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!).