The Indelicates are a Sussex-based indie rock band who have started their own ‘pay-what-you-want’ label, Corporate Records, in order to have more control over how their music is distributed. M3 contacted vocalist/guitarist Simon to find out how this approach has worked out for them, and also found out about Simon’s views on copyright, the SOPA controversy, and the problems that face the bands of the 21st century…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Simon – I’m Simon Indelicate, I’m one of the singers and the guitarist in The Indelicates and I’m one of the founders of Corporate Records – a record company that seeks to do the exact opposite of everything the record company we used to be signed to (and all other traditional record companies) did. We’re currently recording our fourth studio album, which is our third for the label.
What inspired you to form the Indelicates? What are your own musical backgrounds?
Mainly spite. We used to be performance poets but we gave that up because there was no money in it. That was in about 2004. #irony
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
MP3s work for me. And I like listening to music on YouTube or any other convenient cloud-based service that places as much data as possible within easy, unfettered reach. I dislike the fetishizing of the past – this displaced lamenting of the loss of physical media because it’s easier than lamenting the loss of youth… I see culture as the primary medium for the communication of complicated ideas between people. Milton couldn’t communicate the content of Paradise Lost without referring extensively to the Greek myths that constituted the allusory framework that he shared with his audience. Today, we can’t assume that everyone’s familiar with the canon of world literature but, by referring to the music (among other things) that we have a shared experience of listening to we can communicate better and more efficiently. Using the cloud as a record collection most enables that process so I like that. Something like mobile Spotify (with more consistent mobile internet) would be my ideal – but not actually Spotify because it takes far too long to get non-traditional releases onto it – which I assume was a compromise they made with the labels, but which seems wholly counterintuitive to me, and means there’s rarely anything I want to listen to on it that I couldn’t have found faster in my browser.
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
No, not at all. It’s been moved away from by large record companies, but then I don’t really think record companies have had anything to with music since about 1997… Seriously though, the idea of an album as a coherent thing remains alive and well. Keith Top Of The Pops’s album from last year is a great example of something where the sum is greater than the parts – Akira The Don’s Life Equation too, and – not to bang my own bongo – but David Koresh Superstar, the concept album we released last year, is completely amazing and only really makes sense if you spend an hour with it :)
The real change has been in the quantity of music being supplied to the market. There is so much more music now. Where once the average person might have listened to ten hours of music ten times, they now listen to a hundred distinct hours. I think people are less inclined to listen repeatedly to music they don’t like. That’s a change. I hated that Gomez album that I had on tape in 1998 but I must have listened to it a whole bunch of times on account of not having that many tapes in the car. We’re probably free of that now.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
Yeah, that is, sadly, a myth. Touring is very expensive and the bigger the band the higher the costs. In order to reach the point where the fee starts to move away from the cost of putting the show on – so that the artist can actually be paid any money when the tour finishes – you need to be among a vanishingly tiny elite. The overheads are just too high and people on the internet’s side should stop using this argument because it isn’t true and it annoys bands whose experience of reading a financial statement is looking at lists of large numbers with dispiriting zeroes at the bottom.
The thing is, there IS money in record sales, there just isn’t necessarily £12 per recorded hour like there was when the physical media industry had a monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of music. The market has just responded to reality – a generic forty minutes of landfill indie just isn’t worth as much if you’re going to be consuming a hundred hours of music. The value isn’t there. But when we’ve sold special editions for £300 (an extensive package + we come round your house, rerecord the album live and then sign the rights in the recording over to you creating a limited edition of one) they’ve been accurately priced – they are worth the money. Making money from music just requires creativity and a willingness to do more to provide value to customers – the market is neither captive nor stupid. I think there’s a future for good products. I hope there’s no future for bad ones.
Why did you decide to form the Corporate Records label, and what was the reasoning behind making many of your releases available as ‘pay-what-you-want’ downloads?
As I say, the main thing with Corporate was to do the exact opposite of anything record companies do. So we wanted to build our own distribution platform that enabled us to go from an idea for a release to actually having that release on sale in as short a time as possible bypassing all the inefficient steps in the process. We wanted to not act as self-appointed gatekeepers deciding who would and wouldn’t be able to release records on our label, so we opened the distribution software up to anyone who wants to use it on an eighty/twenty split. We put most of our efforts into high end special editions and pay-what-you-like/low minimum price downloads and don’t focus too much on CD sales. We try to add value to optional extras surrounding core releases rather than relying on core releases to generate income: for example, we stopped putting lyrics in CD booklets and started selling extensive, footnoted, afterworded actual lyric paperbacks instead – really cool things that are worth the money; not just arrogant novelties like signed ticket stubs and backstage passes.
Mainly, we wanted a record company that placed as much control in the artist’s hands as possible. It suits us.
As for Pay-What-You-Like, I think it’s a good solution to the need for price-targeting in music sales. Records really do have a different value to different people. I, for example, wouldn’t download a Scouting For Girls album for free, but apparently there are hordes who think differently. I like trusting the consumer to set the price according to their valuation. That said, it is one of an infinitely adaptable set of options in our software and you can release a record for a fixed price of £800, bundle it with a set of PDF scores and then delete it after five downloads if you want to. It’s about treating each release as a unique thing and trying to come up with a pricing strategy accordingly.
What benefits and/or disadvantages have arisen from this distribution method?
You can control everything you do and it’s simple. It takes a third party distributor to sell on iTunes or Spotify and there are all kinds of delays and hurdles built into the process that make the supply of an abundance of music difficult. I think this is a rather old-fashioned way of doing things – restricting supply to artificially inflate price – so I like that you can record a song in the morning and sell it on corporate that afternoon.
