. And anyone who thinks RIAA and IFPI have musicians’ best interests in minds is dangerously out of touch.
There are two simple reasons why “killing piracy” will never save the 25%, or the 75% for that matter.
Instead of incentivizing fans to pay by offering something they can’t get free off the Internet (vinyl is just one example), they would rather kill the free access discovery process in order to get a tiny minority of those fans to pay 30% to the digital distributor and then let the money trickle through an exploitative label contract. They want to increase the deadweight loss and alienate the people in a position to support their careers by dictating the terms on which their art is appreciated. It’s not a winning strategy. Vinyl is.
I don’t need statistics and studies to tell me vinyl will help save musicians. My band raised over $4,300 on Kickstarter to fund vinyl production. Every musician I talk to now is excited by vinyl. It has reintroduced scarcity (vinyl is often released in limited collectible editions feature awesome art and crazy coloring), but more importantly, it’s a way for fans to express their love for a band financially and get something tangible in return.
Some people will tell you that modern digital files sound great and the sound quality of vinyl does not make the difference. I’m not sure what to say to those people. I’m no vinyl snob, not even a collector, but even I can’t argue that for many types of music, vinyl just sounds better. I was so blown away when I heard our band’s vinyl after we got it back from the plant, I went out and bought a record player. Say what you want about sample rate, but analog audio is natural and digital sampling ain’t. You can’t argue with a brain that evolved over millions of years to interpret a continuous sound signal vs. a purportedly indistinguishable succession of digital samples. Whether it’s the “warmth” of the intrinsic distortion of vinyl or any other trick of physics, the sound speaks for itself.
There’s something else the haters are missing, and that’s the ritual of vinyl. Even with cassettes and CDs, there was a ritual. We’d have to select the physical media from our collection, and place it in the physical player, and then we had to listen. Straight up, true fans want to listen to music.
People are having religious music experiences upon hearing vinyl. I first heard our vinyl album on cheap computer speakers via a USB turntable, and it still sounded better than my hi fi car stereo. The ritual helps establish the attention to listening, so I’m not sure how much of it is psychological, but our brains are all we’ve got so I’m going to listen to mine.
The cost of production, marketing and giving the public access to music has never been lower. There are more independent vinyl pressing plants today that before most of us were born, and you can get 250 records pressed up for about $1500, then turn around and sell those for $15 apiece minimum. Higher quantities yield higher profit margins. It just doesn’t even compare to the margins on streaming and downloads, which are only going to shrink as access to music is bundled with telecom service and mobile contracts. With enough litigation and legislation, the major labels might be able to get a bigger cut of streaming revenues, but good luck seeing that income trickle down into all but the most previously successful musicians’ pockets. Isn’t the purpose of copyright to create a healthy music culture, not enrich creators who are no longer relevant creatively?
There’s one more log I’d like to throw on the fire, and it’s last but not least. Fans know that when they buy vinyl, the money is generally going to the artist. Fans know that when they buy digital, a good chunk goes to a large corporation simply for serving up the file. They’re just about as happy with price-fixed digital files as they were with price-fixed CDs.
In this business of music, who are we trying to save exactly? The multi-billion dollar media conglomerates who write off their recorded music losses against military-industrial complex cash cows? Or are we trying to save the actual musicians responsible for creating the music we love?
Nobody wants to save the music industry, the 75% owned by the big four. Well, the pro musicians who profited from it do. The lawyers and lobbyists do. The executives who successfully manufactured the popularity of 1 out of 10 musicians they singed do. But I’m not sure how much clearer of a message fans could send to the music industry than a $3B loss.
To be clear, vinyl alone will not save musicians, inasmuch as they need saving. Last time I checked, there was more music being made and listened to than ever before in history, and so-called “piracy” was still rampant. There are other important revenue streams that copyright-obsessed musician-bloggers like to ignore. Crowdfunding and tipping are growing exponentially. Licensing has never been more in demand and accessible. It’s never been easier for a musician to cut out the middleman on all kinds of merch and physical product and make huge markups. Live music generates more significant revenue now than it has in years. Fans are still paying musicians, they’re just over paying for access. Musicians make music to be heard first, paid second, so where’s the conflict in digital technology finally making that dream a reality?
