Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Radio-Friendly Unit Shifters

Over on Miss Orr's blog there is a friendly discussion of the efforts of independent musicians to escape from the indifference of the record label and make a living by interacting directly with fans. (See also here for a reprint of Trent Reznor's advice to new artists trying to avoid record label headaches.) Certainly the Aetherwebs have both thrown the old business model into disarray and created opportunities for artists to connect with and sell directly to fans.

Even under the best of circumstances, record labels are interested selling as many records as possible, providing "radio-friendly unit shifters" (as the Nirvana song title says; no doubt they recycled the term from elsewhere) to appeal to a broad market. Some artists manage to find small labels that accept the artist's quirks and narrow appeal, while others earn tolerance from major labels thanks to early career hits. But artists - the ones who really create music because that's what they have to do, as opposed to the people who got into a band to get rich, get high, and get laid - rightly chafe at the record company's efforts to broaden the artist's appeal, and often wonder what the record deal is buying in terms of support and promotion.

When creating an album required an expensive sound studio, the minimum pressing for a vinyl record was in the tens of thousands, and radio play was essential to selling those kinds of volumes, the artist had little choice if he or she wanted to make a living through music. Today's technology allows a do-it-yourselfer to record directly to a PC, and process and mix the album at home; to press CDs in quantities as small as one at a time; to set up a Web site to sell CDs, buy and download albums, preview music, buy tickets and artist merchandise; and to use other technology - MySpace, Twitter, Blogger - to spread the word and keep in touch with fans. In theory, an artist could bypass the record label and earn a decent living. (Some do already, but those tend to be artists that were already established names under the old system.)

But it seems to me that, even as much of the world becomes more specialized, artists are pursuing a course that requires them to become experts at much more than making music. The capability of home recording, using Pro Tools or one of its competitors, requires learning the arts of album engineering, producing, and mastering. Now the artist has to master various Web tools, as well as make business decisions - e.g., how much music to put out, in what formats, what to make free and what to charge for, what kind of ancillary merchandise will he sell, even what to charge for everything. Asking one person to be good at all those jobs is asking a lot.

Which brings me back to the original subject of Miss Orr's original post, Amanda Palmer, who has made it clear she wants to be free of her record label but is still trying to find a way to make a living off the various things she does with her small army of devoted fans. (And I'm one of them, so this is in no way making sport of Miss Palmer.) One can make money from selling copies of music, from live performances, and from Other Stuff. Each has its own difficulties. Making money from music sales, whether from mailing CDs or charging for downloads, is fine - I own an absurd number of LPs and CDs, and music lovers tend to want to own the music, not just rent it (the Rhapsody model) or steal it. But far too many people think of downloaded music as something that should be free, and too many people are enablers for that kind of thinking. That approach often works - artists such as Steve Wynn, another of my favorites, allow fans to record performances and circulate them on the Aetherwebs, and yet sell the studio versions of those very songs to their fans. But Stuff on the Internet seems to have a way of becoming free, and it's not clear that selling music is going to earn a living in the years to come. But let's say that's part of the solution.

Live performances don't suffer from the problem of downloads - the experience is not copiable, and the burly guy at the door turns away non-paying customers, so the artist can charge for performances. Whether this turns a profit or is merely advertising for the records appears to be a matter of some debate. Miss Palmer, for example, said that her year-long tour made no profit for her, despite having the vast majority of her fellow performers along for free. Ouch.

That leaves Other Stuff. Merchandise sales are straightforward. Can one monetize fan interaction? Should one? What if it turns out that the hard-core fans, the truly fanatical, are also the ones with the least money, something that doesn't seem farfetched to me? Can one sell a premium product - one suggestion was to sell acknowledgement on the album liner notes - to well-heeled fans and, if so, are there enough of them?

