So much is being written about the egalitarian nature of online distribution, it would be easy to believe that all our worries as wannabe professional musicians are now over. We all know that we can get a myspace page and a facebook music page, a reverbnation widget and a last.fm page, just like the big boys. We can also get our music onto iTunes and eMusic, Amazon and Rhapsody, just by sending a CD to CDBaby and paying them less than $40 to set it up. Easy, huh?
Well, not quite. It’s true that the music economy in the last couple of decades has shifted from hundreds of acts selling millions of records to millions of acts selling hundreds of downloads, but two things are still problematic – monetizing the attention that we’re given, and building online spaces where attention is available in units greater than 30 second chunks.
You see, the huge problem with the MySpace/Youtube/iTunes generation is that it favours instantaneous gratification. It favours music that ‘wows’ in the first few seconds over music that takes a while to grow – in much the same way that mainstream pop radio has done for decades. It’s just that now, it’s not just the top 40 sector that’s expected to fit that paradigm, it’s everyone. There’s no special version of myspace for people with long songs, where the listener knows that it’ll take a particular piece of music a good few minutes to get going and reveal its hidden magic.
It’s true that to a degree it has always been thus – playing music to your friends in a ‘hey, check this out!’ scenario has always been a less comfortable proposition if you’re introducing them to the magic of Steve Reich or Brian Eno’s Music For Airports than if you were letting them in on the hitherto-undiscovered-to-them genius of Chic or Duran Duran. Pop music is by its very nature more immediate.
No, the problem here is a slightly more insidious one – it’s that all of us, ‘pop’ acts and more difficult to classify musicians alike, are being encouraged to market what we do via these channels in the same way, and music lovers are being encouraged to look for it in that way, and it can have a negative effect on the way we create and the way we find the music we love.
The fantastic potential that Myspace/Youtube/iTunes gives us to connect with an audience that we’d previously have needed a record label and radio plugger to connect with is still largely bound up in the ‘instant gratification’ notion of where the value lies in a piece of music. 30 second previews of tracks are useless for through-composed or gradually evolving music. 30 seconds of just about anything by Michael Nyman or Philip Glass isn’t going to show where the piece goes as it unfolds over the course of minutes rather than seconds.
How do we deal with this? I think acknowledging it is the first part of the answer – once the influence has been ‘named’ we can see if for what it is, and hopefully recognise the difference between our own creative urge pushing us towards brevity or accessibility (certainly no bad thing if that’s where you’re leaning) and the crippling of a deeper more evolved sense of where a particular piece of music should be going out of a fear that it just won’t work on myspace.
Download culture is wonderful in that it frees us up from the limitations of length – in both directions – that vinyl/casette/cd/minidisc had – we can put out tiny short works and not feel like we need to pad it out to fill a CD, or we can release massive epic hours-long single pieces if that’s really where our muse is heading. There’s nothing to stop you putting out 10 hours of continuous music, other than the limitations of the download speed of the person trying to get hold of it. We’re no longer constrained by pressing cost or media size, but we are still subject to the evolution of the music-discovery culture, and we all need to be thinking hard about how we build a space where we encourage people to investigate music that takes many listens to sink in, music that doesn’t reveal any of its complex magic in a 30 second low-res preview, but given time will seep into our consciousness and affect us in a unique way.
We need filters. We need
- people and
- media-outlets and
- blog groups and
- socially networked advisors who will recommend great music to us in the way that magazines used to.
Magazines still provide some of that, but they are very limited in their scope, because they are beholden to their advertisers and the broadcast nature of what they do, so are constrained by the need to write about people their core readership already know about. Those people aren’t really our concern. The ones who already have a career, a fanbase, a stream of self-generating traffic to their sites and online store. Finding out about the new Nick Cave or Pat Metheny record is rarely going to prove difficult.
No, we need microfilter channels, groups of 5,10,20,50 friends who get excited about new music and do the research for eachother, in the same way that Google Reader lets us search out news and blog posts for eachother.
There are already music blogs like this – audioblogs that feature MP3s on a daily basis. Some of them are fabulous. Many of them are less helpful in that they are basically a mashup of bit-torrent and blogger.com – illegal giveaways of whole albums that don’t actually help the band because they direct no attention or traffic in their direction. I was talking with a guitarist friend in LA in January who found that only a week or so after his latest album had come out, someone was giving it away on an audioblog based in Holland. The sales in the first few weeks of any project are important because that’s when the publicity is focussed on, so to be offering illegal free downloads of an album that close to the release date is particularly galling.
The new currency online is attention. Time is valuable, and it is possible to monetize that, through sales of CDs, downloads, DVDs, t-shirts, gig tickets, teaching weekends, meet and greets, promotional spin-offs, advertising revenue. But directing attention is best done by communities, by trusted advisors, but bloggers and twitterers and facebookists and friends of friends who know their subject and seek out the best new music around and tell people about it. And do it because then their love for it is propogated, the artform and the creators are encouraged, make enough money to make the next record, and the cycle of soundtracking a part of our lives is completed and begun again.
BUT if you’re a musician, unless the career part of being a professional musician is more important to you than the musician part, all of that has to be at the service of getting the word out about YOUR art. That which you hold most dear. Not an advert for what you hold dear, not a truncated, MySpace-ized version of it, but the real deal, however dense, complex, mellow, subtle or otherwise it is. Which brings me back to a point I’ve made a few times on here before – BE THE KIND OF FAN YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE – musicians need to be using the attention they have from their audiene to share the love, to let their listeners know about the music they love. It’ll come back, karmic-stylee, and will solidify your position as a guru of great music, a person of taste and discernment and the hub of a music-loving community. That’s how we build RELATIONSHIPS with the people who connect with our art – relationships built on shared knowledge and an unfolding understanding of where our aesthetic tastes overlap…
That is, as the yanks like to say, all good.by