elusive signature in a sea of the free - part 1

It is impossible to deny that the face and even the very form of almost every consumable media has changed significantly in the past decade.
Ten years ago the tradition of singer songwriters and the vinyl age were drawing to a close following the deaths of John Lee Hooker, Joey Ramone and George Harrison
Thirty years since their last chart surfacing, the beatles released "1" a collection of all their no. 1 singles which sold better than any beatles record before or since.
In the wake of this decline the gears of the music industry ground slowly to a halt and the silence they left was filed with a kraftwerk-esque series of computerised blips, a stream of hidden information.

The digital age of music had begun!

In October 2001 Apple released the first ipod, a revolution in portable media that hammered the final nail in the coffin of Sony's minidisc and, as of October 2009 has sold over 220 million units.
This tiny device converted you CD's into digital media in the form of MP3 - now a household buzzword that spans three generations - and allowed you, in the case of the first ipod model, to carry 1,000 songs in your pocket, 2 days of music in a cigarette carton.
Around this time MP3 itself was under attack as file sharing service napster finally closed its doors after a lengthy court battle with metal band Metallica over the misuse and misappropriation of one of their tracks.
This, to me, is a major historical turning point in today's ideals on music consumption, the advent of MP3 and rise of file-sharing services such as napster were small cohorts to the final battle that changed the music industry beyond its own visions.
Many view the Metallica vs. napster case as petty money grabbing on the part of the metal giants. At the time very little could topple Metallica from their place as one of history's biggest rock bands, indeed they had no need of the revenue that a single stolen song could have created but this is where we forget the people and the artistry behind the celebrity Goliath of a band.
Essentially any bands day job, much like you or I go to the office, is to produce music. They produce this music in part for the love of creation but mostly for you - the fan.
If you stop paying for this music then they will very quickly be out of a job and you will hear no more of the music you love. It really is that simple! The four members of Metallica were in the studio polishing up a song that came belting over the radio at them in poor quality, stolen from the basic master tapes by a member of their own studio crew.
No one really cares about the sketches that came before the venus, or the maquettes of david. The final finished fruits of your labour are all you wish to show the world and all one wishes to be judged upon, not some unfinished maybe-project, never given the proper attention.
So they did what they could and by February of 2001 won a court case which in July saw the shut down of napster. 
Metallica fans were furious, smashing CD's in front of the Califonian court house and swearing oaths into TV cameras never to buy Metallica merchandise again. This, to me, was the petty side, fans excommunicating a band because they took measures to stop their art being appropriated for free, when did the fan value system go so wrong?

Wrong or right it didn't seem to matter, music had gone digital, the internet became a virtual Robin Hood and fans began to expect a whole lot more if they were to continue doling out their hard earned cash.
The internet had also given bands a unique access point to their fans, with continuing pressure for constant information the new model became a taster market. A couple of free to download tracks in return for an email address to give the fans their fix for the free and hook them into the sale. 
The market had struggled with the existence of digital media since the beginning and now it seemed both triumphant and despondent, those whose illegally distributed music could be held accountable but digital media needed to be dealt with and an element of 'free' had to be incorporated.

The next big shake up came from British indie band Radiohead who, after completing their six album deal with EMI found themselves with a record on their hands and no one to distribute it. 
Heralded as one of the most pioneering steps in modern music consumerism, the album 'in rainbows' was released, initially, exclusively via the internet and using an 'honesty box' policy of "pay what you like."
This fresh approach baffled many but went on to distribute 1.2 million copies of the record (at varying prices) and gain a media presence in almost all major news channels, usually unexpected for musicians. 
The sad truth of the matter came to light as the release of a physical product was announced, more people had chosen to download the record via external torrent sites than pay nothing from the bands official website, it seemed even 'free' was not enough. 

Four months after the release of 'in rainbows' and off the back of a similar break from record labels, Nine inch nails released a series of instrumental experiments entitled 'ghosts I-IV', in Trent Reznor's own words;

"This collection of music is the result of working from a very visual perspective - dressing imagined locations and scenarios with sound and texture; a soundtrack for daydreams. I'm very pleased with the result and the ability to present it directly to you without interference."

This collection took Radiohead's 'freebie' ideal and leapt into new waters that caused envy amongst record industry execs. The first 9 tracks of 'ghosts', ostensibly 'ghosts I' were given away free to all with a series of packages ranging from a $5 download for all 36 tracks to a $300 deluxe edition of CD's, Blu-ray discs and art prints all packaged and signed.
Reznor had monetised a 'free' record!  
By the end of sale the limited editions alone had netted Renor a cool $750,000 and delivered fans a unique album packaged to reward their loyalty and balance their empty pockets. A simple idea, take your fan base and treat them for their loyalty. Give them a reason to spend money, a package that is more than just one of a million mass produced plastic discs.
I could talk at length on the benefits this has had to so many bands, how it has given music less and less need for the crutch of the record industry and the once holy grail of 'signing to a label'.
Below is a keynote speech from 2009's Digital Music Summit on the amazing transition this is creating for the future of established bands, it's a little lengthy but highlights just how important you as a fan is to your favourite band.
Mike Masnick - Trent Reznor and the Future of the Music Industry3/25/09

So that's the big names in music carving a niche for themselves outside of the constraints of record labels, where does that leave the unsung, unsigned artist? 

1 comment:

  1. It seems to be a question that most record companies and bands are wrestling with. At the moment there doesn't seem to be too much damage done beyond bands revenues, by which I mean that records are still being made and people still have careers. I think what worries me most are the people who are starting to rip off ebooks. Authors don't have any other means to make money (no touring or merchandise) and generally it takes longer to write a book than make an album. I can understand people 'trying before buying' with music - I do it myself with Spotify and Youtube. You can't with a book though - once you've read it then you'll probablty not re-read it.