Music as art; fans as patrons

Musicians moaning about paltry Spotify payments is nothing new (see: latest furore surrounding Grizzly Bear). Much of the discussion to this point has boiled down to sheer economics - ‘we’re not getting paid enough; this is not a substitute for sales’.

Baltimore indie rockers Lower Dens have similar gripes with streaming services:

After this tweet, the indie rockers entered into an almost stream-of-consciousness rant about the logic behind streaming services. Brilliantly, they called into question the very notion that we should have access to all the music, all the time.

As someone who has reaped the abundant harvest of music in the digital age, these words forced me to evaluate my own relationship with music.

Having used the ‘Internet Lending Library’ in the past and more recently streaming services such as Spotify - justifying this all along with economic considerations - perhaps I’ve become the worst kind of music fan. The kind of fan who will profess to ‘love’ a band with the gusto of a 13-year-old Belieber, only to baulk at supporting them with something they hold most dear: COLD HARD CASH.

I wrote sometime ago, mainly with tongue-in-cheek, about trying to slow down my music consumption. Since that post, I’ve done nothing of the sort. In fact, my consumption has largely increased with BIG ON THE INTERNET - a Spotify playlist I’m updating with buzzing tracks.

As much as I can gush over the convenience and utility of Spotify for fans, when artists whom I respect are crying foul of its value to them, it’s time for me to start listening. It’s time to find a balance between my needs for new music and the need of artists to be fairly compensated.

Perhaps it comes down to a fundamental change in the motivations of spending money on music.

Once upon a time, we purchased physical goods. Those goods were expensive to make and distribute - relative to an MP3 - and consumers could justify the outlay. With the advent of digital music, this loss of tangibility has been a disaster for the record business. It’s much easier to steal something you can’t hold in your hands. The resurgence of vinyl is testament to this - much harder to steal (and not as socially accepted). 

With these factors in mind, how else could we compensate artists? Well, like the great museums and galleries, perhaps it’s time to look at a more philanthropic path. Instead of ‘paying for an album’, fans would be asked to ‘pay to support music’. Think of record labels as galleries, musicians as artists to receive bursaries.

OH, IT’S SO IDEALISTIC, FAIRIES, A WORLD WITH NO LAWYERS, ETC.

I like the idea of becoming a ‘patron of the indie music arts’. We could all wear suits to shows, muse about the latest goings on in the Bushwick Scene, and pay attention to the art - rather than overpriced beer.

Fanciful perhaps, but who knows: if we’d like our bands to more than soundtracks to branded content experiences, we’ve got to think above-and-beyond our own selfish needs for all the music, all the time.

Solving the Obscurity Problem

Current thinking suggests that being an independent artist ‘sucks’ - paltry payouts from streaming services, your music as a loss leader, decline of album sales, EVERYTHING.

In a conversation between Arial Hyatt and Seth Godin, the bespectacled marketing guru sees things through a far more optimistic lens. He believes this is the best time ever for indies.

The biggest challenge for any artist to solve is the ‘obscurity problem’ - an idea coined by Tim O’Reilly in response to piracy. Godin posits that once people know you - i.e. you are no longer obscure - the financial side of your business will follow along. 

"If everyone knows your song, someone’s going to show up and say: come do a live gig." says Godin. "Someone’s going to show up and say: please sign this guitar. Someone’s going to show up and say: please endorse this brand of mouthwash."

Godin’s insight offers artists great hope. Rather than whining about the difficulties of the current music business, it asks each artist to embrace the incredible opportunities for connection with fans.

Digital tools are an immense ally in creating and keeping these connections. And while ‘marketing’ and ‘social media’ are dirty words to most creatives, your success of using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, comes down to two steps:

  • Make lots of cool shit
  • Tell lots of people about it

Sounds easy, yes? WRONG. There’s an undeniable art to effectively using digital to enliven - rather than irritate - your fan base. But if you can be genuine, creative, and consistent with your marketing efforts, you’ll hastily be absolved of any obscurity problem.

Discovering Musical Lineage

I recently read the excellent How To Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Kleon introduces, amongst a bunch of brilliant ideas, the concept of ‘creative lineage’.

