The View Ahead
The following is a response I sent to a reporter from Billboard asking for comments on the future of the music industry. Don’t know if they’ll quote any of it, but here’s a slightly modified version of what I said.
I’m a full-time piano rocker (meaning I don’t play cover gigs, don’t have a day job, and don’t make my money selling books to beginning musicians). I’ve been quoted by Rolling Stone about services like Pandora before and I’ve been named an “Artist on the Verge” by the NMS. So when I talk about the music industry, it’s definitely from the lower rungs but at least I’ve got all four limbs on the fucking ladder.
As an artist growing up in the 90’s, the dream was to be picked up by a major label and “made famous”. It was the dream we were sold by the music machine of the 70’s and 80’s– that some Guy In A Suit™ would notice you at a seedy open-mic, hand you a contract, and you’d be opening for Billy Joel on a 120-date tour within the next two months. Maybe that happened in the past, but not any more. Not unless you’re Taylor Swift.
In my opinion, the labels will need to break up into small, cooperative niche organizations. Professional-grade album creation has become so accessible to guys like me that I have zero incentive to sign my rights away just to get a disc made. Shit, there’s barely any incentive left to have discs made at all. The only reason I have CD’s pressed is because, to date, no one has come up with a better music container that can be sold and autographed at live events. What am I going to do, sign an iPhone after a show?
(Wait, I’ve actually done that before… but it’s not what I’d call commonplace.)
How Are Artists Going To Make Money From Their Fans?
The same way any business makes money: by giving them what they need. Music is a performance art; it is theater. Even electronic, mashup, dubcrap, glitch core… all that stuff that’s just made with laptops instead of instruments still comes back to the same concept: Music transports a listener/viewer somewhere else for a short period of time. It’s escapism, just like movies or a good novel. Maybe you want to feel sexy… well, that club song is your aural lingerie. Maybe you want to feel important… that socially-activist protest song by that lesbian guitarist makes you feel like you’re changing something (and maybe, just maybe, it’ll inspire you to DO SO).
I’m a professional artist; I get paid to make the fans part of something bigger than their normal daily lives. The music alone cannot do that. It has to be a coordinated attack from all sides– the clothing, the videos, the way you communicate (do I start my emails with “Dear Friend” or “Valued Minion” or “Fellow Revolutionary”?)… This is how I make money from my fans. It’s how artists always made money from their fans. The big-haired glam rockers of the 80’s created an escapist world of partying, sex, and recklessness without consequence. It was a fiction, but in that respect the business hasn’t changed at all.
It’s just gotten harder for major corporations to own it.
Which Music Companies Will Change The Industry?
Simple: The businesses that make it easier for the artists to create their worlds. If you’ve got ten minutes, watch this session I gave at the State of Now Conference in NYC last year (I’ve posted this on this blog before, but here it is again):
If you don’t have ten minutes, I’ll sum it up: Any business that saves me time and makes it easier for me to change the lives of my fans. CD Baby puts me in all the legitimate digital streaming sites except Pandora, all the major marketplaces, and even handles synch licensing now. That’s time I can spend working on tunes instead of paperwork. Hootsuite lets me update every one of my social profiles at the same time, rather than spending half an hour just re-posting the same new concert video. Artistdata (run by the oh-so-useless Sonicbids) puts my upcoming concert dates on local calendars so I don’t have to waste time visiting every local entertainment rag’s site. Ziibra, still in development, looks like a promising way to help turn casual fans into paying subscribers just like my own Matthew Ebel dot net
The business that will succeed in the new Music Industry are the ones that facilitate the artist’s relationship with their fans. It will require them to focus less on plastering their name and their brand on everything and more on acting behind-the-scenes. It’s a difficult thing to do in an industry that is notorious for its colossal egos, but the businesses that let the artist shine without making them look like a NASCAR driver (covered in logos) will be the ones that attract real, working musicians like myself.