April 20, 2012
Digital Future - I Find It Hard To Mourn The Loss Of The "Rock Star"Talks this morning about that thorny problem of how to make money selling digital copies of things that are just too darned easy to digitally copy.
Music's the classic example. Here's a brief history of the music industry:
50,000 BC - Ugg finds that the sound of banging two rocks together is pleasing. Ugg like bang rocks.
25,000 BC - Ugg finds that other people like the sound of two rocks being banged together, and that - while they may lack the requisite rock-banging skills to do it themselves - they are willing to exchange food, fire and sexual favours if Ugg will bang the rocks and they can sit and listen. Ugg like bang rocks for tribe.
24,999 - 1876 AD - that was the predimonant model (or near enough) in the music industry - people paying other people to bang rocks, bang drums, twang strings and make blowing noises through tubes so that they could listen. Ugg like steady income. Ugg happy.
1877 - 1989 AD - an idiot called Thomas Edison went and blew the bottom out of the banging-rocks-for-people market when he invented the phonograph. This was a technology that allowed the sound of rocks being banged together to be recorded and duplicated as many times as we liked. Anyone who had a phonograph could play these recordings in their own home, and no live rock-banger was required. A lot of rock bangers lost their livelihoods. But a lucky few, whose recordings they were, became very, very wealthy. Ugg like country estate with own salmon lake.
1989 AD - another idiot called Tim Bernard-Matthews (or something like that) invented a medium that would make it possible for digital recordings of people banging rocks together to be distributed electronically - and therefore incredibly inexpensively and quickly - to any connected device in the world. Making and distributing high-quality copies had, up to this point, been difficult and expensive. Suddenly it was easy and cheap. So easy and cheap that very quickly a lot of people realised they could make and distribute copies themselves, and not pay the rock bangers, their record labels or distributors a penny. Ugg no like bankruptcy proceedings. Ugg sad.
The problem, as I see it, is this. When I uploaded an "album" of my music to just one music-selling web site (though I was giving it away free), within 24 hours it was on roughly two dozen filesharing web sites. Within a week it was on hundreds. And some of them were charging money to download tracks from my free album. Within hours of Swedish metallers Meshuggah releasing their highly-anticipated Koloss album, tracks - and even the entire album in glorious HD sound - were turning up on YouTube. It seems the moment a digital copy is out there, then people are copying it and distributing it illegally. And you can police it all you want, but just like King Canute, we cannot command the tide to turn back.
So when the question is asked "how do we make money from music?", the wrong answer is "by selling copies of it". That business is dying, and nothing will stop it, short of undoing 20 years of technological progress.
There's a flip side to this. Digital rock banging may be bad news for rock-banging star Ugg, but it's fantastic news for all the unsigned and unloved rock bangers out there who never got the breaks Ugg did. Digital recording and distribution now makes it much easier and much cheaper to write and record music of a high quality. And the Web makes it much easier for musicians to build a following without having to sign over their souls to a record label. The music business will naturally redistribute itself from a handful of global corporations controlling most of what we hear, to a million cottage industries recording and releaseing a much wider diversity of music.
Musical genius Frank Zappa anticipated this. He had many issues with major labels in the 1960's and 70's, culminating in his forming his own label and handling distribution (usually by mail order) through his own business in the 80's and early 90's. And while Zappa never approached anything like the commercial success and wealth of Paul McCartney or Michael Jackson, for someone who wrote some pretty avante garde tunes, he still made enough money to live well, support his family, employ dozens of people, kit out a very high-tech studio, make several movies, and even hire prestigious orchestras to play his works.
How did Frank do it? Well, firstly, he built a very loyal following by writing music that wasn't a lowest-common-demoninator compromise. In the world of the multi-platinum-selling album, you aim for Joe Average. In a world of a million artists catering to a billion tastes, you focus your aim and find a niche. Being quite unlike anybody else is a major advantage in the age of digital media.
Secondly, Frank had a knack for marketing and publicity. He pioneered the use of billboards to advertise the first Mothers Of Invention album. He cultivated a striking image and is still to this day the undisputed master of the soundbite - arguably the most quotable man in rock. As his career developed, Frank employed all sorts of devious means - most notably comedy - to help his complex, modern music find an international audience. Frank found his audience even in countries where Frank Zappa's music was not allowed. He had a huge and devoted following in the former Soviet Union.
Thirdly, Frank could run a business. He managed his tours so well that, unlike most rock artists in the 70's and 80's, he actually made a profit from them. The size of his tours - often playing in local stadiums - ran counter to his small, niche stature in record sales.
And finally, and most importantly, Frank was a perfectionist and a workaholic. His live bands were the most rehearsed, most disciplined you would ever see. The only band I've seen come close was playing Frank Zappa's music and being led by his son, Dweezil. I kid you not: go see Zappa Plays Zappa and you'll be seeing the best live band you're ever going to see in any genre of music. Frank had high standards in all aspects of the music, and he wrote and wrote and wrote constantly, right up to his untimely death in 1993.
With any luck, the age of one-size-fits-all copy-and-paste music is coming to an end. In a fully digital era, innovation, originality, high standards, hard work and skillz will mark out those artists who will carve out a good living. The rest can go audition for X Factor.
As for the problem of illegal copying... As I see it, once a digital copy hits the market, all bets are off. Copies will be made and distributed. There's nothing we can do to stop it.
Which makes me wonder whether a new way of financing music isn't called for. You can't make a digital copy without having something to copy it from. If you're very careful about data security in the recording process, it should be possible to keep a digital copy from finding its way onto the Net until you're ready for that to happen. And perhaps the right time for the digital files to go public should be after you've at the very least recouped your costs, and hopefully made a profit. Once it goes out, you sell it the good old-fashioned way, secure in the knowledge that your bills have been paid.
The Web can help you build a following and find your audience. Once you've found them, you could find some innovative way of financing releases. For example, you could ask people to buy "shares" in it, or offer other funding options, and withhold the actual media until you've cleared your target. It's becoming common for creative projects to be funded this way, so why not go the whole hog, make the album, get it ready for release, and then let people listen to a small taster and decide if they'd like to "invest" in making the release happen.
Crowdsourcing is a potential way forward, in my opinion. Eventually, the music-buying culture may shift from punters purchasing units to patrons investing in new works. Artists will make their money from a smaller, but much more involved and engaged audience, one that has a stake in the outcome.
But many, many more of us - amateurs like me - will bang rocks together just for the sheer hell of it. Only now, it's possible for our private rock banging in our own caves to reverberate around the world. Personally, I find it hard to mourn the days when that wasn't possible.
Posted 5 years, 10 months ago on April 20, 2012