Guitarist Chris Randall, formerly of Sister Machine Gun (and founder of Positron Records, along with running plug-in creator Audio Damage) has an epic post detailing his thoughts about the music business (and the recording industry)
and the monumental changes it has gone through over the last decade. He pointedly declares that his post (in PDF form, due to limitations of his site) is not
a manifiesto. Randall calls it "more of a mission statement, really," and it does exactly that, with many stops along the way.
The underlying current of the piece is that music (along with other forms of art) cannot honestly be discussed in terms of monetary value. The sale price of an mp3 or an album has very little to do with how the fans
value the music. No one talks up how much they spent on something when discussing their connection with a band or singer. Instead, they talk about more ethereal concepts, like where they were when they first heard a certain track or who turned them on to a certain band. Randall gives a personal example, as seen through the artist's eyes:
The funny thing about music is that people can tie a certain song to a specific event in their life that occurred when they heard that song; the two become inseparable... I first noticed it in 2004, on the last real tour I did as a performing artist. The first day of the tour, I was in the audience waiting for the opening band to go on, and someone came up to me and said “it’s so cool you’re here! The first time I heard you was...” and then went on to describe a particular life experience that was occurring when he first heard a song I wrote. There were over sixty shows on that tour, and a night didn’t go by that I didn’t hear that speech, or a variation of it, at least once. It quickly became a running joke, The First Time I Heard You, and soon after that it became a conversation I dreaded. It was a heart-rending thing to hear, night after night, because I thought they were saying “you used to make things I liked. Now you don’t, but I’m here out of nostalgia.” It took an epiphany to realize that the First Time I Heard You conversation is is meant as a sincere form of flattery. “You are an ARTIST. You created something that MADE ME FEEL. This is IMPORTANT and I need to TELL YOU so you know that we have a CONNECTION.”
This led Randall to the following conclusion:
That epiphany, and a realization that the act of creation can and should be entirely decoupled from the business of commerce, is what I want to talk about. In fact, let's boil it down to a pithy aphorism: the coin of this realm is reputation, and our imagination is an ATM.
Many artists and (especially) artists' "representatives" have argued
that the current market for all things artistic is unsustainable, a race for the bottom fueled by cheap technology and piracy. That their efforts have done little to reverse the process hasn't made them any happier and it certainly hasn't made their few, minimal attempts any smarter or any more effective. Randall went through the whole process as an artist, having the "rug yanked out from under him," and joining the chorus of disaffected artists cheering on the destruction of their former employers. This cheering, while admittedly fun, did little to actually change anything. Major labels kept acting like major labels, signing everyone they could talk into a contract. Meanwhile, the internet changed things for those wired into it, with little effect anywhere else:
There was a brief period where it was kind of fun to watch the entire music industry collapse in on itself, like a dying star. Can we get more of Metallica suing people for liking them, please? But Seans Fanning and Parker didn’t make Napster because they were moved by the plight of the working musician. They did it because they could, and the act itself, the act of petulant children bent on destruction, was nothing more than a path to greater things for them, increasing their reputations. The music industry, for its part, was eminently destroyable, as it had created an economy of artificial worth, by virtue of its “throw all the spaghetti at the wall and see which noodles stick” business model.
Napster effectively made music free, and yet, for several years, record labels continued to overspend and overvalue their own music:
That’s fine, and business is business, but the problem is that all those bands think they are special flowers (and the labels are in no small part enablers of this thinking; they spend a lot of time and effort making those artists feel like special flowers), and if their record cost $500,000 to make, then it is worth $500,000... Simple economics: a product’s worth is what someone will pay for it, for the most part, not what it cost to make. Hence the utterly false values ascribed to music today.
Plenty of new services have arrived which seem to push the "value" of music down even further. Lots of criticism
has been leveled at Spotify for its "low" payouts. Artists have noticed that streaming services' per-play rates aren't going to be much help if you've sunk thousands of dollars
into recording an album. This isn't the listening audience's fault, though. This is still just a matter of artists valuing their art above what the market will actually bear. Randall points out that, if anything, Spotify's per-play rates are too high
, if compared to the public's valuation of the music in question:
Something happened to me a little while ago that makes me think the Spotify valuation is high, if we’re using currency as our means of valuation. SomeoneI know, who is in the military, was recently deployed to Iraq. While she was there, a friend of hers gave her a portable hard drive with 250,000 songs on it...
