in a magical fairytale land, closely resembling our own, there was a bard. this bard appeared as just another travelling musician-storyteller, like most bards, from a small town and humble beginnings. in fact, this bard was secretly a vassal under the employ of an enormous fiefdom, taking a small cut off the top of her tips and giving the rest to her liege. in return, the lord arranged taverns for performances and spread the word about his bard, and the deal worked well. however, the bard was trying to capitalize off of the “common bard” routine, when in fact, she had many more opportunities handed to her by her liege than most bards did, such was the nature of their agreement. and so, everything was fine until another lord from a smaller fief revealed the deception and spoke publicly about it. this angered both vassal and lord and they tried to sabotage his crops.
readers of Upstart Blogger may recognize this tale.
the music industry is in a period of turmoil. the entire face of music and how we go about getting that music is altering on a fundamental level. once upon a time, this fief and vassal relationship was the only way to make music and have it heard by a wide audience. and while this method worked, what also worked was the fact that you could also listen to other music, if you so desired. putting aside the medieval metaphor for a few minutes, back in the day when corporate rock wasn’t a bad word, and we listened to bands signed by huge corporate conglomerates without a second thought, what was also true was that radio was independently owned and operated. this gave an opportunity for local bands to be heard, small indie band and travelling bands on smaller labels. you would send your record to a radio station and if they liked it, they played it. there were radio dj’s like frickin’ doctor demento who gave “Weird Al” Yankovic his entire career. Weird Al had a single track he recorded himself on a cheap 4-track mixer but sent it to Dr. Demento and got an entire career out of it.
if you’re a musician and think you can get a break by sending your demo to a radio station, you are several decades too late for that. why? because the greedy lord has expanded his fiefdom to include the radio waves.
now, huge conglomerates decide what music that plays on the radio. all the stations (or most of them anyway) are part of the same network, meaning they get the same playlists fed to them by the huge record labels who are funding the radio station’s broadcast. this means no variety, no independent travelling musicians, no demos. (i’m speaking very generally here. there may be some stations that do some of this, but it’s not on the scale that it once was. here’s a tangential anecdote: when i was in high school there was an awesome alternative station in San Francisco, Live 105. they played what was new and happening in alternative music, stuff that was just emerging on the radio and MTV, so Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, all when they were just barely getting big. they also had an amateur hour — more like a couple hours, actually — in the dead of night. you could try to get on the show by sending in a playlist and a letter of why you should be on the radio, or you could just enjoy what people had to play. i happened to tune in one night and heard Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Revolting Cocks and all sorts of other underground industrial that I had only heard from friends before. it was astounding — Skinny Puppy on the radio? holy crap! if you think you could do that now, on Live 105 or any other radio station, again, you’d be sorely mistaken. </tangent>)
right now, the record industry is in growing pains. the major labels are scrambling to retake control and figure out how to make money doing what they are doing, which is promoting music, while independent musicians are realizing that they can make music without a record company. upstart blogger’s ashley morgan is one of them. also? amanda fucking palmer.
here’s something i found last night, via neil gaiman’s tweet: why i am not afraid to take your money. amanda palmer gets on her soapbox about why she’s sick of people trying to guilt her into taking people’s money for events. about people not really liking that she made a bunch of money off a webcast. her response: get over it. and she’s totally right.
pirates figured out that we could essentially grab a copy of any piece of music we want, for free. maybe it’s illegal, but in the age of bits vs. atoms, we’ve adopted this belief that bits (i.e. information transmitted via computer) should be free. and that’s okay. file sharing has become an integral way to find new music that you can’t hear on the radio because it’s not sponsored by the corporate record labels. for myself, i support these bands by going to their shows, and hitting the merch table. or going to their website or their indie label’s site and buying their album directly and not from best buy. occasionally i still use amazon for used cds, but i still buy cds because i value the atoms. i like having the physical disk in my hand and i like leafing through the liner notes. i realize that i’m becoming old fashioned for this preference.
but music shouldn’t be free, and there shouldn’t be a problem with paying an artist for what they do.
even if paying that artist comes in a different form, and from a different means of commerce. (and here’s where i spin this right back around to upstart blogger.) this morning i found this on upstart blogger: confessions of a blogger. and from that post i realized that the whole shenanigan with a certain uk pop star and emi didn’t end when ashley got his twitter account suspended and pulled the posts about said pop star and emi. no, then his new twitter account and the twitter account of a completely unrelated band he plays in also got suspended. what gives?
well said pop star resembles the bard, backed by a powerful lord who enjoys making money from his bard’s performances. but in an age when that music can be found for free, the lord (and other, similar lords) need to take a stand against finding music for free because then it is no longer controlled solely by the lord. they perceive it to mean they are losing an income stream. i disagree, but that’s besides the point. so they urge their artists to take a stand against file sharing, saying that it is stealing money from artists and labels. even when artists have come out with ways that you can make money as an independent musician without a label. artists like trent reznor, radiohead, and amanda palmer. artists like ashley morgan, who uses his blog to generate his income and fund his music career.
once upon a time i saw the chief architect of genesis rocket sitting on a pile of cash and able to talk his way into getting freebies like an awesome frickin’ microphone from a top manufacturer. that was before he told me in an email that the uk takes away 50% of those earnings in taxes. even disregarding that, the scope is wrong; genesis rocket isn’t just a get-rich scheme from some anonymous marketer trying to cash in on twitter — it’s an income stream for an independent musician. and as we all know (or should), music costs money. it costs money to get a recording studio, to buy the software and the gear, to mass produce your cd, to promote your music. and as we all know (or should) musicians aren’t rich. not most of them. and it’s because they have to pay all these extra expenses that we can’t even fathom. they have all the same expenses as you or me, but additionally, their chosen means for making money costs as much as it makes. but they do it anyway, because they are doing what they love, and we respect them for it, but usually only in words. i don’t know if anyone stops to think about what it actually means that their favorite musicians are, often quite literally, starving artists.
but this isn’t an ad for a product. it’s an observation about the music industry. and it’s been made before, and it’s getting old. but it still needs to be said. major labels need to wake the fuck up. shutting down filesharing is going to get you nothing but resent from potential fans. and fans, you need to wake the fuck up. music isn’t free. period. grab the mp3s from bit torrent, go ahead. but if you like what you hear, support the fucking artist. buy their cd, their tshirt, their commemorative fucking plate. go to the show. tell your friends. you are an income stream. your favorite musician isn’t going to your workplace and telling your boss not to pay you for a day, so you shouldn’t expect them to do what they do for free. if you do, your favorite musicians will no longer be able to support their music, and stop making it. if you want to listen to more records by your favorite artists, do them a favor and actually buy some of them.