Time For Musicians To Take Charge: Stop Waiting For Others To Fix The Music Business

from the or-get-out-of-the-way dept

Dave Allen, who is both a successful musician (founding member of Gang of Four) and a successful digital marketer and strategist for music business models, is preparing for next week’s SFMusicTech event (reminder: Techdirt readers can get a discount) with a brilliant new manifesto of sorts, pointing out that it’s time for musicians to stop blaming others and take charge: Dear Musicians: Please Be Brilliant or Get Out of The Way.

It has been more than a decade since I was last fully immersed in the recorded music business [and then only peripherally as GM of eMusic.com,] and I have long held out hope that musicians would ditch the old media model, both the business and the manufacturing sides, and fully embrace the huge possibilities that the unfettered social web allows them — asymmetrical distribution as opposed to old media distribution silos, two-way communication with music fans as opposed to old media PR, and marketing tactics and an unparalleled universal sandbox in which to experiment.

I am still waiting. Unfortunately my patience is now wearing thin. And my impatience is no longer with the record labels, it’s with the musicians. Despite all the data and untold amounts of writing about the decline in music sales, mainly the fall off of CD sales, musicians appear to be sitting on their hands. The reason I am no longer impatient with record labels is because their business model is transparent — they exist to make money from musicians. On the other hand, musicians are [or ought to be] immersed in their art; no one guarantees a living from the arts, but talk to the average musician about internet music distribution and you will often hear the same refrain — “downloading and file-sharing is killing music and denying me a living..”

That sort of “woe is me, I’m a victim” situation is certainly getting tiresome, especially as we see more and more and more bands take charge of their own future and implement smarter and smater business models that are working wonders for those who embrace them. So, Allen points out, it’s time to stop waiting for others to solve the business model issue, and take charge yourself (or, at the very least, partner with someone who can take charge for you):

Now that the internet has provided disrupting producers with all the tools they need to bypass the existing recorded music system, there should be no excuse for musicians to not go it alone. Yet, the producers — the musicians themselves, remain the problem. I believe that the safety and comfort offered to them in the past — record label deals, publishing deals, old media distribution, plus MTV and commercial radio for the most successful — created a diabolical music Nanny state, an addictive teat at which to suck that they are now having trouble weaning themselves off. I know there are many examples of musicians embracing the web but they have taken only baby steps and are in the minority — the majority are still staring into the headlights. [I purposefully won’t discuss Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails here as much has been written about their successful use of the social web and I consider them special cases.] The Nanny state reduced risk taking and danger in popular music. The very founding spirit of rock and roll was danger. Danger as perceived by those who didn’t understand the outburst of energy and excitement that this early musical form drew out of teenagers. Parents and adults in authority voiced their concerns and this led to ridiculous moments in musical history such as TV cameramen being told to only film Elvis Presley from the waist up.. If we fast forward to 1975 in the UK, we find that rock and roll, a mere 20 or so years later, with only a few exceptions, had become commercial, flabby, conservative and mostly dull. Then along came a new genre of music delivered by bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxie and the Banshees who injected rock with some street smarts and and sprinkled it with just a soupcon of danger. It was known as Punk Rock.

I bring up punk rock here as it defines a moment in rock music history that was as disruptive in 1976 as online music distribution became in the late 1990’s. Punk rock challenged people’s assumptions that popular music would always be, and could only be, controlled by large, well-capitalized, business organizations. Punk rock drove down production values and just like the Internet, became disruptive and leveled the playing field. Punk bands formed quickly, releasing records as 7″ vinyl singles on their own equally quickly formed record labels. A long term career in music was not the point of this enterprise, many bands flamed out within six months of their existence. Small independent labels sprang up to cater to this avalanche of bands, offering more favorable contracts than the majors had in the past. Business is business though, and the small label owners had plans for growth that ultimately led to punk rock’s demise. Soon enough punk rock was commoditized and, after a brief fling with Post-Punk, quickly fizzled leaving the stage for the New Romantics and their ilk. It wasn’t long until it was business as usual for the record labels — five years of promise had passed very quickly.

So I have to ask – why is there no online music equivalent of punk rock? Why is there no real and passionate embrace of the new?

It’s a great manifesto (this is only a snippet — the full thing is worth reading), and it’s going to make Dave’s session at SFMusicTech next week one not to miss (I just hope he’s not on at the same time I am!).

