Donations Accepted: A look at today’s recording industry

Feb 17, 2011 by

Donations Accepted: A look at today’s recording industry

8track-150x112Donations Accepted:
A look into today’s ever changing recording industry

By Trevor Jones

Here at Mousike, we recommend you consume as much music as possible, every day.

So how do you get your recommended daily dose of music? It’s a question most of us rarely ask ourselves, in large part because it has become so easy. When the internet arrived on the scene the web virtually destroyed the “normal” means by which we consumed our daily music. Radio and the record labels who provided individual songs to your locally owned radio stations collapsed and a new model, full of free music and online resources for listening has swallowed us, listeners and audience alike, so much so that it’s hard to decipher exactly what happened sometimes.

Thirty years ago all you had to do was call in to the local DJ, request that Blue Oyster Cult cut you’ve been craving and he was happy to help you out. Have you tried calling Clear Channel recently? The receptionist who answers probably can’t name the station in the city you’re inquiring about, because he is sitting in a corporate office building, far from any microphones or radio antennas.

So what happened? And more importantly, what do bands do these days to make sure people hear their music, in hopes that they themselves become that daily dose of music you crave?

This is where I should expose my bias. I’m a musician myself and just like everybody, I care about the welfare of the people in my industry, specifically other musicians. During the rest of this article it might feel like I’m trying to convince you to care, too and I am for good reason. We live in a free market society and so if we want quality art, we want artists to get paid. Not just musicians either. Comedians, painters, poets, people who craft miniature portraits out of sand in tiny glass bottles, all of these people need to be paid if we want their art, whatever it is, to stick around. Take the Writer’s Strike of ‘07-’08. Sitcoms and late-night shows alike were scared to death because their writers would not return work until they had been paid for internet downloads and smart phone streaming.

So as I climb down from my soapbox, let’s figure out exactly how we get our music these days and how some local bands distribute their tunes to the masses.

First, the early days. Remember ‘em? You got your music just like you bought everything else: you up off your couch and walked down to the store. This was a very deliberate, physical process, just as there was a physical hole in your wallet where $15 used to be before you bought that new CD.

I also remember when Napster happened. I was 13 years old and in the prime CD-buying phase of my life. Even after most locally-owned record shops closed, I still had to get a ride from mom down to the aptly named “Warehouse Music” to spend $15-$20 on Hootie and the Blowfish, Lenny Kravitz or maybe even some ZZ Top or Led Zeppelin. As soon as I downloaded “Boyz in the Hood” on Napster, it changed everything. Nothing was unsearchable or inaccessible. I chuckled ten years later when my dad joined the revolution and showed me all the albums he had downloaded with Bit Torrent, a modern version of Napster. This new way of obtaining music was decidedly non-physical and non-monetary, perfect during breaks at work or on a boring Sunday. I’m glad he got that King Crimson back after I lost his CD case in Europe all those years ago.

This new way of getting our music, requiring little more than a point and click of the mouse, was here to stay. Artists didn’t like this, or so it seemed. The spectacle of litigation brought about by Lars Ulrich made it seem as if every artist was, point blank, against file sharing. Unbeknownst to the media and maybe even Lars himself at the time, was the fact that file-sharing was the best thing that could have happened for artists and their creativity in an industry controlled by big record labels who had little interest in the music itself, only the bottom line. Later on, Lars would regret his attack on Napster.

“We didn’t know enough about the kind of grassroots thing, and what had been going on the last couple of months in the country as this whole new phenomenon was going on.”

-Lars Ulrich

Napster brought about what would be ten years of tumultuous, confusing dealings in the   music industry. People found new ways of file-sharing and the record industry would sue individuals here or there, ducking their heads from the media when a curious eleven-year-old or some sweet little granny would be sued for thousands because of copyright infringement. Apple’s iTunes and iPod first edged out music software programs then buried all other devices period. How many Dell or Microsoft music players do you see anymore?

Meanwhile, the internet itself developed myriad sites and plans for music delivery. Pandora, Grooveshark and Spotify are all examples of streaming music services that are free but give different listening options, payment plans for premium service and even differ in the legalese they use as protection against litigation.

