Decadence and Redemption in the Music Biz

Is there such a thing as artistic integrity in music-making any more? It depends on where you turn your gaze. As Charles Dickens might say, this is the best of times and the worst of times. The music marketplace is becoming more predictable and sterile even as new Internet-based business models allow fans and artists to connect in healthy -- and yes, profitable -- ways.

Let’s start first with Jon Pareles’ depressing account in the New York Times about the proliferation of marketing tie-ins for new music.

It used to be that an artist could focus on the music and could sell songs on their own merits. Even though getting a record contract could amount to "selling out," at least the product being sold was the music. For a while, in fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, the music was king and actually drove the marketplace. Now, the mainstream market has its own dictates for what sorts of commercial music can be viable and "go wide."

The music industry has become so consolidated and fixated on blockbuster hits -- and so out-of-touch with the culture, new artists and fan communities -- that artists and fans these days have trouble building a genuine social connection. Increasingly, the relationship between the musician and fan is becoming a market relationship: impersonal, without commitment, a cash transaction. The music is written to sell; it panders. Many artists find it too risky to express something authentic, risky, honest or quirky. It might piss off the corporate sponsors of the concert tour or get in the way of potential licensing deals.

Pareles describes how artists are increasingly rushing to license their songs for advertisements, movies and video games even before their CDs hit the stores. They have essentially migrated from the music biz to the advertising biz. As licensing deals become more common, the music is taking a backseat to selling vodka, clothing and computers. In a sense, corporate marketers have annexed the creativity of the music industry to serve their own ends, selling product.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss sing for J.C. Penney, and newcomer Yael Naim sings to help sell the MacBook Air. When Moby licensed every song on his 1999 album "Play" for ads and soundtracks, it made big money and encouraged others to emulate his strategy. More performers are turning to "360-degree" deals that bundle concert performances, merchandising, music licensing and other revenue streams into one tidy marketing package.

From one perspective, who can blame musicians? The radio industry has consolidated into a few giant networks and standardized its program formats so tightly that it is hard for newcomers to get airplay. Artists also have to get past the Neolithic attitudes of the major record labels, who have alienated music fans by bullying them with draconian legal threats for downloading music. Oh, and then there’s the high cost of the average CD and the industry’s resistance to developing new, more consumer-friendly business models for digital distribution of music. It’s never been harder to be a fan -- or a self-sustaining artist.

But the real danger of the shift toward licensing music is the corruption of the music itself, Pareles points out:

What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent.

The sub-headline for Pareles’ piece asks, "What good is a catchy tune if it can’t sell sneakers?"

This tectonic shift in the nature of music-making is not going to build a stronger, healthier market because it treats music as a mere commodity genre from the git-go. It ignores the heart-to-heart authenticity that is essential for great music and committed fans.

And yet, if you look hard enough, beyond the glare of superstardom and top-40 radio, there is also a new music marketplace emerging. This new marketplace, enabled by the Internet, allows music to circulate relatively freely and to acquire a "social life" of its own, apart from the marketplace.

Fans are given the space to discover the music they like and make it their own -- rather than having "hits" crammed down their throats by radio playlists and relentless marketing. The emerging commons-based marketplace is likely to be the basis for a more stable, accessible and diverse marketplace for musicians than the top-heavy, blockbuster-obsessed system that is now crumbling under its own weight.

In the "Small Business" column in today’s Wall Street Journal, Shelly Banjo and Kelly K. Spors recount how musical unknown Justin Vernon recorded nine songs on a desktop computer while staying at his parents’ hunting cabin in northern Wisconsin. He posted the songs on his MySpace page and printed 500 CDs.

After a handful of music bloggers discovered his music and publicized it on their blogs, word of mouth took over. Within a year, he had a record deal with a small indie label, and had sold 87,000 copies of his album, "For Emma, Forever Ago," half of them through downloads. Vernon assembled a band, Bon Iver (a mangled version of the French words for "good winter"), which now tours almost continuously.

The story of Justin Vernon is about how an artist and social community can discover each other and co-evolve together without the corrupting influences of the conventional music industry. If the Grateful Dead’s business model was once seen as an aberration, the Internet is making it a viable alternative for large numbers of performers and bands. Musicians can now avail themselves of a growing online infrastructure to sell their own CDs, arrange gigs and licensing opportunities, promote themselves to the press, and distribute audio and video tracks. There is even a site, Slicethepiece.com, that allows artists to raise money from investors and fans.

The closing quote of the WSJ article sums up the reality of the new marketplace well:

"The Internet has been like the French Revolution for the music business," says Panos Panay, forunder and CEO fo Sonicbids. The artistocracy "has faded" as the "cost of distribution, production and even getting connected has come down." Now, he adds, anyone with "a niche and devoted fans can make a living."

Just as the blogosphere serves as a pacesetter and truth-teller to mainstream journalism, so this new Internet-based music marketplace is likely to bring new voices, and more authentic voices, to the mainstream. It will incubate new musical talent and the real social relationships to sustain it — challenges that the music industry abandoned as superfluous long ago. The new commons will eventually show that the superstar hokum and crushing overhead costs of the current market regime are just not sustainable. The very process for determining what is "mainstream" is likely to change….just as the blogosphere is changing the very definition of what is newsworthy.

The frenetic licensing deals that Jon Pareles describes may be a sign that the ancien regime is in real peril. There’s too much desperate and clueless money chasing too little real talent that has scant social grounding. And the music itself is imagined as “product,” and locked up as a commodity that fans are not allowed to “own” in any social or personal sense.

Meanwhile, lots of unknowns like Justin Vernon have something to say and real talent -- and the means for amassing an appreciative audience in a cost-efficient way. As an investor or fan, which model would you prefer to risk your money on?

The major labels may yet try to colonize and corrupt this new commons-based marketplace, but for now, it is a promising archetype for a re-building the music biz. Another example of how a robust commons can be a synergistic partner with a healthy marketplace.

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.