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Comments on “Time For Musicians To Take Charge: Stop Waiting For Others To Fix The Music Business”

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ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Where are you looking?

“So I have to ask – why is there no online music equivalent of punk rock? “

Wizard Rock, Nerdcore Hip-Hop, Chiptunes, Video Game Music (VGM)… There are plenty of genres/scenes that embrace the DIY bootstrapping ethos of punk.

The ‘problem’ is precisely the lack of a centralizing force to draw attention to them (the equivalent of college radio stations back in the seventies/eighties.) They’re out there, you just have to find them.

Eric C (profile) says:

Re: Re: Where are you looking?

“What we need is a “meta” music system that ties all the artists, producers, cd manufacturers, online distributors, promoters, etc together.”

I think that that’s part of what made/makes Myspace such a good platform for music. It’s something I’ve used quite a bit. By enabling bands and artists to have “friends” that are other bands that they know or like or are in their scene (particularly filling a large group of “top friends” that show up on their page with these), it really did a great job of networking between bands (as well as some of the behind-the-scenes folks, particularly indie labels and venues). Although pretty much everyone I know personally long ago migrated to Facebook, their tools for musicians are so crappy that I still regularly go to Myspace to look for new bands, check on the ones that I’ve friended, and look for upcoming shows.

cory huff (user link) says:

Re: Re: Where are you looking?

You mean, like the Internet?

This is exactly what Dave is talking about. Create music -> upload to CD Baby (or other distributor of choice) -> begin working with any number of promoters (bloggers, music sites, etc).

There was one set of standards. They were record labels. The Internet came along and did away with that. If we were to go back to one set of standards, we would then be back to dealing with gatekeepers, walled gardens, and limited access. That’s not how music (or other art) should be. Music is open and free flowing – there’s no reason the business model(s) can’t be the same way.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Where are you looking?

Hip-hop and other genres that make heavy use of sampled and repurposed sounds were the first thing that came to my mind too.

If you look at the average DJ/producer forum online, there are countless threads dedicated distributing mix tapes and spreading each others work around, not to mention all sorts of “infringement”-related threads, like those about sharing old and obscure albums for sampling or tracking down the original sources of the samples that show up in popular music (which is why hip-hop actually drives attention to forgotten works). But there’s a flipside: sometimes the famous producers show up in these very same threads to warn fans about exposing where they got their samples (don’t ask, don’t tell is still a BIG part of hip-hop production) for fear of legal repercussions.

Overall, the attitude is definitely one of “WE decide how we make and share our music”. But that side of it hasn’t become a big, public, in-your-face movement the way punk has (though we see it a little bit, occasionally with things . I have a feeling that’s also because of the internet: there are plenty of places online where producers and DJs can collaborate and experiment and discuss with other people around the world who already understand the situation, so there’s less incentive to deface the queen, as it were. Compare that to the punk movement, when small groups of kids in different areas were all wondering if other people felt the way they did about music, and they had to raise their voices in order to find each other.

Anonymous Coward says:

The longest quote posts on techdirt are always either h8tr rants or koolaid sipper posts. Mike, could you not just link us to his post, rather than quoting almost the whole thing?

As for the post itself, it’s all fine and dandy, but once again, does little to address the concepts of universality, wide distribution, etc. It turns music into the equivilant of a craiglists “man with truck” ad, rather than an international freight system. It’s fine if you are moving from one crash pad to another, but meaningless if you are trying to get significant business done all over the world.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Mike, could you not just link us to his post, rather than quoting almost the whole thing?

I did link to it, and I quoted only a short part of the article.

Is there some new rule about trolling, that outright making stuff up is now acceptible?

As for the post itself, it’s all fine and dandy, but once again, does little to address the concepts of universality, wide distribution, etc. It turns music into the equivilant of a craiglists “man with truck” ad, rather than an international freight system. It’s fine if you are moving from one crash pad to another, but meaningless if you are trying to get significant business done all over the world.

Yeah, because we’ve never shown *any* examples of these strategies working on a large scale… Oh wait, we have.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Again, the only examples of strategies working on a large scale you have shown are based on very well known and popular acts using all the time and money spent by record labels to promote the acts as their springboard.

Sorry, but fail.

I did link to it, and I quoted only a short part of the article.

5 long paragraphs makes this post longer than almost any other post you make. You only do that when you are either making fun of someone (for being “dumb”) or congratulating someone for burping up the koolaid (aka “smart”).