If you want to save musicians, buy a record, burn it to MP3, and share it with your friends.
As far as I can tell, this idea gestated in the bitter womb of The Trichordist, an echo chamber for musicians who are too scared of changes in technology to discuss solutions. Instead, they spew dangerous propaganda about the “new exploiters” of musicians, namely technology companies. Though they continually remind readers that they’re “fighting for the artist”, though there seems to be no sort of plan or strategy other than complaining.
The Trichordist went way out on a limb, grabbing screenshots of ads from major corporations being displayed alongside free music downloads of popular artists. This shock-and-awe tactic is presumably to incite fans to petition the advertisers to pull their ads from these sites.
Unsurprisingly, this attempt has backfired horribly. When the Dead Kennedys and Lou Reed posted the aforementioned Trichordist posts on their Facebook pages, their fans were quick to point out how stupid the posts were, and how out of touch Trichordist and the artists (or more likely, their embittered management) were for posting them.
Eric Kennedy wrote on the Dead Kennedys page: “…that shit is from a year ago, and I can pretty much guarantee that site doled out more viruses than songs. Stick to reposting whatever Black Flag is posting on FB in the future.”
Jay Conner added: “It is utterly astounding that somebody directly involved in the industry on both the business and artistic sides could be this uneducated about how internet advertising works. Particularly since he, you know, runs a blog dedicated to the internet and its ethics.”
Here’s the problem with so-called “ad-sponsored piracy”: it’s a mythical threat. It’s a fake problem cooked up by butthurt musicians who saw their market share crumble when the music business model shifted away from charging for access to recorded music.
I don’t have to get long-winded to prove it. Anyone with a basic understanding of how Internet advertising works understands that these ads appearing on these sites does not equate to companies sponsoring the site or its contents. It’s doubtful they even know where 99% of their ads appear.
And even if they did, anyone with a basic understanding of copyright law and how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act works knows that any site that makes available copyright infringing material must remove it immediately at the request of the rights holders. Reed and the Kennedys can play the victim all they want, but if they feel their copyrights are being infringed, they do have legal recourse to deal with it. Instead they are just complaining, and their fans are totally turned off by it.
Furthermore, even if we assume these sites were committing copyright infringement, most people understand that copyright law — and much of society, really — has been hijacked by corporate interests. In reality, free access to music is a good thing for most musicians because a chance to be heard is a chance to be paid. Pre-Internet, very few artists were heard, a minority were paid, and a tiny minority were paid fairly.
In fact, I think Lou Reed and Dead Kennedys would actually benefit from having their music available as a free download, largely by tech-savvy young people. If you look at the artistic merit of both these artists, I think popular opinion would agree they’ve been on the decline creatively or at least nowhere near the work they’re widely known for. Let’s say nine out of ten kids might come along and download “Walk on the Wild Side” and they hate it, or they like it but not enough to be curious about discovering more Lou Reed tunes (purely hypothetical, because kids stream music these days). One out of ten is going to love it so much they’ll seek out more, and along the way there will be plenty of opportunities to pay the artist far more than what they would make selling the track on iTunes to ten kids. That’s the new business of music, and it’s a much more fair shake for musicians than one given by the labels, lawyers and lobbyists of the past.
As for the Dead Kennedys? I’m sorry, but they’re not the Dead Kennedys if Jello isn’t in the band. He’s on record calling the band a ‘cash scam’ and that’s what the band is purely about now: making money. The art is gone. Forget musicians, fans are being exploited.
So you see folks, the myth of “ad-sponsored piracy” is really just the product of desperate musicians at the end of their careers. The primary purpose of copyright law is to create a rich and thriving culture — economic compensation is a part of it, but not the whole. Why would we deny thousands of musicians the right to be heard and to be paid just so washed-up artists like Dead Kennedys and Lou Reed (more accurately, their buisiness teams and labels) can squeeze some more dollars out of a good run that happened decades ago.
