Kent Newsome writes:

But until the music industry as we have known it dies and is reborn as a direct artist to consumer market, the Blip.fm’s of the world are like snowmen in the sun.

This reminded me of a thought that’s been swimming in my head the last few months. I know a lot of people that argue that music should be direct artist to consumer market. The record labels are just middle men that obstruct the divine connection between artist and consumer and charge a toll. The idealistic part of me desperately wants to agree. I spent two or three years listening primarily to local and regional artists in my hometown, riding the quest of a new movement, and then watching that movement crumble as the (Nashville, in this case) record labels bought off just enough of the talent to deflate everything without changing much of anything that the movement became a response to. Who needs those bastards, right?

While it may be ideal to cut out that middle man, the basic problem as I see it is that they do add value and that added value has to have a mechanism in any alternate formula. They don’t add as much value as they used to, but they’re not as obsolete as a lot of their critics would have them. It used to be that they were necessary in large part because they provided the capital to record and distribute records, but that’s not really the case anymore. Independent artists all across the country are producing their own records now. But they’re not getting the national play that they often should. Because of the greedy, obstructionist record labels blocking their way? Yeah, partly. But not entirely.

As records have become easier and cheaper to produce, it’s created a wealth of material that’s good for everybody. It’s particularly good for enthusiastic music fans like Kent and (in a former life) myself. But it creates a problem for a key contingent of the consumer market. Namely, those people that don’t want to have to seek out good music. Those that want music delivered directly to them. People that aren’t all that picky and like familiarity. These people don’t listen to popular music because they’ve been force-fed by the industry. They do so because it provides a sufficient diet for them with little or no effort. New song comes to the radio, thumbs up or thumbs down, wait for new song on the radio. The record labels and radio provide that pipeline in a way that it’s going to be pretty difficult for any independent, side-stepping direct market could.

The bottleneck is radio. For all of the complaints about how record labels lack originality, they’re not really the culprits. I used to think that they were, but then I signed on with Rhapsody and discovered that there are a lot of great musicians out there that have been signed*. Not just copycats of Top 40 sensations, either. But we very frequently don’t hear these songs on the radio. A lot of that has to do with the inherent conservatism of radio. They have much more limited airtime than record labels have money to sign acts.

But even there, radio is giving us what we want. Complaints about how they keep playing the same songs over and over again ignore that a whole lot of people (myself excluded) like that. They listen to the radio for a few hours a day and are often waiting to hear songs that they’re familiar with. So arguments that they would have more time to experiment for the advanced listener if they would stop playing the same songs over and over again ignore that casual listener.

So the radio stations have to prioritize. But they have no idea what to play. Maybe it would be better if DJs had more freedom to play what they like, but that’s frequently going to be at odds with what the casual listener wants to hear. The casual listener being supreme for radio because the advanced listener has so many other options that they have effectively removed themselves from the equation. They, like me, have Rhapsody or some service of the like. Or alternate music pipelines. So if radio stations have to prioritize, how do they do so? Well, if everyone is shouting at you “play this record” they will have to listen to those that shout the loudest. Record labels shout the loudest. More than that, though, they have some of the best (if overly cautious) filters available because they have a lot more at stake than an independent label. They have to be infuriatingly choosy and cautious about what they try to push. So they push the stuff most likely to succeed (leaving the rest of it to be found by people like me that sign up for some music service).

This mechanism is far from perfect. But it’s there. If a more democratic system is to develop, it’ll have to answer the pipeline question. Right now the indy labels and music critics are particularly ill-equiped to do it. The worlds have diverged and moved too far apart. You get influential and critically popular bands like Wilco that have been around forever and that every serious music fan is at least somewhat familiar with but whom most casual listeners likely could not identify. These are the people most anxious to take the role as filters but least equipped to do so. The record labels act as an intermediary between them and the general listening audience. Their thumbs up can carry weight with the labels enough to get signed, but they’re still a hard sell to the secondary filter of radio stations and their soft efforts to push it will likely reflect that.

