Monday, October 18, 2010

Musicians, Fans, Downloading, and The Revolution

This topic greatly affects my own life and thinking as well... I'm couch surfing now and had some free time and hadn't written anything in a while so here's some thoughts...

In a Society More Harmoniously Structured:

Music production and recording technology becomes more widespread and affordable. More people are able to write and record music, distribute it, and play shows in their communities. There is an influx of poorly produced, mediocre music. But from this there is also an influx of well produced, great music. Eventually scenes develop and people branch out and play shows elsewhere. If other people like their music they go to their shows and give them money and buy their merch. Said other people also order their CDs or T shirts or really neat box sets or LP vinyls or just donate them money and download Mp3s.

What Actually Happened:

The economy entered a recession. Myspace became popular for musicians to spread the word about themselves but then it suddenly was abandoned by almost every user because the owners of Myspace got greedy and put too many obnoxious ads all over it. The interface was also unable to compete with the more efficient social network of Facebook. At the same time people found themselves with less and less money to spend on music, the same people started getting computers and learning about Napster, Limewire, Kazaa, and finally, torrents of entire albums. Writing music became less profitable for everyone except the most well known musicians whose popularity was either established in the age before downloading, or it was promoted so heavily through the entrenched media apparatus that it was still able to be profitable.

Rather than myspace making your local band famous, it was bought out by Rupert Murdock, turned into a tool of the industry to promote signed, controllable acts. Meanwhile all your "friends" started abandoning the site where they followed your updates... though they still torrent your albums.

Increasingly, musicians are feeling the economic pinch and are able to devote less of their personal time-money to producing something fewer and fewer people will or can compensate them for. Rather than the "forward march" of technology having a leveling, democratizing effect upon the music world, it's potential has been held back by the crises and inequalities of capitalism. Thousands of would be artists are ruined, and abandon their work; while Pop stars continue to dance and sing and shake their booties, surrounded, often enough, by dollar signs, dollar bills, fast cars, sexy women, and other symbols of unattainable luxury.

The Struggle Continues

Labels and Artists struggle to keep themselves afloat, financially, through various "niche", mixed-media marketing. It is often ineffective. Fans, now able to download entire discographies without leaving their desks- or paying a dime- have mentally de-valued the process of music composition, production, and distribution. They expect artists- using tools newly available to them- to deliver more and more- while being compensated less and less.

The musician- fan relationship has changed from a symbiotic one of mutual support to an antagonistic, even parasitic one.

These problems affect all genres. Though the industrial-goth-electro genre may be suffering more these days as so much of that scene's output for the past decade has sucked horribly.

Options Available for Musicians

1) Continue to foot the bill on composition, production, and touring-

Touring takes on more significance as fans long for a closer connection to the music that they are now- thanks to the internet- so alienated from. Not only is buying music alienating, LIFE is alienating. Each individual experiences the crisis in their own, private, desperate hell. Friends and family are avoided- not turned to. Social networks disintegrate as people go out less. Live shows, far more than sex-alcohol-drug oriented dance clubs, offer, for what can be a quite reasonable fee, an actual sense of community, being part of something, and contributing to something good happening. That is a sense far too rare today in most people's lives.

Good live shows might actually sell merch and CDs, however, the ratio of

[Immediate Concert Merch + Music Sales] to [Post-Concert Antendee Music Purchases]

will of course, thanks to the internet, continue to decline. Another downside to this scenario is due, not to simple technological progress, but to contemporary economic decline. While live shows are becoming more important, artists and labels are less and less able to shoulder the costs of providing them, while fans, despite their desire to attend, are less and less able to afford to.

2) Support and Pass legislation that bans and aggressively prosecutes Peer to Peer file sharing websites, hosts, and program writers-

Either these networks will exist and musicians will continue to loose billions of dollars, or musicians and labels and national and international governments will be able to fight back against them, chasing more fans to legitimate mp3 purchases such as itunes,, etc... Of course this will mean the criminalization of sharing music, with a few front page horror stories of 14 year olds' houses being raided by cops, their computers confiscated, their parents heavily fined, etc... Unfortunately for musicians, music pirates comprise a great majority of the world's population, and they may, through whatever small democratic mechanisms still exist, be able to prevent this from happening. And even if it did, piracy, and servers in countries with weak governments, would probably still allow music sharing to exist anyway, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale.

