Thoughts on the Music Industry

Interesting comment on last week’s post about the Internet Archive (thanks!). I thought it was worth talking about in more detail than can be readily accommodated in a comment. Here’s the comment in its entirety so it’s handy for reference:

It's interesting to observe, and think about, what these archive sites- and other music sources like Pandora, Spotify and Youtube- are doing to what used to be called "the music business". It's true that when I want a recent work by some currently interesting artist- Fiona Apple, say, or Anais Mitchell- I will get myself down to one of the few "record stores" still in existence (I favor Amoeba, in Berkeley), but mostly I listen to the stuff I've always listened to, and that stuff I can get anywhere at the click of a device. Take the Dead ("of course"): Grateful Dead Productions continues to put out collections of great tours or specific shows, but, good golly Miss Molly, I can go to an archive site and find countless hours of Dead shows- entire shows, often in several different recordings. I doubt I'll ever buy another CD from what's left of the Dead; why should I? The fact is, the bottom's dropped out of what used to be the music market, and nobody knows what do do, in this brave new world. this is great news for music lovers, but bad news for musicians, trying to make some kind of living with their art. Where's it all going? Stay tuned.

Just to set expectations: IANAPM (I Am Not A Professional Musician). That’s going to give me a somewhat different perspective. It also means I could be totally off-base. I should also note that some of this is paraphrased from my recollections of David Byrne’s “How Music Works”, in which he devotes several chapters to the history of “the music business” and how it’s changing in the current era. A fascinating book; I need to re-read it.

In many ways, the music industry parallels the publishing industry. In a “platonic ideal” relationship, the record label chooses the songwriters and/or musicians that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the music, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. Similarly, in a “platonic ideal” book publishing relationship, the publisher chooses the authors that have potential, pays them for the right to publish the books, and then handles production, promotion, and distribution. That frees up the artist to concentrate on the creation of the music or book. (A clear example of how little platonic ideals have to do with the real world, but work with me on this.)

Somehow, despite the fact that every study done to date shows that downloads and streaming music sales are trending upward at least as steeply as CD sales are trending downward, the labels’ accounting shows income as dropping off. That being the case, to continue to do what they’ve done in the past, the labels now expect to take a piece of the rest of the income (concert gate, merchandising, etc.) and in some cases they also want a piece of creative control. At the other end of the spectrum, the musician can go it alone, in the same way an author can self-publish, doing all of the promotion, distribution, and bookkeeping: the cost of entry has dropped; you don’t need a thousands of dollars worth or recording studio, CDs can be burned for a few hundred dollars, and MP3s can be distributed for a few cents each. And, of course, there are many ways to divide the responsibilities and sit somewhere in between those extremes.

What it comes down to then is the ability to get noticed – promotion. And in my view, how you think about what you’re doing controls your approach to promotion.

  • If you’re playing music because you love music and want to be a music maker, you don’t need much promotion. Put up a webpage, upload your MP3s and wait for people to stumble over you. Maybe you play some local gigs and put up posters, or maybe you don’t.
  • If you want to sell CDs (or the equivalent), then you need a lot of promotion. You need to get people to find you. In that context, your tours are part of the advertising. Sure, it would be nice if the tour made a profit, but as long as it gets your name out and inclines people to buy your CDs, it doesn’t matter if the tour loses money.
  • If you want to sell an experience – the “live music experience”; the connection between artist and audience – then the CDs are part of the advertising. They’re what draws people to come to the show.

Just to be crystal clear here, I doubt that anyone falls into only one of these categories. But in most cases one will predominate in the mixture, and that will color the approach.

Which brings us (finally) to the archive and streaming sites. I’m going to draw a distinction here. On one hand, you have archives like the IA that focus on live concert recordings. On the other hand, you have streaming sites that focus on single tracks or albums (and I’d include iTunes and the other music stores in this group). And then, on someone else’s hand, you’ve got the pirate sites, which focus on the same things as the streaming sites, but without cash changing hands.

If you’re primarily in the first group, then the sites are largely irrelevant to you. If you play out, you’re probably somewhat in favor of the archive sites because every download from one of them is someone who appreciates what you’re doing. You probably don’t care about the other sites because your music isn’t available from them.

If you’re in the second group, you dislike the streaming sites because they’re selling the same thing you are and you’re probably not getting as big a cut as you would want. You loathe the pirate sites because they’re giving away what you want to sell. And your opinion about the archive sites is going to be somewhere between neutral and dislike. The closer your live shows sound to the CD, the less you’ll appreciate the archive sites. If you make heavy use of pre-recorded “fill-in” tracks to ensure that the concert sounds “just like the record”, you won’t want people downloading the concert because there will be no need to buy the CD. But if your live show is different each night, it’s less of a concern. People can download the show, and it’s all part of the advertising for the “real” version on the CD.

The third group is in favor of all of the online venues. Sure, you would prefer that people buy the CDs or MP3s, but all of the recordings are the advertisements for the “real” version that they’ll get at the concert. (My gut tells me that this category is largely the province of jazz and jam musicians. The more your show varies from night to night and the more you emphasize the feedback between the performers and the audience, the more you’ll fall into this category. Is it any wonder that the Dead outright encouraged people to record their shows and trade the tapes?) That “real” version includes not just the sound, but the sight (and probably the smell) as well.

The key here, IMNSHO, is that any division of labor along that spectrum I mentioned several hundred words ago will work in this universe as long as the label and the artist agree on what it is they’re selling and both get a cut of the revenue from that selling. But in all three cases, there’s a role for the archive sites and the streaming/download sites. The pirates are outside looking in, but then, they’re not only used to that, they glory in it.

Utopian? Probably. Optimistic? Definitely. Totally off base? You tell me.