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Transformative Vs Incremental Change

December 16th, 2009 | 18 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

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 :)

—o0o—

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.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • inkysmudge

    Steve, I always read your stuff with interest, following you on Twitter and so on because you are out there doing it by yourself as described above. A clear example that it can be done. However, I think the stumbling block, not necessarily for the likes of you, (and increasingly so for the likes of me, just starting out on a similar path) in terms of a shift in mindset, is that ‘the old way’ is still perceived by many as the only way to make ‘serious’ money.
    While that may sound like I’m really missing the point, what I mean is, I think some musicians still hanker after the ‘bogus mythology’ as you call it. The new way involves a lot of work outside of (and rather than unintentionally diss anyone else here I’ll use myself as an example), my comfort zone. Keeping up with ever developing technologies, ways of engaging and so on. It’s bewildering for me as someone who has no experience of the ‘old way’ so I can imagine how it must feel to someone used to having a lot of the business side taken care of. Even if they had to, metaphorically speaking, sell a little of their soul to do it.
    The trade is of course that you are now in control………and ultimately it’s your responsibility, no-one else to blame if things don’t go the way you want them to. Maybe there are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable with that?
    Not entirely sure that I’ve remained on topic here but once again, appreciate you putting your thoughts out there for us to digest. Rumble on (and congrats on the new addition btw) ;)

    • Steve

      InkySmudge, the big issue here is how you now feel like you’ve been robbed – and with good reason. The promise of unbridled success without any of the hassle of worrying about business stuff is pretty seductive. But it was NEVER a sensible route for anyone. Such a tiny percentage of bands that played that game got anywhere.

      The chances of getting completely screwed and disillusioned were much higher than the chances of ‘success’. And, to be fair, if you really want to go that route, it’s still there – good luck to you. You’d be better off buying scratch cards to make your fortune, but hey, knock yourself out.

      The problem with the ‘mythology’ is that it’s exactly that; mythical. It was never thus. The ‘golden age’ was a dream, a mistral, elusive because it didn’t actually exist. Almost every story of big ‘success’ has a dark underbelly when you hear the un-published details. And they remain unpublished for a reason.

      If it’s any help, more than a few people have commented that my Nanowrimo novel, Rock And Roll Is Dead, have helped them get a feel for what’s actually going on…

      And the exploratory, discovery stuff doesn’t have to be a baffling pain in the arse. It can be a lot of fun. Start simple, talk to your audience, think about what it is you want to do, what you’d want from you if you were a fan, and experiment. The great news is, you’re not paying a marketing team to do your experimenting for you, so if you screw it up, all you’ve lost is time :)

      • inkysmudge

        Agreed, and I still play the lottery…….just in case heh, heh, heh.
        The discovery stuff is exciting, if a little daunting at first. There is so much opinion out there and the one thing maybe most of us don’t factor in is how much time it takes to sort the wheat from the chaff.
        I’ll check out your novel and see what I can learn from it ;)
        Keep up the good work.

  • Chris West

    Excellent post Steve. This explains the current (and historical) situation really well.

    A major problem at the moment is gaining and retaining credibility while using new business models. Especially the free music model.

    I would guess there are still a huge number of people in the music consuming world that see free music as a simple marketing gimmick. They believe that artists who give away their music for free or operate with a pay what you want model do not consider their music to be of value.

    This is not a healthy artist-fan relationship and artists need to work out how to prove they do place value in their music while removing as many financial barriers as they can.

    • Steve

      Chris,

      the ‘free’/’pay what you want’ thing is really interesting. To some, it feels like the least terrible scenario – at least we can get something for our music… But the reality for so many indie musicians is we’re making MORE money this way than we were before. If you’re friends with your audience, rather than playing stupid rock star games, and you give them the chance to be generous, then the ones who already dig you will, more often than not, relish the chance to demonstrate how they appreciate your music.

      And your new audience no longer have the barrier to entry that buying a CD – or even sitting listening to music on a single web page – puts in their way. They download, they thank you, they dig it – or not – and life is good.

      Works for me :)

      • Chris West

        Yeah I’ve just about managed to convince my bandmates that free is the way to go.

        This is the way things should be moving towards but there are still a lot of people stuck in the past. I’m going to experiment with some free promo content early next year and our next release will be entirely free.

        I feel guilty when I sell a CD to people because I don’t really buy them anymore myself.

