I was asked to write a piece for Agit8.org.uk about ‘The Future Of The Music Industry‘. It was a nice chance to pull together a lot of thoughts, which, given that we’ve no idea quite how the future is going to pan out, are actually all about where we’re at now. A state of the indie nation address, if you will. So here it is. Enjoy, it’s a pretty good summary of where my thinking is at just now.
Major label collapse, 360 deals, Pirate Bay, Spotify, Bit Torrent, Youtube… It’s clear to anyone with half an eye on the news that something huge is happening in the world of music. And if you believe the majority of the press, it’s universally a bad thing – lots of very sad multi-millionaires are seeing their scarcity cash-cow sacrificed on the alter of ubiquity.
However, the problem is not actually with the music industry, but with the CD selling industry. There’s an old saying, ‘when all that you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ – if your entire view of what being ‘in music’ is about is shifting CDs, then indeed, the future of the CD selling business looks pretty bleak.
However, most of the statistics relating to this also seem to assume that the kind of spending that went on around the process of releasing CDs is an immutable fact of life.
The main problem for the majors is not just a breakdown of the barrier to ownership that CDs put between listeners and music, but that they used to own the marketing channels too – magazines, TV, radio – all required specialist access, which could be charged for. If you had a person in-house at the label who could do those things, then great, you could charge the band’s advance for the work, pay the flunky a pittance, and get paid twice by the band for the same job.
Likewise the recording process – studio time and expertise used to be hugely expensive. But the cost of recording equipment has plummeted, just as the quality of the same has soared. Sure, expertise is still chargeable, but it’s no longer a non-negotiable part of the deal:
A smart band with a fast computer can now realistically make a release quality album-length body of songs for less than a grand.
(though the question of what is ‘album length’ and why it has any meaning at all is now also up for discussion!)
So against the falling revenue from the sale of music, we need to map the drop in the cost of making, marketing and distributing music. The problem here is that the labels still have most of the infrastructure to do those things. Their business model relies as much on lubricating those wheels as it does putting the music out there. Simply put, it’s much harder to be experimental, personal and fluid in your thinking if your running costs are in the millions-per-year.
What does this actually mean? Well, it means that for me – and the hundreds of thousands of others like me – is that the process of making and releasing music has never been easier. The task of finding an audience, of seeding the discovery process, has never cost less or been more fun. It’s now possible for me to update my audience and friends (the cross-over between the two is happening on a daily basis thanks to social media tools) about what I’m doing – musically or otherwise – and to hear from them, to get involved in their lives, and for my music to be inspired by them.
I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star.
The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.
Whereas the reality of high-dollar touring, promotional duties, photoshoots etc. is phenomenally dull. That’s why the rock ‘n’ roll myths were created – to cover the tedium that is the day to day reality of most touring musicians. The number that ever made millions from it is so small as to not really be statistically relevant when discussing what’s best for ‘music’ – they just had an enormous media footprint.
So, if things are so great for the indies, does that mean loads of people are making loads of money? Not at all. But the false notion there is that any musicians were before! We haven’t moved from an age of riches in music to an age of poverty in music. We’ve moved from an age of massive debt and no creative control in music to an age of solvency and creative autonomy. It really is win/win.
The machine that was built around selling physical media containing music in the latter half of the 20th century is a statistical blip on a multi-millennia long human relationship with music as an art-form. The massive increase in spending on music, music making and music promotion didn’t bring with it a commensurate increase in quality. It did produce a lot of incredible music, most of which would have existed quite happily without the limos, 7-years-in-the-studio and the $2 Million video.
The creative knock-on effect of all these changes is that musicians are now thinking far more imaginatively about what it is that they want to do. The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.
- House Concerts
- Live streaming
- listening parties
- free downloads
- live video chat
- social media competitions and interactive promotion
all ways of musicians creating interest in and around the music they make, and none of them requiring much capital outlay or the involvement of ‘the machine’. Many artists can now make more money playing to 20 people in someone’s living room than they could trying to play rock clubs and bars, and even bands that do play bars are able to play twice as many shows by doing an acoustic house concert tour between the bigger club dates. Once again, win/win.
It looks like the way forward for music is going to be diverse, mobile, personal, niche, fun, cheap and shareable. I’m sure Live Nation will keep putting on stadium gigs for people who really want to see them – U2’s fanbase still has a decade or so before they’re too old to make it up the steps at Wembley – but the life of the average musician is no longer destined to be a series of debasements and indentures at the hands of record labels promising the earth but delivering precious little.by