music industry Archives - Sheep Dressed Like Wolves
“Anything can be creative – you bring that quality to the activity. Activity itself is neither creative nor uncreative. You can paint in an uncreative way. You can sing in an uncreative way. You can clean the floor in a creative way. You can cook in a creative way.” - Osho
This is the first of a series of three podcasts looking at the way we create, distribute, and interact with a post-industrial world.
Things have changed a LOT over the past couple of decades and in this series of shows I summarise a presentation that I recently put together encouraging young people to think differently about their future. This first part is about creativity and the common acceptance of art as commodity.
Everyone is waking up to the necessity of creativity, which is not easy in a world of automation and industrial mindset.
There has been a lot said recently about the ‘state of the music industry’ and the battle against music piracy and questionable file sharing. I don’t want to just repeat what has already been said but I figured that it would be good to set out a few of the points that I have found helpful when addressing the issue and explain why I think that it is a waste of time to worry ourselves, as independent artists on this topic. In all honesty, I think the situation we are in is brilliant, and despite what people like Lily Allen and James Blunt would tell you, music piracy is not a problem for new British music (a very narrow-minded and one dimensional argument), in fact it is the stimulation that we have needed for a long time. Yes record labels don’t have the resources they used to, and yes they won’t want to take big risks, but we need to remove ourselves from thinking within this paradigm. Just because a record label is not interested in new British music it doesn’t mean that the public isn’t. In fact there is enough evidence to suggest the playing field is being levelled at long last and the monopolising power of the big record labels is finally being relieved. There are a number of factors other than piracy at work. As Steve Lawson often the issue is confused as being the problem of the record industry at large, when actually it is the CD selling industry that is suffering. Because record labels have been resting on their laurels and relying on album sales for their disproportionate revenues it is hitting them hard now as the once abundant profits that they could rely on are rapidly disappearing. The issue of file sharing has become a scapegoat for other factors beyond their control and if we are not careful they will pull the power back by restricting our rights and abilities as independent artists to grab the bull by the horns and acquire a level of control that has long been unattainable. Don’t believe the lie, if you are an ‘emerging’ young artist, you’re not being screwed over by your audience, in fact we have never been in a better position than we are right now as we stand at this epoch defining cross road. It is our opportunity to carve a more organic, community based, and genuine free-market system within our art, and here are some of the ways how.
CD Selling Industry not Record Industry
I don’t really need to elaborate on anything that Steve Lawson says, because he says it so well. The upshot of this takes the shape of a need for new ways to package our music accordingly in ways that people are happy to part with their cash for. As far as I’m concerned if we want to focus on the issue of file sharing we need to come up with a positive solution which involves offering our audience an alternative means of ‘consumption’ that gives them the content they evidently want in more interesting, exciting and innovative ways rather than alienating them and coming down hard on something that actually avoids addressing the real problem. The whole area of content, especially in the context of the Internet is very complicated and problematic. I would like to approach it simply though and take on board what Nina Paley says when she suggests we consider the difference between content and containers and that content should be allowed to flow freely on the internet so that culture can flourish. We should worry instead about the containers in which we place our content, for if we execute these well then that is where we will discover ways of carving a living. What she says is pretty left-field and a little hard to swallow if you’re a record label trying to make money from every avenue possible (especially the exploitation of other people’s music), but when you take a step back and think about it there is a lot to be said in this.
Read what Paley says on this matter – we should think of content as culture, and consider it as like the water of society – where water flows, life flourishes. Content is an unlimited resource. Containers on the other hand are limited resources and people expect to pay money for them. They increase utility and add value to the content. Just because you can get water from the river the value of the containers (jugs, or vessels) is not reduced, in fact the more the river flows the more the need for effective and stronger vessels to hold the water. She goes on with her metaphor to argue that copyright and the way that big media companies can use it is similar to a dam in the river, which give them control over the flow of content and as a result the water becomes stagnant and eventually dries up.
Free flowing content does not mean that the artist does not get paid; in fact it will open up doors for just the opposite. Audiences want their favourite artists to flourish and will be more than happy to give them what they need to do so, they just need to know that there is a suitable system of reward. Take away the monopolising middlemen and we will see this happen. This could be why the freemium and pay-what-you-like models work so well – because they defy what we consider to be conventional economic logic and put control into the hands of the consumer and the interaction more directly between artist and audience. The audience knows that they can reward the artist in a way that they see fit, and that this reward will definitely have an impact.
