Monday, May 17, 2010

Music and Business: What The Internet Really Means

5. What The Internet Really Means (for musicians)
Back to the original graphic that started this series of posts: It seems to show the best way for musicians to make a living is for them to sell CDs directly to fans.

Really? All this upheaval, all these changes in the music business, and the best thing people can come up with is a strategy from 1990 (but as would say..."on the WEB!")?

Does anyone really believe that artists should concentrate on selling CDs directly to fans?

First, the CD is dead. At the recent NARM conference, what's left of the irrelevant music retailing business was agitating for $10 CD prices. So the folks selling CDs want the price to go down, which means less money for music.

Guys, you're about 10 years too late. Tower is gone. Wal-Mart is very close to yanking all music from its stores. Best Buy is practically there already. The biggest music retailer now is iTunes, and in case you haven't heard, they don't sell CDs.

Second, there's the part about you selling direct to your fans. Once you've unwisely transmuted several grand into heavy plastic physical goods, you now have to distribute them. Hey, how many record stores (run by the aforementioned irrelevant music retailers) are in your town and immediate area?

Oh, but you're going to sell direct to your fans, right? OK. How many shows are you playing this month? For how many people? How many CDs are you going to move? How many did you move at your last gig? What about your friends' bands? How are they doing?

Mmm. You have a website? Well, you're on the right track. Now at least people can buy your CD whenever they want, instead of whenever you happen to be near them with a CD in hand. But you're either going to have to cut in CDBaby or you're going to handle fulfillment and credit card charges yourself. And your fans will have to wait several days for your CD to arrive. It sure would be better if you could just provide downloads.

And if you are providing downloads, why not have someone else host them, so they're always available? Why not make sure they're sold in the #1 store? That would be (right now) iTunes.

So you're back to selling downloads on the Internet. Because that's how you make your music available in the most convenient way to the most people. And from there, it becomes obvious that you should have your music available on Pandora, Rhapsody, MOG, and all the other services.

Why? Because if people can't hear your music where they want and in the way they want, they won't hear your music at all. And you'll get zero dollars for it.

In this respect, the internet is great for musicians, because it allows you to cheaply distribute your music worldwide, 24/7. Yeah, you make less money per transaction. Big deal. The other folks in the chain are providing value. Personally, I'd rather have 100 people pay me $1 for my album than 1 person pay me $200 for it. But then, I'm not a "professional" these days.

In terms of live music, I'd note that when I fronted a cover band, I made thousands of dollars and could have easily made a living earning close to $100k per year...if I had wanted to sing "Hungry Like The Wolf" in shiny silver pants night after night. It was fun and it paid the bills, but it was not deeply satisfying. It was also a hard life full time - lots of alcohol, travel, bad food, and other work hazards.

The internet made it easy for the cover band to get booked - people could check out videos, MP3s, and photos. We didn't have to doll up expensive physical promo packs. And people from all over the world could check out the band, resulting in a wider range of bookings.

Making my own music, while extremely satisfying, has barely made me enough money to buy a dinner or break even on the CDs. Factor in the gear, time, etc. and I'm way in the red. But I get to make exactly the music I want, on the terms I want, when I want. And with the internet, everyone can hear it.

Ultimately demand for music is lower than musicians would like. Despite the supposedly bleak financial picture for the business, there are more people making music and releasing albums than ever before.

That freedom, that creativity, that power - it's a good thing, right?

If you're interested in making music, the internet is great for you...and great for everyone else. You'll have to try hard to be heard over everyone else's music. But all in all, the internet giveth more than it taketh away.

If you're interested in selling music, the internet is essential for you...but you're in a terrible, highly competitive business. My advice to you: lower your expectations and/or get into a new line of work.

Regardless of whether you're making or selling music, as a vocation it is a tough one. Despite the difficultly, people have been and will continue to be professional musicians. The internet is now a key part of any job requiring networking and communication.

The original graphic and article show just one axis or dimension: what you have to do to get a certain amount of money. It positions all of these actions as equivalents, which is a substantial elision. Selling CDs directly to fans is extremely difficult. That's why you get to keep more money: it's hard to make the market and convince someone to buy your CD. It's much easier to convince them to play your song a few times on a music service like MOG or Rhapsody.

The internet and music technologies have provided a new universe of tools for creators and listening experiences for users. It's the world we live in now. Rather than continuing to decry how little money musicians get (something that is probably as old as music itself), I think we should focus on how to get more people listening to all of us.

All 5 Parts Now Available:
1. The Problem Nobody's Talking About
2. Too Much Music?
3. Now It's Everywhere
4. The Audience Isn't Listening
5. What The Internet Really Means


Trott said...

Once we, as you suggest, ignore the issue of how to make money and instead focus on the issue of how to be heard, things get both a lot more interesting and more tractable.

I notice, for better or for worse, that I am much more likely to listen to an unfamiliar song on the internet if it is delivered in the form of a video. (I am referring to music videos in the sense that MTV had in its initial years. I am not so much referring to a studio recording playing while a series of three or four still photos are shown over and over, nor am I referring to shaky camera-phone footage. Professionally recorded live footage, on the other hand, is definitely A-OK.)

Half the time, I don't even watch the video--I just have it playing in some hidden tab on my browser while I listen to the song and do other things.

I think there's something about making a decent video that shows a certain amount of commitment and investment. It's similar to how a band that presses vinyl are showing a seriousness (as quantified crudely by time, effort, and money) that a band that distributes only CD-Rs and mp3s is not.

Shakki said...

Those silver pants look pretty awesome.

Thanks for the posts Kirk! I enjoyed every one of them.

Unknown said...

What a great blog.

You're totally right - the internet frees our ability to be heard - but at the same time it crushes our egos as we learn that no-one is really interested in listening to all the profound things we think we are saying...

We should see the funny side of that...
Even as we starve...