How I wish it could be

Yeah, it doesn’t scale, there’s no money in it, yadda yadda… This is how I wish the music business would work:

Last week, while listening to my new obsession, I heard a Kris Delmhorst song (probably East of the Mountains, though I’m not sure now) that was so good, that resonated with me so strongly, that I had to own it.

I clicked Jim’s link to her web site, downloaded a couple of MP3s, and decided that I needed her newest two CDs. A little PayPal, a long week of watching the mailbox, and they are mine, for less money than it would have cost to buy them anywhere else, and other than the PayPal fee, I was paying an artist, not a marketer or a distributor or any other sort of middleman.

Kris can buy a couple of meals on me, or some guitar strings, or say “screw the laundromat, I’m taking this to the cleaners,” or something else ordinary and real. I’ve got some honest, handmade music, without having paid for any lawyers who are suing college students who can’t afford a CD, much less a defense.

Personally, I’ll probably never buy another CD from a band that needs twenty session musicians and forty engineers to record, and needs to sell 50,000 tickets just to pay for the light show, but I know there are people who like that sort of spectacle, who wouldn’t be happy listening to something unless they knew that millions of other people were also listening to the same thing, and that’s where the problem really comes in.

I can see, perfectly clearly, how musicians could make a comfortable living touring and selling CDs at shows and online, making enough songs available to download for free that people could get an idea of what they sound like, but I can’t see how a system like that, without marketers and publicity blitzes and payola and product placement and everything else the music industry does, could produce the equivalent of Brit— Sp—-, where most of the pleasure must be the comfort of knowing that it has to be good, because everyone else likes it, and you see her everywhere you turn.

The real problem is that both systems can’t coexist: if you have a huge corporate publicity machine that’s designed to make a few bands the things that everyone listens to, then it can’t tolerate having people like Kris driving around the country selling a few CDs from the stage and a few more from a web site, siphoning off a few consumers like me. It’s more hopeful to say that the way big corporations act, whether it’s Microsoft or Time Warner or BMG, is just something wrong with our culture, that we could somehow have several operating system companies and several book publishers and several music publishers, all fairly and honestly competing with plenty of room for innovation, but really I doubt that we can.

We can have a regulatocracy like it sounds like Europe has decided on, and make it difficult for corporations to get too much power by burning up most of our energy in a bonfire of endless paperwork and regulation, or we can slip into a William Gibson novel where there’s absolutely nothing in the whole world but a few corporations, but unless we choose to destroy our entire transportation and communication systems, I don’t see how we can go back to a time when we could have lots of small, moderately successful companies.

Luckily, most of the time I can keep my blinders from slipping off, and I don’t have to see this bleak, ugly set of choices. Right now, I think I’ll turn off the lights, crank up Kris, and see if she’ll drive away the nightmares for a while.


Comment by Anonymous #
2003-09-01 05:20:30

I still can’t see why both the mainstream system and your system can’t exist in parallel. In fact, they already do, just look at Ofcourse, I have to admit that due to the lack of advertising for indie music stores most people are unaware there is an alternative to Big Five music.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-09-01 10:22:41

Well, I might be wrong (note the post timestamp: I’m probably wrong), but I suspect that CDBaby, and people starting up their own indie record company to handle three or four artists, are surviving just fine in exactly the same way that you can start up a pretty successful software company that eats Microsoft’s lunch in a niche they’ve left open: for a while. Until they notice you, and wrap your functionality into Office or the OS, either buying you out of the business first or just destroying you.

Comment by Ran #
2003-09-01 11:16:18

The way it is: You hear a song or two you like from an artist on the radio. You skip down to the record store (Did I say ’record’?) and buy a whole album of his or her shtuff for $21, most of which you haven’t heard. Essentially, you prepay the artist for some of his or her work based on your assessment of his or her talent and style.

The way it should be: You hear an ALBUM OR TWO you like from an artist on ANY MEDIA, most likely via file trading. You locate the artist’s representative and offer to prepay for his or her next album. The artist, meanwhile, is working on, or has completed the next album, and sets his or her target income for the completed work (let’s say $100,000 — he or she is popular). When enough people have heard, liked, and contributed to this artist to the tune of $100,000, then the artist releases the new work into the (semi-?) public domain, perhaps retaining copyright for commercial use. (E.g. The artist could get paid to have the work played in movie soundtracks or TV commercials.)

This is not my original idea, and there are many details left out — most notably TRUST FACTORS AND AGENTS (e.g. escrow accounts?), but you can get the concept.

I’m of the opinion that the days of the musical megarich may be waning. But so what? Neither teachers nor policemen get paid what they should. Life isn’t fair; take a number, get in line.


Comment by Dan Brickley #
2003-09-14 03:53:40

Yup, having seen Kris live a couple of times while in the states, she’s one of the few artists I’d feel genuinely bad about downloading fileshare’d MP3s of rather than buying the CD first.

Comment by homer jay #
2004-01-15 23:55:52

I don’t see what the problem is. If Kris wants a part time job as an artist, then she’s doing that.

If she wants it to be her career, it’s pretty clear what the path is she has to take.

Both are co existing just fine.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2004-01-16 00:47:41

Um. No. NO NO NO!

Kris doesn’t have a part time job as an artist. She has a full time job, it’s what she does. It *is* her career, and she’s going to take the path through that career that she wants to take, which doesn’t involve selling her soul to vultures for a one-in-thousands chance of making it big enough to actually make a penny (you do know that most major-label acts actually lose money, and wind up owing money to their label, rather than getting paid, right?). What’s coexisting just fine is a evil system that trades on dreams, and a reasonably honest system that’s so completely locked out of radio, and major venues, that most people in it wind up doing some of their gigs in people’s living rooms (google ”house concert”, note that some of the names are actually quite famous, as indie artists go).

Trackback by Ted Leung on the air #
2003-09-02 01:31:19

Hackers and Painters redux

If people saw developers of useful software as being more like artists than record labels, then maybe we could see some different funding models for getting software done. In particular, we might get
commissioned software like Michael Sippey is askin

Trackback by RasterWeb! #
2003-09-05 08:11:18

Everything old is new again…

Phil Ringnalda discovers the D.I.Y. spirit of 1980’s Punk Rock…

Trackback by Eclectic Echoes #
2003-09-10 07:39:40

What music slump?

While executives at those [major] labels wail about the industry’s imminent collapse, indie labels and artists are singing a much happier tune. Profits are up – in some cases by 50 to 100 percent. That’s in contrast to overall album sales, which droppe…

Trackback by meta-roj blog #
2003-11-01 04:37:55

music – it’s a matter of taste

phil ringnalda has a vision of the music industry. it’s a nice vision and it’s attracted some interesting comments. today i’m going to use this as a hook to introduce yet another music business metaphor, and probably my personal favorite…

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