It’s just funny to watch. I would have been easier just to quote a short passage (and get to the point) rather than a long post, IMHO. Nothing more than that. I figure that would have been “smart”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Except those examples aren’t on a large scale.

We could use Amanda Palmer, the girl who sells crap online to pay the bills, and then signs up with Live Nation to make a living. Hmmm. I figured she is pissed at the music business because she mostly seems to redo other people’s songs, so she doesn’t get much in the way of royalties.

We could use Corey Smith, except outside of drunked college kids, most people have never heard of him.

We could use Radiohead, NIN, or those sorts, but they are all hugely popular before they started anything “FREE!”, so cross them off.

Who’s left that is both doing it from the ground up free, and is well known worldwide?

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Who’s left that is both doing it from the ground up free, and is well known worldwide?

The people who are starting free from the ground up now! Their fame and their success increase every day.

You are so hilarious that I hope you are joking. Your logic is almost artfully cyclical: you ask for an example of big business music, and when you get one you say the band is too famous. Then someone gives you a less famous band, and you say they aren’t a big enough business.

I’ve got news for you. In entertainment, big business = big fame, and vice versa. The two are inextricably linked. You are playing an obnoxious little game and it’s time to stop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Nope, sorry.

NIN and Radiohead got to the top of the heap because of many factors, one of which is record label money, promotion, support, A&R, local contacts, paid concert tours, etc. Without label support, Trent would possibly be a barfly in New Orleans, and Thom Yorke would be a music teacher at a university or something similar.

The reality is that their record deals are part and parcel of the process that lifted them to the highest hills and gave them wide public exposure. For them to them piss on the record labels, and plant the flag of freedom on top of the mountain like they climbed there on free is pretty arrogant and a little obnoxious.

More importantly, in the end, Radiohead very quietly signed a record deal for distribution worldwide, which means they made a whole bunch of money selling stupid plastic discs. Not exactly leader of the free, now are they?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

The rest of your post is so silly as not being worth responding to (in fact, you’ve made the same argument before, and it’s already been debunked, so I can’t see any reason to repost it… but it is your nature to repeat lies). However, on this point:

More importantly, in the end, Radiohead very quietly signed a record deal for distribution worldwide, which means they made a whole bunch of money selling stupid plastic discs. Not exactly leader of the free, now are they?

They signed a distribution deal, which is not a “record label deal” — quite different. And that was the plan from the beginning. In fact, in our original post about Radiohead’s experiment (http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20070930/214524.shtml) we even discussed how the cool CD was a big part of the deal, and how the free music made owning the physical package more valuable.

So, yes, they are a leader in understanding how to use free music to make people want to buy something scarce.

Which is the point.

The same point we’ve made all along, which you still don’t seem to understand. Oddly, I’ve explained this very point to you at least two dozen times.

I know you enjoy trolling, which is really, really sad and pathetic as a life ambition, but could you at least stop repeating obvious bullshit? Give us a challenge, would ya?

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

FYI, NIN began by giving away their tapes in the mid-80s, BEFORE they released their first label EP, 1000 Homo DJs.

Radiohead did the experiment because their label turned round and said that they weren’t paying them to record more albums after their contract expired.

And a few off the top of my head that gave away their music before signing:

Another Dead Hero

Granted, they don’t necessarily do that NOW, but that’s how they began

So next time, get your facts right, please.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Except those examples aren’t on a large scale.”

Being world famous and making a living isn’t enough for you? I doubt I could find anything to satisfy you but here’s some ideas:

Jane Siberry (Issa)
Lara St. John
Lisa DeBenedictis
Jill Sobule
Georgia Wonder
Jonathan Coulton
Josh Woodward
Dance At The Post Office

All of the above have used free music in a big way and most could be considered world famous.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Jane Siberry and Jill Sobule both greatly benefits from the expose and fan base built on record label’s money. The fact that neither of them have produce any music that has seen the same level that they were getting suggests they are moving backwards, not forwards.

Georgia Wonder? Well, considering they have to borrow equipment to make a record, which they then give away, I have to wonder what their financial balance sheet looks like.

The rest of the names don’t ring a bell with me at all, and I enjoy all forms of music, which would suggest they are local, lower level, or perhaps “underground” artists?

Do tell.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

I’m pretty sure they’re all on wikipedia, if you want to know more then look them up yourself.

As for level of success, none of them seem to be complaining and they all seem to be producing new music.. perhaps if you could define the terms of success?

