Which Music Industry Are You Fixing?

Even with the enormous changes in the music industry over the past fifteen years or so (pick your favourite year zero) things are not perfect. There is a sense that the music industry is malleable now and this raises questions about how it should be moulded.

Young girls finish running race
Christmas party at works, 18/12/1937 / by Sam Hood, Taken at Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), Ashfield, N.S.W. via Flikr Commons

Voices are being raised about what the industry should be and how we can get there. There are increasing incidences of people positing ideas only for an opposing view to emerge rebutting them from within the community of musicians.

Albini and Steinhardt on the Status Quo

Steve Albini spoke about how the internet has created opportunities that he could only dream of when he started his career in the ‘80s,

“The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process.”

This was then rebutted by Joseph Steinhardt, owner of independent label Don Giovanni Records. Stienhardt is suspicious of the view of the internet as an open and democratising medium,

“I would have never found Shellac in today’s musical landscape they way I did when I was 15. If something about my lifestyle indicated that I might like a band like Shellac, I would be re-routed toward the garbage corporate version of Shellac.”

Both these people are passionate, clever and articulate. They both care about the health of musical culture yet they hold very different views of the status quo. It is difficult to make sense of this debate. Both points of view make a lot of sense while reading each article while they oppose each other. How can we make sense of this?

Dangers of Totalising Individual Experience

Casey Rae, writing for the Future of Music Coalition, makes the point that both Albini and Stienhardt are, naturally, speaking from subjective viewpoints,

“[I]n both pieces there is a tendency towards totalizing one’s individual experience—however valid—and applying that to the music community writ large. This leaves a lot out, including other genres, genders, cultures, races, ages, business approaches and creative ambitions.”

This is perhaps inevitable in an environment where major label control has loosened and participation in the industry is broadening with independent labels and individual artists springing up like mushrooms after the rain.

In this diffuse environment there are many different groups coalescing, each facing different challenges. The worst thing that we, as members of this emerging culture, can do is allow this multiplicity to frame the issues of recreating our culture as dualities with single answers.

This is not as easy as it might seem. For almost every idea of the industry that is articulated there is someone who will see that as wrong, or not relevant to them. Albini is excited by the reach and egalitarianism of the internet age while Stienhardt is wary of the inequities of exposure controlled by dominant outlets like, YouTube, Spotify et al. This divergence comes from their different experiences of the industry, largely predicated on the eras they entered into it.

How to Tour: Jack Conte and Santos Montano

I feel we need to understand the subjectivity of participants writing about the music industry and at the same time recognise that these discrete viewpoints are part of the culture we also participate in. One often stated response to issues of people not paying for recordings is to use those recordings as loss leaders for live performances.

While this may work for some it is not a broad solution. There are many musicians who simply cannot play live extensively. Some are physically not able to recreate their music live due to the nature of what they produce or disability. For some, like classical or soundtrack composers it is just not economical to raise large ensembles.

Even for more usual pop/rock/r&b/etc. acts touring is not a simple proposition logistically or financially. Jack Conte, of Pomplamoose, published a very transparent article about their 2014 tour. He revealed that the tour made a loss of $11,819.

This article lead to responses criticising Pomplamoose for overspending or being overambitious in their tour. Santos Montano, of “weird metal band” Old Man Gloom, wrote a well-considered response to Conte’s article. He is critical of some of the artistic and financial decisions they made, particularly the money paid to hired musicians and equipment,

“Pomplamoose is claiming all of this is an investment into the future, so that the next tour will be even bigger. Well, again, time to get your ego in check, because the next one could be smaller. There could even not be a next one. This may have been the one. The one where you all came back with $8,000 in your pocket.”

Conte and Montano’s views are not a direct comparison. Montano is proposing touring for profit and although Conte is discussing the finances of his tour, he is revealing that Pomplamoose don’t make their living from touring.

In fact Pomplamoose have a very specific business model. The bulk of their income comes from crowdfunding for their videos, which they produce regularly. These videos function as advertisements for download sales. This works well enough for the two members of the band to draw a modest regular salary.

Not everyone is capable of making clever engaging videos for their music and even fewer people are capable of promoting those videos. The specificity of this business model doesn’t invalidate it. It does mean that it is hard to generalise from the experience though.

The Bigger Picture Needs to Serve a Broad Musical Community

This is the nub of the issue for me. I think that many people involved in this emerging culture want validation for the difficult paths they are forging. When someone expresses an opinion or posits a method that clashes with their ideas or practice they feel an implicit criticism.

In this time of reformation of the music industry there are many different needs that require addressing. There should be room for all of these. Many things need to be addressed. Not all of them will benefit everyone. We have an opportunity to forge a multiplicity of new paths to making a career in music for the benefit of a wider culture. The diversity of that culture should be seen as a strength not an attack on the specific needs of individuals.

THE SERPENT: The voice in the garden is your own voice.

ADAM: It is; and it is not. It is something greater than me: I am only a part of it.

EVE: The Voice does not tell me not to kill you. Yet I do not want you to die before me. No voice is needed to make me feel that.

ADAM [throwing his arm round her shoulder with an expression of anguish]: Oh no: that is plain without any voice. There is something that holds us together, something that has no word —

THE SERPENT: Love. Love. Love.

ADAM: That is too short a word for so long a thing.

Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.