        I’m not sure I like the pay what you like model though. Something is either free or it’s not and I think the artist should make that decision. The difference between £0 and £1 is a lot greater than it is between £5 or £10.

        I wonder if anyone does pay what you want with a minimum payment set?

        • Steve

          There are a lot of artists that are doing ‘pay what you want’ with a minimum. As far as I can tell, the minimum is more dangerous than no minimum – a minimum says that’s what you think it’s worth. No minimum puts your faith in the integrity of your listeners. If they have none, they probably aren’t going to be paying for it anyway. If they get what’s going on, they’ll pay what they genuinely think it’s worth – the market price for your music, as it were.

          I think it’s telling that on average, people pay more per album for the pay what you like downloads on my bandcamp page than they do for the fixed price downloads on iTunes. That might not work for everyone, but I for one am deeply grateful for the generosity of those who are happy to support the music they enjoy so that it can keep on existing. :)

          • inkysmudge

            Yeah, I absolutely think you have to have faith that some people will contribute out of a desire to support your endeavours. There is the age old struggle to make people aware of your existence without doing the irritating ‘check me out/buy my this or that’ thing that Chris West wrote about on his blog. Is that just an English reserve thing?
            I have this conflict of, ‘I think what I’m doing is pretty good’ but I always feel embarrassed about saying that, yet by putting my stuff into the public domain I’m offering it up for criticism anyway. Weird duality at play.
            Steve, you mention bandcamp quite a bit and the ‘pay what you like’ model seems to work for you, are there any platforms that you avoid like the plague for sound reasons? Or, is it the case that you make your stuff available everywhere as you never know who you may pick up?
            Does anyone else have any thoughts?

  • Ethan Waldman

    First- I’m a big fan of MTT, so I don’t know how I missed this. I think this is one of the most “right on” articles I’ve read about the music industry in a while. As an amateur musician who would like to be professional, it makes me uncomfortable. It took a little while to figure out why though. I think the reason so many musicians resist this type of thinking is because it shifts the burden of success back onto them. In the past, you could hope and pray that some label would “discover” you and make you a star. While I don’t think that there is necessarily a straight line to being a successful musician (luck still has to play in a bit), its clear that there are more and more tangible ways to advance careers.

  • Steve

    @inkysmudge (comment threading only runs 5-deep :) )

    I try to keep a ‘broad yet manageable portfolio’ of solo media/music presences. There aren’t many sites or services that I avoid on principle, but there are quite a few I’ve never bothered with because they didn’t seem to provide much of a return for the investment of setting up there.

    Having said that, sometimes investing time into an underused platform can reap dividends because no-one else is working it. So if you discover something new, it’s usually worth signing up if it’s free.

    For sales/streaming, my music is on about 60 different sites, thanks to CDBaby’s digital distribution scheme. about 55 of those have never paid me a penny, because I haven’t sold anything there. The ones that I do get sales from are iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, Napster, Rhapsody… I’ve been meaning to sort out 7Digital and We7, but not got round to it yet.

    Bandcamp is my favourite because of the control I have over what happens to my music, how attractive the widgets are, the ease of payment and reporting, and the quality of the files. I love it.

    But you’re right, you need to be where people’s ears are. That’s why I’m happy to be on Spotify despite not having a solid answer to the question of how much I’ll get paid. I’ll get *something* but the difference between the top and bottom estimates, for the volume of listens I tend to get on such services, is negligible. The ears are more valuable to me than the revenue.

  • Chris West

    @steve

    I disagree that only people with integrity buy music. Some people don’t have much money and its better that they can have my music than not. Some people consume a huge amount of music and could never pay for it all and I’d simply rather people can hear my music than not.

    It is interesting, however, that some people are paying more than the rate on iTunes. I’m going to experiment with the pay what you want idea next year. Do you have any stats on how many people are downloading your music for free? How does it compare to paid downloads %-wise?

    Hmmm. The more I think it through the more I’m moving towards liking the pay what you want but there is still part of me that doesn’t like it.

    @inkysmudge

    You have to have confidence that the music you are making is good and you’re doing the right thing but…..randomly contacting someone out of the blue to say the might like your music just doesn’t seem right. If you’re asked about your music that’s the time to tell them what you do and why they should check you out.

    It bugs me on MySpace mainly because it’s normally bands that have nothing to do with the style of music and we’re a band too. I know bands are there to network with fans and other bands but marketing yourself to totally unrelated bands is the wrong way to go about things. Also if every band did this as a way to get new fans I’d probably cut my ears off and stop listening to music.

