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In A World Where Recorded Music 'No Longer Has Monetary Value,' The Artist Is King

from the if-you've-got-nothing-to-lose,-what's-stopping-you? dept

This post is a followup to a recent piece dealing with Wayne Coyne’s enthusiasm for utilizing “all technologies” to connect with fans (including using “pirate sites” for the distribution of the Flaming Lips’ music) as well as Bas Grasmayer’s terrific post “Why The Internet Has Been Awesome For Both Musical Artists And Fans.”

With the discussion of SOPA still ongoing, a lot is being made of how bad things are right now for content creators. But are they? Or is it just a matter of perspective?

Chuck Klosterman, in his very entertaining review of Lou Reed/Metallica’s new album “Lulu,” makes this observation:

As a rule, we’re always supposed to applaud the collapse of the record industry. We are supposed to feel good about the democratization of music and the limitless palette upon which artists can now operate. But that collapse is why Lulu exists. If we still lived in the radio prison of 1992, do you think Metallica would purposefully release an album that no one wants? No way. Cliff Burnstein from Q Prime Management would listen to their various ideas, stroke his white beard, and deliver the following 45-second pep talk: “OK, great. Love these concepts. Your allusion to Basquiat’s middle period was very apt, Lars. Incisive! But here’s our situation. If you guys spend two months writing superfast Diamond Head songs about nuclear winter and shape-shifting, we can earn $752 million in 18 months, plus merchandizing. That’s option A. The alternative is that you can make a ponderous, quasi-ironic art record about ‘the lexicon of hate’ that will outrage the Village Voice and mildly impress Laurie Anderson. Your call.” Ten minutes later, Bob Rock would be parking his Lexus at the studio…

But if the fundamental goal of Metallica is to make good music, it seems like trying to get rich while doing so dramatically improves their creative process. The constraints of late capitalism really work for them; they’re extraordinarily adept at making electrifying heavy rock that’s designed to generate revenue. The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again – if viewed in a vacuum – that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

To be fair, Klosterman is stating this as a conclusion, rather than an indictment. There’s an underlying tone of accusation there, but I don’t think that his overall point is to decry file sharing as ruining music, but rather pointing out that an album like this could only be made in this day and age.

Essentially, this (“the democratization of music and the limitless palette upon which artists can now operate“) becomes a situation that artists can view as either half empty or half full. When there’s nothing to gain, why even bother? Conversely, when there’s nothing to lose, why not take risks? When faced with piracy, you can either handle the challenge like Eileen Siedler (poster girl for Why The DMCA Does Not Work), whose glass will be eternally half empty or you can do what Metallica and others did and view it as the perfect climate for experimentation. As frustrating as it is to see your efforts spread all over the web without your consent or control, it’s an exercise in futility to expend your energy attempting to snuff out every last flame of infringement. Wouldn’t that time and energy be put to better use by creating and exploring options?

It’s happening all over. Drake tweeting amiably about an album leak. The Flaming Lips doing everything from recording a 24-hour song (and embedding it in a skull) to tossing out rough cuts and half-formed ideas onto file sharing sites. Jack White teaming up with the Insane Clown Posse. Chino Moreno of the Deftones releasing an album of witch house music (and giving it away). Bjork putting out an album-as-app for the iPhone and inviting pirates to make it cross-platform. DJ Screw acolyte and obliteration-as-remix artist Nattymari using Youtube as his “label,” having uploaded nearly 200 videos/tracks to date. He claims it pays him the same amount a label would: “nullset.” It also gives him a free platform to get his stuff out there which he has leveraged into a rather high profile Kreashawn mixtape for influential NYC music/fashion blog, Mishka Bloglin. When you’ve got restlessly creative people itching for release, the normal time frame of label day and date release schedules will never be fast enough.