To her, this hard drive was “cool,” and furthermore “a neat present.” That it contained roughly 1/8th of all the commercial music ever recorded by Western civilization didn’t change the fact that, on a visceral level, the worth of it to her was essentially the cost-of-replacement of the physical drive itself, because she could always get another copy. If you want to affix an actual monetary value to music, that value is now, and ever was, a function of two things: the true cost of the medium it is stored on, and how easy that medium is to duplicate. The quarter million dollar fine the U.S. government could theoretically levy as punishment for copying that hard drive reflects the false economy the labels have created, not the actual value of the music itself.
To be clear, I am in no way implying that art doesn’t have intrinsic value. But that value is not quantifiable in dollars. If we extrapolate the cost of that hard drive to the individual songs, we can say that each song cost roughly 4/100th of a cent. While this is about 2/3 of the payment for a typical Spotify stream, the money went to the drive retailer and the manufacturer that made it, and none whatsoever went to any artist, publisher, or label.
So, if it can be argued that the monetary value of music is zero
, how does any artist hope to make a living? Randall argues that the first step is to realize that music's power to create emotional experiences is "priceless" (in the good sense of the word) and work from there. The true potential lies in the connection
, not the value ascribed to someone's songs by an outside force.
As an artist, if you choose to fight this battle over monetary value, know this: you will lose. That is a foregone conclusion. In fact, you have already lost. All of that nonsense with numbers and who’s getting paid and whether life is fair or not is all inside baseball, and the average person (the one ultimately footing the bills, it must be said) couldn’t give two shits. To them, pieces of art are tied to memories and experiences; they are either trying to recapture the emotions they felt when they first experienced the art in a particular context, or trying to create new emotions to go with new contexts. They are willing to spend a certain amount of money, for altruism’s sake, if it’s convenient.
This is where the artist needs to step in and connect. Not only are they fighting against a zero-dollar valuation, they're also competing for the hearts and minds of potential audience members (and customers) who are blessed with more choices than ever before. Barriers-to-entry are all but gone and the world is filled with people creating because they suddenly find that not only are the tools more powerful, but the options for dissemination are nearly endless. If you can get past the "valuation" issue, you can do great things, and quite possibly, make some money as well. But first you've got to do some letting go.
[I]n my honest assessment, the opportunities are far greater now, and the rewards as ample or perhaps even more so. It’s easy. Just forget about money. Seriously. Let it go. You’re not getting paid? Join the club. Robert Johnson and Scott Joplin were the founding members. Muddy Waters, HP Lovecraft, and Jackson Pollack each got an achievement award. David Crosby gets the Bad Life Decisions Honorable Mention. You’re in good company. You should be proud.
Randall points out that he's not trying to make the case that creating art in hopes of making a living is the wrong angle to take. As he says, there are still several creative people collecting paychecks, including session musicians, graphic designers and various positions in the game, computer and television industries. He also makes it very clear that he's not, for lack of a better term, One of Us. [broad emoticon wink at TD regulars]
Neither do I want to come off as a neck-bearded freetard. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are not many groups of people I disdain more than the Doctorow mashup crowd and their inspired thinking that art + art = better art, and everybody has the right, nay, the responsibility to make their own Mickey Mouse movies. If that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat, so be it, but on your head.
Randall offers this alternative plan for struggling artists: the currency of reputation. Build a solid one of those and people will throw money at you. He points out the astounding success of Amanda Palmer's
Kickstarter project. Did she need all that she collected to move forward with her career? Very definitely, no. But people showed up in droves and helped her, as Randall puts it, "cash in some of that reputation for real-world money." The same thing for Penny Arcade, who "chose to cash in their reputation that they earned through years of slogging it in the trenches." Your first step as an artist is to start "banking" reputation.
These Reputation Credits, an arbitrary unit of my own devising, are a reflection of how earnest you are in tending your public-facing persona... [I]f you contribute to the human cultural experience, you do earn them, and the more you contribute (or, perhaps, the higher the quality of your contributions) the more you earn. You can then turn these in for real-world dividends that can, for instance, pay the rent or buy sushi.
And how, exactly does on do that? By utilizing these four steps, many of which echo a familiar mantra
around these parts:
Put it in front of as many people as possible.
Engage the resulting audience.
The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it, the more Rep Credits you’ll have, and the further they’ll go when you need to spend some of them. People want to be entertained. They’ll go all honey badger on some good entertainment. Give it to them, for fuck’s sake, and stop bitching about money. That’ll come in its own good time.
There's a ton of great writing and insight in Randall's wordbomb. (It runs over 4,400 words.) I encourage you to take a look at the whole thing. It's not often a musician will offer up this sort of clearly-laid-out perspective on the last decade+ of the music world.