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
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...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.
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.
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?