Need more examples? Take a look at Bradford Cox. Not only is he the founding member of Deerhunter, but he continues to produce quality music under the name Atlas Sound, his “bedroom production” project. Cox moves too fast for Sony, who accidentally took Cox’s freely released music down from his account at Mediafire. Chillwave artist Neon Indian sells scarcity by teaming up with Bleep Labs to offer a deluxe edition of his latest album, bundled with its Pico Pasa mini synth. Not only that, but he takes the time to shoot a bizarrely hilarious informercial for the product. Other artists are finding that fans still want physical items, even if it’s just a physical piece of music they could acquire for next to nothing (or nothing itself) somewhere else. Vinyl sales are up. Cassettes, of all things, continue to make a comeback. All of these are efforts that would have been unimaginable in the past when the labels decided your next moves and kept a constant eye on the bottom line.

Many other success stories utilizing technology and non-conventional methods have been featured here at Techdirt. Still, the complaints roll in. The most common argument is that this particular method “won’t work for everybody” or “won’t scale.” This is true. Each content creator will likely have to try out many methods before finding one that works for them. Getting lost in the chaos of the internet is very easy if you can’t command attention, and yes, that means solutions won’t scale.

But looking back at the golden years of the recording industry, their solution didn’t scale either. Lost in this nostalgic view is the fact that the old method of “sign-with-label, make-record, sell-record” didn’t scale either. For every artist that made it big with a major label, many, many more ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no control over any of their recorded output. With royalties slowly being applied to their outstanding balances, these bands had to tour and sell merchandise to make money. Sound familiar?

With labels investing less and less in their artists, it’s up to the artists to creatively use all the tools at their disposal to get their music into people’s heads and their names on people’s lips. Not every band or artist has the kind of money that Metallica has, or the clout, but then again, most smaller bands/artists don’t have to keep sweatered therapists on the payroll or pay for a Lou Reed-sized drug habit. Yes, the odds are tough and the signal-to-noise ratio completely out of whack, but there has never been a time in history where musicians had the opportunities than they have today.

There are so many tools available now for speedy (and cheap) distribution. Bittorrent. Digital lockers. Cloud services. Bandcamp. Tunecore. Soundcloud. Youtube. Beatport. Spotify. Rdio. Hell, even turntable.fm has been known to host album debuts. If you’re looking to get your music into people’s ears, the possibilities are endless. A million bloggers, from small-time writers with a few hundred followers to 800-lb. gorillas like, well, Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork are dying to get their hands on new music.

Keeping contact with your fans has never been easier or more instantaneous. Webcasts, twitter, Facebook, Google+ and countless other social media platforms and tools allow artists to enjoy actual conversations with their fans, which is a huge step up from stapling up flyers and hoping for the best.

If the complaints are to be believed, the ones that state that piracy and free/cheap digital goods are killing the creative industries, anyone on the outside of the argument would look around the internet and have a very hard time believing that. The playing field, especially for recording artists, is the levelest it’s ever been. The real question is, as you face the “wild west” of the internet: Are you looking at how much you have to gain? Or are you just looking to minimize your losses?

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Comments on “In A World Where Recorded Music 'No Longer Has Monetary Value,' The Artist Is King”

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TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

He’s reviewing a recording, he didn’t like it for a host of reasons.

Let me put it another way. Metallica and Lou Reed decide to do something they call Lulu. The call up Bob Rock at his West Vancouver home and say “we got a job for ya and we’ll send you the money via Paypal immediately if you say yes”.

Faster than light speed Bob Rock is pulling up outside Lou Reed’s studio in New York and off they go. Even if it’s a dud it looks good on Rock’s c/v that he’s worked with Lou Reed as he can produce (and perform) bad metal in his sleep so Metallica is no big deal. Anyway, who cares? He’s paid, got the job with Lou Reed and he’s happy and they got thier record out. Done Deal.

Lou Reed's proctologist says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Dec 5th, 2011 @ 2:05pm

Klosterman was wrong but not about piracy. It’s a talent slash generation gap. Metallica still exist because they have not been made obsolete by the next generation. There are lots of great undergriund metal acts don’t get me wrong. They have grown as people and no longer have a internal need to write a song about apocolypse. The old market insured the playing field would be in thier favor. The majority of thier fans should have moved on to High on Fire’s replacement already. Metallica shold be on a oldies tour with Flo and Eddie or playing in Ringo’s band next summer. And no one should care. The majors fixed the game real good if in a pirates age Metallica and Reed who neither have made a good record in generations still get this much attention. Pirate yrself some High on Fire or Sleep and forget there ever was a Lulu.

