There has been a lot written and debated about the future of the music business and how the old model is broken, but there is little consensus about what the new model will be. I have my own theories and opinions of where things are going, and it might be to a better business model for almost all concerned.
The old model is a top-heavy hierarchical system where the labels made all the money, controlled output, and screwed the artists making the music. With the ubiquitous availability of music online, their way of doing business is quickly becoming irrelevant to the most voracious music consumers—young kids, college students, and the occasional hip music fan in his forties with a high speed connection and wide taste in tunes (that would be me, in case it wasn’t obvious enough).
If a music fan wants to hear music these days, they don’t turn on the radio, or even their CD player—they go online. Streaming audio from Myspace and other sites is a great way to discover new music without spending that twenty dollar bill on a full CD with one good song, but the file-sharing avenue is how most are filling up their iPods and hard drives with music.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Artists no longer need to work toward the one thing that used to legitimize them—a record deal. If you only get jerked around, for pennies per CD or song, what’s the point in giving up control of your career? The bands making money now are doing it in smaller, more focused regional touring circuits, and the free availability of their music is what’s driving a new generation of fans out to the clubs to see them play live—the one experience that can’t be downloaded.
So if you’re in a band, forget about working toward that record deal—instead, invest in some good recording equipment and do your own albums, or hire a local producer with a project studio who can probably make you sound just as good as the L.A. or NYC guys. Put the songs out on your website for free download, post them all over the place—Myspace, Facebook, Purevolume, wherever, just get them out there. If you’re good, people will find you even in the torrent of traffic on the web. It may take a while, so be patient and keep working on your live show.
If you can work your way into a regional touring circuit where you’re not playing the same town every Friday night, it’s entirely possible to sustain your band, if not full-time then at least to the point where you’re not losing money on your hobby.
Repeat this scenario nationwide and you’ll have more bands touring in smaller areas, creating vibrant regional scenes, which in turn will initiate some buzz online from regional bloggers and local publications. If the buzz gets loud enough, the opportunities to expand will come to the bands, resulting in an ever-widening touring circuit. All those people who listened to your music for free online will then get the chance to hear you in person, too. I’ve heard many stories from bands who play a town for the first time and there are twenty people up front they’ve never seen before, singing along to their original songs.
In this scenario a major label becomes virtually unnecessary—even if a band bottles some lightning and experiences a Shawn Mullins moment (a sudden, surprising spike in popularity due to a hit song or other one-time exposure like a commercial placement), if they’re putting the music out there officially for free, there isn’t a need for the old-school hard copy distribution channel, even.
Monetary streams for bands in this model will come from live shows, of course, but also from non-downloadable merch. T-shirts, posters, the usual souvenirs that fans like to have, plus some hard copies of the music for those who want the physical document. Depending on your band’s genre, vinyl albums are now hip again and being stocked in larger numbers by indie record stores. Give your fans the option to buy hard copies directly from you or through a seller like CD Baby, and there will still be a number of them who will do it even if you have the downloads available free. Creating communities online around your band will also serve you well not just in gaining fans, but keeping your current ones interested. Are you posting tour blogs, video journals, new demo recordings, live clips, or any other innovative content on your band’s website? why not?
This is a different level business model than the multi-million selling major label archetype, but given the odds and the competition, it’s very unlikely your band will ever even come close to that type of opportunity. Acknowledging that is the first step to a realistic approach to your music career, taking any of the suggested routes above is the rest of the staircase.
There are more nuances to this whole subject, and others have explored them more in-depth than I just did, so I’d appreciate your thoughts on this too–Comment away.
I’ll put my money where my keyboard is as far as expanding your exposure. If you think your music is good enough that I need to know about it, write about it, or otherwise let people know about it, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your best two songs, links to your videos on Youtube, and your website address or Myspace page link. If I like what I hear, I’ll be in touch for more.