I’ve been meaning to address some things for awhile, but it’s gotten to the point where I need to get it off my chest. Where the music scene has ended up lately troubles me a bit. In just a few years, MP3 downloads replaced CDs, and now those are even being superseded by streaming music services. We now have what I call the Modern Music Narrative: streaming is best, music should free, musicians should make their money from touring and shows. Which may be all fine and good for artists with broad mass appeal and can command sometimes up to $100 a ticket for a show. But what about experimental musicians on the fringes, creating new styles that have yet to catch on?
Are musicians are supposed to make some kind of living from this?
It’s always been about the artist and the listener, everything in between has sought to limit access to each party. Technology is moving faster than artists and even listeners can keep up with. It seems like every week there’s some new service coming to the party, often with little or no new features to differentiate them. I mean, what do we have: Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Mog, Slacker, Google, and now MySpace is back and Apple is about to make a move with their iRadio. You can hear tracks for free on BandCamp and SoundCloud, and some people are still on services like eMusic and Last.fm. Are musicians supposed to make some kind of living from this? The more fragmented the space, the more artists will be getting checks for 50 cents and the like. The result is more bands and musicians will lean toward broader appeal and minimize any experimental or “fringe” music aspects in order to attract more listeners.
Musical attention spans have never been so short
I’ll admit there are a LOT more bands out there now compared to a decade or so ago. But honestly, how many of them are creating truly original and exciting music? I hear a lot of music while doing this blog, and have to admit some of it is a bit derivative. For a band to be successful these days they must be identifiable or else they get lost in the mix, then some other band comes out with something two weeks later that gets the attention of the blogosphere, only to be displaced again in a few weeks, and so on. Musical attention spans have never been so short. It used to be there would be a long lead up to a release to start warming up the listening public. Nowadays, especially after the MBV release, it makes more sense to put out an album under the cover of night and blast people with the surprise – the sonic equivalent of shock & awe. Seems to be the only way to breakthrough these days.
Touring requires a shit ton of resources and effort
So, the flipside of the paradigm is touring and playing live shows. In a perfect world, it’s a great idea and actually, musicians should be performing in front of audiences – it’s the foundation of the art. However, the process of touring requires a shit ton of resources and effort. Let’s say a band with three members goes on a 2-week US tour – to cover gas, food and any lodging, and for the members to come home with any money in pocket, they need to make a minimum of $500 a night. If they split the door with the venue (not including any opening bands), that’s about 100 people paying $10. For anyone other than middle-tier indie acts, 100 people is quite a lot – figuring that any city with any decent draw has dozens of other bands playing the same night. Or god forbid, you’re playing on a Monday or a Tuesday. The result is bands will lean more towards mass appeal music or limit shows to more populated areas, ignoring a large swath of middle America in favor of the coasts.
The vinyl solution?
Recent years have shown a rise in vinyl sales (even a small percentage gain is huge), and offers the listeners something tangible for their collections. Again, though, there are limits to this approach – mainly lack of indie record stores as well as the price of postage. Many titles are only issued in limited quantities, sometimes 300 or maybe 1000. Unless you’re a well known band, fans may balk at an LP price of $18 or $20, not including postage. I just paid almost $40 for an album mail ordered from England – the shipping was almost as much as the LP, and there is no way a store in the US (locally) would have carried it. Probably not too many stores in England are carrying it either. Even with all of those issues, I still love vinyl and get excited when a package comes in the mail, I crack it open and put it on the turntable. Pure bliss.
So where do we go from here?
- Musicians need to be supported if the art form is to continue evolving – similar to the ancient practice of patronage
- When you find a band you like – show some love: send them an email, tell your friends, pay for a download (as my friend Randall likes to say, “stream to dream, buy to fly”)
- Open your mind (and ears) to new bands and new styles of music – we live in an age of confirmation bias where we can get caught in a “comfort zone”, listening to the same type of music over and over
- Follow show listings in your area and go out and see bands – turn off the TV, hear live music and when you can, buy some merch (it could mean the difference between a touring band having 2 meals the next day instead of 1)
- BANDS: make it easy for fans to support you: update your websites, play shows, answer emails. Yes, it’s difficult and time consuming, but unless you have a publicist or a decent size record label working to promote your music, it’s all on you
I am committed to keeping this underground sound thriving and surviving. I love bands, I love vinyl, I love record stores. Call me old school, but the modern paradigm doesn’t seem very sustainable for Outersound musicians, there’s got to be a better way.
What do you do to move music forward?