The Before and After
Michael Robertson, a serial entrepreneur in digital media, founder of MP3.com and CEO of DAR.fm, observed that the difference between a pre-MP3 musician and a post-MP3 artist is circumstantial.
"I'm not convinced that the plight of the artist has fundamentally changed much since the pre-internet era to the internet era," Robertson said. "Artists can go direct, but it also means that people have hundreds of thousands of choices. The benefit of going direct is offset by the sheer enormity of the internet."
Easy distribution into digital channels creates a cacophony of music noise, making it harder for any artist or band to be heard.
"Marketing is really the key issue," according to Eve Williams, an Irish singer and songwriter who sells her work on iTunes and CD Baby.
If Williams is correct, that brings up a question posed by John McVey, a record producer at Coupe Studios in Boulder: "Today, is the more successful musician just a better marketer, or is he a better musician?"
I asked McVey whether labels did a good job marketing their artists in the pre-MP3 years. "Hell, yes!" he said. "Even if it was a somewhat corrupt system where they used payola to buy hits, at the very least they were selling their stuff."
The popular lore of building a career as a recording artists in "the old days" (pre-MP3 and industry disruption) is infused with disreputable mythology. In a typical historical narrative, record labels were evil entities which wielded a strangling top-down influence on cultural taste, monopolized a corrupt star-making system and grabbed most of the money through unfavorable contracts and creative accounting. For every indictment of record-label business practices, there is probably corroborative storytelling, as in any aspect of show business. At the same time, not discounting a dark side of major-label market control, the "label system" produced most of the music beloved by millions of people spanning three generations.
The labels did exert control over the entire industry that had a smothering effect on indie musicians. Labels controlled distribution, for one thing. They manufactured most of the product, got it played on radio and dominated the pipeline into stores. Labels were also resolute gatekeepers that chose who could get distributed and find an audience. A&R (Artist & Repertoire) departments signed artists -- they were the labels' bouncers and the gilded gates were narrow and few.
If those structural realities were discouraging to artists, the labels also provided important career assistance. They invested in new artists. Bruce Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records in 1972, but didn't break through to a large market until three years, and three albums later. Labels also provided marketing support. Some older musicians roll their eyes at that statement. Individual experiences notwithstanding, however, major labels maintained marketing, PR and design departments, lifting those aspects of career-building off the artists' shoulders.
For many creators whose careers span the before-and-after of digital music, there is a crushing sense that the grass isn't greener after all.
It is those investments in nurturing and marketing that make Owen wonder why labels are demonized and the new audience gatekeepers (like iTunes) are not.
"At least a record company puts money into a project and risks its own money," Owen said. "I appreciate there have been some less-than-honest dealings in the music industry. But when you look at the two business models, I do wonder why we all think of the labels as the sharks, and not iTunes and the rest of the digital-distribution crowd."
There is really a triple layer of gatekeeping between musicians and listeners now. iTunes represents download stores that take a cut of every song or album sold. Streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify and Rdio pay artists small royalties when their songs are streamed. Then there are digital enablers like CD Baby, TuneCore, Amazon and other so-called aggregators, which charge fees for placing an artist's tracks in all the online stores and streaming services.
These layers make it obvious that the internet has not lived up to disintermediation -- its call to arms -- when it comes to digital music. But the good news inherent in this digital distribution system is that bands don't need to manufacture a CD to reach listeners or sell a product in iTunes, CD Baby, Bandcamp or other outlets. A songwriter can pick up a guitar, record a few songs in his bedroom and see them in the world's largest record stores the next day.
Technology companies have made music more democratic, without question. From a distance, it looks like the hallowed "level playing field" that new media is famous for. But close up, the level field might seem like an arid desert where musicians can trudge forever without getting anywhere.
Meet the New Boss...
In a well-circulated impeachment of the tech-platform takeover of music, David Lowery, a musician who founded the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, wrote, "I feel that what we artists were promised has not really panned out. Yes in many ways we have more freedom. Artistically this is certainly true. But the music business never transformed into the vibrant marketplace where small stakeholders could compete with multinational conglomerates on an even playing field."
It's a frank truth that most indie artists will not get the high-powered management and label partnerships that are helpful in elevating a career. In those cases, it is the direct access to markets that Lowery regards as the "promise" of digital music. But it turns out that dividing up the financial pie afforded by those stores like iTunes, and streaming services like Spotify, doesn't often result in sustainable professions.
Krukowski calculated that for one of his records, it would take 312,000 Pandora plays to earn one album sale.
Damon Krukowski, who released his first album in 1988, revealed an underside of digital music economics by breaking out the payments he has received for digital distribution. He is not the first or last to do so, as other musicians are popping up with screenshots of their royalty statements from the use of their tracks in various apps. Each service has its own royalty scheme, but in all cases the micro-payouts for streaming are in the depressingly micro realm of penny fractions. Today's economics assign a far lower value to a stream than to a download or CD sale. Krukowski calculated that for one of his records, it would take 312,000 Pandora plays to earn one album sale.
