Emily White needs no defense. She needs sustainable businesses to build what she actually wants.

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.

Some basics:

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.

Business 101

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.

The Gaiman Principle: “Piracy” is advertising (and why Ramen Music encourages sharing)

In one of my favorite videos from recent weeks, author Neal Gaiman explains how he was initially paranoid and “really grumpy with people” when they put up his poems and stories on the web. After some time, he realized that the “places where I was being pirated, I was selling more and more books, people were discovering me.”

Why should a musician or author allow their work to be copied and shared without freaking out over potential losses? Gaiman explains:

“I started asking audiences to just raise their hands for one question, which is I say: “Ok, do you have a favorite author?” And they say “Yes.” And I say “Good, what I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book, put up your hands. And anybody who discovered your favorite author by walking into a bookstore and buying a book, raise your hands.”

The response?

Very few of them bought the book. They were lent it. They were given it. They did not pay for it.

The Gaiman Principle

I have started to refer to this phenomenon as “The Gaiman Principle”:

In Gaiman’s words:

Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free. What you are actually doing is advertising, you are reaching more people.

In other words: Piracy is advertising.

The underlying assumptions:

1) Creative work has value.
2) People want to spend money on art they love and enjoy.
3) People need to find the creative work that they value
4) Trusted recommendations are the best path to discovery.
5) The only thing stronger than a trusted recommendation is a trusted recommendation combined with actually experiencing the creative work. This is the royal flush of recommendations. As a producer of creative work, it’s what you should be dreaming of.

The Ultimate Recommendation

The biggest thing the web has done for creatives is to not only allow personal recommendation to be quickly broadcast, but the actual work that is being recommended can often also be broadcast.

Let’s say you tell a friend you love a song. It is a strong personal recommendation. If you tell them you love it and also give them the song so they can hear it, perhaps they become hooked on it, and celebrate it’s awesomeness with you - that’s the power that sharing (or piracy) provides.

To reject this opportunity and instead focus on what the artist might be losing in this recommendation process is a tangental, fear-based waste of time at best. It completely disregards the fact that by sharing the music/writing/etc, a fan is essentially marketing on the creator’s behalf. The person he or she is marketing to - they probably hadn’t checked you out before. They were not an existing fan, reading to spend money. Now they have heard of you, and tasted your work, and possibly acquired a taste for your work. The fan sharing the creative work should be thanked.

Sharing online (or piracy) is not something for authors or musicians to fear, to blame when they don’t sell well, to use as a scapegoat for not having been profitable, etc. It sure is tempting to think that way if things aren’t going well. But don’t. If you are being pirated, you are doing it right.

Just remember the Gaiman Princible: When people are sharing your work, it is advertising, even though the work itself has monetary value. It’s the highest form of personal recommendation available. Embrace it.

Ramen Music: Built on the Gaiman Principle

Ramen Music was built from the start to encourage sharing. Our issues have value. I work my butt off producing them. The dozen or so artists per issue worked hard on those songs. Ramen Music pays these artists for their hard work. And our paid subscribers are how we survive.

But people want to share things they love. Why would we get in the way of that? Our subscribers bought our music. They are people that value what we do. Should we be telling them not to give the ultimate recommendation to a friend?

What about potential new subscribers? They are human like you and me. They probably want to check something out, listen and play with something before spending money. I do. So lets make that easier to do that. Not slam a gate in front of them and expect them to still be interested.

So, we made Ramen Music issues easily shareable. We even remind our subscribers that they can and should share them. We have daily proof that this works. People on twitter or facebook recommend us to their friends and followers and include a link to a full, non-crippled, high quality issue. Even just a few minutes later, new subscriptions from friends come in. And we lose nothing.

So artists and labels: Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the world is black and white and filled with evil pirates stealing your wares. It’s more complex and positive and wonderful than that. If your music is being shared and pirated, celebrate! The word is spreading to people who don’t yet know the value of your work. Let it spread. For the love of god, let it spread.