If The Trichordist were serious about fighting against musician exploitation, they would be fighting against the corporate corruption of copyright and fighting for Internet freedom. By their rationale, even Spotify qualifies as ad-sponsored piracy because of its almost non-existent royalty payments in the face of hundreds of millions of dollars of ad and subscriber revenue. But Spotify pays 70% of revenue to artists, just like iTunes. Somehow one is morally bankrupt and the other perfectly legitimate. It’s absurd. I’m no great champion of Spotify, but put up against iTunes they look like Mother Theresa. And like I said, music downloads are approaching their high water mark and will be all but a memory as a new generation grows up on streaming, so the myth is already hopelessly outdated.
In the future, I would like to see The Trichordist discussing some actual solutions instead of throwing tantrums. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you some topics:
Hang out for a few minutes and I’ll tell you why Grooveshark may be more ethical than Spotify.
Brief History Lesson
By suing Napster and its kin out of existence, the music industry elite created a “soft landing” for its multi-billion dollar business of selling access to recorded music. They couldn’t kill so-called music “piracy” (also known as song sharing), so they killed the nascent technology companies that tried to build a business around it.
To what extent have musicians benefitted from this business model? Until access to music became free, it was our primary revenue stream. But too often we got such a small piece of the overall pie. The record business was never particularly ethical, with its exploitative contracts, shady accounting and history of corruption.
Free access to music wiped these ethical dilemmas off the table with one click of a mouse, giving us a new debate over the question of whether music should be free to access and share.
Notice I didn’t say “free music”. Music isn’t free to produce or market, though costs have dropped considerably any way you spin it.
At the time of Napster, music suddenly was free to access with an Internet plan and a computer. It took the industry hundreds of millions of legal and lobbying dollars to finally stop the bleeding. In 2013, the slow death of physical media has been largely offset by the rapid growth of digital after a precipitous $3B drop.
The corporate music industry would be quick to tell you that suing innovative digital music companies and individual file sharers was all about protecting musicians’ revenue, that they saved our bottom lines. This is the same industry that coerced us to sign exploitative contracts, that price gouged and price fixed consumers, that bought off radio to play the same songs on repeat.
But musicians are starting to wise up as they see the bottom line on their streaming revenue reports. To be fair, Spotify (and iTunes) pay roughly 70% of its revenue to artists (more accurately, “rights holders”, which are primarily the labels who exploit the artists’ copyrights). A lot of the negative reaction can be chalked up to failures in long-term vision — as the decibel point moves right in our royalties, the multiplier grows exponentially. But the current streaming royalty system clearly favors the big four major labels over the short and long term, because it is harder for independent, unsigned and emerging musicians to compete with their massive back catalog of perennially popular music and marketing budget to match.
Some musicians are coming around to bridging the art/business divide and becoming entrepreneurs themselves. They’re sick of having to rely on someone else exploiting their rights for increasingly less money. The Internet allows direct fan patronage in the form of crowdfunding, tipping, or selling both virtual and physical products from one’s own website. Home studio production is getting cheaper and better. Licensees are hungrier than ever for the latest music. Marketing is as easy as creativity > strategy > click. These aren’t empty catch phrases like “downloading music for free is stealing” and “piracy is bad”, these are realities clear to any musician working in the field today.
Yes, there will always be artists who dare not sully their art with business concerns, but they are an increasingly lonely breed. The new musician adapts to the meager streaming royalty stream not by petitioning for higher royalty rates from Pandora, but by embracing business models with far more promise than selling access to recorded music. If only the record business elite would step off. But there’s billions at stake and they like their yachts. Who can blame them? They’re the last generation of the American Dream and they don’t want to wake up.
Really? What about “a digital world that rewards the gatekeepers between artists and creators”. That’s really what the IFPI is concerned about. It doesn’t represent the interests of musicians, it safeguards the commercial exploiters of musicians’ recorded music copyrights. Let’s tell it like it is — the money trickles down through the cracks in their multi-billion dollar pavement. The markup on music remains artificially high to justify the expense of major label production and marketing. They also need to even out the variance from gambling on bands like derivatives traders.