It is in our interest to make our content free for one simple reason, so that it can spread. It is then up to the audience to decide if they think its good enough to share, quote, promote, review etc. This is organic advertising that does not cost a penny. As independent artists we don’t have much money and we don’t need any to set our content free and allow it to advertise itself (if it is deemed worthy). We are then in a more genuine free-market situation whereby the quality of art is what matters and whether people want to experience it, promote it etc is up to them and we have to pull our standards up to audience expectations. We can’t demand money for our music when it is in this free flowing environment, it is not in our interest to either because at the end of the day that audience member can and will just look for another artist instead. Remember, the only person your art is important to at the moment is yourself and no one else cares about you or what you do. From this point we can create containers for our content that our audience is thus willing to part with cash for. A CD is a container; it is no longer particularly valuable. A signed CD is worth more. A numbered, signed and unique copy of a single/EP/album is worth more again. It is about creating quality products that are un-replicable on the internet that people will therefore want to spend money on to get a limited resource version of your content, especially if they know it means they can expect you to carry on producing art that connects with them in a special way. A gig is a container, a great container that has everything going for it that we need; a unique experience and a chance to really break down all barriers between artist and audience and an opportunity to sell the smaller containers in which individual bits of content can be sold (albums/singles etc). Through such a container the audience can reward the artist in a number of ways and know that they’re having a direct impact. We need to be imaginative and come up with new, exciting and interesting containers for our music to be held.
Why Alienate Our Audience?
There are so many bands writing and recording music, and there is more music being made today than ever. With such a hugely competitive industry in terms of the number of artists wanting and deserving to be heard how can we expect our audience to choose to spend £10 on one album and as a result neglect to give any money for another? Why don’t we let the audience set more realistic rewards for what we do?
There have been suggestions that file sharing means that new British music will suffer because record labels don’t want to take risks and instead plump for generic X-Factor-esq acts. While I think this may be true for some majors, it is not true for independent and smaller labels, which are in a great position. There are more bands than ever, is this because of record labels? No…
So why then?
You can record an album at home for next to nothing.
You can then distribute it on the Internet for next to nothing. There are ways of doing everything yourself and because we can be proactive and make things happen for ourselves we are going to take advantage of these methods.
You have access to a potential abundance of fans at the click of a mouse, with nothing to pay. Social networking sites mean that we can reach a lot of people in no time at all and we can strike up meaningful relationships with our audience and one another.
Our potential audience is into a much broader spectrum of musical genres now; there is a much bigger pie and much smaller slices to be taken by many more of us.
The idea that record labels are our future is one dimensional, aspirational nonsense. The reason they are struggling is because their slice of the pie is diminishing, and the flip side is that our potential slice is increasing. It has nothing to do with file sharing. Remember, the record labels measure the amount of money they are ‘losing’ through piracy by equating one download to one lost sale. This is utterly ridiculous – we need to flip it around to see one download as one more person who wants to listen to my music, one more potential gig-goer, one more person who might make a genuine connection with my art and then we need to connect with that and offer them something more…a container that they might or might not be interested in experiencing. If we have the right sort of containers in place then we will be alright, if we don’t then we are wasting water by letting it flow away down stream where there are many thirsty people and other artists filling up bottles and selling them to the grateful crowd. Some people spend their time on their knees trying to drink from their hands and they will stubbornly continue, but if we offer an easier and more fulfilling alternative to drink from they might come around eventually. If we allow a great big dam to be put in the river the water will dry up and people will be forced to go underground or steal in their quest for water. Either way the free flow of culture is stemmed and life inhibited.
1. Organise Your Own Gigs:
It obviously goes without saying that playing shows is one of the most important things we need to do as musicians. They give us opportunities to showcase what we do in front of fans, friends and possibly most importantly, strangers (potential new fans). We’re all chasing after amazing support slots and opportunities to play high-profile gigs in front of hundreds of people who will of course love us and buy all of our records, T-shirts and everything. We work for promoters and against one another to get the slot and bring the most people – we see the support slots that others get, maybe congratulate them through gritted teeth and feel jealous. Or, if we’re lucky enough to get a good break, we can become the envied ones for a few minutes.
With the release of the first single from my latest album in October I was looking to play some shows around the UK to promote it. I was going to contact promoters throughout the UK and get them to put me on with local bands. But then I stepped back and questioned the potential benefits of going down the promoter avenue, especially using promoters that would actually be willing to put on an artist they didn’t know from out of town. They would probably put me on a bill with badly matched bands, actual show ‘promotion’ would be limited to a facebook listing and the expectation of the other bands to sell tickets to their friends and families (again) and I wouldn’t receive a bean in payment. This is sadly too often the case, where promoters don’t do any work, take all the money, and leave the bands out of pocket having travelled miles to play a gig they would have been better off without. I don’t know if this rings true with your experience but its happened to me a lot…maybe I’m just unlucky. Instead, I have decided to book and promote all of the eight shows myself with the help of local bands. I’m definitely not anti-promoters, I think they are an absolutely integral part of the live music industry – and there are a few that I really enjoy working with – but I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to their use. There are many who don’t do their jobs properly and consider themselves much more important, and worthy of reward, than the artists they put on. The promoter is the difference between putting on a show for the fans and putting on a show for your own advancement.
