Saturday, January 17, 2009

Fundamentally, music is something people inherently love and need and relate to, and a lot of what's out right now feels like McDonalds

I met Alexander Bard two days ago. He spoke briefly before a small group, including me, about his views on the future of the music industry and file sharing.

I had no idea he was coming, and I definitely had no idea I would find myself agreeing with what he had to say.

File sharing is something I've had fairly strong personal views on for a long time, but I haven't taken the time to keep myself informed about what's been going on in the debate around it. Turns out Alexander Bard is one of the most vocal opponents of file sharing, and turns out he had some very interesting points to make about it.

I have been known to rip a CD and send songs to a friend, but I don't use Pirate Bay, I never used Napster, and Kazaa just flickered by at the edges of my musical universe.

Why? Several reasons. But foremost because it's not about the Metallicas and Madonnas of the world. It's about the bands that don't sell hundreds of thousands of CDs, and need sales to keep or even get a record contract. And I really want physical copies, as in CDs, of the music I like.

Mr. Bard's views were an expansion of my views. His opinion is that we've lost a generation of musicians, since illegal file sharing has negated their ability to get record deals. Record labels aren't interested in signing up someone they won't be able to make any money on. Also, he claimed that MySpace and similar sites as a breeding ground for new artists is a complete failure. A fraud, even.

Not sure if I agree completely with the last statement, but I don't know enough about it to have anything other than an opinion. The first statement is very interesting though. I do agree that there has been a shift in the way record labels work and do business over the last couple of years. The big dinosaurs have shifted away from anything that might resemble nurturing new and interesting artists, something that smaller independent labels have taken over, at least when it comes to “my music”. At the same time, we've seen a massive paradigm shift in the way that a lot of people listen to music, from physical media to purely digital.

Of course this has led to a different situation for up and coming musicians. You can't release two CDs and hope to make it big by the third. You need to be an instant hit. At least when we're talking anything outside more narrow genres. Look at Nirvana. “Nevermind”, which has sold an estimated 26 million copies worldwide, was a follow-up to 1989's “Bleach”, which only sold 30,000 copies, previous to “Nevermind”'s release. The reason Nirvana made it big was really two-fold (not counting the appeal of songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, of course). For one, they had friends in the industry that lobbied for them to get on a major label after “Bleach”, mainly Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. Secondly, there was MTV. Ah yes, MTV, as I knew it when I was 16. When the main focus was still music, and shows like 120 Minutes, Most Wanted and Headbanger's Ball were still on, and defined my musical landscape.

So much has changed since then. MTV has become an empty shell of what it once was, file sharing has exploded, and record sales have plummeted.

And now we might be facing another paradigm shift. Streaming music, from sites like Spotify, is on the rise, while at the same time laws like Ipred might start to limit file sharing.

My own views remain the same. I will keep buying CDs. I will keep using MySpace and Spotify to find new artists as well as listen to albums I can't get my hands on. And I will try to keep myself updated about what goes on with Ipred and the file sharing debate and general. Though where I would find the time remains to be seen.


Warpedeye said...

Fine, I'll bite:

"You can't release two CDs and hope to make it big by the third. You need to be an instant hit. At least when we're talking anything outside more narrow genres."

Really? I don't see you giving any actual argument for this.

And in fact, a lot of people in and around the industry are saying the exact opposite: Today, you can record a good, quality album in your living room, release it on the net, do some completely free marketing and have a chance of making it big. The chances of making it big might be smaller than before, but since the initial monetary investment is lower than ever, you can afford more to try more than two, three times.
Since the cost of recording and releasing has gone down most significantly, I would argue that you absolutely don't have to be an instant hit.

I would be very interested in hearing your actual argument for the above statement, friend.

Also, as for my general opinion: fewer and fewer artists can make an actual livelyhood of their music, yes. But as a contrast, thanks to better home recording and easier distribution (via the 'net), even more artists can be heard. So yes, fewer people have the chance to get famous, but they have a bigger chance than ever to get any fans whatsoever.