Many years ago, before Rhapsody and iTunes and in the big, bad days of Napster, I was a subscriber with eMusic. eMusic was a deal that couldn’t be beat. For something like $10 a month, you could download all you wanted. And unlike Napster, it was completely legit. Most of my friends were complaining relentlessly about the RIAA and record labels at the time, so I pimped eMusic hard. And yet, for all of my attempts to sell it, people weren’t buying. Talk about how they “would” pay for music dissipated. Complaints would shift to the fact that they’d never heard of 95% of the artists being sold on eMusic. I told them that the beauty of eMusic was that you could download it first and decide for yourself if you liked it… but nothing. They didn’t want to do that. Too much work. For all of their complaints about the Big Music Machine, they were relying on it a lot more than they realized. Some tried to sidestep it by saying that they don’t listen to current music… as if old products put forth by the record labels were somehow less indicative of their usefulness than new.

So being unable to sell the notion of Find Your Own Music(!!) and to this day having difficulty selling Rhapsody to people, I am resigned to the likelihood that people really do want to be sold. Somebody has to do the selling. Somebody with money to market and to get the appropriate attention and all of that. Right now there’s nobody that can do that for the mass markets as well as the record labels. If an alternate model is going to rise, it will have to account for that somehow. They’re like a bad habit. They can’t just be broken. They have to be replaced.

Note: I am not writing this claiming to be an expert in the music industry. This is based mostly on my observations as a consumer. What are blogs for if not outsized commentary from people with the objectivity of relative ignorance? Seriously, though, people who know (or should know) a lot more than me seem to often get hung up on the simple detail that most consumers simply aren’t like them (or, for that matter, like me). I’m open to hearing a good rebuttal as to why record labels are not providing the above service, but most of what I hear when I’ve brought it up are that “People don’t find their own music because record labels strangle out everything else and they aren’t given the chance.” I just don’t think that’s true.

* – What’s available on Rhapsody now is a lot less indicative of major record labels’ offerings. It used to be that only signed musicians that didn’t own the rights to their work were available. Since then, a lot more smaller labels and even independent artists have jumped on that train.


Category: Theater

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5 Responses to Bad Habits & Big Music

  1. Kirk says:

    “I told them that the beauty of eMusic was that you could download it first and decide for yourself if you liked it… but nothing. They didn’t want to do that. Too much work. For all of their complaints about the Big Music Machine, they were relying on it a lot more than they realized.”

    I’ll confess to liking radio. Radio is a lot easier to deal with than an MP3 player, especially when I’m driving. Although I do have a napster account, I just listen to it streaming on my computer, as I see no need to carry 10,000 songs around with me at all times.

    And why hunt-and-peck for music, when I can let someone else do it for me? Also, radio seems the best way to get concert info.

  2. web says:

    Sorry, I can’t agree. When I was growing up in Melleorki (prior to the great media-conglomeration blitz of 1996), there were a number of radio stations broadcasting both in the city and from neighboring Skunkville that were local-owned, hired local DJ’s, and allowed the DJ’s pretty much free rein on spinning what they wanted to spin. The result was that radio was a great way to find new music, and independent (especially local-independent) artists regularly got their foot in the door by bringing their own tapes to a studio’s DJ and asking them to give it a listen.

    In the late ’80s, there were major scandals over ““the new Payola” (which was Al Gore’s big project at the time… he’s gone on to the fake scare of “global climate change” now), which made a lot of people distrust radio. A few major companies began lobbying Congress to repeal the limits on media ownership, and that happened with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. FMC’s done a good job of running studies on the effect of this since. PBS’ Frontline also did a panel discussion with a large number of experts.