In short: when you’re feeling creatively stifled, go deep into one particular artist who tickles your fancy - as opposed to the gargantuan task of seeking inspiration from ALL THE ART EVER. Then create a ‘family tree’ of that artist’s collaborators and contemporaries. In a music discovery context, look for: producers, co-writers, collaborators, labelmates.

As an example, I’ve been loving-the-living-shit out of Jessie Ware’s debut Devotion.

Jessie has previously collaborated with:

  • SBTRKT
  • Joker
  • Jack Penate
  • Man Like Me
  • Sampha
  • RackNRuin
  • Bobby Womack

Jessie worked with three producers on Devotion:

1. Dave Okumu

  • lead singer of The Invisible
  • worked with Anna Calvi, Matthew Herbert, We Fell To Earth

2. Tom Hull

  • aka Kid Harpoon, released on Young Turks
  • co-written with Florence + The Machine

3. Julio Bashmore

  • PMR Records labelmate
  • produced for Javeon McCarthy

Jessie labelmates on PMR Records with:

  • Tesfa Williams
  • Julio Bashmore
  • Javeon McCarthy
  • L-Vis 1990
  • Two Inch Punch

Musical Lineage: Jessie Ware (Spotify playlist)

Creating this playlist required some serious internet music research geekdom: AllMusic, Last.fm, Discogs. Yet, it needn’t have been this hard.

The Recording Academy (aka GRAMMY) has launched Give Fans The Credit - calling for digital music services to include songwriters and producers in song info. Having this data easily available, fans would be able to more easily discover their favourite artists’ creative lineage.

If you’re a fan of this approach to music discovery, lend your signature in the link above. Have fun building those trees.

"There is still so much left to build in music discovery, there is plenty of room for everyone to grow."

— Steven Phillips, Founder / CTO of We Are Hunted, Hypebot

I signed up for your newsletter and… RAGE BLACKOUT

Still basking in the warmth of yesterday’s post about the recorded music industry (see: The record labels I never knew I loved), I wanted to parlay the goodwill into a day of ‘giving back’.

After years of ‘borrowing’ music from record labels, I felt like the least I could do - aside from spending money - was to gift them each with my precious email address. After all, there’s still no more effective way to market online than via email.

Based on the list of labels from yesterday’s post, I set forth on a journey to sew my email seeds. Such a noble pursuit, I thought!

As I visited the first label’s website, I noticed… what’s that? There’s no newsletter? Oh wait, there it is… BURIED AT THE FOOTER OF THE PAGE BEHIND A ‘CONTACT’ LINK. And so began the rage blackout.

Here are some of the more common CRM offences:

1. No email list available at all

2. Not possible to sign up for email online (required emailing the label)

3. Sign up box impossible to find on homepage / dreadful UI

4. Gargantuan forms requiring too much data

5. No email confirmation post-sign up

6. Horrific formatting of confirmation emails (when they exist - see point #5)

7. No content / offers / anything included in confirmation emails

8. No impetus (e.g. offers, discounts) for sign up

There I was, ready-willing-and-able to give away my most precious online asset - my email address - and the entire experience has left a sour taste.

For some fans, this could be the first interaction with a label - outside of purchasing music by their artists. The experience could and should have run something like this:

  • Fan visits your website, sees clear newsletter sign up area
  • There’s clear impetus to join - ‘sign up now and receive a 10-track sampler’
  • Fan receives email confirmation of sign up, along with mp3 download link 
  • As a cherry-on-top, the email also provides 10% discount to online store

At a time when sales and fans’ attention spans are shrinking, it’s so sad to see these opportunities go to waste.

Update (6/12): The charming newsletter from Bella Union arrived this morning, replete with great links and news. Rage is quelled… for now.

The record labels I never knew I loved

To my detriment, I’ve paid scant attention to the importance of record labels in my life of music fandom. For all intents and purposes, I’ve not given two shits as to whom released my favourite records; just that they were released. What an ungrateful shit I am.

If you asked me with gun-to-head about my favourite-ever labels, I’d be hard-pressed to go beyond Domino (whom I loved in the mid-Noughties for releasing Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys) and Kompakt (whom I feigned over during my ‘minimal phase’).

