Independent Music Manifesto

I was asked to write a piece for 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.

20 Replies to “Independent Music Manifesto”

  1. Well said my brother!! I love that you acknowledge the ‘multi-millennia long human relationship with music as an art-form’ as the most important part, not the money being made from music! That is the whole point, every human deserves to have music in their life, everyday. As far as the physical product (though I just released Symmetria, where I tried to make the physical product a work of art in it’s own right) I believe that music itself is not a physical product, so may be it doesn’t really need to continue to be tied to a packaged item, that doesn’t need to stop musicians/visual artists/dancers/poets from collaborating, it just means we GET to have more fun thinking of ways to tie it all together (it does seem that all the arts are meant to work in tandem). I feel where you’re at-thanks for laying it out there-I believe that anyone who really wants to supply the word with music and is willing to work hard every day, can make a living from it, if they abandon the ‘mythology’ of fame you refer to. Great post!!

  2. I thought that since there’s a discussion going on on Facebook that’s inevitably going to be lost in the mists of time, that I’d comment here too!

    Personally, this reminded me of a modern, considerably more positive response to Steve Albini’s The Problem With Music.

    It’s been intriguing over the last few weeks to watch people’s responses to Mandelson’s dimwitted ideas on filesharing. Musicians broadly seem to think it’s insane or misaimed, whereas the music industry spokespeople think that it’s the beginning of their return to the coke-fuelled parties of the 80s when everyone bought all their record collection again on CD.

    Oh, and Lily Allen thinks it’s a bad idea too, but she only scrapes in on the margins of being a musician, and is much closer to the music industry spokesperson side.

    The fact is that I love music, and I think that now is a great time to find new, excellent musicians all over the internet. And I really like knowing that when I buy music, or gig tickets from them, they get to keep most of it, and it’s not paying for their A&R man’s BMW.

  3. Fantastic post, Steve – it clearly articulated some thoughts that have been floating randomly around in my head without any clear grounding. I can see a way forward a little more clearly now. Thank you for that!

  4. Great post, Steve. Very clearly articulated “State of the Union” address.

    For years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that it’s possible to survive in the “musical middle class” if you have some talent, a good work ethic and the true desire to connect with people. As you say, it’s never been easier than it is right now with all the tools at our disposal.

    Keep up the great blogging!

  5. A great post and as usual, lots to chew on. A question I have is about the house concerts, which I understand can be common in the USA.

    How do they (and listening parties, what are they?) work from an organisational point of view? I am assuming that houses don’t need entertainment licences or insurance because they are private events.

  6. fantastic article.
    I stumbled in here while scouring the web for a some nuggets on a new music ‘business’ model,
    everything i need is in here. excellent.

  7. An excellent post Steve. Really sums up the working musician’s take on the current state of affairs in general, and why the Digital Economy Bill in particular, is such a threat to those who actually make the music. More power to you.

  8. Hey man…this is great stuff…I am actually working to gather up a momentum in the Hip Hop scene towards independent production…working together as a community of artists and not money makers for people who couldn’t care less about the content of our music.

    I would like your permission to use your article in my own “Article of Independents”. I will certainly refer your site..I have posted a link on my blog…mind you the site is down because we are adding lots of content to help artist produce their own music…. my film is basically a call to action for indie artists…

    Thank you for being a beacon in the dark…one of the first lights from the dawn of a new day.

    1. Really glad you like it – happy for you to use the article, with full credit and a link back to here.

      Good luck on your quest! 🙂

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