So here is what I have done:
I found eight venues throughout the UK, three bands in each location up for the DIY ethic and booked the shows a few days apart. Many venues will provide a PA system and soundman for a small fee (£50 or so), and then I take responsibility for ticket sales, and thus the money. It has been a great way of meeting other artists, helping them out with gig opportunities and ultimately building friendships with other like-minded musicians (and taking care of all expenses plus a little extra compensation for the hard work – and yes it is hard work!) The other bands are able to help out with information about where to promote, whom to promote to, and ultimately, because they are more involved with the show than they would normally be they are enthusiastic about promoting it and selling tickets themselves. You can work out a system whereby they will be paid – whether it is splitting profits equally, sorting out fixed-fees before, or giving them a proportion of revenues. There are no rules, but it is vital that you do compensate artists. Remember to put yourself in their shoes.
The founding principle is to put on a great show, break down the walls between artist and artist, and then between artist and audience so that we can create a real community atmosphere, which will inevitably transpire when friends play a show together. Artistic chemistry will be immediately evident. When it becomes discernible between bands it will diffuse through to the fans also. This set of shows will build the foundation in each town and then, if they go well, I will be able to put similar shows on in the future and each artist involved will hopefully have at least doubled their local fan-base, and started meaningful professional relationships with one another in the process. The key is giving the audience a memorable experience by having the artists really grasp a united vision – a vision as simple as a DIY gig, putting the audience, music and one another first, and leaving our egos at the door.
I will let you know how it goes.
Is it a reflection of society more generally, or do the arts play a role in defining the social and political attitudes of the public? Traditionally one aspect of art is to play the role of antithesis to institutional establishment and stand opposed to aspects of society that hem us in and control certain aspects of our lives. Since finishing university and finding myself faced with the ‘real world’ I have been asking a lot of questions about what I want to do with my life and where me as a musician, songwriter and artist fits with this. I’ve spent much time thinking about why I write music, where I want to go with it and what motivations lie behind my efforts.
When looking both outwardly at the music industry and inwardly at what I am doing myself, it becomes painfully clear that, for me at least, music has lost something in my life and is about getting noticed by the right people, becoming or discovering the next big thing (getting famous and pertaining to artists’ success – until they achieve too much) and getting as many essentially meaningless friends, fans and followers on social networking sites as possible. It seems that everybody and their mums are having a go, releasing singles and coming up with unique and absurd ways of self-promotion. With the speed at which the technology has become available to record and release albums, videos and even gigs from your own bedroom, it seems that both producer and consumer have become self-obsessed and isolated from one another, at the same time embracing the illusion that barriers of social interaction between artist and audience are actually being desecrated. We haven’t really had chance to take a step back and assess what we are doing. Instead we have put business first and allowed it to dictate what we should be producing rather than questioning its relevance in our art.
The purpose of this blog is not to try to give answers and opinions on complex social issues, but to ask questions and hopefully find outward, societal relevance for independent music and song writing in a post-modern, individualistic and very inward focussed culture. There have been murmurings of musical revolutions in this time of transition within the music industry (the digital age). We have a window of opportunity, as independent musicians to really take the bull by the horns and rattle the music industry while it sleeps off the self-imposed hangover, the cocktail of piracy (a scapegoat they have to adapt to and not fight against), the demise of physical formats and the rise of the potential power for independent musicians.
The ‘product’ of music is in a state of flux and while the big labels carry on fighting their lost cause against piracy we can really implement the new models of music business that are actually going to succeed and get people caring about and desiring what we do again. It is no longer just about songs, you can get them for free, it is about something bigger, something unique, and something experiential. It is time for us to feel the relevance of music and art in society and not just see it as another commodity in a world already saturated with meaningless, pointless and wasteful products that all of us could quite happily live without. We need music and we need to find fresh ways of creating and performing that excite our audiences again. I want to explore the role that independent music can have in educating and mobilising social and political action in a culture that really needs it. There are many others thinking down these lines and I will be collecting thoughts and ideas from different places in order to work through some of the issues that I have with music today.
I am writing for independent artists who think beyond themselves as the creative motivation, who want to engage with social and political ideas in a meaningful way through where their art takes them and who want to make a genuine difference in other people’s worlds. To change the world is both a big and small thing, it is to impact the life of one person. I can’t remember who said ‘one mind less means one world less’ but it is something I have never forgotten. Every mind is a different world because the world is in perception; to change a world is to change a mind and in order to allow this change to happen we need to open our minds to change.