RadialSkid (profile) says:

But looking back at the golden years of the recording industry, their solution didn’t scale either. Lost in this nostalgic view is the fact that the old method of “sign-with-label, make-record, sell-record” didn’t scale either. For every artist that made it big with a major label, many, many more ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no control over any of their recorded output. With royalties slowly being applied to their outstanding balances, these bands had to tour and sell merchandise to make money. Sound familiar?

This paragraph should be tattooed to the head of everyone with ASCAP, the RIAA, Digital Music News, and everyone else who laments the downfall of retail music. The market for copies may have effectively ended, but nothing has fundamentally changed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

many more ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no control

Sounds like the fools that got mortgages they couldn’t afford.

Any band that ended up “hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt” likely deserved to be.

The thing is, “many, many more” i.e. most, didn’t end up this way. The statement is bullshit. There’s no citation because none exists.

Just more stupid record label bashing here on Techdirt, trying to rationalize ripping off musicians.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is nothing like mortgages that can’t be afforded. These are bands that are signed and basically royally screwed from the get go. There’s a great video of how a band, any band, can sign with a label, sell half a million records and still be in debt to the label. There are all kinds of practices in play that go against MOST artists. In fact, it’s a rare artists that gets any kind of recognition and makes it big in any way.

The statement is not bullsh*t. It’s truth. The thing is, you don’t like hearing it. It is something that you try and dismiss outright and blow off. Which only further goes to show just who you “support”. You claim to be for the artists, but in this example/situation look at what you say. Essentially, “too f*cking bad, they must suck”.

No one is rationalizing anything here. Especially not ripping people off. Did you read the article? Probably not. You skim it, take a few points you particularly don’t like, say they’re “bullsh*t” (without providing any facts/evidence to the contrary) and then walk off. You run and hide pretty much. And this is why people don’t like your ilk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You people are about as sharp as a bowling ball.

Do 90% of label musicians sell enough albums to make money?

Do you REALLY think no one notices how you people always ignore the fact that it was THE BAND’S CHOICE to sign with a label? And how to use their advance?

When you dorks try to pontificate on the music industry like you’re experts or something, it just buttresses the notion that you are all total buffoons.

ZeeBat (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:


Yeah? So what? Most of the bands that we have today that are very well known did not have the Internet in the mix to help “CHOOSE” how to move forward.

“Do you want this nice, puffy, chocolate covered pastry that’s mostly air-filled but has the possibility of making you feel full or do you want to go about making your own puffy, cream filled pastry that, in our humble opinion, will probably suck?”

Not entirely unlike “CHOICE” for POTUS that.

Now they have a “REAL” choice.. several choices actually and each and every new “CHOOSER” can navigate, negotiate and research a “MODERN WORLD” where, GASP!, they might even be able to have CONTROL over their own fucking works! IMAGINE THAT.

You just don’t appreciate the competition because you’re all sniveling, conniving, spoiled freaks (minus approximately 7-13%)

And we’re experts on entertainment and could give a pickled pecker about your historical “industry”.

RadialSkid (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yes, the bands are tempted by the candy that’s dangled in front of them, then proceed to make absolutely nothing for the rest of their lives. The entertainment industry – ALL fields of it – thrives off of naivete.

And that has absolutely NOTHING to do with the fact that most of them lose money. When you’re given a $500,000 advance and have to pay it back with 10% of album sales, you don’t make money on albums unless you sell in the millions. Do the fucking math.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

You speak as if these odd artist combos are something new, but they’ve always been around and rarely work. Remember the The Glove or Hindu Love Gods? (Those albums were pretty good, actually, which is why I remember them.)

