Art to product to art
Somewhere along the line, music went from being an art to being a product.
Instead of making music to provoke others to feel, think or dance, or purely for the musician’s own expression and enjoyment, it became about selling as many records as possible. “Success” was — and still is — measured by how much money the musician brought in for their record label. Worse still, those deemed not profitable enough would be “dropped” from the label and considered a failure.
Slowly, though, the Web is helping music to become art again. While the mainstream music industry once again cries that “Home taping is killing music“, things are changing for musicians in a very positive way.
The Web, and particularly Social Media, are now often touted as routes to attracting label attention. For me, though, the really exciting part is that they are enabling musicians to distribute and promote their own music without any label intervention at all, freeing them from the involvement of traditional record labels and allowing them to decide their own musical paths and measures of success.
How things used to be
The recording and distribution of music used to be an extremely costly business. Recording required expensive equipment far out of the financial reach of an individual, while the resulting master recordings then had to be pressed to thousands of discs (or other media) and shipped to outlets throughout the relevant territory. Marketing in the press, radio and television was also a huge expense.
The vast amount of money needed for this process naturally had to come from somewhere, and that was where the record labels/distributors came in. Naturally, they wanted to make money from their investments, and were quite happy to compromise the rights, earnings and ideals of musicians in order to boost their own profits.
This wasn’t good for artists, nor music lovers. It was effectively up to a small number of very big, profit-led, companies to decide what music the general public could and couldn’t experience.
Then, in the mid-Nineties, affordable “multi-media” computers came along that provided enough power to process multi-channel audio. Soon after, Internet connections were widely adopted in people’s homes, giving musicians everywhere the tools to record, produce and distribute music from their living rooms and bedrooms.
Social Media and the Musician
A decade-or-so later, the Internet has become an integral part of our lives. We have fast, always-on home connections that most businesses could probably only have dreamed of ten years ago. The Web has grown out of trying to be a broadcast medium and now participation and sharing are an integral part of it, in the form of Social Media and Social Networks.
In recent years, Social Networks, particularly MySpace, have been heralded as great launch pads for up-and-coming artists. Due to their very nature, Social Networks enable musicians to quickly acquire new fans through “word-of-mouth”. They are also a brilliant way to keep up the interest of existing fans by supplying regular news updates, gig announcements and new audio.
While a great deal of the success stories that get reported are of artists that have either become or already are part of the mainstream music industry, they can still be used to good effect by musicians that are and wish to remain independent.
On the other side of the coin, many established acts are using the Web to keep distributing music after leaving their labels behind. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead are two high-profile acts that caught a lot of attention by releasing albums themselves on the Web after finishing contracts with major record labels. Not only that, but they adopted even more radical strategies, with a free release and ‘pay-what-you-want’ release respectively.
The tool set for independent musicians is better than ever, and with that comes increased opportunity to stay independent.
Making money, not selling out
So, without a record label to put CDs in shops, how can musicians make money from their music?
The most obvious way to make money without CDs is to sell download versions of your music. You can spend as much or as little as you want recording (or do it yourself) and use an online shopfront like ithinkmusic or your own website with a payment gateway like PayPal to take a small fee for the download, for example.
Downloads also have a stand-out advantage over their hard-copy counterparts, and that is availability. While CDs must be created and distributed in large quantities to be available to a wide number of people, a single uploaded file can be instantly available to anyone that wants it, worldwide.
Of course, there are plenty of people who prefer to have a physical product (me included). If you feel that the demand is there, you always have the option of producing CDs on top of selling downloads. Some artists are having success with self-produced CD-Rs, although print-on-demand services are also beginning to emerge. Just as Lulu produces one-off printed versions of books, TuneCore has partnered with Amazon’s on-demand CD printing and distribution service to produce on-demand versions of artists’ recordings.
It may even be possible to license your music to a label who have better access to production and distribution chains, without surrendering any of your rights.
Gigs and live shows can also be a revenue stream for independent artists. However, this can be difficult for those with a small following as there are inevitable hiring and running costs and you may decide that you are better off playing for established promoters for negligable pay or nothing at all, in order to gain increased exposure.
Merchandising (e.g. band tee-shirts) is also worth mentioning, although, again, you have the initial costs of production and then distribution that will vary depending on the quantities produced.
Changing the tune
The Web and Social Media are putting musicians (and other artists and creators) back in control. Stadium shows and Inter-Continental recording sessions may still be the preserve or the major labels, but if you have humbler ambitions and are already creating what you want to create, you no longer need to rely on the investment of the Men in Suits before anyone will know about it.
You can send your message out to the World, and whether your work is a success or failure, or even if there can be such a thing, is up to you. You never know — you might even make a few quid along the way.