Modern music economics: a fierce independent streak

CoverSutra - IN RAINBOWS

Steven Hodson posted a response to my IN RAINBOWS entry titled “Being free doesn’t make crap any better“. He makes the simple argument that, just because bands are freeing themselves from their labels and giving their fans the ability to pay what they want for their albums, that this won’t necessarily result in higher quality music being produced. It just means that we won’t have to buy the filler crap that most bands crank out to fill out albums to convince us to shell out $18 a CD.

He reminisces:

When I first started collecting music back in the days of vinyl it was commonly accepted that at least one; two at the most, tracks on the LP would be crap and usually stuffed onto the B-side of the LP. Over the years this ratio has slowly changed to the point that the majority of the time you are lucky if even half the songs are worth listening to. We became nothing but cash cows for the music industry as we lined up obediently with every big release and plunked over our hard earned money because we had no alternatives.

He goes on point out the change:

Then came the Internet and suddenly we had a way to thumb our noses at the industry that had been bleeding us dry and get only the songs we felt were worth listening to. The days of the 45 single had returned albeit in electronic form.

He then attacks what he sees as my warm and fuzzy view of a kinder, gentler “Open Media Web” (my term, borrowed from Songbird’s Rob Lord — (a client of Citizen Agency)).

The comment thread seems particularly interesting, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. I begin:

Hmm, I’m not sure that I have any illusions about the role of commerce in the decisions of these bands. Especially in the cases of Radiohead and NIN, they’ll do fine selling direct to consumers. For many other bands, especially undiscovered ones, or ones who aren’t MySpace et al-savvy, I think it’ll be a long slog before they can go completely independent. Let’s face it, you have to reach a certain amount of volume selling your wares before you can survive off of it.

In any case, I wouldn’t look at this as so much a warm and fuzzy revolution, but rather the kind of circumstance that made the coming of Firefox so exciting… the ground is beginning to shift and the landscape is taking on new forms. If Firefox didn’t come around, who knows when Microsoft would have been forced to update its browser…! The same thing is true for music now with bands advocating for fans to “steal their music” (as Trent Reznor proclaimed, genius marketing if you ask me) or advocating against the use of DRM (since it effectively reduces the number of people who can experience a band’s music, limiting their potential viral spread — which is where bands get their volume from!).

Anyway, I see the commerce side of this. This isn’t just a “Free The Music From the Evil Tyrants” thing. This is changing the way that money is made and how it flows. An Open Media Web is about recirculation, redistribution and greater freedom of choice. Personally I hope this change (more openness and choice) brings about a Darwinian evolution where the crap begins to wane and bands are forced to actually crank out top shelf A-Sides in order to make it.

We’re still a long way off, but I’m not sure, as was the case in the last post we exchanged words on, we really disagree.

Steve follows:

Chris I have to admit I always like it when you join in any of the conversations I try and spark here at WinExtra. Both from the point of view that you as a firm Web 2.0 proponent bring to the table and because you always have some intelligent feedback. Maybe that is one of the reasons why your posts tend to either spark thoughts of my own or figure prominently in my posts.

I do agree that the ground is shifting under us but whether it will make any difference in the larger picture of society is highly debatable. In this bubble we call the early adopterism of all things cool we seem to suffer from a myopic view that people outside of the bubble will see things the same way.

With music as much as folks who look at the current happenings hope that this will indeed foreshadow a larder trend outside of the bubble that will result in more bands being able to get out from under the thumb of music labels and become successful the fact is I think for the larger Internet world it will only see the word FREE.

As for not disagreeing on points in discussions we have had in the past I think my next post today; which again was sparked by one of yours, may see us definitely at opposite ends LOL

Thanks for taking time and being a part of my contributions to the conversation chain

Finally:

I do think there is something to the insider bubbloptics effect that keeps us somewhat sheltered from reality. And as much as I try to empathize or imagine what the rest of the world might think about such things, let’s face it, I’m like Paris Hilton thinking that I can speak for Guantanamo inmates.

That said, I do have a view inside the bubble, and since I’m originally from New England, I have a curmudgeonly distrust of all things large and who think they’re in charge. Usually that means the government or Big Business, and in this case, I’m talking about the collusive record labels.

Will there be some cataclysmic changing of the guard where every band joins up with a new RIAA (Recording Independents Association of Anarchists?) and goes Free Agent Nation on the former RIAA’s ass? Will all bands start giving away their music for free? Or better yet, seeding copies of their albums to the BitTorrent networks themselves? I doubt it.

BUT, what is important here is that Radiohead, NIN and the others are waking up from their somnambulant stupor and realizing, in Harrison Bergeron fashion, that they do indeed have free will and can take risks (instead of just pot shots) with their own careers if they so choose.

And since the actualization of choice is tantamount to establishing that one has free will, marketing-driven or not, the fact is, their model will become an inspiration for an entire generation who won’t just assume that the only way to make it is through signing away your life and becoming a slave to the economics you decried in your post, but instead that they can consider alternative routes to success and satisfaction and more importantly, more genuine or original ways to create and be involved with music, less as a Business, and more as an Art.

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Author: Chris Messina

Product guy, friend to startups, inventor of the hashtag, proponent of bots and conversational apps; Xoogler and X Uber.

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