I doubt anyone’s telling Lou Reed what kind of music to make, but I think a lot of bands are driven to be successful not for financial reasons, but for the trophy and clout that comes from being the biggest act around, not to mention what it does for their longevity.

I remember Sting saying the whole point of the Police was to be the biggest band in the world. Five albums later they were, and then they broke up because there was nowhere else to go.

It’s these kind of ambitious bands (and I think Metallica is one of them, Lou Reed is not) that have always done well at the major record labels, mainly because the labels love their financial success.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

But … but … What about all my mass marketing and promotion skills I have learned after decades at mass media companies. Let me just explain to you the miraculous powers of a masterfully designed windowed release system coordinated with a world wide touring schedule! I can find a no-name, no-skill rapper and turn him into a recording star even if his musical skills are challenged at the kazoo level (did I mention that I know people who can do wonders in post-production?) The Internet and freetard music don’t require someone of my skill level. Creativity is overrated, and it complicates the marketing plan.

Aren’t my skills valuable to the music industry? They have to be worth something, don’t they? How am I going to support my fleet of luxury vehicles if I don’t get my annual bonuses?

out_of_the_blue says:

"an album like this could only be made in this day and age"

Not true. Pretentious vanity music has been around forever. Just download some William Shatner.

Anyway, to boil this article down, it’s “STEP 2: ?????”. You claim many examples so should be able to generalize successful techniques from them. But I’m pretty sure Metallica was around before the Internet, and in any case, they’ve money to “experiment”, so I’d sort of rule them out. Take the rest and generalize how to execute Step 2. Don’t just say “here’s a bunch of bands that somehow broke out using the Internet, so it proves our notions are universally viable”. Because we’ve had endless such assertions.

“STEP 2: ?????” … Not just one question mark, but five.

If you guys could focus on how to get noticed in this new modern decade, that’d be at least a start.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: "an album like this could only be made in this day and age"

Well…it being the 1700’s and all, pretty much the only way for you to get noticed is to play live in concerts. There’s this young buck called Mozart, I hear he’s become famous and he performs for only a few hundred people at a time.

Oh wait…sorry, had the wrong calendar out. It’s the year 2011, soon to be 2012, and apparently the Internet is in full swing. It’s pretty simple to get noticed. You record your music, put it up on the interwebz, tour, concerts, live performances, the whole deal. Pretty sure you’d get noticed.

Oh fuck it. I’ll just stop right here. Blue’s gonna ignore this post, just like he ignores EVERY other suggestion thrown at him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: "an album like this could only be made in this day and age"

Sure, maybe you get noticed for a day or so, until the next thousand bands that “don’t suck” put up their latest song.

There is no shortage a great, unknown, artists these days.

Great music is not scarce; hence, it’s free. And you have to work a day job to pay the rent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "an album like this could only be made in this day and age"

So, in other words, you’re want to completely ignore that there is a non-zero risk of failure in the old model and insist that for a new model to be declared viable it must be ‘universally viable’ i.e. carry a non-zero risk of failure? If that’s not what you mean by ‘universally viable’ then by all means, elaborate. Certainly sounds like you’re asking for a no-risk solution to a problem, making it as an artist, that has always carried risks in the past though.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

I wonder if Klosterman ever listened to...

…Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” (1975). It might be interesting to compare that effort to this one. (If you’re not familiar with that recording, check the Wikipedia entry for it.

It’s still puzzling to me, though, how the guy who had a hand in “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”, in “Dirty Boulevard” and “The Original Wrapper” and so many other interesting, occasionally-enduring pieces of music, managed to make that record.

Anonymous Coward says:

The artist isn’t king – the artist more than ever is janitor and mail room clerk. Instead of spending their time on creating new music, they spend their hours business planning, doing appearances, playing the proverbial mini-putt games to pay the bills. They aren’t the king at all, they rank no higher than the court jester, it seems.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

they rank no higher than the court jester, it seems.

That would be because the court jester is a fellow artist!

