Sam Flintlock is a journalist specialising in music, games and comics, and has written for publications such as Zest For Life. Here’s Sam with a look at the errors the music industry has made, and an overview of alternative distribution methods…
The music industry is dying. Like any wounded dinosaur, it thrashes wildly at anything nearby, in the vain hope that will somehow stop the rot. You can understand it. If you’re a major label executive, it’s far easier to look round for something, anything to blame. Much easier than accepting that it’s your fault. On every single important issue – Napster, CD pricing, the single format – the major labels not only chose wrongly, but chose disastrously. And yet, they expect us to sympathise with the pit they find themselves in. A pit entirely of their own digging.
So they get Megaupload shut down. But then, funnily, if their income doesn’t go up (and it won’t), that isn’t an indicator of a failure of tactic. No, they bleat endlessly, it proves their tactic hasn’t been tried widely enough. How much testing do they expect us to need before they admit that they have no idea what they’re doing? It’s not like there haven’t been other, far more sensible models suggested. The Canadian Songwriter’s Association have shown they actually know what they’re talking about, by suggesting a flat fee ‘download license’.
Not that the industry have listened. It would involve change and evolution and the industry doesn’t do that. Worse, it might actually lead to questions like “considering the reduced distribution costs provided by the Internet, shouldn’t artists be getting a far larger slice of the pie then they are at the moment?”
The industry doesn’t like that. Just because it can be useful to present the issue of downloading as one of the interests of artists, rather than the interests of fat middle aged men who have a cocaine habit to fill, doesn’t mean that the interests of artists actually matter to the industry. Hence their utter opposition to any kind of “use it or lose it” copyright clause. How dare musicians actually have the gall to suggest that it’s unreasonable for them not to be able to release music that the majors are doing nothing with?
And who’d have thought gimmicks like Pop Idol, which have transience built into their very nature, wouldn’t provide a long-term revenue stream? Not the industry, apparently. So, like a dog returning to its vomits, they make the same mistakes again and again. And yet, there is more music being put out there than any previous time in human history. The means of both production and distribution have been democratised.
That just hasn’t been reflected in the income stream of the majors, which were down 7% in the UK last year. (In their typically narcissistic way, this has been presented by the majors as the figures for the whole of the music business). So what’s happening for everyone else?
Radiohead were largely responsible for popularising the pay-what-you-want model, although they get the credit unduly for that. A significant number of independent artists had been using it for years before that. Besides, after Radiohead had got the attendant publicity, they never bothered with pay-what-you-want again. There’s a difference between the artists committed to this and those who use it as the latest hip marketing move.
More interestingly, a couple of months after Radiohead, the punk/metal label Moshpit Tragedy Records were the first record label to move their entire business over to pay-what-you-want. 5 years later, they’re still going strong and other similar labels have come on board.
As well as the purist pay-what-you-want model, bands also have the option of playing it safer and setting a minimum price. Despite the predictions of cynics, this works too. Yes, people who value music and have the money to do so really do seem to be prepared to pay more than they have to in order to get it.
Or you could target the most dedicated sections of your fanbase, with special editions and the suchlike. Many bands have found that their most enthusiastic fans are happy to pay extra, as long as they’re getting value for money. Limited edition demos? Signed CDs? Band artwork? Handwritten lyric books? Bands have offered this and more. In fact, steampunk luminaries The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing took the daring step of putting out a single on limited edition wax cylinder. Showing conclusively that some people are willing to pay for a truly inventive novelty, even one where very few people can have the means to pay it.
Bands that really want to break down the fan/artist division can dabble in fan funding. Why dirty your soul by dealing with a record company when you can finance and put out your music directly through the same people that listen to it in the first place? 70s prog wallies Marillion have been highly successful with this approach, as have the 80s angular post-punk heroes Gang of Four. Art Brut and Misty’s Big Adventure both swear by it. But possibly the biggest fan-funding success story is Charlie Simpson, formerly of the Busted parish. His entirely fan-funded album went into the UK album charts at number 6. Which raises an important question. When sites like Pledgemusic are now able to provide the services previously confined to bands on record labels, without bands having to give up creative control, what exactly are record labels for now?
Much like special editions, the bands that have done best with this approach are those with the inventiveness and dedication to offer something different to their fans. Possibly just a signed CD at the lower end of pledges. But, at the high end, bands have offered everything from living room gigs to football lessons (with the bassist. It’s always the bassist).
Of course, none of this is going to help every band out there. It suits best those artists that have a genuine interest in building and keeping a strong relationship with their fanbase. Those who try to spread the word to anyone who might be interested. It’s much more successful for those whose primary motivation is music, rather than money, fame and groupies. But really, isn’t that who we’d rather were making music in the first place?
The music industry is dying. But music has never been healthier.
By Sam Flintlock
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