Monday, August 21, 2006

I deal in dreamers and telephone schemers

(Via Darcy) Fortune magazine asked, “Who needs record companies, anyway?” Well, most of us, according to one disgruntled reply, and another.

For the rest of us, I think we need to modify the question somewhat. The question now becomes “Do I need a label?”

Five years ago I made a record with No Sale Value, called Nu Currency, in it collaboration with a small Boston label. It seemed like a pretty good deal- we both put up some money, I handled most of the production end (and kept the masters), the label was to handle the marketing, relying heavily on the internet, we split any profits. I still feel very good about the album- we made a quality, really interesting, well-produced (and, I think, pretty cool) album for less than $6,000, including duplication costs. (The guys in the band were very generous with their time, but even if they hadn’t been, the album would've come in under $10K.) The label, well, didn’t exactly come through. Most of the distribution didn’t happen, they didn’t help us land any gigs of note, or with much radio play or media. Plus, three members of the band moved, making touring a near impossibility. In other words, no buzz, no interest, no sales. Two years later, after some court proceedings, we split ways. (The label folded not long after.) I left the whole experience with (900 copies of) a good record, a bad taste in my mouth and a little more savvy about making records. (Note I haven’t made one since.)

The CD is still available, actually much more available than it was five years ago. In 2004 I put it on CDBaby, and through them it’s on ITunes and Rhapsody. Anyone anywhere with a computer and a modem can download my music, and I actually get a bigger cut than I would if they bought it at Virgin, and a helluva lot more than if the album were released through Sony, or even Fresh Sound or (insert indie label here). This is good, right?

Not so much. We’ve been downloaded exactly ten times in the past year, at a net profit of about $7. Which is one sandwich at Cosi, last time I checked. (Yup, even on ships I can get at that ridiculous bread.) Maybe if we were gigging more, it'd be different, maybe not. (The primary reason Ani DiFranco et al have been so successful as completely independant artists is the same reason the Bad Plus and MMW have been successful as first small, then big label artists- they gig their assess off. They got there by word of mouth.)

If I had it to do again, I know I wouldn't go with that particular label. But I'm honestly still not sure if I'd have tried to get a label to bite, or done it myself, hired a publicist, etc. I still think if I had been a little smarter, and everyone had been a little less busy, we could've made that album work.

What is/was the advantage of making music on a label? One, they have the equipment to record you. Two, they can get your music to where it can be sold. Three, they can promote you to a far larger audience than you could ever reach yourself. Until recently. Technology has almost completely nullified the first two advantages. And blogs and networking sites like MySpace call the advantage of using a label for the third into question.

The digital economy presents both an opportunity and a problem for any content provider, but especially musicians. The opportunity- you can reach anyone anywhere with your music, for a lot less money than ever before. The problem- so can everyone else. The sheer volume of information available is greater than at anytime in history, and the quality of available music is more uneven than ever before. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter in any meaningful way.

This is the effect of the Long Tail, a book I mentioned in a couple of recent posts, and finished last week. The subtitle of the book is “How the future of business is selling Less of More.” Basically, he says that with this new abundance of content of all sorts, digital and real, the future of financial success is in selling a little of many personalized things than there is in selling a lot of a few mass-market ones. (This essay distills much it better than I can) The author, Chris Anderson, spends most of his time and energy thinking about the implications of this phenomenon on businesses- Ebay, Amazon, KitchenAid, etc. And I think he’s spot on. But he spends no time examining the Long Tail from the point of view of the small content provider, especially one in the arts. But I think he offers us some clues. (All ideas from here on out are influenced by the Long Tail idea, but are entirely mine. Don’t blame Anderson; if he put his mind to this I’m sure he’d figure it out smarter than I will.)

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think artists, not just big ones, need record companies less and less. Through the internet we can do all of the things that a record company can. Some- people who can’t or won’t handle the business end of their lives- still may need labels. But I think the labels, whose margins are already shrinking drastically, won’t hold that advantage forever there either. The time and planning commitments to DIY are daunting, but a lot less daunting than we thing. And the margins are so much better. Some things to consider. (Only because, between my work on Ran Blake’s forthcoming book and N$V’s run at a big resurgence, I’m pondering them myself):

1. I think most of us savvy music types think instinctively that digital networking is critical. If we didn’t, all we'd need is the story of the Arctic Monkeys, who went from garage band to blog and MySpace darlings to SNL guest artists in six months flat. But does that guarantee their album any success, or their career any footing, on a large scale? I for one doubt it. (But I never liked their music, so…)

One of the messages of the Long Tail is that it’s not the quantity of people you reach in the new economy, it’s the quality; the web allows you to more easily reach the people who may actually be interested in what you’re doing, and willing to support it in a meaningful way. For instance, Darcy’s success to date with his big band is based on 1. the obvious quality of his work, and 2. the visibility with a likely audience- musicians, thinkers, bloggers, critics, and fans- that his presence on the web has provided. And he only averages 130 hits per day on his blog- a number I’d kill for, but not that many in the grand scheme of things. Would hitting 300 a day allow him the visibility to sell an album, or tour? (Well, if it weren’t a big band?) 500? IObviously, every band has a tipping point, where word of mouth can translate into some measure of success for the band. (Measured, again, largely by a band creating realistic expectations.) The web makes that tipping point more easily attainable faster. Not easily, but more easily.

(Aside, is MySpace, for all it’s hype, that powerful a tool for content providers? Do MySpace friends translate into record sales, or asses in the seats at gigs? Maybe they do, I sure hope so, but I’m not sold.)

2. Define success for you. I agree with the statement that we’re all looking for the big hit- a gold record, a spot at Boneroo or Caramoor, or whatever. Often what we need to succeed, or at least subsist, is a lot smaller than that. Maria Schneider went to Artistshare for her last album not because she thought she could sell more records there- quite the contrary. But she knew the hurdles to a profit would be much easier to clear there than they ever would have been at a traditional label, and the business process much more transparent. I know Maria is something of a niche superstar who comes in with obvious advantages over band X, but I think the model can work, albeit on a smaller scale, for many more musicians who don’t share her notoriety. After all, if you can make and market a record for $10,000, if you do it yourself you break even at 1,000 or so sold. Not easy (especially for a jazz record) but not impossible either.

I think the answer to “who needs record companies” hinges on the more basic question of “What are you trying to do with your record?” Most jazz musicians, at least, don’t make the bulk of their money on CD royalties. The CDs serve as a foot in the door with clubs, festivals, schools, and other power brokers, which allow them to actually make money. (Well, occasionally.) Does being on a label significantly help that process along or not?

More soon- this post still needs some cleaning up, and a revision is coming. 'Til then, fire away...

1 comment:

Renato said...

A very interesting post. I guess an artist can survive without a label, but those who can really meke money are just a few.

I saw Bad Plus in Rome and they were great!