Culture over commerce: Towards a new musical landscape

Inculcation into the tribe of music lovers

What is music in society today? Is it a product, the fuel of a commercial industry or is it a culture, a forum for the expression, classification and development of who we are?

This is not a straight choice. The answer must be somewhere in the middle, but there is a tension between the two poles that indicates a conflict. This is particularly exemplified by the piracy/sharing issue and the reaction of the RIAA and similar bodies.

It is easy to cast stones at both sides, the litigious industry and the pilfering kids, but what is more interesting to me is what this confrontation indicates. I think we are in a liminal state caused by the changes digital production and distribution have wrought on the music industry.

When music was physical

Back in the mists of time, making and distributing music was an expensive exercise and record labels functioned like banks, signing bands and advancing the money to record and produce their music. This wasn’t charity and there were (and still are) some clever/tricky ways that record labels make money without paying much to the bands. Steve Albini, guitarist and producer, has published a famous vituperative article about some of the music industry’s wicked ways.

The internet and digital audio have changed things. In the past manufacture and distribution of physical media was expensive and tricky. You had to make objects that contained the music and get them to brick and mortar stores that would sell them for you. The easiest way to make money out of this is through economy of scale. Big distribution companies came to be owned by the record labels as this made sense for them. This consolidated the control of large companies over the industry.

Now once music is encoded into a suitable digital format it can be piped from computer to computer without all the cumbersome meatspace machinations of the old world. This has a huge implications for the perception of value of the music track. Where it used to cost money to make a plastic manifestation of the music digital copies can be produced and distributed for almost nothing except bandwidth costs. Continue reading Culture over commerce: Towards a new musical landscape

Online music distribution: Not all free is created equal

Drummer in a gorilla suit
The image Andy Budd promoting Silverback is by Danny Hope and made available under a Creative Commons license

Jonathan Ostrow has written an interesting and thought provoking post on distributing your music for free at Music Think Tank. The main point is that no money doesn’t have to mean no transaction. Even if you are not getting paid cash you can demand value in the form of attention, in a newsletter sign-up or publicity, in a tweet or Facebook like. The post gives some good advice on how you can put this in to practice and there is a useful debate sprouting in the comments about the general concept of giving music away without charging cash for it too.

Jonathan’s post and the comment thread have made me think more about my previous post, Give your music away: You have nothing to loose but your obscurity. That post was intended as an overview but there is a great deal to this subject and it deserves a deeper look.

If they don’t value your music they don’t deserve it

This point is made well and forcefully in the comment thread of Jonathan’s article by Tim London. The key question is, are we as musicians devaluing digital music by distributing at no cost or are we reacting to an existing situation?

I think it depends on where you are in your career. My previous post was based on the idea of a musician emerging on to the internet with a small local following. For them attention is valuable. If you have a national reputation, are touring yourself (perhaps opening up for established acts) and have a robust and active online fanbase then perhaps free is no longer a useful strategy for you.

The main point is still how to you get attention. Perception of value is important. This perception is influenced by popularity. Even the most jaded hipster in the whitest skinny jeans likes some kind of validation of their choices. I think that risking a non-existent income stream to try to build a business is worth a shot. The perception of music as a free resource is not just down to independent artist distributing for free. Spotify, YouTube, Songza and the file-sharing community are part of this too. Changing a culture is a big ask. Continue reading Online music distribution: Not all free is created equal

Give your music away: You have nothing to loose but your obscurity

Free Hugs
The image sometimes, a hug is all what we need by kalandrakas is used under a Creative Commons License

Why don’t you give away your music for free? This is one of the sticking points in independent artist music marketing. People are scared to give access to their work for free but it can be an important tool in gathering the attention you need to make a living from your work in the longer term.

Andrew Dubber put it as well as it can be when he said, “[Giving free access to your music is a] business strategy – not [a] business model.” Of course you’re not going to make money from this but you might make money because of it. He gives the example of his excellent e-book The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online. It has always been free but it has made him money by getting him gigs speaking, consulting and writing.

There are lots of reasons that musicians don’t want to do this and they all come down to fear,

  • Fear that their work will be devalued
  • Fear that they will be ripped off
  • Fear that the music they give away is the only good work they will ever create

It is true that as Andrew Dubber says giving your music away isn’t a business model. You aren’t going to make money from it but what are you loosing? As an up and coming independent artist how much money are you making from downloads and CD sales? If you are making any congratulations and if you’re making enough to support yourself please tell me, and everyone else, how you did it.

If you’re not making much money from media sales what do you have to loose by giving people free access to your music? I would suggest not much, but you do have a lot to gain. In order for anyone to value your work they have to know about it and lowering the threshold of access is a great place to start. Continue reading Give your music away: You have nothing to loose but your obscurity