What’s concerning is to see musicians jumping on the IFPI’s bandwagon, supporting the suing of technology companies, demonizing their own fans for sharing music. I mean, what do these musicians think is going happen? Are we going to all of the sudden roll the music industry back to 1996 when a CD cost $14.95 and you were forced to buy 9 crappy songs for every hit single?
“Of course not,” these skeptics will tell you. They love new technology, it just has to be applied fairly to musicians. Technology companies, they say, are even worse than the exploitative record labels, because they want to use your music for their own gain and pay you nothing!
It’s not even remotely that simple. Of course, there are plenty of digital music companies exploiting musicians’ copyrights. But it’s precisely because we’re still working within the model of copyright exploitation established by the labels.
Grooveshark is an exploiter. Spotify is an exploiter. And on the face of it, Grooveshark would appear to be screwing artists far worse than Spotify. Google has decided to blacklist them from certain search functions under pressure from the IFPI and its minions to fight so-called “piracy”. But Grooveshark has only been convicted in the industry, not in the court. They’ve literally been blacklisted from the industry for daring to question the status quo of corporate-hijacked music law and technology.
Corporate Hijacking of Music Law and Technology
The majors and some indies have refused to license their music to Grooveshark. As a result, the majors are trying to sue Grooveshark to death just like Napster or all of the other -ster’s they shut down with copyright infringement lawsuits. We know how well that worked — unauthorized song sharing only grew more popular. The industry’s well-documented and cyclical fight on piracy is the same kind of endless war the US is engaged in overseas. The industry has been fighting it for 100+ years and the only true goal has been to co-opt the developments of independent innovators rather than truly eliminate piracy, which is quixotic. (See the book Pop Song Piracy.)
Spotify and its ilk only use officially licensed music. But what happens when the legal system is broken? Copyright is supposed to protect our right to profit from our labor and to express one’s personhood. It’s also supposed to promote social and cultural welfare, and benefit the greater good by making creative works accessible to the widest possible audience. The cost for access is supposed to be high enough to incentivize creators to keep creating, while low enough to prevent a large deadweight loss, depriving the least amount of citizens from access to the work. These are the moral and economic foundations of copyright, and they’ve been hijacked — just like the political process, the food supply and our media — by large corporations.
In 2011, the four major labels controlled 88% of the market share for recorded music. That’s enough to make the Monopoly Man jealous. These labels own the rights to the vast majority of the music we listen to, and use their enormous legal and lobbying resources to keep it that way. It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s standard American capitalism, and the American way of music business is increasingly the way of the world.
Don’t Bring Back the $14.95 CD, Bring Back Napster
People rallied around Napster for two reasons. One was that it made it possible to access all of society’s recorded music for free. The second was that many music consumers knew they themselves were being exploited by major labels almost as much as musicians were. They witnessed a history of major music industry settlements for price fixing, price gouging and payola. They heard the stories of great musicians suffering because a label coerced them into an onerous contract. They paid $14.95 for one good song.
The music industry was incapable of embracing a world where all of society’s recorded music was available for free, even if that’s clearly what consumers wanted. (Most people at this point will say, “of course that’s what people wanted, people want everything to be free” to which I reply, “Yes they do.”)
As a quick aside, I believe music is closer to a necessity than a want — closer to food, affection, sex, shelter, etc. than a new TV or a Snickers bar. As a society we should endeavor to provide free and fair access to music — a Right to Music — on a humanitarian level. (Follow the link for more.)
Free access to music is good for musicians for one simple reason: An opportunity to be heard is an opportunity to be paid. Anyway, the best musicians make music in order to be heard first, paid second. The motivating factor of copyright and the potential of being the 1 in 10,000 musicians that become a rock star have been greatly exaggerated. If copyright law evaporated tomorrow we’d still be making music. That the music industry lost half its value and we have more artists creating more music than ever before is testament to this fact.