But perhaps the most perplexing, the most paradoxical method by which we receive our music is on YouTube. What kind of world do we live in where people get their movies from iTunes and their music on YouTube? It’s bananas. But it’s true. And why shouldn’t it be? Music on YouTube is like watching an alien-MTV on steroids, impressive looking and filled with content for the future. For bands, however, this illogical but very popular medium provides a great way to promote the music in a visual way. I recently saw a video of a band shooting a flame-thrower and fire extinguisher at one another. I don’t care what you’re promoting… that’s awesome.

YouTube panders to our primary perception, vision. We all know how much better a concert can be with just a few lights, lasers and a smoke machine to occupy our visual field. Also, musicians tend to be pretty hairy/ugly, so a bright flashing distraction never hurts. But the need for visual stimulation in our modern age is a big one. A great music video can break a band instantly, much like a radio single could several decades ago.

I was at the grocery store in Avon and someone asked me recently if I thought Jimi Hendrix would become famous if he were playing today. I said no and my new friend shook his head and agreed with me. Back then it wouldn’t have had much to do with social networking or YouTube, only word of mouth about a new fiery guitar player. Jimi would come to rely on people like his manager and ultimately his record label to be heard. So what does a burgeoning Jimi or Bob or Janis or Jim, do today?

They adapt to the new system. Bands in Colorado have been doing it for several years now. The majority of any band’s revenue comes from playing live shows, so that aspect of the model hasn’t changed much. What has changed is musician’s attitudes about how, and how much, to sell music for. The cost of making an album has come down exponentially in recent years and so bands are no longer beholden to big record companies, oftentimes they only have themselves or one or two investors to pay back. With this financial freedom comes executive freedom as well and artists are increasingly intelligent about managing their creative assets and royalties. When most of the music out there is free, due to file-sharing and sites like Pandora, it becomes very hard to compete economically when a group’s music costs anything at all to download.

I went online to research some Colorado bands and found a varying array of distribution strategies. Yonder Mountain String Band offers free downloads, but only a smattering of their overall catalogue, in hopes of snaring fans into buying whole albums. The Motet offers their last album, completely free, while putting their more recent effort up for sale. Big Gigantic doesn’t beat around the bush, a quick Google search renders direct links to multiple pages of free music downloads. In a smart move, their last album can be downloaded for money, but fans get a bonus track.

Big Gigantic has faith in what they are doing and it shows. They know their music is so good; people will pay for the whole album just to get that last bonus track. Of course some people won’t, but for those people there is a “donate” button. When Radiohead released In Rainbows for free a couple years back, they made more money off donations than from actual sales of all their other albums, combined. When people get their daily dose of music, they are truly grateful.

As a consumer, we don’t really think about all of this. Music is so easy to obtain these days, and we no longer have to rely on a terrestrial radio system with no character and little quality music. Record labels, payola, and all the corruption that ruined creativity in those systems are gone. The landscape is more barren now, the musical fruit more accessible to the consumer. This new landscape is certainly more harsh and entrepreneurial for artists. Then again, isn’t that what makes a great artist? Although it’s cliché, great art comes from struggle. Not only do we expect that from our artists, we want to support them through their struggles. If only all of our endeavors had a “donate” button.

Anyone who is, or has been an entrepreneur knows how tough it is. The prospect of giving away your product for free seems not only illogical, but akin to business suicide. That gives you a sense of how upside down the world of media has become because of the internet. Newspapers, books, movies, TV shows and even this magazine you hold in your hand… none are immune. In a sense, we have come full circle.

During the Renaissance, music was very much a free market commodity. People hired musicians because they thought the tunes were off-the-hook, and to listen. The idea of every piece of music (pretend CD’s existed) being the same price would have been ludicrous. Some music sucks, some touches the voice of God. Is every painting a standard price? Now we have returned to employing the proverbial “donate” button. The real struggle for musicians is making their “donate” button more valuable than the next. From this struggle comes great artists and most importantly for us as listeners, great music.