The recent release of Domino Drip - a subscription-based download service by Domino as powered by drip.fm - got me feeling all nostalgic-like for my days listening to releases by the label. So, it’s with a belly full of goodwill that I’m pondering: how many other labels do I owe a great deal of gratitude?

Below is an approximation of the frequency with which record labels released albums by artists in my Top 100 Last.fm Library. NB: I’ve only included labels whom appear > 1 time. I did this by hand, so throw me a fricken bone.

Thankfully, one of my two ‘favourite’ labels - Domino - appears towards the pointy end of the chart. NB. I suspect that the non-appearance of Kompakt derives from the bulk of my ‘minimal phase’ taking place before joining Last.fm.

What is also immediately apparent is that I’ve got a bunch of ‘favourite’ labels - almost all of which I’d not previously appreciated.

  • 4AD: Ariel Pink, Gang Gang Dance, Deerhunter, Cass McCombs
  • Sub Pop: Shearwater, Fleet Foxes, Beach House
  • Merge: Arcade Fire, Destroyer, The Clientele
  • Fat Possum: Andrew Bird, Smith Westerns, The Walkmen
  • Jagjaguwar: Bon Iver, Besnard Lakes, Sharon Van Etten
  • Matador: Thurston Moore, Interpol, Kurt Vile
  • Nonesuch: Wilco, Amadou & Mariam, The Black Keys

And this isn’t even the start of it. Taking time to learn more about the smaller labels whom released the first EPs / singles of my favourite bands is for another blog post all together (apologies, my Excel and Wikipedia skills are maxed out for one night).

Suffice it to say, by delving deeper into the labels behind your favourite artists you’ll uncover a whole world of new music.

Wow, was I just complimentary to the recorded music business? It must be summer or something…

The trouble with having good taste in music

It’s a good day in the history of the internets for my countrymen: Spotify just launched in Australia. Funnily, it was only last night that I tried explaining Spotify to my 15-year-old sister in Melbourne. The best I could manage:

It’s like having all the songs in the world, but you don’t need to download them!

Note: She seemed excited.

My first inclination that the Swedish-built music/tech giant had begun its invasion of Down Under’s shores came from this email explosion:

A quick Twitter search - and this tweet from Lexy Savvides - confirmed my suspicion.

And therein lies the biggest problem for Spotify: people by-and-large have terrible taste in music. They say things like:

  • 'I love all kinds of music!'
  • 'I just love whatever's playing on the radio!'
  • 'Dave Matthews is a genius!'

For the mainstream - of which the wonderful Lexy does not belong to - they’ll never see this problem. For them, Spotify is a treasure trove of all the songs they already love, mixed in with multitudes they’ll never hear.

Lexy’s description of Facebook/Spotify experience was echoed by many in the days following last year’s f8 conference, in which The Zuck first introduced ‘frictionless sharing’ a.k.a. THE WORST NIGHTMARE OF EVERYONE WITH GOOD TASTE IN MUSIC.

Remember the Prom Queen you keep as a friend for the joy of a cheap perv every-now-and-then? Yep, she loves P!nk. 

Oh, and what about the guy who was the best football player in your grade? Yep, he fucking cannot get enough of Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits.

Amongst all the horror, there are bright spots.

I’m always in awe of good friend Ryan O’Sullivan. A man of many talents, Ryan boasts one of the most impressive album collections on the planet - and has superlative taste in music.

Within moments of Ryan coming to grips with Spotify, he’s already created a playlist for the stupendous new Beach House record Bloom, and likened them to a latter-day Cocteau Twins.

In Ryan’s instance, he’s gone out of his way to engage in a WHOLE BUNCH OF FRICTION (take that, Zuck!):

1. Have good taste in music

2. Create playlist

3. Share playlist to Facebook

4. Add comment to contextualize the share

5. Be prepared to reply to comment with additional insight

Music fans with great taste need a new platform full of friction. It’ll keep the riff raff away and making us seem like complex, insightful, tastemakers (which, of course, we’re not…. but don’t tell anyone. OK?)

Friction should be the new hallmark of online music sharing for those with good taste. Listening data and auto-syndication to social media does not maketh the music snob.

