For years musicians have been subject to slave labour-like contracts and the only people that really made any money off the music were the fat cats behind the desks at Big Label Inc. Even today musicians willingly sign their art away with wild abandon with dreams of becoming the next superstar. This has been the foundation of the music industry for years. Today we get to see that foundation starting to crack a little. Independent artists are seeping into the cracks and beginning to weaken the superstructure a little more.
But what will it take to blow that house down? Those little pigs built a pretty solid house of mass distribution, quality products and the best legal team money can buy. They have the contacts, they have a guide book, they have proven marketing tactics, manufacturing houses, recording studios, access to large and small venues, media advertising, and worse of all they have massive cash flow. So if they don’t own it now, they will if they want it. The independent artists are far from being a threatening wolf to them. We are more like a handful of gerbils in clown suits. We are unorganized, unsure of what we are doing, short of funding, lacking a process and method and we seem just as afraid of change as the piggies in the giant glass and steel offices of Big Label Inc.
But guess what? Change is happening now. Little by little things are evolving.
When you think back just a few short years ago, the major labels owned the music industry. Major distribution was only found through their record contracts. The few that tried without a major contract were the ones that had a few $100,000 to spare for their venture. Even still, public radio airplay was hard to come by. So you could get your music in the stores but no one had heard it to know if they wanted to buy it.
Along comes the internet. A easy way to reach out to people from all over the world. In just a few years it begins to undermine how the music industry thinks about music distribution. They had no idea 10 years ago we would be able to transfer a music file across a telephone line to someone on the other side of the globe all for the cost of a few pennies. Of course they see the signs, but don’t see a threat.
In the meantime: The indies see this method and exploit the hell out of it. No longer are we sitting in our basements duping tape copies and folding xeroxed J-cards. We aren’t sending letters out to every indie music rag looking for a venue to sell our products through mail-order. We aren’t gumming out mouths up with the glue of 1000 stamps. We use the current system and force the evolution of music distribution.
10 years ago you didn’t hear my music. I was writing it then. I was making tapes and selling them. But did you hear it? Nope. How could you? I didn’t have distribution to your part of the world. But now I’m connected to the largest network in the world. I’ve sold CD’s in about half the worlds nations. This website receives views from all over the world. Everyday someone new hears our music. If I said that same thing to you 10 years ago you’d either call me a liar or perhaps think I was some reclusive rock star. But I’m just your average Joe. If I told you 10 years ago that any average Joe would be doing the same thing, you’d say I was nuts.
With new technology it is fairly cheap to produce a quality product. Small companies all over the world are putting up websites and outlets where you can take your music and produce a full album on CD. Full colour graphics, printed CD’s, inserts, packaging, shipping, everything. All for little or no money down. Anyone with Internet access anywhere in the world can buy your CD. So not only has transferring music across the planet become easy, so has marketing a full blown CD. If you already have a product, there are a million other companies out there who will be more then happy to sell it for you.
Independent Artist: “Houston. We have distribution”
Houston: “Ahhh. Roger that.”
The musician that came of age with the Internet may not realize HOW different it is now. I would have been thrilled when I was 18 to sell a album to someone I didn’t know in another country, let alone the next city. I got a small deal when I was around 18 with a company in New York. The pay sucked and the distribution wasn’t all that good -even the product was a little shoddy. This company sold music through mail-order. They had adverts in several hundred small music magazines throughout the US and a few rags in Europe. I think at the end of it all I had sold about 40-50 copies. I made next to nothing on it. But I was happy to get my music out there. Be heard. But if you ask an 18 year old musician today if someone from outside of their local area had heard their music, they just shrug and say “yeah, of course”. They don’t think twice about someone in Japan or Australia or Germany hearing their music. It happens everyday.
This is how you spot evolution. When it becomes commonplace.
Along comes Napster and other P2P systems and the music industry soils itself. Now they are forced to wake up to the evolution of music distribution because it’s cutting into their monopoly. Even though they claim P2P networks damage their sales and profit, it seems every other report on the matter says otherwise. CD sales are up during the heyday of Napster. The music industry doesn’t want to loose control over distribution. So they chip away at Napster with their legal pickaxes until it breaks.
I used Napster from time to time. I mostly used it to find all the old music that was out of print. I honestly don’t see how this hurt the big labels. They refuse to print this old music because the profit margin isn’t there. They also own the copyrights so the musician who wrote it can’t distribute it without seeing a good profit. The music is now dead and buried. The only reason it still survives is because of the “fan” who happened to have bought the LP or tape many years ago and went through the hassle of dumping it into a mp3 file and sharing it with the rest of the world. The big labels shake their mighty fists at the fans screaming “How dare they! Off with their heads!”
The only problem, the big labels cut off Napsters head and another one grows back in it’s place.
So music distribution has evolved. The method is in place. What next? The Internet has proved itself as a form of transferring music files anywhere in the world. But the people want more. How about an old tyme radio show?