    Obviously you want people to hear your music so just make sure its really damn good and is in the places that people hear music (last.fm, Spotify etc.). Play live and impress people so they tell their friends.

    • Steve

      Hi chris,

      sorry, I wasn’t very clear in my last response – it’s not that people will ‘integrity’ will always pay (it certainly wouldn’t demonstrate a lack of integrity to accept the offer of free music!), but that people who saw their relationship as one where they weren’t planning on paying for music at all aren’t going to change that just because you charge for it – they’ll just go elsewhere, and as you so succinctly point out, you’re better off having listeners than non-listeners. So we can make it available to people, let those who want to pay for it and give people room to surprise us with their generosity.

      Good thoughts, thanks :)

  • inkysmudge

    Mornin’ Chris & Steve,

    Thanks again for the continued input. Is it Hendrix that’s always quoted as saying ‘it’s not a crime to be heard’ or something like that? I forget.

    Chris – you’re right of course. The principles are the same as they’ve always been I think; for reasons we cannot always articulate, we have a compulsion to connect or entertain or document or what have you. I’m just really conscious that these days there is so much out there that I/we/you don’t want to be just an addition to the background noise. Know what I mean? I guess it comes down to a perception of the integrity of the person doing it.

    The whole Myspace thing gets me too. I’ve never asked for someone to come ‘check me out’ as it just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know. It’s a learning curve and I think in the end if my intentions are pure (!) then it’ll be ok.

    Regarding the ‘pay what you want’ thing, as discussed, you could be pleasantly surprised. Though I’m on iTunes at the mo, I’ve bugged poor Steve for advice (see above!) about alternative avenues as it seems to be working for him. For me I know the initial reticence was the idea that ‘someone else can decide that my stuff has no value’ vs. the ‘I can decide to give this away for free’ thing. It’s a perception of control for me (all an illusion of course but then as a singer and a guitarist……could it get any worse? heh, heh, heh!)

    Steve / Chris – I just don’t know how you can keep on top of all that stuff, hat off to you. Do you concern yourself with (don’t laugh) ‘brand consistency’ or any of those things about your online presence?
    At the mo, I’m looking into my own website and some of the quoted costs are quite high, especially when you get into e-com and all that jazz. I know this is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question but is it just easier and cheaper to use aggregators to put your stuff up rather than having your own download shop (well, either for free or paid stuff)?
    I read somewhere that the best way to utilise all the online places is to drive traffic to your own site (sounds perfectly logical) but I’m a bit in the dark about the feasibility (both technical & financial) of providing a platform for people to download stuff directly from me. Does that make any sense?!
    I’ll leave it there as Sainsbury’s is calling and you both no doubt have better things to do than listen to me prattle ;) Thanks once again both for your thoughts and advice. Happy snow covered Sunday!

    • Steve

      Re: value – definitely worth thinking about music online as a ‘multi-currency’ space – value can be expressed in a lot of ways that are non-financial. I’d rather someone downloaded my album for free/not much, embedded it and blogged about how much they enjoyed it than them paying me £7 for it but never hearing from them again.

      Time is a currency, gratitude is a currency, the exchange of music for someone talking about what you do to the people they come into contact with on the web is a FAR better deal than any normal scatter-shot advertising. Experimentation is the key.

      My best advice here is to be the kind of internet audience that you yourself would want – that’s what I live by :)

  • bygod

    “We can make the music we love, and make it available to our audience without debt or bogus mythology”
    This is my Credo.
    Thank you for all your writing.
    From Rome, where I everyday read and listen all your stuff my best regards.
    To hire touring professionals…I would like to have a gig with you

  • Darren Landrum

    Once upon a time, my dream was to do as you mentioned, to have a single hub/portal web site to drive all of my traffic to, where people could get everything they could possibly want where it comes to me and my music. It turns out this is, as you said, a fairly expensive thing to do. On top of the hosting, I was also going to have to do a ton of custom coding in order to create a slick web site. The popular major-label bands pay tens of thousands of dollars for those slick web sites.

    I finally decided recently that some presence and some progress is better than none at all, so I’m going to do everything that I possibly can with free/cheap services on the Internet. Bandcamp for music, Posterous for my blog, which will also serve as my main hub. My ultimate goal is to see if I can integrate all of these services together in a reasonably coherent way.

    I guess my point is that it’s possible to just use what’s available to have a solid on-line presence. 80% of something must be better than 100% of nothing, after all.

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