Monday, July 11, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), part III

Alright, time for the grand reveal as to the source of the questions in the previous posts in this series.

The questions came from a blog post a couple months ago by Jonathan Coulton, in response to an interview he did with Alex Bloomberg for the Planet Money podcast on NPR.  While the interview itself was fine - albeit somewhat shallow in its discussion - what transpired a week later was the kick to the hornet's nest.  Two hosts from NPR Music - Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelly - joined Alex for a follow-up analysis of Jonathan's interview.  Both felt that his approach to success was unlikely to work for anyone else, that he "won the Internet lottery", and in Frannie's case compared him to "a Snuggie.... We didn't know we wanted it, and then all of a sudden we did."

Jonathan's reaction, understandably, was one of disappointment and frustration.  His blog post provides a thoughtful and eloquent rebuttal to that assessment.  The gist of his argument is that his model is replicable, that his achievement of success isn't dissimilar to that of other artists, and that what has changed is the landscape of the industry to allow new avenues for these things to happen.

The table below shows my own breakdown and comparison of what I interpret to be the traditional path for artists and the alternative path taken by Jonathan.

The Traditional Path The Alternative Path
The artist works hard to create good music The artist works hard to create good music
The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by record company representatives. The artist attempts to find places to showcase their music that will be discovered by market demographic, i.e. potential fanbase.
The record company signs the band and molds them for appeal to their perceived market demographic. The artist engages with fans, allowing them provide direct feedback on their work.
The record company markets and promotes the band to their market demographic through highly-controlled channels. The artist empowers the fans act as their marketing/promotion force through lenient use of works.

See? Not all that dissimilar.

Both approaches hinge on the same amount of luck, reliance on seizing opportunities, and hard work. The key difference is the relationship between the artist and their audience.  Before our modern connected world, such direct contact wouldn't be possible; no mechanisms were available to widely distribute content at almost zero cost, and communicating via word-of-mouth with a sizable group of people could not be achieved so easily and rapidly.  Are these advancements unique to one man alone? Definitely not.

The other key difference, as I've brought up before, is that traditionally a great deal of the ownership of your copyright is handed over to publishers and master recordings becoming the property of the record label. There are no doubt exceptions, but this is the typical case. The new approach is the possibility to retain 100% ownership of your material.  Sure, you might not have the means to collect any sort of mechanical or performance royalties, but as the collection and distribution of these royalties favour larger artists, it might not have amounted to much anyway. In its place, you have the sole right decide what is done with your work. A fan who wants to cover your work no longer has to be worried that just because you were comfortable with it, they might still face the wrath of your publisher.

[Interesting fact: Many are aware that The Verve were taken to task for "Bitter Sweet Symphony", which used a sample of an orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra (a sample which bears very little resemblance to the original song). What many might not be aware of is that the lawsuit was initiated by ABKCO Records, who owns the Stones' copyrights from the 1960s. The Verve had apparently already negotiated the licensing of the sample from ABKCO; it was only after the song's success that ABKCO decided the sample had been used too greatly and sued for 100% ownership. From the sounds of it, ABKCO's CEO and former Stone's manager Andrew Klein was not a very nice guy.]

Lastly, there's the matter of the definition of success. Ordinarily, unless you were selling a ton of albums and playing large venues, you weren't making a decent living. This may seem surprising, but consider that the record label takes a huge cut to pay back advances involved in recording and marketing (and continues to take a significant cut afterwards). In contrast, the modern independent artist may not reach gold/platinum album sales or play in front of a sea of thousands, but the ability to pocket a much greater percentage of the earnings can mean a comfortable income.

If the measure of success is obscene fame and fortune, the traditional model may be the only way to go. But if the aim is to make a modest (or possibly greater than modest) career on your own terms for a smaller but closer fan base, there's definitely an alternative approach, and it's available to anyone.

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