    The resulting problem is that Clear Channel has more or less become the “Standard Oil” of radio. They’ve managed to insert themselves (into music radio especially, leaving off “talk radio” from our discussions) as the ultimate gatekeeper – they control the playlists nationally, they have bought out 3-4 of the nation’s largest concert promoters, 3-4 major advertising billboard chains. Once you get to a certain point, you will functionally HAVE to go through Clear Channel even if you don’t want to, even more than you have to go through a “record label” to get your albums out.

    Also, part of the problem (and I hate to bring this up but it is important at least to explain why I didn’t jump on your recommendations) is that the two services you recommend have their own issues. eMusic, shortly after you tried to introduce me to them, ceased to have “unlimited” downloads and went to their “X downloads a month” model that they currently keep to. They also have, in the past, broken up audiobooks (something I really would jump on the service for otherwise) into so many chunks that I couldn’t even get one book per month based on their current download limits.

    Rhapsody is owned by Real Networks, aka Realplayer, who are such abusive and lousy business (speaking in terms of overcharging for “exclusive” content, producing an incredibly lousy video codec and locking content down to a pixelated mess, and bundling in an absolute ton of garbageware if not downright malware that “had” to be installed just to get their player) and as such, I don’t want to do business with them.

  3. trumwill says:

    And why hunt-and-peck for music, when I can let someone else do it for me?

    Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m getting at. There are a lot of people out there like you to whom delivery is the important part.

  4. trumwill says:

    Web,

    Re: Radio

    Whether done directly through Payola or alternately through aggressive advertising and merchandising, the point still stands. The record labels have to filter through a lot of music in order to decide what to heavily invest in. That’s the value that they add.

    The station in Melleorki sounds great. And WREB in Colosse did much the same thing. But notably, WREB was a failure. Radio stations that play new and exciting music are not listened to nearly as much as those that play Top 40 music. That’s because people (like Kirk, if not you and me) like things more heavily filtered. And, what the DJ really likes is not necessarily going to be what the casual audience is interested in.

    Re: eMusic

    Even before they put the caps on, there was almost no interest around the Southern Tech dorms. Or anywhere. The artists were mostly people that nobody had ever heard of. Heck, even though they carried some They Might Be Giants, some TMBG fans were reluctant to sign up to get TMBG songs that they hadn’t heard of since they couldn’t get songs from Flood and Lincoln and so on.

    But even after the limits were put in place (the previous model was pretty much unsustainable), we were talking about 25c a song. People wouldn’t pay that. But they would later pay $1 per song for DRM-crippled material from iTunes. The difference? The filters.

    Regarding Audiobooks, those are a bit complicated because it’s harder to determine what constitutes a “track”. I assume that they went with how the CD split it up, which doesn’t really work. Anyway, now you can get one audiobook a month for $10. Not worth it, in my opinion, but a little more straightforward than it used to be.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that eMusic didn’t make mistakes. They did. They continue to. But if people wanted what they said they wanted, they would have done a lot better than they did. And do. Most didn’t even investigate to reach the objections that you did.

    Re: Rhapsody

    RealNetworks may be a crappy company (Alt Real is a great bypass), but Rhapsody is a great service. But Napster offers a similar service. Doesn’t have Rhapsody’s great interface, but it’s cheaper and gives you a few MP3s a month.

  5. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    To put it another way, “The long tail is mostly crap.”

    The trick is finding some way to efficiently sift through a lot of the crap to find new music that you might plausibly like. The best way to do that which I’ve seen has been for a service like Pandora or Rhapsody to take note of what you like, and try to find things similar to that. Pandora has turned me on to some artists I’d never heard of beforehand, but upon investigation, I often find that those artists are “on the bubble” of becoming popular in their own right.

    This has the result of defining the new, more obscure music in terms of its similarity to very popular music. And even then, getting the new, second-tier music still requires someone to go out and push it in the myriad of channels necessary to get it sorted out as similar to more familiar and popular stuff.

    So I have to agree that radio stations and record companies still add value and aren’t going to go away any time soon.

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