There has been something of a fightback from the traditional industry. They seem to have consolidated their investment around a highly focussed strategy where they spend a year building up to one big album release – like we saw with Lana Del Rey this year – while pretty much ignoring the rest of their catalogues. This is pretty clever, and it does seem to work, but it has had a bit of chilling effect on the explosion in alternatives that we saw a few years back. It’s increasingly hard for artists who aren’t interested in hoop jumping to break through to public exposure. So many magazines are only kept afloat by advertising from the industry they ‘criticize’ that they just retreat to trawling back catalogues for cover stars and saving up all their bile for people who aren’t subsidizing their lifestyles. Bookers can demand that festivals take their dull acts on Sunday afternoon as a condition of supplying their highly publicised headliners for Saturday night – effectively barring the way for better bands.
The myth that getting signed is a worthwhile goal, a realistic possibility and even a good idea in the first place remains unsettlingly prevalent and, as a result, I think artists stupidly hold back on producing their best work (and releasing it themselves) on the offchance that an A&R man from the 80s will turn up in a Delorean and give them a million dollars. More people need to stop waiting for a saviour and get on with building Jerusalem.
On average, how many people would say still pay for a release when given the option to download for free?
I don’t think my data set is complete enough to answer that accurately. In my experience it’s more than you’d think, but it does depend on the nature of the artist. Bands that are very competent and produce really good quality records but that don’t have some extra hook – great lyrics, a good backstory, a man in a blue suit covered in gloves – tend to do less well. People don’t feel as involved in supporting a release by their tenth favourite band. I think it’s a system that rewards people who are 1,000 people’s favourite act in the world rather than acts that 10,000 people quite like. I’m happy with this as I prefer the former category anyway.
How useful do you think social media sites are for up-and-coming artists?
I think having a social media strategy is similar to having a making-friends-at-a-party strategy – you’ll do best if you don’t have one and are just friendly and outgoing when you meet people at the party. Social media is misnamed, it isn’t media; it’s life. If you’re OK at life, social media is a great way to get in touch with people whose lives might benefit from having your music in them. Just try not to ever use the word ‘fan’ in your internal monologue and you should remain human enough for it to work out.
Do you think traditional copyright laws are still enforceable in the digital age, or do you think we will have to rethink our concept of copyright itself?
I don’t think they are enforceable and I do think we’ll have to completely rethink our concept of copyright. The key thing is that copyright was invented to incentivise the creation of art. As far as I’m concerned, that is it’s only legitimate function and I’m against any law that serves or comes to serve any other goal.
I think the length of copyright terms is ridiculous – you get to profit for twenty years from curing cancer but your estate gets seventy years after you die if you write the Mr Blobby song? It is stupid and it only benefits a tiny number of people. As I said above, culture is our common inheritance and the means with which we communicate. It is almost impossible to efficiently communicate many ideas without infringing copyright.
This is a real problem – that a generation habitually breaks the law. If people see the law as something that doesn’t reflect the values by which they live their lives then the rule of law is fatally undermined. The rule of law sounds boring and kind of off putting but it’s called that because it’s the only alternative to the rule of tyrants. Law is allowed to rule because it applies to everybody, even leaders. It prevents the catastrophic establishment of privilege (which is just Latin for private law) but it requires consent to work. By letting the law fall so out of step with what young people do in their daily lives and with how creative work is made, legislators have started down a dangerous path that leads to very bad places and it needs fixing.
There are lots of ideas being circulated. I’ve put forward the idea that we could co opt the US legal defence against obscenity that is phrased as ‘redeeming social significance’ – I think redeeming social significance should immunize any cultural act against prosecution for copyright infringement. People talk about a digital copyright exchange and that would be a step in the right direction, as would term reduction.
I think, also, that the threat of copyright infringement as expressed in online piracy (I won’t call it theft, because I own a dictionary) has been grossly overstated – the figures don’t add up at all – and is a panic sparked by the collapse of obsolete business models beneath the feet of people who made far too much money selling CDs to people who owned the same data on Vinyl. Supply exploded, Demand didn’t, Prices collapsed. That’s why the music industry failed, piracy was only ever a sideshow.
What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
The culture of the internet is one of constantly, rapidly blending ideas – it makes everyone cleverer and it accelerates our progress as a species and it puts lonely odd people in touch with other lonely, similarly odd people who would once have been lonely their whole lives; and it generates huge amounts of real, life-improving wealth – if we have to lose an industry that hasn’t really done anything of world-altering importance since 1977 then sorry, but tough. As such, I’m against anything that impedes the free flow of data on the internet. The benefits don’t outweigh the costs.
What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
Not making horrible records that suck is the first and only one that matters. If you’re in it for riches, I’m glad you won’t be in it for long. If you’re in it for a living, there are better livings and you should find one. If you’re in it because you just can’t help yourself or if you’re in it to escape from the nowhere town you’re stuck in, then good and good luck. You need to realise that it isn’t enough to just be good at music. Talent is far more abundant than your evolution as a creature of roving hunter gatherers allows you to recognise – half of the girls at your school had an amazing singing voice. You need to learn how to do all the other stuff that makes good records: design, web development, pricing, tour-booking, fucking HR management. Stop waiting for saviours and don’t ever give up and get a job that doesn’t leave you enough time for your work. And if an A&R man says he’s coming to your gig, make the fucker pay and let someone else in for free. We’ve been servile to these people for far too long.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
Corporate sponsorship of large non record company affiliated releases available free at the point of download competing on even terms with a wildly abundant and creative panoply of niche, alternative self-employed suppliers making high value artisanal products.
Finally, what does the future hold for the Indelicates?
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