Monday, July 16, 2007


DISCLAIMER: the following is bound to piss people off. It's not meant to cover every conceivable base, and I've probably left a zillion things out that I shouldn't have. I do not necessarily think that everything that has happened in the music biz in the last ten years is a great thing.

I think the art of recording--a young one by art standards--is changing radically. The entire recording industry* is built on assumptions that may or may not have been true decades ago, but history and technology do not stand still, and neither does music. Digital audio, the Internet, the ubiquity of computers in the home, advances in recording gear, as well as the advent of more affordable budget gear, and the proliferation of home studios are all driving the tumult in recording. And then there's label consolidation in parallel with media consolidation, in addition to exponentially increasing costs to both musicians and fans, leading to a stagnant monoculture where a handful of people shape the environment (radio, TV, chain record stores, ticket sales) that the bulk of all music is consumed in.

And maybe, somewhere, down deep in that word "consumed" is the dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about.

But everybody seems to see the symptoms of the disease just fine. 500 channels of TV and there's nothing on. All the radio stations with a reliable signal sound exactly the same. Britney Spears is on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and I heard a Ramones song in a bank recently, and Jimi Hendrix is selling Cadillacs. Ticketmaster has a monopoly. There's only four music labels left.

Somebody is making money, but it isn't (most) musicians.

I think people (both in and out of the industry) are slowly starting to remember: hey, waitaminnit, music doesn't work very well as a commodity. And, point of fact, up until the advent of recorded music, wasn't a commodity.

1) anybody can play it
2) there is no shortage of really talented people out there
3) it doesn't have a tangible form; can't be put in a box, etc
4) it's something essentially everybody enjoys, and is a basic part of being human

Very few people get paid for actually playing music. For years now, artists have been getting paid for selling stuff. You can't really sell music. If you're close enough to hear it, you're consuming it, whether there's been a financial transaction involved. But, artists have this irritating tic about eating and paying bills, so we have to figure out some sort of scheme where they provide something and everybody else gives them money. Thus, the artist becomes a trinket salesman. T-shirts, lighters, keychains, stickers, whatever you can convince people is worth money. And then there are CDs.

If you enjoy my music, the idea is you're supposed to hand me $15 and in return I give you a piece of plastic that has been decreed by fiat to be $15 worth of music. Except I cannot hand you music. How could I do such a thing? Music consists of vibrations in the air, nothing more, nothing less. Music does not live on that little piece of plastic. I can't hand you music any more than I can hand you silence. It's nonsense. But it's been the foundation of the recording industry as long as there's been a recording industry.

Let's jump back a bit further in the story here.

From the dawn of human history up until Edison started futzing around with it, the only way to hear music was for a living human being to play it. Then, in the scope of three or four generations, music was transformed into something that came out of a box. I think there are a lot of people in the industrialized world that don't understand that music is something that's meant to be shared (as opposed to sold), and it's my contention that the recording industry's separation of musician from audience is artificial, unnecessary, alienating, and constricting. And since it's not terribly profitable anymore, it's going to undergo unpredictable changes.

After Edison had shown it was possible, recording existed as something that only a few people in the world really understood all the details of. It required enormous amounts of technical skill just to make it sound half-ass. At the same time they were getting the kinks worked out of wire, wax, and early shellac recording, the mass media industry was getting off the ground. Like recording, radio was still in its infancy. There were only a few corporations with the vast amounts of capital required to get a studio going. In order to broadcast to as many people as possible, you needed a whole raft of things: the bulky, balky equipment, the space to put it, and the geeks to run it.

With all these obstacles, it's no wonder the only people who could afford to produce anything were huge corporations. All this required significant overhead to stay afloat. Now, they were getting money from the radio manufacturers (and later the turntable makers and the TV makers), so that helped. Selling advertising on radio made it all profitable.