3) Avoid Digital Sales-

Promote only "niche" vinyl releases, box sets, cassette tapes, etc that capitalize on the novelty of allowing a fan to participate in a non-digital musical transaction.

Unfortunately this will probably not work as it would require fans to spend more money that less and less of them have. It might be even less effective on younger listeners (most of the people who buy music) who didn't grow up with vinyl, cassettes, or CDs, and who live without a second thought to mass downloading.

4) Heavily Promote Digital Sales-

Unfortunately this probably will not work as the people most computer savvy enough to be comfortable buying from itunes, amazon, or your label's website are also the ones savvy enough to know how to torrent.

5) Organize All Musicians-

To go on strike, refusing to play shows or write new albums, until fans start buying music again.

Unfortunately this probably will not work, as fans will continue to torrent music during the strike, and enough ambitious new musicians will doubtless step in to fill the void.

6) Implement Step One in a Revolutionary Manner-

Follow the example of Underground, "revolutionary" Hip-Hop in Russia. Confront the economic realities head on with music that restores the lost Artist-Fan connection by forming a music that aligns the artists' own personal struggle, under capitalism, with that of the fan. As the fan continues to loose, under capitalism, their jobs, foreclosed houses, life savings, personal effects, health care coverage, etc... so does the musician continue to loose his own economic stability the fan was once able to provide. Reaching fans (people) directly through tours, inexpensive low run DIY CD and merch releases, microlabels that actually make free downloads as well as paid downloads available. Hurting, and sacrificing, and barely scraping by- yes... by scraping by none-the-less, as an artist, as we all are.

Optimistically, revolutionary music and revolutionary movement will regain a dialectical relationship- the music inspiring the movement- the movement inspiring the musicians. Struggle will begin to catch up to the level of dissatisfied consciousness. Rather than the people paying for the recovery of profits for wall street, rather than watching our homes get foreclosed while a billion a day is spent on unwinnable, immoral, war, we re-build the economy, and re-structure our future, in a sustainable way more concerned with the living standards of ALL OF US than with the profits of the few.

Optimistically, such a movement might be capable of returning us to A Society More Harmoniously Structured.

Pessimistically- such an approach might work for a while, until the wave breaks and the movement fades, and capitalism triumphant is eventually able to re-establish itself as a hegemonic, "legitimate" system. Of course it might do so through fascism, military spending, death camps for minorities, bombing competing nations into oblivion, etc... but it might still do it. In such a case the artist, if he is able to survive whatever repression the state may or may not require to suppress the movement, would become something like John Lennon in the eighties. Still alive, yes, a fading memory of a bypassed, exhausted, defeated revolution that once was.

Certainly though, is that really so bad of a thing to be? Surely, it's gotta beat just going broke, selling all your gear, no longer making the art you loved, and hating all your fans.

* * *

Addendum... Economic Context

It is Not. Just. The. Internet... but it is the internet in the context of the economy.

If things were going well and people had money, sure, they'll buy your record on itunes or click on your donate button. But things are not going well. People are getting squeezed. They've been getting squeezed, and median income in this country has been dropping, ever since the late 1970s, when, to compete better with Japan, Europe, and now China, American companies have been slashing wages, downsizing, outsourcing, destroying unions, etc...

Instead of buying things they need or would like with money they got from their jobs, more people buy things they need or want with credit cards, eventually enslaving themselves to debt peonage.

Instead of getting paid enough to go to college, you join the Army, go to Afghanistan, and come back with a traumatic brain injury.... OR you start life fresh out of undergrad with several thousand, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

So people cut here and there to continue being able to live. Money that could have gone to a musician went to groceries and rent and... downloading torrents replaced having to give the musician money.

It's the same trade offs you see everywhere. Like, it sure sucked the factory closed down, or relocated from the Midwest to the South East where it can pay workers less (no unions)... but at least there's Walmart selling us food and oil changes a little bit cheaper to help us live on our fast food wages and unemployment checks.

Work harder to save and pay for your own shoestring tour out of pocket.