This also directly applies to Bard's statement that MySpace and the like are shams. While the success rate might not be high, what is the success rate for your average garage band ten years ago? My guess: about the same. You just never got such a complete picture of all the artists out there as you do now, via the 'net.

beardonaut said...

Sorry, I should hve been clearer. Of course that only applies to a physical album/CD/etc, as the result of an actual record deal. I could have used a bit more structure there.

And yes, I agree, you can get more shots today, what with lower production costs etc, but at the same time, if you go back ten, twenty years, a garage band could stand out more than it does today. In the constant flood of bands from MySpace etc, getting noticed is no mean feat.

Jesper Bylund said...

The phenomena known as the long tale (read the book, it's awesome) describes that as we move towards digital distribution creative talent shows up in places where traditional talent couldnt because they don't sell enough AT ONE TIME. They do, however, sell well over a long period of time. Traditional media forms need shelfspace which make it impossible for artist with less pop-appeal to be available in stores. Digital distribution makes this a possibility.

There is of course a reason why iTunes sells almost as much as the entire physical media industry (music compared to music industry of course) and that about 40% of these sales are for obscure and widely unknown artsist.

Just look at amazon, the long tale phenomena is democratizing media creation. So yes: digital distribution (which piracy is only a part of) kills record companies and record deals. But they do NOT kill the artists or the music. They do however lower the frequency of "pop icons" and rapstar-esque incomes. Is this a bad thing? Don't think so. I think Bard just doesn't have a clue about what is happening because he's still focusing on the old media industry. Of course it's dying. So did the jazz bands when records appeared. It did however NEVER kill the actual artist.

ege said...

Oh man, am I staying out of this one! Except to say that music was loads of fun before there was any such thing as sound recording, and it will continue to be loads of fun in whatever form it may take next. And that there have always been fabulous musicians around doing fabulous musician-ing nobody ever got a chance to hear, even in the heyday of the music industry. And that there's no commandment saying the universe owes any artist of any sort a livelihood. And that the ones who do get paid, from court jesters on down to Miley Cyrus, tend to be those with a magic combination of talent, drive and luck -- not always in the same proportions. So supporting the little guy is always a good idea. Rock on!

Oops. Cat jostled my elbow and spilled my ugly thoughts all over your nice blog. Sorry!

(Wordman says "catti," I shit you not.)

beardonaut said...

Jesper: I don't have enough of an insight into what you need to do to get your songs on iTunes and I can't be bothered to find out right now, but I would imagine that an unsigned band with a couple of songs recorded at their home studio couldn't. Or? Whatever.

Yes, the long tail (the long tale must be some variation of a tall tale *grin*) will lead to, and has to some degree already led to, a diversification (it's a word) of media distribution. However, I do agree with Bard that we may have lost some potentially awesome musicians because of the slow but undeniable death of the record industry. Regardless of new distribution channels for music, some artists need producers, studios, all that stuff that you can't really get at home, to grow, to find their potential, to evolve. At least I believe so.

What really surprises me is that the music industry (as in "old media") has been so reluctant to adapt. They should have been at the forefront, if they knew what was good for them.

beardonaut said...

ege: I do try to support the little guy. Friends in bands, the local scene, whatever. I try to go to gigs, buy merch, help out in whatever way I can. Supporting is important.

Warpedeye said...

Small side note: Getting your tracks on iTunes and all other big download services is easy and cheap (though not free). Invest around $30, and you're good to go.

And ege said it best:
... music was loads of fun before there was any such thing as sound recording, and it will continue to be loads of fun in whatever form it may take next.

Of course, I could point to this new study saying that file sharing is good for the economy, and that people who download media spend about as much as other people on buying media. But I won't ;)
(note: there are a lot of studies like this one, and a lot of studies saying the opposite)