Every day people are putting on homebrew “radio shows”. The shows are wild and sloppy. With limited bandwidth, the music often sounds like it’s coming from an old AM radio. No one controls the DJ’s and the whole affair is still somewhat underground. It hasn’t become a real threat to profit watching corporations so there are no restraints. Some shows are playing copyrighted music but they aren’t doing it in malice, they are playing it to promote the music they like. They want others to be introduced to the music that moves them. They do it for fun, they do it out of love. One day some hungry VP of marking will go after Internet radio in an effort to make their corporation more money. Perhaps they’ll speckle Internet radio with the audio version of web page banner adverts. Perhaps they’ll try to control who plays what, when and where. Whatever happens I guarantee something will happen.
So is this the heyday people will talk about?
Internet radio is easy. If you want to put on a “real” radio show you need a few thousand dollars in equipment, in the USA you have a barrage of FCC red tape a licence fees. You need to understand wattage and broadcasting concepts so your radio show doesn’t get aired through your neighbors microwave oven every time he heats a frozen burrito. For Internet radio you need a minimum of two things. A little bit of bandwidth and a listener. Internet radio is still newborn. It’s still in diapers and eating mushy food. But it’s learning to walk real quick.
But what will the major music industry do about the Indie radio shows -like the ones that air on Ampcast.com? It’s all indie music. The DJ’s do it because it’s fun and they want to play the music they found and enjoy on Ampcast. Once again, the shows can be wild and sloppy but they are far more entertaining then anything I can find on my radio dial. Perhaps the music industry will leave this arena alone? Yeah right. Don’t count on it. Every listener spending an hour or two a day tuning into Internet radio is a listener NOT listening to their product -the very product they make money off of and use to pay for their vacation homes in Florida. When it becomes more of a threat to them, something will happen. They will want to win these ears. I think it’s too early to say how they will go after these shows. But until then, I say enjoy them. Today’s Internet radio will be the story you tell your grandkids.
Old Guy: “Back in my day anyone could have an Internet radio show. It was crazy and wild. People even said bad works and played songs called ‘shitting in the sink’. And you would listen for hours and never hear an advert.”
Starry Eyed Kid: “Wow grandpa! Tell me more!”
Considering Internet radio is only in the “AM” radio phase of life, we still have a little way to go before the infrastructure is in place for FM radio. Then it’s only a matter of time before the whole mess upgrades to sound AND images. Just think. In a few years not only will there be homebrew FM quality radio stations, there just might be thousands of homebrew TV stations as well. We have the technology now. The problem is the audience doesn’t have it. People don’t have the broadband for it. But they will. And when they do we will have more silly stories for our grandkids.
We’ve evolved how music is distributed and we’ve invented a new form of radio and promotion of music. Now what?
There is another hurdle that indie music must overcome. How does the indie artist make people understand their music is just as valuable as the music Big Labels Inc. put out? Go into any record store today. You’ll see hundreds of people willing to plop down $15-20 dollars for a “real” CD, but when it comes to indie music they have a hard time paying just $6 or $7. They seem reluctant to pay even a dollar for a song as they sip on their four dollar coffee. Why? Because it’s been free for several years. The indie musician was just happy having people hear the music and they offered everything out for free. They are convinced it should be free because that is the only way people will bother to listen. Not true. It is because “free” has become a habit.
The indie musicians saw a boon in Internet marketing. Large servers and huge bandwidth pipes were being spoon fed and kept alive by dot.com ventures and the advertizing dollar. It was the way of the future -for a few years anyway. This did damage to the way consumers looked at the Internet. They want free e-mail, free software, free website hosting, and the worse of all for the indie musician, free music. Ask someone outside of the loop how places like theglobe.com could afford a rack of servers and a thousand dollars worth of bandwidth a month without ever selling a product. They won’t have a clue. Ask them if they would be upset if Geocities started charging $5 a month to host their silly website about their cat. I’m sure they would. The user wants it all for free. But nothing is free. This is the hurdle we are at. This is the next evolution. People need to come to terms that the Internet is not entirely free. It costs money to run just like everything else. The people behind the scenes have bills to pay just like you or I.
As the way music is distributed on-line gets more common place I think people will begin to shift their way of thinking. They will get more used to buying products off the Internet as the free items slowly go the way of the dinosaur and become extinct. The Internet advertizing gold rush of the late 90’s has dried up and people that want to provide product on-line have to make it turn a profit – at the very least break even. No one is willing to sell everything they own, cash out their 401k plan, put a second mortgage on their home and not put their children through college just so some indie artist they don’t know can offer their music on-line for free. If they do, that person either has a great deal of love for music or is a fool. I’m going with choice number two.
The last thing the major labels want to see is the indie musician starting to take another chunk of their profit pie. If it becomes too much of a threat they will attack the concept. You can see hints of this already if you look around. The consumer is having a hard time accepting they will have to pay for what used to be free. The indie musician is also convinced no one is willing to buy their music.
So where to go from here? We have managed to move this far. We have already overcome steps which just a few short years ago were unheard of.
Do we evolve or die?
The music revolution will not be televised. It will be webcast and streamable at 24 to 128kbps.
And I’m already tuned in.