Grooveshark vs. Spotify
This all relates to the Grooveshark vs. Spotify ethics question, because Grooveshark is pretty much the only company of its size that believes access to music should be free (or nearly so.)
Spotify, and the dozens of other streaming services (many of them restricted to certain geographical regions because of licensing rights restrictions) believe that the way to save musicians is to increase payments to the labels that exploit them.
Let’s contrast two opinions, the first from IFPI chairman Domingo:
“…policymakers better understand that the internet does not make music “free”.”
Here we have a straight-up threat by the IFPI to stop funding politicians’ re-election campaigns if they don’t pass legislation protecting major labels’ ability to exploit musicians’ rights for maximum profitability. Spotify et. al. would agree with this statement. As we’ve observed, just because the Internet provides free or near-free access to music, that doesn’t make the production and marketing costs of music zero (though costs have inarguably dropped significantly).
Storm the Gates
It seems we are left with two solutions. The one proposed by the IFPI is to protect the gatekeepers by charging a monthly subscription fee for access to music.
I have no problem with this business model, nor do I think should musicians.
I had no problem with it back in 2000 when Napster brought us the technology and proposed the exact same business model. But too many salaries built from exploiting musicians were on the line, and they were sued out of existence. It wasn’t done for the musicians. It was for the executives, the lawyers, the lobbyists and the other business associates at the multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations. Any musician who thinks these companies have their best interests in mind are deluded. It’s not entirely black and white — I’m sure there are plenty of employees who do good and mean well. But even the legends that deserve our respect, like David Geffen, eventually had their ethics compromised by commercial forces. A cursory glance at music industry history clearly demonstrates why gatekeepers between the artist and fan are a really, really bad idea from an ethics standpoint.
Musicians had no choice but to put up with it to get paid. This is no longer true.
Let’s contrast Domingo’s threat with Grooveshark SVP Paul Geller’s vision on where the music industry out to be headed:
“…I think that we have to be creative about how to get more money into this ecosystem, because I don’t think anyone sees those numbers [streaming payments] and is really inspired by them, I think people look at them and say ‘well this is a soft landing for the music industry,’ it’s ‘hopefully we don’t have to lay off too many people.’ And that’s why I think that Grooveshark is out there trying to be creative about how to infuse the industry with more money in ways that I don’t think are commonplace right now.” (from Digital Music News)
Grooveshark’s technology and innovation was neck and neck with all the other streaming music sites a few years ago, prior to having to dedicate an enormous chunk of their time and revenue to fighting legal battles with the majors. They recently rolled out some nice new features to compete with the Spotifies, but it’s clear they are living in a legal and fiscal nightmare. Their CEO Sam Tarantino admitted as much while doing an interview for Grooveshark’s new Broadcast feature. I can only surmise by statements like the one above that the people at Grooveshark truly believe they are fighting the good fight. And why shouldn’t they?
Grooveshark does pay artists, it’s just that they haven’t reached a licensing deal with the majors because as of yet they’re unwilling to bend over far enough. To Grooveshark, the majors are just trying to extort them and screw musicians anyway.
If you’re an independent artist or label, you can register your music with Grooveshark and they will pay you a share of their advertising and subscription revenue. These payments may be even smaller than what Spotify can offer, but Grooveshark is also much smaller, and draining their pockets just fighting to exist. Legally, they are in the right, because the DMCA allows for a safe harbor to exist for copyright-infringing, user-generated content, provided the company removes this content upon request and the platform has other significant uses beyond so-called “piracy” (really just unauthorized sharing of songs… does that sound so bad?)
Nobody knows right now if Grooveshark will give out and sign away their seemingly sinking ship to the majors, or if they’ll keep fighting the good fight until the courts deliver a predictably narrow, safe harbor-eroding decision. Law was never good at keeping pace with technology.
Toward a Two-Way Music Industry
The majors would like to continue collecting 88% of the market share for recorded music (and then pay a fraction of it to musicians because they signed exploitative contracts at low points in their career). How does consolidating wealth in media gatekeepers accomplish the IFPI’s mission of achieving “A digital world that rewards artists and creators”?