To quote Fat Mike of NOFX, who while not offering his music for free is a strong player in independent music: “I define success by not working and I live like a king”. He’s hardly the poster child for the incumbent music industry.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It turns music into the equivilant of a craiglists “man with truck” ad, rather than an international freight system.

wow, where to begin?

sticking with your poor analogy, an “international freight system” isn’t going to make the kind of stuff that people believe in enough to support and build a community around.

the way to get money from music is to build a community around your work. that means making stuff that people believe in. that mass market stuff – catchy but largely forgettable radio tunes – just doesn’t work anymore. it costs to much to make, it costs too much to market, and just isn’t the kind of thing that people can really get behind and invest in. however, people will invest in a “man with a truck” if he or she makes music that really speaks to people.

a great (albeit non-musical) example is penny arcade. they don’t just have millions of fans, they have a standing army of radical followers that buys merchandise and attends an annual event. their charity work alone is worth million dollars a year. their annual penny-arcade expo in seattle has gotten so large that they are adding another show in boston in 2010.

LawPUNK (profile) says:


I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing recently and, in fact, I was convinced to start up a blog with this very topic just last week.

I hate when people spam their own websites in comments though, so unless anyone specifically wants to see it, I’m not going to write the name or url.

In any case, total legend. I agree 100%.

Dave says:

Spot on

Very true. And people could do searches here for all kinds of good ideas. Those who still support the outmoded methods may have a couple of points, but ignore some obvious ones.

A simple one is that the odds getting an old-school record deal are near zero anyway. And even if they get one, the change of being screwed every which way is very high.

We musicians, myself included, all think we’re great, right? It’s in our DNA, even if not true. The cool thing is that if someone is willing to attain the modest skills needed, or pay someone to do it, the use of new media methods may enable a person to make some money, or even a living, without being, um, the world’s best.

There’s also the fallacy that if someone is not able to get something off a torrent or the like, that they would buy it instead. So instead of your band getting its name around by doing some free stuff online, it would simply disappear completely.

herodotus (profile) says:

Why is everyone so damn impatient about this stuff? Is it just a short attention span?

It took 13 years after the phonograph was invented to even think of selling recordings on a large scale. And another 10 years after that for stuff to really take off in the selling-shellac-discs-and-cylinders business.

These things take time. Most musicians worth listening to are actually kind of involved in, you know, making music. Not all of them want to become businessmen, and some of them don’t even have an internet connection.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is foolish to be ignorant of these matters, and in the long run I think the majority of musicians will come around. But these things take time.

Not everyone is all that net savvy. Among the musicians that I know personally, I am the only one who is even remotely aware of this stuff.

herodotus (profile) says:

“Just a thought here herodutous but as the “informed” shouldn’t you share that information to your comrades?

The first step in dealing with a problem is to be AWARE of it…”

Oh, absolutely. And I do try to so inform them. But I am afraid that musicians are generally a lazy lot. It’s hard enough to get them to learn a damn song.

Part of the reason I started doing this sample business thing was to help these people make money in spite of themselves. I have plenty of work doing ALL of the web development, and ALL of the sample editing, and mapping, and format conversions, and so on. Trying to get them to actually help is a lost cause.

But seriously, changes of this sort always take time. The people who are most aware of the possibilities, the early adopters, as it were, aren’t necessarily the people who are most able to benefit from them.

Patrick Rafter (user link) says:

Yes- It's Up to Musicians Themselves

Agree wholeheartedly with your post here and the comments from Dave Allen that it’s now up for musicians themselves to decide where they want to take the music biz (i.e. how they make a sustainable living). For the first time in modern music– artists and their teams have the tools and affordable means to record, produce, tour, sell and succeed
without a posionous umbilical cord to self-interested labels. The direct-to-fan movement driven by Nimbit, CD Baby, Pandora, Facebook is creating a better connection between musicians and their patrons. Check out the First Direct-to-Fan survey at http://bit.ly/2010-d2fan-survey (which Nimbit launched this week!

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Musicians taking charge

Would it be possible to add a “fast forward” or “next” button on the top of drivel like this?

I know people like music. I know they like to eat. I know they like to know what is happening. Some people even like to hear that some “artist” burped, or said . However, I find that the articles about eating (pretty important) are very short, the articles about what’s happening are middling, and the articles about “artists” doing go on and on and on and on …..

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