Your fans could work for you (literally)

Of late, I’ve been devoting an inordinate amount of time looking at the digital presence of bands big and small - especially official sites. From Katy Perry to Justin Beiber, and Bon Iver to Arcade Fire, the litany of online offences grows longer with each click:

  • Splash pages
  • Flash-heavy sites
  • Autoplay audio
  • E-commerce as an afterthought
  • Impossibly hidden / nonexistent email signup
  • Outdated content

Getting into all these problems would require a BOTTLE OF VALIUM TO GORGE ON. For the sake of my sanity, let’s focus only on the last of the issues raised - outdated content.

Having spent the better part of a decade producing online content (news, editorial and  marketing campaigns), the power of fresh, interesting and relevant content to draw back your audience never ceases to amaze me.

After an interview with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan at SXSW, marketer Brian Solis surmised the curmudgeonly grunge rocker’s thoughts on the issue:

Artists and fans must assume responsibility for the future of music if it is to mean something more than viral videos and hit singles. This is about engagement. This is about sustained relevance.

Billy is correct: one-hit viral videos will not make a career. At a time when the collective attention span is growing more infinitesimal by the day, consistent dialogue with fans is needed. Facebook and Twitter are good allies in this battle, but alone they are not enough.

It seems like the music business at large has completely lost interest in creating engaging, thoughtful websites. And Heaven forbid they’d gear these sites towards e-commerce. Oh that’s right, it’s still 1985 and we’re all making money hand over fist ://///

Even simple things can go awry: I was blown away to find that Canadian buzz-queen Grimes’ much-hyped new music video for Nightmusic (now at 320K+ views on YouTube) is not yet promoted on her official site. C’mon guys, changing the embed code on that page should take less than 60 seconds.

This got me thinking: if the labels/managers aren’t able to give their artists’ sites enough love, who will?

The answer came to me amidst the sadness of learning about MCA’s passing. Following along with reaction tweets, I noticed a tweet aimed towards Topspin Media CEO Ian Rogers. Completely unbeknownst to me, Ian worked alongside the Beastie Boys as their webmaster extraordinaire.

It is the dream of every Beastie Boys fan who has his or her own site dedicated to the band: to be selected to work for the Beastie Boys on the official website. This dream is one that came true for Ian C. Rogers.

THERE IT IS. FANS WORKING FOR BANDS.

Would Grimes’ biggest (and most savvy - see: Ian Rogers) fan make sure her official website was updated when the new video dropped? Would they have tirelessly endured a cramped bus with their idol to document the touring experience for other fans? Would they LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF THE EXPERIENCE?

Amanda Palmer’s mind-blowing achievement of raising $700K+ on Kickstarter suggests fans will do all kinds of crazy shit for their idols.

Time to mobilize the troops.

Where to next for music bloggers?

After reading a fantastic interview with Drowned In Sound founder Sean Adams, in which he laments the ‘death of mp3 blogging’, it got me thinking: where to next for these one-time tastemakers?

Bloggers were at one point, the backbone of music discovery. Hell, Pitchfork was once just a humble blog run by a high school grad in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Before the birth of Napster, bloggers had the benefit of scarcity. As put wonderfully by Alexandra Molotkow in the NY Times magazine: ‘Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency. To get it, you had to be in the loop. You had to know the right people to learn about the right bands.’ Bloggers were the right people.

Moving into the early 2000s, and with file-sharing now growing exponentially, bloggers were still in decent shape thanks to slow internet speeds (oh, the memories of waiting 75+ minutes to download a 10-track LP). Not everyone could have all the music all the time. Their ability to handpick great music for fans to painstakingly download, was still of huge value.

Then in the mid-2000s, a few things happened: broadband got quick, domination by select blogs, blog aggregation beings, recommendations engines are born.

With this, you’ve a toxic combination for bloggers: their perceived value is severely damaged by a lack of scarcity, Pitchfork is beginning to capture most/all of the indiesphere’s attention, and services like The Hype Machine and We Are Hunted are taking blog content out of its natural environment and into a aggregation hub. 

The latter of which, although seemingly a boon for bloggers, means they’re now working harder than ever - mainly for the benefit of others (the aggregation hub eats all the page impressions and advertising opportunities).

Now critically wounded, blogging sustained its final blow: the death of scarcity. Streaming services like Spotify and Rdio now give everyone access to all music all the time. Couple this with recent integrations between these streaming services and Facebook - ‘I just want to listen to what my friends are’ - and very hastily you’ve got the Grim Reaper spooning bloggers en route to binary death.