EDIT: Money where my mouth is! My gift to you for putting up with so many words is the latest copy of Ramen Music Issue #03. Feel free to share, of course.

The Record Industry Sob Story

The sky is falling.

This chart was recently picked up and published by Business Insider, Daring Fireball and various other places, often with melodramatic titles such as "The death of the music industry".

There are some major problems with this graph:

1) The numbers are not adjusted for inflation. This is a very basic tenant of graphing visual data. One must account for inflation when graphing monetary amounts over years. Otherwise the results are simply irrelevant. Tufte would not be happy.

2) These are stats from the RIAA. America only. The chart is for some reason labeled “Global.” In 2009, the ifpi (worldwide riaa) reports sales of 15.8 billion dollars.

3) The type of graph specifically masks and trivializes the growth of digital, enhancing the sob story. The ifpi says that between 2004-2009 digital sales are up 940%. (Ok, ok, that’s kind of cheating because pre-2004 there were virtually no digital sales, but hey, the point is digital has been growing quickly).

I needed to investigate. I said 10 hail marys, voluntarily paid the RIAA $25 (gasp!) to access their data, and dove in.

Here’s the actual situation, properly adjusted for inflation, and using a normal line chart instead of a complicated stacked area chart.

Yup, the industry is certainly losing money compared with 10 years ago. But armed with accurate data, another way we can describe the size of the recording industry is “pre-CD.” We can also reasonably say that each format grows and then dies out. Digital is certainly on a very quick rise.

Let’s zoom in and take a closer look at how formats have been adopted. Let’s look at the first 6 years of data for each format. Adjusted for inflation, of course:

The first few years of digital saw much quicker adoption than CD, and both blew away the lazy adoption of cassette. Digital sales appear to be doing fairly well, though 2010 (not show on graph) supposedly only saw 6% growth. There is fear that the growth is leveling off.

My opinion would be (of course) that we’re are only really seeing the start of digital innovation. Unlike cassettes or CDs, there’s many different kinds of digital formats, many more ways to collect revenue, and a slew of tech companies innovating (on behalf of or in place of the industry itself).

Personally, I find the sob stories from the RIAA just plain insulting, especially as the blame lands on piracy instead of their own failures to kickstart digital distribution. As can be plainly seen, digital music was not really being sold by major labels until 2004. This is very very late to the game. This is 3 years after napster shut down.

Also, chew on this: How would that sales chart look if major labels didn’t bother distributing on CD format until years and years after consumers were demanding it?

And since we apparently all love melodrama, here’s my childish version of the original misguided chart.

EDIT: Wow, Michael DeGusta had almost the exact same critique of the chart and beat me to publishing. He provided many more pretty and accurate visualizations in his followup article on Business Insider. The REAL Death Of The Music Industry

Music for the Signals

I recently did some music for the basecamp mobile video for 37signals. Jamie, who made the video and approached me about helping out, did a blog post about his process. Jamie asked me to write a bit about how the music was put together.

When first approached, I assumed I would be composing something new for the video. Once we actually talked, Jamie told me he wanted a piano arrangement of Dance of the Hours, a waltz from the 1800s. I hemmed and hawed and let him know I’d give it a shot, then panicked about how I would learn, arrange and record this waltz in 2 days. I immediately headed into campfire to explain the situation to a couple buddies of mine.

One of them, Chris, had an ingenious idea; since it’s a well known piece, there would likely be midi online that I could drop into Logic Studio, chop up at will and then play through a nice piano sample library. I did exactly this and after an hour or two, I had a workable (but very robotic) proof of concept.

The next morning, I woke up feeling somewhat rebellious. Never mind this famous waltz or the fact that Jamie knew exactly what he wanted; I wanted to give it my personal best shot from a clean slate, at least for fun. I had been working on this electric guitar track for a couple weeks and thought it might be poppy enough to work. So I sat in front of the video with my guitar for about an hour, figuring out what speed I’d have to play it at and what I would have to cut to have the cadence happen when the the phones all appear. It worked pretty well, so I sent off 2 versions to Jamie just to see what he thought. One had a palm-muted guitar:

I then went back to work on the piano piece, convinced this would be the real music for the video. Jamie had sent over a take of him humming the exact timing of the melody:

I love this, it has humor. It’s creative and loose. And the “looop!” at the end makes it. I immediately sent back an email saying we should roll with the humming, saying “It sounds like we are in the head of some uber-motivated tech lover as they are are waking up and browsing their daily basecamp stuff.”