This fits into the larger context of corporations and governments trying to kill Internet freedom. Ask yourself, “Why wasn’t radio two-way? Why couldn’t the listeners also be the broadcasters? What about television?” At a glance this seems to be a technology and cost issue, but it’s not that simple. There are powerful commercial forces that ensure these technologies are developed in a way that maximizes profit for corporations, creators and consumers be damned. That’s why we have a long history of gatekeepers in all creative industries, not just in music.
The Internet changed all that with one simple feature — the consumer is now also the broadcaster. Large corporations have spent the last 15 years trying to litigate and legislate their way back to one-way media. Discouragingly, they continue to make gains every day.
This is why I believe Grooveshark may be the more ethical approach on balance. Spotify may talk a good game on paying artists. They may be expanding the pie we take our little piece of. And we can’t rush to conclusions that just because a single stream payment looks small today doesn’t mean it will add up in the long haul. Ultimately, any discussion of musician’s revenue share is taking place within the context of what their revenue share will be after the technology company takes their 30%, and then the label takes its majority share. Spotify and the IFPI are really only innovators in repressive legal maneuvers and artist exploitation. They’re profiting from a 15-year-old idea Napster first realized.
How can I say Spotify and the IFPI are exploiting artists when they’re trying to collect more money for them? Because it perpetuates the old model of exploitation on new technology. It’s repeating the same cycle of co-option that happened with the phonograph, with radio, with cassettes and with CDs. It’s a smokescreen to prevent you from thinking like an entrepreneur, from adapting to free access to music, from finding new opportunities to profit without the gatekeepers and stealing their market share. They desperately want to continue the same systematic exploitation and price-fixing that the record industry has been guilty of for the last 100+ years.
Grooveshark is more ethical because it rejects this corruption. They aren’t saints. They’re certainly pariahs. They haven’t figured out how to improve upon tiny streaming music payments, but they’re trying so hard they’re sacrificing their personal lives, their livelihoods, their reputations and quite possibly their sanity.
The vast majority of musicians will see no significant increase in revenue until the major labels lose their market monopoly, and their revenue share drops considerably. In this sense, Grooveshark is using loopholes in the DMCA to kick the IFPI in the nuts — pretty much its only defense against the obscene legal might of the industry elite.
As a musician, do you really think the IFPI or Spotify (if they can stay in business) are going to solve your revenue problem? Of course not. They’re looking out for #1: the record industry elite.
The solution for musicians is to start looking out for #1 too. That means building a culture of entrepreneurship. That means direct patronage from fans via crowdfunding and tipping. That means cutting out the gatekeeper and giving fans exclusive access to products that are still scarce. Selling access to music is no longer viable, and only by corrupting copyright do corporations make it so. The ethical foundation of copyright is sound, but it has been corrupted.
The greatest lie told by the IFPI is not that their mission is driven by musicians (they have musicians in mind, maybe, but certainly not a priority). The greatest lie told is that they are somehow going to bring musicians back to a world where they were fairly paid for their labor, where they are free to express their personhood without exploitation, where society can access and share music freely, and where more music of higher quality and greater diversity is listened to with greater frequency.
That world never existed. But it can today, with free access to music as the great equalizer.
The only way to fairly solve the musician revenue problem is for musicians to reject the century-old system of exploitation and fight to keep the Internet free so we can build a new culture and economy of direct fan patronage and musician entrepreneurship.
Here’s a brief reprieve from all the editorializing: two recently discovered videos that changed the way I thought about music.
