The music business as we know it is dying. And as I witness its continued collapse, it's gratifying to see a shift in the balance of power. For once, artists actually have some leverage, and it's about damn time. If you ask me, the tail has been wagging the dog for far too long in this industry.
Despite their efforts to pin their downfall solely on downloading, the current major-label execs really only have themselves to blame — their greed and indifference toward the quality of the artistry they've been cultivating is what brought all of this about in the first place. And in that regard, we've practically come full circle. In the beginning, the people who ran the labels were essentially assembly-line hitmakers. Eventually, though, the art progressed, and as it did, the imprints became benefactors devoted to nurturing the artists with whom they worked.
But then the opportunistic bean-counters took over, and their only concern was the bottom line. It was no longer about how the music moved you, but rather how many units you moved. In order to make the numbers, they realized they needed hits, on demand. As a result, music became homogenized, which ultimately conditioned listeners to once again seek out songs instead of artists. And the tipping point for all of this just happened to coincide with the start of the digital era.
Throughout the various migrations in format, from vinyl to eight-track to cassette to CD, the labels monopolized the means of expression, but they couldn't tap into the wellspring of creativity that inspired that expression. Since they controlled the purse strings, however, they believed they were more important than the music. They were wrong. Now they've been rendered irrelevant, which is why thoroughbreds like Radiohead and the Rolling Stones are unceremoniously leaving the stable.
And that's where we are today. Everyone is trying to figure out what's next, how artists are going to get their music to the masses. David Byrne, from the Talking Heads, recently penned an excellent piece for Wired, outlining six different approaches, from the strangulating 360 equity deals that labels are currently trying to push, to the standard advance and recoup deals, to acts licensing their music, to sharing profits, to striking deals just for manufacturing and distribution, to the time-tested DIY model.
That last method is the one most commonly used by local bands, and technology has made it considerably easier. With the availability of less expensive gear, the cost of recording isn't as prohibitive as it once was — and releasing the music isn't nearly as daunting a prospect. In the past, unless a local band was very well funded, it could never hope to produce — much less sell — a substantial number of discs on its own. Manufacturing was just too costly, and that's assuming the act was able to generate the demand in the first place. Now, though, there are plenty of turn-key digital downloading channels, and in the age of viral marketing, nothing creates awareness like good old-fashioned word of mouth. Bands don't need publicists. Hell, they don't really even need to press CDs anymore.
At least, that's what Magic Cyclops (aka Scott Fuller) is banking on. For his new record, Free Cowboy Hats, he enlisted a company called Dropcards to create credit-card-sized plastic cards that he's been selling at his shows and has made available at Twist & Shout and Fancy Tiger. Upon purchase, the new card-holder is provided with a URL and given a unique access code with instructions on how to download.
After pressing a thousand copies of his last disc and getting stuck with several hundred that didn't sell, Cyclops chose to go with Dropcards because "they did exactly what I was looking to do," he explains, "which was have something physical to sell at shows. It bridges the gap between the physical and digital worlds, to where bands can still make money selling their album, but they don't have to get a billion CDs pressed, which is a waste of plastic, anyway. For what I'm doing, it just seems like a better idea."
Cyclops isn't the only one exploring innovative alternatives to getting the music out there. Last week, Nathan & Stephen brokered a deal with Pete Turner of Illegal Pete's for an exclusive EP. The free, four-song disc will be issued at a release show tentatively slated for Friday, February 29, or Saturday, March 1, at the LoDo Pete's location. After that, the remaining 5,000 copies will be spread among Pete's five Front Range locations.
The promotion is intended to "give back to the local scene that's already been so supportive of the band," says Dan Rutherford from Morning After Records. "We also wanted to partner with a local business that has really supported the local scene, and Pete has always bent over backwards for the local scene. So this is also a way to thank him for what he's done for us, and it will also really help open up the avenues for new fans."
For SoundRabbit, a newer, Boulder-based band, it's all about the fans and fostering a reciprocal relationship with them. So web-savvy bandmates Russ LePrie and Chris Anton purchased an open-source PHP program and created RBTBackstage.com, a site where fans can interact and gain access to exclusive content such as new music, song sketches, photos, videos, guitar and drum lessons, and much more. "Our model is a win/win/win," LePrie offers. "We're not selling albums; we're not selling singles. We're not selling the music. We're building a community. Like PBS or NPR, our job as a band is to create content. Members support these efforts and receive the content."
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For $12, or the price of a CD, fans get a six-month subscription to the site — or they can join for $2 a month or $20 for a year. The idea is to give them unfettered access to all things SoundRabbit, and that includes granting them unrestricted, non-commercial rights to the music so that they can share it with friends or as they see fit. "Our goal is to build a community and avoid catch and release," LePrie explains, "so people aren't just getting your music and then taking off."
There's also a targeted touring component to SoundRabbit's plan whereby the group will poll fans to book gigs based on demand. With this self-contained concept, the band is in essence being supported by its fans — almost like a public broadcasting entity — and its members have the potential to make a pretty decent living, which would give them the ability to pursue other projects, including such social activism as donating the proceeds from shows and merch sales to charity. "We thought it would be really cool if we could generate sort of a philanthropic engine of sorts through the music," LePrie says. To that end, SoundRabbit (due at Trilogy in Boulder this Friday, January 25) has already donated almost a thousand dollars from sales of its latest effort, This Room Becomes a Crowd, to the American Cancer and Leukemia & Lymphoma societies.
It's hard to say which of these models will be successful. Doing it yourself is always a calculated risk. All the same, as Byrne asserts in Wired, even those acts that are moderately successful with the DIY approach stand to make more money with fewer sales than their much-higher-profile counterparts who are enslaved to the majors.
In other words, the dead men walking.