Seriously though, the world has changed. In the past most budding artists never got beyond “summer of 69” status. A few got picked up by record labels and promoted – often after a long and hard apprenticeship. The rest never made any recording beyond a demo tape – and certainly never made any money from recording.

Nowadays anyone good enough to play in public for money can also make a few CDs to sell at the gig and have a website where they can sell online too.

Because the barriers to entry have gone more people are trying and so the competition is tougher. That is a fact of life with music – because the supply of wannabees is inexhaustible anything that makes the lot of musicians better may actually appear to make it worse because of the competition.


gaetano says:

I find it interesting that every single example of an artist using an “alternative” method to their discovery, branding, distro, or sales, was already enjoying a huge established fan base provided by labels and other media outlets before moving forward with any of those other tactics.

All of the mentioned artists (with the exception of nattymari, who I’ve never heard of) had the benefit and luxury of a label release, and the PR and marketing that go along with it.

The problem I see isn’t once you’re off the ground, it’s getting out of the garage. It’s very easy for people to say, “you just have to tour”, or “sell merch”. Do you know what it costs to tour? Or produce merch? Or the details/logistics of any of it? Low level touring is sharecropping AT BEST. You can’t live off of it, you’ll need a day job, but therein lies the rub, because how can you hold down a day job when you’re on the road 6 months out of the year?

Mid level touring is more of the same, with more debt, and more expectation. High level touring is now the realm of corporate sponsors, or of course major labels.

This is only one aspect of the problem, but sale of a durable good (recorded medium) offset touring costs, and covered overhead even for the DIY musician. The solutions are few and far between at the moment, Crowdfunding seems to be one of the most realistic solutions…literally front loading projects/tours with fans as investors. The other realistic option is a trust fund or rich uncle.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

For all the whining and complaining about the Internet and the “wild west” part of it, the “democractizaion of music” and a host of other things, most of which IP purists seem to loathe just on principle the current time reminds me of another time.

From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s there weren’t just four or five monster labels out there controlling 100% of the distribution but hundreds of smaller ones each with their own distrubtion channels. You know Sun Records, for example. A&R meant meeting the artists not listening to a tape but listening to them play/sing or whatever and seeing the audience reaction.

During the 1950s it was these small labels that signed Elvis (Sun), most white rock’n’roll acts and virtually all black crossover acts. later grabbed up by the majors when they started to sell not to record as such but to distribute because they wanted control of that, more profitable part of the business.

British Invasion in 1963-64 was much the same. Other than the Beatles few English acts had American deals so small labels grabbed what they could and, when they started to sell the majors moved in and signed them from the small companies. Again, for the more profitable distribution end of the business.

There’s nothing inherently evil in all of this, mind you. It’s business in action, the RIAA hadn’t turned into the single minded behemoth it’s become now. There was still, actually competition in the business and the music flourished.

The serious merger and acquisition stuff started in the mid 1970s and has continued till now with the “majors” having reduced themselves to a small group.

New music is introduced by indie labels and, once again, acts are signed on to major labels for the distribution rights for the same reasons.

Now the internet has arrived and the distribution channel is fractured beyond belief. Anyone, with minimal knowledge can upload a file or 6 and start to distribute songs. The old rules don’t exist any more because the game gets played so differently. Anyway, the RIAA and MPAA are still smarting from the deals they feel cornered into signing with Apple to start up iTunes and they lost the distribution channel there too. Worse, they had to sign the same deal with Amazon.

Worse yet indies are popping up everywhere and the RIAA and MPAA can’t do anything about it. “Legally” or not it all ends up on the Internet. Their members or not, it all ends up on the Internet.

So now, feeling incredibly entitled, they feel the need to buy up as many members of the US Congress as they can and whine that their failure to keep up with the planet is somehow due to copyright infringement instead of strikingly bad business decisions.

Sadly there are otherwise intelligent people who seem to agree with them who might not have been paid off.

Then I remember that it’s the RIAA as it existed and it’s members who got blasted over the payola scandal in the late 1950s and come to the delighted conclusion that nothing has changed with them and if all else fails they always fall back on blatant corruption.

