28th Jun 2012 by Sudara
The drama so far
Emily White, an intern at NPR All Songs Considered, wrote an article saying "I never owned any of my music to begin with."
David Lowery, a musician and teacher, responded last week, saying recorded music has gone to shit, lamenting that listeners listen for free, and suggesting listeners should pay “penance” for all that free music they’ve been listening to.
I’m a musician. I run a music business founded to treat artists fairly. It’s called Ramen Music and aims to be a good example of a sustainable music business model. Here’s a free copy of one of our issues (yup, we are pro-sharing!).
David Lowery and I are both self-proclaimed artist advocates. But our opinions could not differ more.
Welcome to the internet
Let me pull out the slightly-snarky welcome mat.
It no longer costs money to send music to other people. You can get any song you want instantly, free or paid. You can build a library of 11,000 songs at no cost. Or stream everything on Spotify for a few bucks a month. Or pledge $250 for signed vinyl and other goodies from your favorite band on Kickstarter.
Or pay $15 per-album like in the Good Old Days.
These are the current options available to the listener in 2012.
Should we pretend it’s not true?
Music distribution is essentially free. Should we feel guilty about this? Should we restrain ourselves, always paying $15 for a pile of music files because that’s the way we did it before?
To complain about the consequences of free online distribution reeks of entitlement. Free music distribution has transformed our culture in many wonderful ways. Even my grandma understands how awesome it is (She’s pretty hip, loves to check out songs on youtube).
The cultural value of this achievement is enormous. Some seem to fail to grasp this. Worse, music businesses have been molasses-slow adapting to the situation.
As a result, we hear a lot of complaining. That’s fine. But from a business point of view, it smacks of laziness and nostalgia—and tosses opportunity completely out the window.
Emily White is right
In fact, I’d be happier if she straight-up announced she happily pirates all her music. So many people do.
Each person has their own relationship to recorded music.
Some might not spend $15 on a pile of mp3s when they could otherwise just google and do a 5 minute download. Maybe that same person will blow $60 for a concert, or $25 for a piece of vinyl they will play once. Who knows? Even the economics experts studying this stuff explicitly state they cannot understand the effects of “compliments” and “substitutes.” It’s too complicated.
For a moment, let’s withhold judgement on how people get their music. Let’s assume everyone is Doing The Right Thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not justifying “piracy.” It doesn’t need to be justified. It’s not going away. Music sharing is a cultural achievement and should be celebrated. As I wrote last year, I believe it to be great for business, too.
It’s the industry, stupid
The record industry has fought unsuccessfully for a dozen years trying to stop sharing. They have diverted ridiculous amounts of cash to this cause (broke artists, anyone?).
At no point in time did the industry stop and evaluate what their customers actually wanted (maybe they did, but didn’t care?). It took tech companies to step up to that plate. Instead, record companies turned around and blamed lost revenues on “bad” customers.
As a business strategy, this is not only laughable, it’s dangerous as hell.
As a musician, I always wondered: When will these record companies admit they are the only entity responsible for selling to listeners and compensating artists fairly?
As both a customer and a supplier, I don’t want excuses or blame. I want solutions that work.
Pro-sharing and Pro-artist
Do I hate all artists, want them to go broke and be depressed? Nope!
I’ve dedicated the last 2 years of my life creating my dream music business. I spent the 3 years before that making sure artists can freely distribute their music non-commercially. (With a monthly cost of about $125 I’ve helped over 3000 artists distribute their 40,000 songs)
Do recordings have financial value? Certainly. They cost time, money, resources and love to produce.
I’ll be the first to stand up for the value of a piece of recorded music. It is what my life has been about.
So, when I say I’m pro-sharing, I’m not saying artists shouldn’t get compensated fairly. That would be silly. I’m running a business that aims to do just that.
Put the scapegoat down
So it’s 2012 and “Piracy” is still a topic of conversation in the industry. The Main Reason Why Artists Are Broke.
Uh huh. I call bullshit. What a short-sighted and sad response from what is supposed to be a creative industry.