If there is a digital music "promise" to musicians, it is based on scale. Streaming services are still on a sharp growth curve. Given an immense streaming listenership, those micro-payments could add up more substantially. But the 72-point headline that musicians see is about the devaluation of music generally. The structure of the digital music industry is geared toward satisfying consumer demand for a constant stream of low-cost music, not the musician's need to financially sustain creative careers. "Ultimately, the consumers will get what they want," said Robertson.
Krukowski puts it like this: "The ways in which musicians are screwed have changed qualitatively, from individualized swindles to systemic ones."
John McVey got his career as a musician rolling several years before MP3 triggered the tectonic disruption of music. A winner of multiple national awards for songwriting and performing, McVey self-funded three CD projects that span pre-MP3 and post-iTunes. He has written music for commercials, and is currently a full-time producer at Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colo.
Working with many aspiring artists and bands to shape recording projects for modern industry realities, McVey's advice has changed over the course of the iTunes decade.
"I think about what they have to do to accomplish the end result they're trying for," he said. "Most of my clients come in to do a whole CD. That makes sense if you've got 16 songs ready to go. But you should also consider that people aren't buying albums. So what are you trying to accomplish with this recording project? How should we shape the project? Does it need to be 16 songs right now? Fans would rather buy one song a month than wait a year to buy a whole album."
The iTunes store, and Napster before it, effectively dismantled the album, which was unbreakable during the CD era.
The point about singles replacing albums as the chief product increment echoes part of the tech disruption that hit labels particularly hard. The iTunes store, and Napster before it, effectively dismantled the album, which was unbreakable during the CD era. Robertson has been a digital-music entrepreneur for 15 years, and is categorical: "Unbundling is rarely revenue-positive. The music industry figured that out."
Indie musicians are figuring it out too, now that marketing and distribution costs are charged to their credit cards. From the supply side, if McVey and other mentors can convince their clients of it, the single-song market can be a cost-saving advantage and shortcut. Bandcamp is filled with desktop-produced music of all sizes from 24-track albums to single tunes. When you troll through there, you can't help but trip over all the one-song pages, each selling an individual track for a dollar or a euro.
But does it work when a musician inches into the market one track at a time?
Leverage in Digital Music
It worked for The Lumineers, a Denver folk rock band. After playing gigs for three years, the group posted a video of its song, "Ho Hey," on YouTube. Two execs of an entertainment management company saw the video, signed the band to a management deal and funded a full-length album. "Ho Hey" was used in a season finale of the TV show Hart of Dixie, which stirred up social buzz and led to radio and television appearances for the band. The Lumineers signed with Dualtone Records, licensing to Decca. The album and single climbed the charts -- not just the Billboard charts, but the Spotify "most played" lists. In the 2013 Grammy Awards, The Lumineers were nominated for Best New Artist and Best Americana Album.
There is no better or more illustrative post-MP3 success story than The Lumineers. First, the group's saga represents an incremental crossover from the bootstrap world of indie music to the highly leveraged world of institutional media. Just as McVey counsels his clients to scale down from album projects to three-song EPs, The Lumineers minimized their output by using a single amateur video posted on YouTube as a tiny key to global success.
The Lumineers illuminate an enduring truth of "making it": Success depends on luck and leverage. There's no controlling luck. And there's no denying the power of leverage. If that first Lumineers video had not been seen by the band's future managers, the group might still be playing small clubs in Denver and shooting home videos. Their management company leveraged an album; then a record company leveraged airplay and TV placement; the TV play leveraged broad recognition on social networks; the intensifying vortex of attention led to Grammy nominations which further leveraged the group's brand.
In the daunting sphere of indie self-funding, Lisitsa and her husband went far out on a limb, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire the London Symphony Orchestra for a recording of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos.
Casey Rae is the deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition, and an independent musician/producer. I asked him about whether indie musicians have the ability to build an audience that matched their ability to distribute digitally.
"We have tremendous access to audiences, but as musicians we might not have leverage in the new marketplace that's comparable to the folks who always had leverage in the marketplace," Rae said.
The traditional power levers still wield potent influence, and can supercharge a career that starts with a post-MP3, post-iTunes marketing tactic like putting a video on YouTube.
One of the great YouTube success stories is the more remarkable for transpiring in the classical music realm -- arguably a fading category, and certainly one with a smaller audience than many other genres.
Valentina Lisitsa is a Ukrainian concert pianist who built her reputation in social media. In the six years she has built her brand on YouTube, Lisitsa's videos have been viewed 58 million times. She shares everything, even sometimes bootlegging her own concert performances for which she doesn't own complete rights. (One evening she re-uploaded a banned video of her 2012 Royal Albert Hall concert and instructed her rabid Facebook followers to watch it quickly before it was taken down again.) Deeply committed to personal fan relationships, Lisitsa engages in comment threads and live-streams her home practice marathons (her cat jumps on the keys) and studio recording sessions.