The first is not a single video but a Harvard lecture series by classical music icon Leonard Bernstein entitled “The Unanswered Question” from 1973. It is without a doubt the best 40+ year old video on music I have ever seen. Yes, I did watch all 11+ hours, even the protracted orchestral studies. I left with an understanding of music history and music theory that had finally crystallized in Bernstein’s lucid prose and performances. It’s a truly incredible series I encourage anyone with a love of music to get hooked on the first lecture:
If you don’t have time to explore the ramifications of Chomsky’s semantics on the origin of music and how it traces to the contemporary crisis of tonality — or if you have 30 minutes rather than 11 hours to spare — you need to see Vi Hart’s video:
Her “Twelve Tones” video recent went viral, reaching almost a million views at the time of this writing. Thirty minutes never went by so fast with your brain absorbing so much knowledge. It’s enough to make you wish Hart would team up with Salman Khan to start an online school of music. She even works some awesome tragicomic copyright jokes into her lesson!
“We are the music while the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot
In modern-day song sharing — what we think of as “music” — there are three participants: musicians, listeners and industry.
When music first originated, there was little if any separation between musician and listener. Certainly, there was no business of music upon which to build an industry. In prehistoric times, music was part of a holistic method of communication bundled with body movements and primitive utterances, which would respectively evolve to become body language and language proper.
Over time, however, the role of the music creator — once a role shared by all — became specialized. The musician was separated and exalted above the listening audience. And over the last few centuries, this relationship between artist and audience was rapidly commercialized, giving birth to the music industry.
Song sharing is not just passing an MP3 across the Internet, though free access to digital music is unquestionably the latest major turning point in the history of song sharing.
Song sharing is any act that brings music into being. Composing, performing and recording are the ways musicians share songs. Listeners can distribute copies — such as MP3s shared online — but unless these copies were listened to, no song sharing really took place. The listener shares songs by playing them for other people, or getting others to listen. In a world where musical quality is judged in dollars and not sense, the listener’s role in music’s dissemination is grossly overlooked, though that is changing quickly.
For the last couple of centuries, the music industry has produced, distributed and marketed songs to be sold. They owe their existence to song sharing by musicians and listeners. As such, they have been cast in a gatekeeper role, mediating the relationship between musician and listener.
For the vast majority of music history, song sharing happened freely and naturally between musicians and listeners. The act of making and listening to music is hardwired into our brains, involving more cognition in a greater number of areas than any other activity. Music evolved over millennia without any mediation of industry, becoming the creative center around which cultures formed. Song sharing was, for most of its history, was the glue that bonded individuals together through shared expression, literally forming societies.
Four turning points in the history of song sharing forever transformed its nature. Not coincidentally, each turning point marked a major milestone in the formation of the music industry.
Each of these turning points centered (naturally) around one of the three ways musicians share songs with listeners.
Composition is the DNA of song — instructions for its formation. Performance brings song to life, the performance was the act of song sharing until the recording was invented a little over a century ago — a blip in the epic history of music. Before then, composition and performance were essentially inseparable. Music was an oral tradition, and songs were passed down in this tribal, cave-person folk tradition: sacred copies that nonetheless changed ever so slightly as they were reproduced throughout the ages, mimicking the process of human evolution. The music was not made by musicians but rather by cultures, and as such, there were no composers or performers, only traditions of sharing songs.
The role of musician became more specialized as the technology of music evolved. The voice is an instrument we all possess, and there are many things in nature, including our own bodies, which serve as readymade percussion instruments. The sounds of nature and the movements of our own bodies inspired and possessed us to create the first music. But as instruments became more sophisticated, the role of musician began to be more distinguishable against the listening audience. This was the origin of the composition and the performance as separate from a cultural tradition. The role of song sharing in the civilizations of antiquity was a sacred, spiritual one, and seen as the domain of the gods themselves.
The first major turning point in the history of song sharing has to do with Pythagoras’s discovery of the mathematics of music. Though his teachings were to be lost or ignored for many centuries, the revelations of Pythagoras eventually enabled music theory to develop, ushering in a new wave of musical technology to honor what early civilizations saw as the divine music of the cosmos.
Over the second millennia, we developed new instruments, new methods of composition and performance, new ways of notating and communicating musical ideas. These advances led to the final distinction of musician as separate from listener, and of composition as separate from performance. Thus song sharing came to be defined as a discrete activity, exchange and relationship between musician and audience.