Interestingly, the same sort of revolution is occuring with fiction writers. The number of books sold, and the number of titles published, are both falling. Exclude a handful of best-selling authors, and the picture looks even more dismal. New authors, like new musicians, have always had an uphill battle in getting noticed, but the Aetherwebs are giving them new tools to fight the battle. Podcasters - Mur Lafferty and J.C. Hutchins are two to whom I listen regularly - are getting their names in circulation regularly, providing fiction in audio form for free in the hopes that generating enough listeners will induce publishers to notice them and print their books. Ms. Lafferty, in particular, is a one-woman content-generating machine, having a regular podcast on the process of developing as a young writer ("I Should be Writing"), appearing on others' podcasts, doing freelance work, writing her own fiction ("Playing for Keeps," the "Heaven" series), writing columns for the Suicide Girls web site, collaborating with other writers ("The Takeover"), collaborating with photographer J.R. Blackwell on a serialized story ("Her Side"), going to science-fiction conventions, and God-knows what else I'm forgetting. She promotes her work on Twitter, on her own Web site, on Facebook, if I recall correctly, and no doubt elsewhere. Along the way, readers/listeners get an enormous amount of free content (and Mur, J.C., I've bought the books, okay? I've got my copy of "Playing for Keeps," my copy of "Personal Effects: Dark Art," and I'm waiting for October to roll around to buy "Seventh Son: Descent," so I'm buying what I can), but this isn't a business model, it's part of one. It's the part where people work very hard and hope for a payoff down the road.

While there are many talented writers and musicians, very few of them make a living through writing or music. Of those who try, I would wager that the burnout rate is as high as that in the NFL, though the career-ending injury is more likely to be a broken heart than a broken leg. But that's the way it's always been, and artists will continue to be driven to create, and patrons of the arts will continue to consume, even if the way forward isn't always clear.

All of which is to say: I wish you all the best of luck, and if this piece reads as though I have no more clue than anyone else about how to make money from it, that's absolutely correct (and you could have skipped directly down to this paragraph).


Rhianon Jameson said...

At the risk of seeming narcissistic at leaving a comment on my own Journal, it seemed easier to do this than edit the original post for the following addendum:

This Sunday's Washington Post had an interesting feature on a musician named Corey Smith, a musician whose songs of drinkin' and lovin' and havin' a good time have attracted a growing following. (The article is here , though (free) registration may be required.)

Smith has gone from playing at night in bars while working full-time as a school teacher to earning his living as a musician, all without a record label. He promotes himself tirelessly, is accessible to fans, self-produces a CD about once a year, which he sells, along with Corey Smith merchandise, at his shows. All of which is to say: if you love what you're doing, and aren't looking for millions of dollars, success on your own terms is possible.

Mako Magellan said...

It's somewhat depressing, but mankind discovered a long time ago that the divinely insane who are compelled to be creative don't need to be paid to encourage them to do so; mere subsistance-level support is sufficient in order for the rest of society to reap the benefits. Artists have always suffered under this inequity, and now it seems scientists are too, being expected to teach, do their own administration, publish like a machine and, after all that, find time to discover new knowledge!

There are salient exceptions in both fields - hugely famous and wealthy individuals who gain from the runaway effects of good work, recognition, good public relations, popularity, income, opportunity to do more good work, etc. Unfortunately, given the immediacy and endless reproducability that global digital media provide, the world needs fewer and fewer of these figureheads to satisfy demand, and so the creative fields are beginning to look like 'winner takes all' games.

Rhianon Jameson said...

In a sense, thus it ever was: surely Shakespeare, or the authors of the Thousand Nights and a Night, did not reap the full value of the benefits they bestowed on society. Nor did Einstein, or Newton (though the latter did have a hand-held device named after him, which surely counted for something).

But point well-taken, Mr. Magellan. Society surely benefits from the compulsions of the artist to create, or the insatiably curious to explore, far beyond the rewards offered.

I, too, am troubled by a winner-take-all society. One would think that we all benefit by having a large number of talented performers earning a reasonable living, rather than one Jonas Brothers (whoever they might be :)) and one thousand recording industry discards.