So you had essentially one company that 1) signed the artist, 2) recorded and produced the artist, 3) broadcast the artist to the audience, and 4) put the artist's records in stores. Back then, there was simply no other option available.

Fast forward to today.

I can't for the life of me understand why anyone needs three years and a seven figure budget to make fifty minutes worth of music, when any schmoe can walk into Guitar Center, drop about five grand, jam the fuck out that night, and wake up in the morning and mix it all down and have a completed album by dinner the following day.

It's crazy.

There is no need for rockstars. No need for ten million dollar studios (although they sure are nice and I'd love to have one!). No need for major labels, no need for record stores, and no need for radio stations. All of these things are business ventures, and like any business venture they should go out of business when they are no longer meeting the needs of the market. Their continued existence is not guaranteed--something that has always been true for bands. Why should it be any different for companies that can't or won't change a dysfunctional business model?

Think of the law of supply and demand.

The gadget manufacturers have flooded the market with gear that's cheap but effective (if not necessarily of the highest quality). Add in the development of the mp3, the introduction of cheap broadband, drastically faster and roomier computers at the same price point, and the open source movement (thanks Bill Gates!) giving us p2p software. All this has served to undermine the idea that One Big Company is the only way to get music from point A (musician) to point B (audience).

That right there IS music. Not the fucking piece of plastic, it's the exchange between performer and audience. Sender and receiver.

And as a result of these technological changes, the supply has increased exponentially. And with CDs and mp3s and DVDs, it never degrades with age like vinyl, tape, or older formats. Once it's recorded, it's going to last forever and a day. But the demand hasn't nearly kept pace with supply. We are saturated in music. Every time we're in a store, there is music playing, because Everybody Knows People Buy More Shit When They're Listening To Music. A lot of people turn on the TV as a matter of course when they're at home. Some people never turn the damn thing off; it's just a big static device. (I think all of that's a bad thing, but I think that may have to be a subject for another post.)

As the supply has skyrocketed, and demand has remained flat**, the value of recorded music--the piece of plastic--has fallen dramatically. But we have non-market forces at work here, although they speak the language of business and markets very well. Vinyl used to be relatively cheap compared to CDs; cassettes were expensive because they were expensive to produce. CDs, initially, were going to be expensive for a while and then the industry would lower prices once their investment in the infrastructure paid off, or something. The promised price reduction never came, and CD prices have actually increased. Remember how shocked you were the first time you saw a $18 sticker on a single CD?

But the value is close to nil now, at this late date. What's happening? The market isn't clearing because the sellers are selling at too high a price for the buyers. In fact, buyers are leaving the market, because the sellers aren't serving them anymore.

It's serving a lot of suits, lawyers, bean counters, and middlemen trying to save their jobs, is what's happening. They lean on, are supported by, feed off of, that intercouse (pun intended) between musician and audience. They are adding less and less to what is necessary and demanding more and more. Consequently, they're going to be increasingly cut out of the picture as we move away from the 1900s.

Which brings me, at long last, to the point of this blog....personally I believe that the future for musicians and fans is pretty bright: but if you're a player and you want to make a career out of it, you're fucked unless you're touring.

I've been having difficulty with that; can't seem to keep a band together lately. And, paradoxically, I've been trying to teach myself the art of recording in the meantime. So, perhaps, with a bit of luck, I can build a bit of an audience for my studio music here on this blog, and hopefully that will be a springboard back to the road.

This is the same computer that I do the recording on, which is cool, because I can simply bounce the day's work down to mp3 and make it freely available. I'm going to setup a Paypal link so individuals so motivated may donate a bit to the cause, but that won't ever be required. I will also at some point make some CDs available to order, if there's any demand.

Well, this certainly turned into quite the screed manifesto, so I guess I should wrap it up here....

* (as distinct from the music industry, which is larger than just recording)
** During this time, demand has actually increased--the population has increased and enjoyment of music is near-universal. But the supply increase has been orders of magnitude greater.

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