Friday, October 19, 2007

Wag Your Finger at the Scalawag

Maybe you've heard, the music industry isn't doing well.

Sales are down, the majors are eating it and more rounds of layoffs and jettisoning of artists are bound to happen. Radiohead is leading the way for any artist that can live comfortably off touring, the rapidly declining back catalog sales and has a reasonably digitally savvy fan base (unless someone figures out how to rejuvenate those with a sell-able, presumably download equivalent of the impact of CDs on the industry in the late '80s and DVDs on home video in the late '90s).

Even if you don't want the headache of setting up your own Radiohead-esque distribution, you can cut your own deal with a brick and mortar (like Wal-Mart and the Eagles) or a digital distribution service (like Tune Core and Frank Black).

There has been a lingering question about what the hell emerging artists and new bands will do in the new age. The answer might very well be succeed.

If you were the type that was motivated enough to work hard and get a deal in the old model, you should be the type that's motivated enough to run the business of your music. Labels often functioned to outsource a lot of the bullshit leg work that bores and disheartens potential rock stars, but as Steve Albini famously pointed out in his legendary article "The Problem with Music," this outsourcing came at the expense of almost all the monetary reward for most newly signed artists, even those small percentage who sold quite a few records. (If you've never read it, read it and notice that even though it predates the digital revolution, it points out how the majors implosion was basically inevitable).

In the future a few of lucky lazy, who had talent and were scooped up and became famous and rich will probably fall through the cracks and be lost -- because they'll be so little scooping going on.

But it also points the way to the next wave that's already happening... capitalism is returning to the music business. With the majors' cartel over distribution effectively broken and TV and radio's declining relevance in breaking new artists you have a freer market. Small labels, marketing companies, artist reps etc. are out there making money with and for there artists and covering the same leg work bullshit the majors did at a fraction of the cost. In some sense we may just see the same sorts of assholes in smaller office buildings, and some artists will still get ripped off -- but now it will be more as an artifact of the free market, not a standard operating procedure of the whole industry.

The industry has been declared dead before, several times actually and every format change has been declared inferior to the predecessor (LPs took almost 10 years to catch on, in part because a lot of people thought '78s sounded better). They could find a way to come back, gain a new foothold and become more dominant than before (as they did after they were declared dead in the wake of the death of disco).

If you want to bet on anything, bet on even more convenient consumption for consumers (if an iPod is 100X more convenient that LPs, what's 100X more convenient than an iPod?) and for a new trend in music to arise that will get people excited again and offer an opportunity to make money.

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