I figured he’d still want to hear a real version of the piano piece, so I lined up my chords to support his melody, then played the melody until I got a take I liked. In the moment I was more proud of the fact that I had (hopefully) delivered the exact timing of the exact song that Jamie was looking for than I was of the guitar piece:

When the signals decided they wanted to use the guitar track, I was very happy (though feeling slightly guilty that I had derailed the original concept). I spent the next day redoing it for the final video. I forget why. I think the guitar was slightly out of tune in the proof of concept, and we needed a bit more “tail” on the video, so I needed an outro of sorts. This was the final version:

As far as the “full version” of the track: It exists, but is not yet recorded. The working title is “I sold out,” the lyrics are self-mocking and light-hearted.

CFCs Feat. Alicia Wiley & Eric Blair

Late last year, Graham O’Brien released a fantastic video to his track “CFCs Feat. Alicia Wiley & Eric Blair” (Featured in Ramen Music Issue #01). It features some creatively done stop-motion animation by 15 year-old Malone Mischke. My favorite bit is the outro :)

Graham was signed late last year to the indie label NOECHO. His “Live Drums” album is available for purchase as a download on their website or as a physical CD through bandcamp.

There Is No Movement Without Rhythm

Life has a rhythm, it’s constantly moving. The word for rhythm (used by the Malinke tribes) is FOLI. It is a word that encompasses so much more than drumming, dancing or sound. It’s found in every part of daily life. In this film you not only hear and feel rhythm but you see it. It’s an extraordinary blend of image and sound that feeds the senses and reminds us all how essential it is.

via MMI via Boing Boing

The Burning Hell

Phil just introduced me to a guy/band called “The Burning Hell”

The Burning Hell is the alter-ego of ukulele player and all-purpose nerd Mathias Kom. While the band can occasionally bloom into a multi-instrumental monster with many heads and arms, more often than not these days The Burning Hell is a small band with big hearts.

They’ve got a couple of really great videos; my favorite (above) consists of Mathias and a bass player walking casually through a shopping mall playing a tune.

Of course you can grab some free and tasty mp3s on the music section of their website.

Why I Started Ramen Music

This text comes from Ramen Music Issue #01. Check out Issue #01 in full

I’m very proud to present the inaugural issue of Ramen Music.

The idea to start Ramen first came to me 6 years ago. My friends and I had been recording music for years. We made music (and still do) because we needed to. Because it was an essential part of who we are. Because we absolutely loved doing it. It was not just a hobby; yet strangely, most of us felt something between apathy and disgust when it came to the idea of pursuing a ‘career in music.’

Music was, and still is, at the beginnings of a subtle yet revolutionary change. Distribution is effectively now free; music production equipment and software is rapidly evolving and becoming more affordable. Anyone wanting to record music and distribute their music to the world can do so with a minimal budget.

The recording industry has had trouble adapting. Instead of passing on distribution savings to customers or paying artists more fairly, they lobbied governments and filed lawsuits. Instead of tapping the “long tail” of new artists, they grew even more homogenous and safe. Instead of seeing the incredible social and business value of freely sharing music, they fear-mongered and invented protection schemes. In doing all of this, they have lost their allegiance with newer generation of artists, and lost the respect of many of their customers.

Ramen Music was created because 10 years ago, it was what I as a music maker wanted to be a part of. It was created because today, the music industry still desperately needs innovation and alternatives that treat listeners and artists with respect. It was created because my hard-working friends and other musicians like them deserve to be heard; and you, the curious listener, deserve to be able to hear them and be a part of something sustainable, honest, and real.