This was originally written for MusicThinkTank, and the comment thread there is well worth reading. But you lovely regular readers here haven’t had a chance to mull it over and chat about it, so I thought I’d repost it here. On you go
OK, I’m going to try and explain why Big Music genuinely doesn’t get what’s happening with the online stuff. It’s easy to dismiss the thoughts coming out about ‘3 Strikes Laws‘, and Bit Torrent being to blame for the death of musicians’ livelihoods etc. as being a bunch of really rich people want to keep their massive piece of the pie – and there is some of that, for sure. But there’s also an entire way of thinking that explains why they feel the way they do.
The problem is to do with the difference in response required between transformative change, and incremental change.
Sticking with the music industry, let’s have a look at some examples of both, starting with incremental change:
The invention of cassettes, and 8-track cartridges was an incremental change – suddenly there were more ways of selling hard copies of recorded music. More places to play them, new machines needed, new possibilities for the length of music that could be issued in a single entity (90 minute cassettes were pretty standard, and some enterprising labels took to reissuing 2 albums as one on cassette, thus breathing new life into back catalogue.)
The same happened again with CD – more incremental change – the chance to pretend it was higher resolution than vinyl (a lie) that it was indestructable (a lie) and that you could take it anywhere with you (true). CDs were a breath of life to a fairly static industry – suddenly, all the people who were teenagers in the 70s at the dawn of stadium rock were now successful 30-somethings with disposable cash and a deeply fragile sense of self. Also business was the new rock ‘n’ roll, so hi-fis cropped up in offices, and needed things to play. Result? Brothers In Arms.
What about transformative change? How about the invention of recorded music. Before that, as the wonderful Andrew Dubber keeps reminding us, sheet music ruled the roost. You wanted to hear music? you or your friends had better learn to play it. Or you went to a concert. Concerts featuring ‘stars’ were prohibitively expensive, so very few people ever got to hear the ‘real deal’. That didn’t matter. Music was magical, everybody played and sang, and lives were enriched by it.
When recordings came along, it all changed. Lots of previously burgeoning industries shrank to the point of collapse. The piano/pianola business crashed – who the hell wanted a player-piano when they could listen to the greats? (issues of sound quality were clearly hard to argue back then too…) And the sheet music industry slumped.
Why was it transformative? Because it wasn’t a tilt in either direction – it wasn’t more or less of what was happening, it was a completely new, new industry, new infrastructure, new sales pyramid, new shops needed, new factories, new careers, new artists, new medium. NEW EVERYTHING!
When you take an industry that has 4 big costs – recording, manufacture, distribution, promotion – and remove 3 of them, that changes everything. All the assumptions about how much it costs to make a record, what infrastructure is needed to make a sales team effective, who needs to own the trucks and delivery guys who take your product to shops – they all disappear. They are all now choices that you make, not assumptions.
- If you don’t want to release CDs or vinyl because the chance of not recouping is too high, don’t. You cut out 2 of your 4 big costs straight away.
- If you already have a fan base who love what you do and are willing to talk about it, empower them to do it. You’ve removed another one of your big four.
- If you are willing to look at what’s possible with new recording tech instead of moving into Abbey Road for 2 months, you can reduce your 4th cost to a tenth of what it was.
Advertising is completely broken. Recording tech is better and cheaper than it has ever been, fans are more and more willing to talk about and share your music, and far more happy to buy physical product from you than from a third party. Website merch is easy to do, either in short run, big order or even one-offs.
The record industry before the internet was built on the assumption that to have a chance of making it ‘big’, you needed to have deep pockets to risk the kind of gambling collateral needed to have a shot at being in the 0.1% who ended up rich. The labels funded their gambling by owning the services they were charging you for, by keeping you in debt so they didn’t have to pay you, by keeping product prices artificially high, and by perpetuating myths about what it was that we all wanted and needed, as both artists and consumers.
Everything has changed. If you look at the current possibilities as an incremental change to the industry – that is, if you see the infrastructure as still being the same, and see MP3s as ‘invisible CDs’, you are truly truly screwed. It’s awful. That’s why the industry says ‘the sky is falling‘. They aren’t willing to let go of that old infrastructure.
If you see the real changes, throw all the cards in the air, and realise that instead of hundreds of artists making millions of pounds, we can how have millions of artists making hundreds of pounds (and a straight, shallow line on the curve up from there), we’re all in good shape.
Music-world doesn’t need millionaires to be significant – music doesn’t change my life based on the wealth of the artists - and Simon Cowell will make sure that there are plenty of clueless, talentless, dressed-up, fame-hungry disasters for people who really don’t care but just want an inoffensive noise to soundtrack their day. He’s good at that. The success of X-Factor – which, like Lily Allen’s career, has started and grown post-Bit Torrent – proves there’re still macro-industrial processes at work in the world of music. They just don’t concern us any more. We can make the music we love, and make it available to our audience without debt or bogus mythology.
And of course, when our careers naturally grow to the point where we need all that help, we can still hire touring professionals, and radio pluggers and designers and CD pressing plants, and agents and everything. The difference is now that it can be a straight line. It’s not the pole vault any more, where to have a shot you need a million dollar pole the breaks if you miss the bar. You climb the hill, slowly, normally, without any of the life-shocks that instant fame brings. And you, YOU make the decisions, based on what you and your music need.
Fame is the downside to success. Don’t be taken in by a dead industry that doesn’t care about your music, but instead wants you to be famous. Consider the transformation, and you’ll be reaching for the shades.