Here are some questions:
Is there a future for the business of selling recorded music?
What is the right business structure for a band?
How should concert tickets be sold?
Is the natural unit of music consumption a song, an album, or a mix?
What kind of relationship should musicians and music-lovers expect to have with each other?
I tried to tear this essay into fragments of a more digestible size, but failed; sorry ’bout that.
Context: For four decades now I’ve loved music deeply; had I any real talent, I’d have long since abandoned the technology trade in its favor. My tastes cover lots of the great river-delta waterfront of music, but lie mostly in the mainstream of each of those many channels. I depart from the average in preferring the raw to the cooked, the spontaneous to the rehearsed, in caring a lot about audio quality, and being an unreformed child of the Seventies. Which will prejudice this discourse; you’ve been warned.
Paying For Music · How many ways are there? Here are the ones I can think of:
Purchase a recording. Does it matter whether delivery is on a disk or over a wire? I think not.
Buy a ticket for a performance.
Subscribe to a provider of music.
Listen to commercial ad-supported radio; which means you’re paying with your attention.
Become a patron, in the traditional sense.
Let’s walk through these for context then return to those questions up above.
Recorded Music · Here’s the problem, and I apologize for cliché-wielding, but the following remains true: Information wants to be free.
The facts are these: people very much enjoy music, and the cost of copying it is about zero, and giving others pleasure is always a good thing, particularly when you can give something and still have it. Given these facts, music will be widely copied and distributed.
The legions of lawyers and legislators and lobbyists may even really believe that what they’re doing is sane, but in fact the legal notion of “property” has long since ceased to have utility in the context of interchanging of musical recordings.
Legislation aimed at controlling the manner in which friends exchange music has approximately the same future as that which tries to govern what lovers do with each others’ bodies behind closed doors.
Having said that, content is a service business. There are a lot of people out there like me who, because we have more money than time, or because we like listening to whole albums, or because we value audio quality, or because we like hanging out in music stores listening to what the pimply kid behind the counter is playing, will go on buying recordings.
Every time someone figures out how to make it simpler and quicker and cheaper to buy, more people will. It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) anything like the status quo, in which silver disks are manufactured at a cost of pennies and sold for ten to twenty dollars, the vast majority of that money consumed by the sprawling and deeply corrupt music business. Do some smart disintermediation and there is a huge amount of room for slashing the cost of music while routing more money to those who actually, you know, make it.
So I don’t think the recorded-music business need die; although its current intermediaries deserve to, even as their pathetic and terribly expensive legal flailings increasingly come to look like a bad joke in the rear-view mirror.
Me, I still buy recordings, both on shiny disks (most recently Potato Hole) and via the Net, and I don’t see any reason to stop doing this.
The Concert Experience · It can’t be bootlegged because it can’t be reproduced. There will always be a place for live recordings, but nothing can replace the shared experience of a great musician taking the existential risk of walking on stage and committing to entertain for a few score minutes.
That said, anyone who actually loves popular-music concerts knows that, at least in North America, there is a malignant cancer eating away both at the musicians and their fans, and it’s called Ticketmaster/Live Nation.
This problem is urgent because we can’t afford to be blowing up and re-creating the recorded-music business while we simultaneously tolerate this gigantic multi-tentacled leech sucking the blood and profits from the vital business of touring.
Subscriptions · This is the slice of the music business that I would personally most like to see succeed. It’s so simple and easy to understand: you pay a monthly bill in exchange for which some party engages to supply you with enough musical pleasure to make you keep paying the monthly bill.
The parties offering subscriptions could be primary producers (i.e. musicians) or aggregators; I’m thinking everything from XM radio to an Internet-based streaming music service.
I’ve been trying this myself, and the results are mixed.
Being an Internet kind of guy, I’d prefer to disintermediate and deal direct with the artist. And recently some website I hit pitched me on subscribing to U2. I know that Nick Hornby says that after the revolution they’re one of the first bands up against the wall, but I like ’em, I can’t help it; mostly that guitar sound, and the one time I saw them the performance was great.
I checked it out: they wanted $50/year to become a member of U2.com. I knew the band was coming to Vancouver in October (this is back in April) and thought getting a better angle on that might be worth it.
So I signed up, and it sucks; unless something changes, I won’t be re-upping. What did I get? A 2-CD package called Medium, Rare & Unreleased and yeah, it’s got some good tunes, but $50 is pricey. I also have a login that gives me a slightly different view of the U2.com site, with advance looks at some concert videos. I also could have watched the Aug. 20th Sheffield concert streamed live, but I was busy. Also, if I wanted to I could move my email to email@example.com, but don’t hold your breath.