In the daunting sphere of indie self-funding, Lisitsa and her husband went far out on a limb, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire the London Symphony Orchestra for a recording of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. That project found its leverage: Lisitsa is now a Decca recording artist and tours around the world.
These stories are inspiring for their indie-artist, direct-to-the-audience, post-MP3 beginnings. But without finding industrial-strength leverage, or until it is found, digital music realities are harsh for musicians.
The downward pressure is not only about cheap music for consumers; it is about a deluge of music. Easy access has created a noisy market. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and a blunt accuser of the web's cultural democratization, is unambiguous in his scorn of noise.
"When audience becomes artist, the result is shit," Keen said. "New enabling technology destroys both art and art commerce. Consumers lose."
Not many consumers, swimming in ear candy, would agree. But musicians drowning in that ocean of noise must feel some of Keen's resentment. For musicians, there is little practical difference between a suffocating pre-MP3 market controlled by a few label conglomerates, and an open market glutted with content -- both are nearly impossible to break through.
Unlike in the supermarket, where too many products can paralyze your ability to make a single choice, musical variety incites an MP3-era style of hit-and-run consumption.
Noise is one part of it -- the staggering variety of a market in which the leading store, iTunes, offers 26 million tracks. Another part is human response to variety. Unlike in the supermarket, where too many products can paralyze your ability to make a single choice, musical variety incites an MP3-era style of hit-and-run consumption.
"It's more than noise," according to Jim Griffin, general manager of OneHouse LLC and ex-CTO of Geffen Records. "What we've discovered over the years is that when you give people choice, they'll exercise it. There was a time when we got our music from relatively few companies that had a lot of market share. Now that we give people choice, and give anybody the opportunity to sell music, we see that the majors are losing a lot of market share, maybe even faster than they thought."
Stealing market share from the majors would seem to be a happy possibility for indie artists. But the economics of an audience that samples music via streams, rather than committing to products via downloads, is not yet adding up well for independent artists. In one musician's account, a track downloaded from iTunes or Amazon nets 64 cents. The same track, streamed on Rhapsody, earns the artist nine-tenths of a cent, and a fraction of that when streamed on Spotify.
This is where McVey expresses some degree of wistfulness for the clear-cut leverage of the label era.
"The noise is not necessarily good or bad stuff -- it's just stuff that reaches that listener," McVey said. "You have to figure out how to reach a listener. Getting your stuff on ReverbNation is not enough, whereas getting your stuff to a record company was enough."
A fundamental mind-shift challenges musicians now. Many self-produced musicians are re-thinking the product they are making and the role of their music. Until recently, "product" in music meant a discrete unit -- an album or a track. The unit is either shipped on a disc or downloaded. The alternative is thinking of music as a service, just as consumers do.
On the business side this means licensing to media projects like TV shows and commercials that large numbers of people are exposed to in the normal course of a media-saturated life, rather than selling directly to the consumers. Griffin likens it to Tarzan.
"We cling to this vine of 'product,'" he said. "We talk about digital music product, selling songs. But the real action isn't measured on that old vine and how well it stays up. It's measured on a new vine of service -- how well music serves as a gateway to an ever-growing crowd of people."
Technology intermediates are stepping into the service space, just as they have in the distribution space. SoundCloud recently cut a deal with the music-licensing division of Getty Images. Any musician, pro or amateur, who uploads to SoundCloud can automatically include their tracks in Getty's licensing catalog which is presumably shopped by TV, movie and commercial producers. Licensing, whether by intention or accident, is a proven jolt to a band's career, as demonstrated by The Lumineers, The Fray and others.
Into the Uncertain Future
Any populist would say that the opportunities of a democratized, low-barrier creative market outweigh the difficulties of chaos and noise. Keen would not agree, but when a beginning songwriter makes a bedroom recording and puts it on iTunes or Bandcamp, where it is purchased by three friends and his mother, that is a good use of technology. Multiply that by millions and the musical mindspace is filled with white noise that more accomplished, self-produced musicians must treat as legitimate competition for ears and pennies.
The best news for musicians is that love of music, and appetite for it, remain unquenchable in the iTunes era and any era. It is never a bad time to own musical property. And it is never easy to turn tunes into cash.
"We all had stars in our eyes at the beginning of this digital disruption," Rae remembers. "The idea was that the disintermediation would allow for direct-to-fan relationships, which it has, and new opportunities for commerce, which it has. You can point to as many things which wouldn't have been possible as you can to challenges. That's the double-edged sword of technology."
Part 1 of this series is here, and Part 2 is here.