Isn’t there a more obvious answer?
Making a living on music is hard. Even Bach in the day.
Every artist in the history of western music has wanted to live off their work.
It was never unicorns and rainbows. Most everyone was broke.
Even Bach was broke (despite being a total boss and being well known while he was alive). After he died, his wife had to sell off some of his sheet music to the butcher to be used as meat-wrapping paper. That’s pretty broke.
Yup, I wish it were easier! But wagging my finger around certainly doesn’t make it easier.
Not very much has changed post-intertubes, except there is now much more opportunity for “getting creative” and “going direct.” The internet allows for a certain amount of democracy, allows direct connection between artist and listener, provides channels to attract attention, and allows everyone to distribute instantly for free.
Pretty freaking fantastic!
Build what Emily actually wants
Lets get to the point: Getting artists paid.
Artists create recordings. These can be sold in many different ways.
Making sure they are paid well (or at least fairly) is purely the responsibility of the the business doing the selling. This “business” could be a label, group of artists, a third-party — or of course, the artist themselves.
End of story. That’s it.
Getting artists paid requires only this: Offering something for sale that is attractive and gets bought.
So, take a minute and listen to what Emily is saying. Listen from a business perspective. She is saying something very basic.
She cares about music. She loves recordings. She’s got thousands of them. She cares and thinks about sustainability and artists. She cares about convenience.
She’s dropping all the hints: Sell us something we actually want.
This is business, not a fairytale
The minute you are selling music, you are now doing business. Nostalgic thinking or faulting others for failure….is…fine…but it is not how one typically finds success.
Music is just a business like any other business. The rules of supply and demand apply. Having to deliver what your customer actually wants — yup, an important part of business.
Having to innovate when a disruptive technology comes around? Yup, that’s your job.
This is business—not wish-fulfilling. You can get angry at your customers for not buying. But after that, you need to sell them something they actually want or you will go bye-bye.
I think of it like this: In life, you can’t force someone to love you. In business, you can’t force someone to buy from you.
Stop blaming the audience.
The RIAA took blame and guilt to fascist levels, threatening, suing, pushing through legislation. Has anything changed?
Of course not. They can’t change how the internet works. They can’t brainwash everyone into believing an mp3 file costs something to send. It won’t happen. Because it’s not true.
In my book, “piracy” is nothing more than a crappy alibi for business failure and lack of innovation. A delay tactic to change the conversation away from: Why the hell are big music businesses taking so long to give listeners what they want?
iTunes and Spotify are the companies serving all your music. Tech companies made this happen. After years of negotiation and pleading with music businesses, and with ridiculous stipulation (DRM, anyone?) and demands for compensation (for the artists, right?).
Imagine if the record industry had spent the last 12 years adapting and building what customers wanted. Maybe we’d be happily buying from Sony or Warner instead of Apple. To be competitive, maybe some labels would have a “fair trade” guarantee, knowing customers do care deeply about supporting the artists they love.
Do you even know your audience?
Turning to “broke” college kids and wondering why they don’t shell out money is a waste of time. It isn’t rocket science!
College kids have more time than cash. They have heavy financial burdens (as David Lowery illustrates). They efficiently get music for free.
In what world does it make financial sense that they blow $15 on an album they could get for free in 5 minutes vs. buying a decent dinner or a few beers with friends?
I’m just saying how it is. You don’t have to like it. On the other hand, don’t bother selling music to those folks if you can’t relate. You will fail. You don’t know what they want.
When you sell something, it’s helpful to know who you are selling to. It’s called your “Target Market.”
You learn to spot who makes you money and who doesn’t. Pretty Helpful! You can now focus on selling to groups of people who might care about what you are making. Or you use that info to adapt what you are selling to be more attractive to certain people. (Pro Tip: If you can’t sell, it is typically your fault).
College kids? Not the easiest people to sell mp3s to right now. They get their shit for free and have been blamed for 10 years as The Problem. But hey, they certainly love music. So keep your eyes on them, they’ll come to shows, pass your stuff around online, etc.