Just like when they fire the bussers at the restaurant and now the waiters do their jobs too- just work harder to be able to make the same kind of money and tread water for a while.

Musicians who used to make money, or who wanted to make money, are just another laid off UAW 55 year old watching his pension disappear. They're the deported illegal immigrant of entertainment. Thank you for your work, now go away and quit assuming you ought to be able to get health care or a nice place to live permanently.

These trends to squeeze living standards will continue as much as they can everywhere. Until... we either get smart and fight back and make living a little more balanced and sane.

But... they're betting you won't be smart enough to do that. You'll just get more and more frustrated and pissed off and jealous and bigoted until you embrace the fascism, join the storm troopers, kill off the minorities, and bomb competitive nations back into the pre-industrial era... so that once again The Companies can make super profits AND you can have a nice suburban house, a car you can afford to maintain, and enough salary to send your kids to college where they're actually be jobs for them afterwords.

The cycle will repeat, ad nauseum, until all the resources are consumed. By then we'll probably devolve into some kind of mad max nightmare feudalism for a while until every scrap of technological progress is finally lost or stolen or traded for bullets. Maybe then we'll be able to re-live the hunter-gatherer "utopia" for a while until the sun blows up and engulfs our planet OR the dinosaurs evolve back around and eat us up... infant mortality rate and tooth decay notwithstanding.


  1. I've actually been thinking about this alot lately. I'm scheduled to graduate with a Music And Entertainment Management degree in a little under four years and I wonder if there is going to be a business for me to work in.

    One thing that needs to be clarified I think is that the *music* industry isn't going under - the *recording* industry is.

    Artists have never made much of their money from record sales. Their money has, and still does, come primarily through ticket sales, licensing (begrudgingly usually,) and merch. Ticket sales are by far the majority of their income.

    How the recording industries failure is hurting artists is apparent. The record companies were a necessary evil. Everyone hated them, still does. But they provided the financing for recording, and promotion, and a structure for distribution.

    While the economy may play a part in the current "crisis," the blame in reality is in technology. The recording industry didn't see what was coming, and honestly, even if they did there would be little they could do about it. Even those who wish to support artists still download from the Pirate Bay and other sites because itunes suck. Technology has destroyed the monopoly the record companies had on distribution.

    The record companies will be gone in 5 years. A few will still be around but they likely fulfill the role akin to The Franklin Press or something - releasing limited edition boxed sets, signed albums, etc. The mass production model will be dead though.

    In the meantime this is hurting artists as the record companies grasp at any form of income to survive as long as possible. They require cuts of touring and merch sales now and they are backing away from anything that's now mainstream shitty pop. Nirvana wouldn't be able to be signed in this climate - but a million Justin Beibers probably could - with shitty contracts and shitty music. The sooner the record companies go, the better for everyone.

    In the end it'll come down to distribution. There are an infinite amount of ways an artist can distribute their music these days, but a business model hasn't been developed to provide the financial support and promotion necessary. There are bright lights here and there - the Pretty Lights in CO just passed their millionth free download. All their work is free, and as a result their concerts are sold out. They've found a way to circumvent the record companies and effectively distribute their music. Unfortunately, it is a model that can be applied to everyone. They have an amazing light show and most of their fans ingest massive amounts of drugs at their shows. People are buying an experience, not necessarily the music.

    I've though about the concept of marrying music to social causes as a way to save the industry and help us out as well, but I think it is appealing only to those VERY few artists that actually give a shit. Many don't. Many "revolutionary" artists don't. If it can be shown that it is in their business interest to do it, then you have a chance, but I think it'll be a generation before it is in enough artists' interest for it to be viable, and by then a new model will have been built.

    I don't know - really I don't think anyone does. There are a few folks trying to sound the alarm and figure it out - but many of the old industry heads are just trying to make it another 5 years till retirement.

    You might be interested in reading JJ Italiano's blog. He's the manager of the 'bots and a few other bands and pretty firmly on the ground about where we're at. His blog is an attempt to get people in the industry to start thinking and acting - it here:

  2. "and they are backing away from anything that's now mainstream shitty pop." - should've been *not mainstream pop..

    "Unfortunately, it is a model that can be applied to everyone." - that *can't be applied...