The Future of Music Distribution
Nov. 4 at the Creative Alliance.
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Ten years ago, no one
would have predicted that we’d mostly all be listening to music via MP3 files, CDs would be all but dead, and vinyl record sales would be up. The music industry today is morphing so fast that it’s difficult for anyone—record label owner, musician, fan—to keep up. Casey Rae-Hunter, who speaks on a panel at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson this week, works at the Future of Music Coalition. Mission: “[ensuring] a diverse musical culture where artists flourish, are compensated fairly for their work, and where fans can find the music they want.” He kindly took time out of a vacation to California last week to talk to us about payola, the looming music cloud, and Amanda Palmer.
We can start with, “We’re all doomed.” That can be your lede.
City Paper: Many of us, sure, but all? Doomed?
We’re not all doomed. Some of the stuff in the music business, no matter what side you’re on, is analogous to print. The entire mechanism has changed for accessing content. About a decade ago, the sort of digital shot heard around the world was Napster, and it upended a lot of longstanding business models. And those business models might not have been necessarily beneficial to everyone, and, as a matter of fact, they were pretty damn terrible for a lot of folks. And they kept a lot of talent from ever reaching listeners. And those that did were often stuck in these kind of onerous contractual situations.
When Napster came around—and I’m sure you know the story—it completely upended the apple cart. Since then we’ve been trying to find maybe not a one-size-fits-all solution, but definitely attempting to make the best of the, more or less, level playing field that technology engendered, while also trying to be on the lookout for possibly rewarding new business models that wouldn’t just compensate the stakeholders, but would also be equitable and transparent and put money in the pocket of the creators themselves.
We’re not there yet by any means. There’s so many things in the music industry that seem like intractable problems, because everyone wants to retain whatever last little bit of leverage they have. Change comes slowly, and everyone’s trying to hold onto their little piece of the pie that gets smaller and smaller and smaller.
On the other hand, there’s reason to be hopeful because we’ve seen this flourishing of kind of fan activity—you know, artists making real connections with fans. Being very savvy innovators themselves. Artists are often the ones that are driving, not necessarily the tech innovations, but they’re early adopters. A lot of them.
CP: To you, what's a good example of someone that's gotten, like, mega-famous recently that couldn't have pre-digital distribution.
Well, it’s hard to say mega-famous. . .
OK, really big.
Well, OK Go are big. Their videos are seen around the world, and that drives merch sales and concert ticket [sales]. From what I understand, they make a very good living.
There are definitely more artists than that that are able to do these direct-to-fan things. Someone like Amanda Palmer, for example, from the Dresden Dolls. She started out on a label, on Roadrunner. She had a miserable time, apparently. She took matters into her own hands, and she’s queen of the Twitterverse, and her fans really, really pay close attention to every little thing she does. And she does it with such panache that she really delivers on their expectations.
Like selling a Sharpied T-shirt. Selling those on Twitter with whatever acronym, Losers of Friday Night, or whatever it was called. You couldn’t have done that before the internet. They just made a PayPal account, and she made something like $20,000 over the weekend.
It’s knowing who you’re talking to—it’s knowing who your fans are. Knowing how to speak to them authentically. Artists like that are able to leverage technology or leverage their presence in the new marketplace. That would have been totally impossible in the old system. You would have had to rely on, for better or worse, a suite of other people as gatekeepers between you and the audience.
And it all really depended on whether [those other people] got the music in the first place, whether they shared your existing vision. From there, it could get even more complicated. Maybe the big influential radio guy just didn’t hear [your music]. Just like in the consolidated radio environment, when all the big media groups gobbled up all of the mom and pops across the country, you really couldn’t get in without some real major—payola, frankly. Institutional payola.
There were so many barriers to entry that the average artist, even if they were lucky enough to have a record deal, would have a tremendously difficult time trying to reach audiences if they wanted to do it their [own] way.
It’s sort of like Wall Street. It seems like right before Napster, the [record companies] were trying to engineer out success, or engineer out failure. Make these sudden superstars that would pay for the, like, 90 percent failure rate [of major label artists].
It’s not to paint the record industry as total black-hat villains in this scenario, but it’s to say that in the old regime the average creator was put at an enormous disadvantage in reaching listeners. Even if they did, they had to pretty much always transfer their copyright, sometimes under onerous contractual conditions, and put themselves at the mercy of any number of gatekeepers, from the label to the radio programmer to retail.
Do you buy CDs?
I try to buy CDs that are collectible. You also have to understand that I’m a musician, so I release CDs, and I sell a fair amount of them. Surprisingly. But the way that I release them is to package them with goods that you don’t get if you just download it from iTunes. My last CD came with a comic book, and the one before that came with an illustrated short story. And they come with videos. You get all this extra stuff.
I mean, sure, I sell a lot of stuff on iTunes and people listen to the stuff on all the streaming platforms, in like Japan or whatever, and that feels good. But I think what the new marketplace is is a feeling of being able to cultivate a group of people who are the most willing to support you. You have to figure out ways to do that on a level that is authentic. The marketplace is so crowded, the fans can smell a rat. The artists that are going to survive this are going to be the artists that can figure out who their audience is and what their audience really wants.
Great, but what about people that just want to play music and rule at it?
The bummer of it is, I oftentimes think, is what happens if you’re just like a really, really kick-ass tenor saxophone player? In the old days, a really kick-ass tenor saxophone player didn’t have to be a brilliant marketer or an amazing audience segmentation genius. Or, you know, a T-shirt manufacturer or a short-story writer or a master of iMovie or any of the many other things that you have to do to be heard above the noise.
What does the web-based music cloud mean to you? Do you see even the MP3 going away in favor of cloud storage? Like, we'll all be streaming our music all the time from some server somewhere?
I gotta tell you, the futurist in me is freaking delighted. Because I already live in the Jetsons. I’ve got my Sonos [wireless] speakers at home. I control it with my iPod. I subscribe to three streaming media subscriptions services—Napster, MOG, and Rhapsody. Even though their catalogs are incredibly robust, there are still gaps, and I just want to cover my bases [by having all three].
I’m trying to get as close to that quote-unquote celestial jukebox as possible, but the other side of this, and this is something that my organization cares tremendously about, is, what are the payouts from the back-end [of those services to artists]? If you really look at it, it’s tiny amounts of money. God forbid you had a label standing in between you and those services. You wouldn’t make anything.
For the full, unedited interview visit blogs.citypaper.com/noise.