Now take people in their 20s+ with regular jobs and disposable income. We don’t want to spend forever hunting down music. Time is money. We want to click buy and probably want to own it. A lot of us can and do fork up hundreds a year for music. And guess what? College kids move quickly into this category.
The market couldn’t be more over-saturated
MP3s everywhere. Streaming, download, free, paid. Millions of them.
If you are selling music online, you are either competing with Free Everything or you are depending on the goodwill of existing fans to support you (kind of like a non-profit).
You can’t wish “Free Everything” to go away.
As a business, you need to understand it is staying like this. It’s no one’s “fault.” It is an (awesome!) side-effect of our technological and cultural accomplishment.
We need more innovation, not more guilt
The record industry certainly lacks sustainable business options. This is in no way the listener’s fault.
People shell out money to support things they love. They will shell out money for convenience. They will shell out money for experience. They will shell out money for novelty. There is no confusion about this.
David Lowery talks about folks spending cash on fair-trade coffee. He laments that people don’t do the same for music.
Well, I’m here to say: They do. They spend it on my business, for example. Wonderful people drop $149 in one go for a "lifetime" subscription to Ramen. Most of that money goes directly to artists. Pretty crazy!
And I’m just one stubborn geeky artist dude who saved up and launched his small dream business. I’m sure others can do it better, and bigger. And I’m certain there are eager listeners out there waiting for new sustainable models.
Do something different
There are many different kinds of listeners out there.
New music businesses need to stand out and make a difference. Especially now, while the majors are (still!) flailing and complaining. Make something new or attractive. Get creative.
I don’t mean the musical content as much as style of delivery, the format, the convenience, the personality of the business, the niche audience etc. Put a focus on sustainability.
We are only at the tip of the music+internet iceberg. There is much opportunity and room for lots more innovation.
Many artists prefer it this way
It’s not all fire and brimstone. It fact it’s mostly NOT fire and brimestone.
So many artists are optimistic about the way things are headed. They are happy that there are more options. They can send their music around easily, for no cost. They get listened to.
I deal with many independent and DIY artists directly. Many explicitly express to me they don’t want a major label deal — they would prefer to stay independent. DIY and without a label, even.
Crumbling near-monopolys are not something they care about. Many are happy the older system is dying. They want no part of it. It sounded pretty horrible to be signed to a label and not only be broke, but dependent, locked in and not even owning your tunes.
Many artists express hope that opportunities will open up and enable them to do what they love: making great music and connecting with people. They are optimistic. But they are not stupid. It’s always been damn hard to make a living with music.
Spotify is not relevant
Spotify was a BIG step forward in music delivery.
The point of Spotify was not to create a sustainable way to pay artists. Turning to Spotify and asking “hey, why aren’t you solving ALL of the record industry’s problems” is a cop-out.
Remember: Spotify took forever to get a streaming service up and running in the US. It took years, and huge pre-payments to the majors, who were very reluctant.
We can’t expect Spotify to solve all the problems of recorded music. They are not an industry superhero. They are one company, with the goal of providing a good experience for the listener, something better than sketchy annoying torrents. And they certainly succeeded.
Now is the absolute best time to be a musician
It really is. I can produce an album in my home, using my existing computer. I can deliver it to tens, hundreds, thousands, millions — assuming the demand exists. For next to nothing in hard costs.
Can I find an audience? Can I get people to buy my music?
That’s the hard part. Always has been.
Built it and they will come
It’s time to have a big optimistic HURRAH! The world is changing in amazing ways. Chin up, Blame-O-Meter off, and let’s go create awesome music and services that give listeners what they want — yup, ideally while paying artists fairly.
Listeners have been waiting VERY patiently for exactly this.
And artists? They are doing what they love, pumping out great tunes. They are hoping now that distribution is free, they’ll get a better chance to get heard and earn a living.
Let’s make that happen—not with wishful thinking—but by making cool shit that gets the job done.