SO, WHAT THE FUCK NOW?

Like the recorded music business before it, bloggers need to innovate or fade hastily into irrelevance and antiquation.

Luckily for better bloggers, they have bankable skills: writing (often highly undervalued by those who spend most of their days being excellent at writing), digital / marketing chops, as well as A&R. The best bloggers will also have an unbeatable network of artists, labels, managers, and fellow bloggers.

With this in mind, here’s a few potential options:

1. Email Ryan Schreiber.

2. PR / publicity. You’ve already got relationships with media, a fan following of your own, and you know how to get people talking about bands.

3. Blog for bands. The tech industry has given birth to the Community Manager, a role best suited to talented writers / communicators, to be the voice of a brand - yes, band are brands too. You’d be their online voice for blogging, social, email.

4. Become an A&R guy. You’re excellent at finding new bands, traditional A&R people are lazy and likely rely on you (via aggregation hubs) to find new talent. Stop telling everyone about bands you love, and instead fashion yourself into a talent scout.

Of all the opportunities, the A&R business is the most exciting to me. I’ve often thought about building a platform for bloggers to ‘put dibs’ on bands, so that they’re credited with finding them first - and thus being able take some kind of residual percentage of earnings.

Imagine getting together with a group of like-minded bloggers (potentially worldwide - see: my latest project Records Abroad) to create an A&R network, who could eventually challenge indie labels to create hubs of amazing music ripe for exploitation. And just like that - on Easter Sunday no less - the mp3 bloggers rise from the dead.

Tags: blogging

SXSW 2012: Well, that was a shitshow

Highlights

1. Bear In Heaven

For the longest time, Nick Curran from You Can Be A Wesley has urged me to see Bear In Heaven. After seeing them twice in Austin, I now understand why. Endlessly catchy indie pop, replete with seriously smooth dance moves by singer John Philipot had the Tumblr/Barbarian party and SXSW Official Showcase moving in unison.

2. HAIM

Rumor has it HAIM couldn’t turn a corner at SXSW without a record / publishing A&R trying to procure their signature. With their band name meaning ‘life’ in Hebrew, these three insanely-talented girls breathed all kinds of life into the Cantora showcase on the final night of SXSW. Watch for massive things from them.

3. Django Django

Sounding like the bastard 21st century lovechild of psychy Beatles and Pink Floyd, the matching t-shirted Django Django slayed the Scottish Showcase at Easy Tiger. Easily one of the most interesting bands sonically at the festival. Also, drunk Scottish people are excellent.

4. East Austin

After about 2 hours aimlessly walking around, Downtown Austin gets old real quick. The antidote is a stumble along East 6th St from the I-35 to Comal St. Food trucks, local weirdness, smaller venues, and White Horse Honky Tonk bar all await you.

5. Hype Hotel

Taking over last year’s Purevolume House space on Trinity, Hype Hotel was the spot for late-night partying and drinking. Open ‘til 4am - serving the wonderous Tito’s Vodka in abundance, the space played host to Miike Snow, Wavves and many more across 5 nights. Not bad for a blog aggregator without a drop of venture capital.

Lowlights

1. Doritos Jacked stage

Probably the most offensive brand activation in the history of music. A giant vending machine filled with new Doritos Jacked chips set the cheesiest backdrop of any SXSW stage.

2. Austin sound guys

Clearly, these motherfuckers are deaf and/or retarded. Sharon Van Etten’s voice was basically inaudible at the Official SXSW Showcase, while Fun. were 50 minutes late after the crew completely fucked their set up.

3. No camera policies

As I walked into Stubb’s for Sharon Van Etten, a large security guard stepped into my path and bellowed: ‘no cameras’. And just like that, I was out. My camera is somewhere between a point-and-shoot and SLR - certainly not something able to take professional footage - especially at night and at distance from the stage.

While everyone else is able to use an iPhone to record the show, those with a decent camera get kept in the cold? What do these fucking greedy promoters think we’re going to do? Monetize the content?! Not sure when the last time they tried to sell advertising was, but trust me: IT DOESN’T FUCKING HAPPEN.