It’s nice to know there are some constants in an otherwise changing world.

Jason Miles (user link) says:

Free Music

The quality of production for recorded music has gone way down in recent years.
I still believe an album of quality needs to ne made in a real studio with excellent musicians and great songs. It needs to be engineered and mixed by someone who knows what they are doing and doesn’t rely on Plug-in presets. Yes there are bands who are an all in group,but they still need excellent production. since there is no money available to make albums anymore the production quality will keep on going down and turn into generic sounding albums with no artistic character-I hear it all the time in 2011-
Peace, jason

davnel (profile) says:

The Facts

None of this is new. All performance art is technology based. Even a simple guitar is technology.

There are three basic categories of performance art. First is stage performance where the artist or troup performs live before it’s audience and gets instant accolades (or boos)as part of the payment. Technology has been a large part of performance art since the ancient Greeks started puting on plays.

Next comes recordings of live performances. Finally there’s studio based performances where the audience appreciation is delayed until the recordings are sold to the public.

The act of recording said performance is, of course, technology based. The problem comes in when the technology has advanced to the point where the large studios are no longer needed. Hardware and software now exists to allow any garage operation to produce music and plays of a quality unheard of even ten years ago. The technology now exists to distribute said performances to the whole world inexpensively via the internet and the likes of Paypal.

The big studios provided the services of monetary support, usually in the form of advances (that somehow never got paid off), and sophisticated studios to do the recording.

None of this is required now. The production cost to artists is low enough that they don’t need the big corporations to support them. They do it themselves, in a bedroom, and get astonishing results. The fans like it so they buy it…over the internet…via Paypal. Studios not required.

The problem, of course, is that the corporations have no answer for all of this and so they fall back on laws and litigation to try to stop it. Won’t work. Never has and never will. Technology advances regardless of what the old guard wants. It has always been thus.

The only answer for the corporations is to completely revise their model to provide low cost recording services and direct internet sales. Neither of which they seem to be inclined to do. So be it. The buggy whip manufacturers had the same problem, and lost. So will the recording industry.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Facts

There is an inexhaustible supply of new artists with an amazing talent for creating beats that the masses love to listen to.

You never saw it before because the record labels were the “gatekeepers” that only accepted a few at a time and showed you their music.

But today and going forward, there will be a constant supply of really good popular music, since any talented artist can create and distribute their work. And it will need to be free because: if you charge for it, people will just ignore it and listen to other great, free music.

davnel (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Facts

All true, with one exception. Most listeners want to support artists they like. They (and I) will spend money ON THE ARTIST’S WEBSITE, where they are asured the money goes to the artist and not some corporation’s coffers.

The really nice thing is that a great proportion of our population plays some instrument or other, or sings well. So, you’re right about the vast number of potential artists. WIth the internet available, lots more of them will get heard and liked, and PAID.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The Facts

The problem is getting them to find and listen to you inthe first place.

It’s like you are finally have your own cable channel: amazing!! Just what you have been waiting for!

Then you see there are 500,000 other channels, and they all make music as great as yours.

For example, I am currently on the top 10 for singer/songwriters in Minneapolis on Reverbnation (Glenn Galen). But there are a LOT of great musicians on Reverbnation worldwide that people can listen to.

Anonymous Coward says:

@fogbugzd when i go for good music, i go for the most buzz/gossip/pirated-issue on the star i’m about to preview @YouTube, your effort there is the main chain that makes things happen. I really won’t go for one with less famous in the news. Its like with chick, would you still go for easy one or would you rather go for the harder one. It won’t worth well prolly a couple of days/weeks depends on how much ‘news’ she/he is into. But all that news still must be to a certain extend(just as far as music, not in private life, worst..sex life. omg.) I’m guessin this will stays in every men’ point of view for a very long time. if the music industry whish to be a game changer in this digital world. Let it be game then, it’s the event/local promotion,race,bets,games that might get that music more as a memento rather than rythme. thanks for making the site non-script able to view and post anonymously 😮

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