What I was hoping for was an advance shot at Vancouver-show tickets, but when I hit that part of the site in April, the pre-sales for the late-October show were gone.
U2.com had a buy-tickets link, but that just led me to Ticketmaster Hell; only singles available, and at a price of C$250. Bah.
On a more pleasant note, I’m a serious fan of Patricia Barber. Here’s how serious: In early August, I spent some airline miles to fly down to Chicago and catch her regular Monday-evening gig at the Green Mill; the second time I’ve been there in the last couple of years. I’ve written here before about her, and praised her Web site, which is responsive and intelligent.
I’m on her mailing list too, and in June I got a nice, chatty email talking about how good the Green Mill had been to her over the years, and announcing that she’s going to start selling downloads from her site, starting with a live Green Mill set from 2006. Fifty minutes of music, $9.99 for MP3 or $12.99 for FLAC. I bought it (FLAC of course) and it’s just absolutely delicious.
Ms Barber’s business approach is a little weird. Start with this: at the Green Mill, there’s a $7 cover charge and the drinks are pretty cheap. The whole front of the room is packed with out-of-town fans including lots of Europeans and Asians, who, it would seem, like me got on a plane and came a long way just to be there. I think the Green Mill could up the prices quite a bit and the people would still go away happy.
If she could commit to doing two or three downloads a year and the occasional letter about what’s going on, I’d subscribe in a flash.
Radio · I like radio. I like finding a station that plays good music for me that I don’t know. I’d prefer not to pay for it so I don’t mind listening to some ads and hey, we all gotta buy stuff so the ads might even be useful.
The problem is, most radio is terrible; vapid hardwired playlists aimed at reducing risk to zero, and on-air personalities aimed at the militant-airhead demographic.
Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. I would still like to believe that there is room for quality pop-music radio, given some management brains and innovation.
In Vancouver, as in most places I suppose, there is intermittently a radio station that is good for a while (currently The Peak), but it usually doesn’t last.
Patronage · Don’t be too quick to diss it, patronage was good enough for more or less every musician between J.S. Bach and Richard Wagner inclusive. And people are trying to innovate in this space.
I’ve written before about Maria Schneider and her Net-centric business model. I don’t subscribe, but I’m on the mailing list, and the other day I was invited to become a patron of the arts, via The Commision (sic) Project; $2500 buys you a bunch of benefits that I think would make the heart of a serious Schneider fan go pitter-pat. I’m not one of those, but I wonder how this will work out. The model doesn’t seem very scalable to me, but who knows?
Now, those questions I opened with deserve some answers. Here are mine.
Is there a future for the business of selling recorded music? · Yes, but not for the current so-called music business.
What is the right business structure for a band? · A central thrust of the industry has always been to inflict business rape on musicians; Courtney Love’s brilliant rant from 2000 is a good place to start getting the picture.
It’s simple: The right business structure for a band is to be a business. Thus, I’m been paying close attention to the “Polyphonic” project, which is aimed at trying to move in this direction. The New York Times covered this back in July and it’s worth watching Terry McBride’s blog; he’s one of the Polyphonic principals.
How should concert tickets be sold? · Not by Ticketmaster/Live Nation. The facts of the matter were laid out in nauseating detail in The Price of the Ticket, a terrific piece by John Seabrook in the New Yorker. You have to pay to read it, but yep, ticket sales are in the grip of an exploitative monopoly, and some smart politicians ought to get together and rip it to quivering shreds starting tomorrow.
Is the natural unit of music consumption a song, an album, or a mix? · Both; but let’s take this together with the next question.
What kind of relationship should musicians and music-lovers expect to have with each other? · See the previous question. There are some musicians I care enough about to respect their feelings about how songs should be sequenced; not coincidentally, they are the same ones I’m apt to subscribe to. It’s a win-win for those musicians and me to have a direct business relationship.
On the other hand, there are other musicians who put out a great song now and then but I don’t really have a “fan” connection to. In which case my relationship with them needs some sort of intermediary or aggregator.
Now, this is a vexed question, especially since Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has recently decreed that “None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again” — also read Emily Bobrow and friends on the issue.
I think Thom will probably feel the urge to crank out another album or two before he’s done with music; as with writing, long-form and short-form both have their places. Elvis Costello’s Mystery Dance doesn’t need to be a second longer, and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn needs every one of its ten parts and twenty or so minutes.
The Future · I think there’s scope to build a few outstandingly great music business models even while we’re still engaged in dynamiting the pathetic failures we have now.