The Romantic period ushers in the second major turning point in the history of song sharing, this one having to do with performance. In the hegemonic Western world, performance morphed from folk tradition to the work of art of an individual genius. This had a profound impact on song sharing, bringing about the classical period of composition. It removed music from the domain of the gods and placed it squarely in the hands of humans. This transition began with financial support of the arts by aristocrats but ended with the audience as patron. This fundamental transformation for the first time created a thriving market for music performance, and this capital infusion drove the evolution of music technology and theory to even greater heights.
With composition and performance clearly defined and ascendant in profitability, the third and perhaps most transformational turning point in the history of song sharing is the invention of recorded music. At the turn of the 20th century, the phonograph quickly ushered in an exponential increase in the market for compositions. At the same time, performance began to take on a completely different role, being more of a means to the end of recording or marketing recordings than valued for the music itself. New broadcast technologies and recording/playback electronics fanned the flames.In what had now become a familiar cycle, music technology and industry advanced hand-in-hand on exponential scales, forever altering the culture of music and the roles of musician and listener. How quickly we forgot that prior to recordings, performance was the only way to hear music.
Toward the end of the 20th century, an imbalance in the relationship between musician, listener and industry started becoming apparent. As the market for music grew, the music laws and technologies governing the market for music were increasingly co-opted by large corporations, causing a net negative effect on culture. Both as a counter-reaction to this corporate hegemony/homogeny — and as a consequence of complacency and nearsightedness of the the record industry elite — song sharing technologies were re-appropriated by listeners en masse as they sought an equilibrium between culture and commerce. The industry responded by doubling down on restrictive laws and technologies of control, casting its customers as thieves, which brings us to something of a modern-day impasse in the evolution of song sharing.
The history of song sharing can put into in perspective some very important questions about the origin, meaning and purpose of music. These vital issues are all too ignored in our modern-day appraisal of music as entertainment product, of musician as celebrity, of profit as purpose. This perception is itself a product of the music industry, and as the market for music came to dominate our culture, we lost sight of the true meaning, power and purpose of music.
The true purpose of music is to bond humans together in shared emotional, physical and spiritual experience. As such, music has the power to make us better people, improve our relationships, and make our society better. It has the power to help us connect with and heal our bodies. It empowers us through creativity and enriches us through a deep understanding of the human condition.
All these powers of music that we lost sight of are returning, thanks to the fourth turning point in the history of song sharing — free access to music. This is not the death of the music industry, but rather a long overdue re-balancing of the relationship between musician, listener and industry. Though the industry fights this change with all its legal and financial might, the ancient power of song sharing between musician and listener, amplified by digital technology, is too great to suppress any longer.
Today, listeners are the new patrons of music — neither mass audiences via industry gatekeepers nor aristocrats have the power alone to sustain modern music culture. The separation between musician and listener is disappearing as technology democratizes composition, performance and recording. Music’s fans become DJs, remixers and mashup artists — musicians in their own right. The gatekeepers are a disappearing vestigial tail that had largely evolved simply to grab hold of money — the deep-seated and long-evolved power of song sharing transcends the market to speak to the soul. We are rediscovering music’s incredible power to heal and to change ourselves and society for the better, rather than pigeonholing the most divine human expression to mere sonic product.
As an epilogue, a fifth and final turning point in song sharing is on the horizon, again driven by the exponential progress of technology. In many ways this turning point marks a return to the original, prehistoric role of music as a central component in a holistic expression which allowed us to survive in a challenging landscape, joining us together in the tribes that would become the first societies. The lines are blurring between musician, listener and industry; between composition, performance and recording; between culture and commerce; between technology and law.
Our modern-day music universe sets the tone for this final and total technological transformation of music that will take song sharing beyond the audible and directly into the brain. The cutting edge of neuroscience and music theory points the way to a culture is based on computation. Perhaps then we will return to the reality of music as the sacred essence of all things, the song that we play by living. Life is a song we are sharing, and song sharing is the way in which we harmonize with ourselves, with others, and with the Universe at large.