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Aging Rockers and the Internet

August 26, 2010

The Internet has played a significant role in the distribution of music for over a decade.  Whether its contributions are positive or negative is a question that has been debated for years, yet the last week has seen an uptick in commentary from some old school rock stars.  The message that these rockers deliver is unique and, if the die-hards on both sides of the digital music debate would stop to listen long enough, they might just learn something.

The Debate

The digital distribution of music, movies and books is a polarizing topic.  On one side are the industry trade groups who try to protect their members’ intellectual property through every conceivable means, including suing tens of thousands of end users who download these works for free.  On the other side are groups of people who, for philosophical or pecuniary reasons, believe that the concept of “owning” intellectual property should go away.

While the RIAA may still pursue draconian instruments for enforcing copyright laws, its member-labels have come a long way towards embracing digital technologies.  If they had not, there would be no ringtones (a good thing?), no Pandora, no, no iLike, and so on.  There are plenty of creative uses of music online that did not exist 10 years ago, which have since become seamlessly integrated into our lives.

On the other side, there are those who still champion the role of the “pirate” and make tens of thousands of copyrighted works available to millions of people, yet organizations like Creative Commons now have a loud and legitimate voice in music policy.  Creative Commons, which has been around almost as long as digital distribution, has proven that copyright is not a black-and-white issue.  By creating a uniform and easy-to-understand series of alternative licenses, creators may distribute their works with all, little or no traditional copyright restrictions.

Insight From The Rockers

While both sides have taken notable steps towards reaching a middle ground, their underlying philosophical differences are nevertheless combining to substantively change the music industry.  Unfortunately, it appears that the sum total of those changes may not necessarily be for the better.

ABC News ran a story last week on John Mellencamp, which quotes the rocker as saying, “I think the Internet is the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.  It’s destroyed the music business.  It’s going to destroy the movie business.”  He continued, “Rock n’ roll – as important as we think it is, and as big as it was, and as much money as people made on it, and as proud as I am to say that I was a part of it,” will be gone after a few generations.

Then on Sunday, Stevie Nicks shared a similar sentiment, telling the NY Daily News that “the Internet has destroyed rock . . . I’m financially stable.  I’m okay.  But what about the kids trying to make it in this business?  If you’re not an established band, if you don’t have a hit single, they’re gonna drop you.  There are a lot of people out there as talented as we were, but they can’t sustain being in a rock ‘n’ roll band for long without success.  We were able to, but we’re going to die out.”

Predictably, those who champion the Internet music model, in whatever form that innovation delivers, believe rock stars such as Mellencamp and Nicks are simply trying to cling on to an outdated business model.  They paint these artists with the same brush as the RIAA simply because they dare to suggest that not everything is better online.  However, oversimplifying the artists’ statements so they fit into the pro-industry narrative comes at the expense of an insightful message.

Mellencamp and Nicks are not a couple of corporate stiffs suggesting that the Internet be closed for business, or that we undertake drastic measures to undergird the industry in order to subsidize rockers’ lavish lifestyles.  Rather, they are artists who are making a simple, educated observation.  In short, blindly believing that technology can do nothing but progress our musical culture is naïve.

A Real World Example

Consider Nicks’ statement,“if you don’t have a hit single, they’re gonna drop you.”  I work with a wonderfully talented pop rock band that’s truly better than your average commercial pop.  They were signed to a major label and their first record did well, all things considered.  In addition to respectable record sales and equally respectable radio play, their songs were frequently used in several of the year’s most watched television shows.

The label has been in trouble for the last couple of years, partly due to poor management but mostly due to the overall decline of the industry.  When the time came to exercise the option for the band’s second album, the label hesitated.  There were no number 1 hits on the first record and the label was not willing to risk paying the recording fund the band was promised in their deal.

The label offered to pick up the option but only if the band was willing to accept significantly less money to record the album, deliver the album on a tight schedule, and give up a higher percentage on non-record revenue streams.  Not only was the proposal fundamentally unfair, the band would not have enough time or financial resources to write any decent songs.

The band faced an impossible choice between three options.  First, they could take the deal, knowing they were getting screwed, they were going to deliver a sub-par record, and the relationship likely wouldn’t last for another album.  Second, they could try to shop themselves to another label, knowing that things are just as hard everywhere else.  Third, they could try to release their next record themselves.

Those who loathe the music industry establishment would suggest that the band go out on their own.  The Internet provides uninterrupted access to the entire world market, distribution costs are nominal, and promotional channels are wide open.  For a hypothetical band, especially one with an existing fan base and the talent to make a top-notch record, the go-it-alone approach is the essence of the utopian Internet/music business model, where record labels are rendered useless, the consumers are free from musical gatekeepers, and the artists earn an honest living from their craft.

Unfortunately, the members of this band live in the real world.  They are a group of mid-20s guys, a couple of which are married.  They have real bills to pay every month, just like everyone else.  The money that is coming in from the first album, touring and merchandise is enough to cover their expenses and little else.  There are no savings to draw from.  So how are they supposed to support themselves while writing music for their next record?  How are they supposed to finance tours and create merchandise?  Who is going to undertake all the marketing and promotion?

In theory, the guys would take crappy jobs to cover the bills while they write music.  Even if this hypothetical income was sufficient to survive, part-time writing produces part-time songs.  Even if the part-time songs were good enough, a crap job certainly will not finance a quality recording.  Even if they could record, they still face the extraordinary expenses to tour.  And even if they were able to overcome all of these obstacles, if they are busy working at a crappy job while writing songs and recording, who is going to invest the time necessary to distribute the record, promote the record, book gigs, and manage all the other laborious tasks inherent in getting a record to the public?

Nicks is right.  Here is one band that must make a crucial decision that they would not have faced 15 years ago.  The industry shakeup has caused record sales to shrink dramatically, which in turn has reduced labels’ profitability, causing them to invest less in developing artists while taking an even greater share of the artists’ income.  Artists with huge promise but little profitability are being dropped.  The vast majority of those artists will never record again.

The bitter reality is that my clients may never have the opportunity to release another album and our musical culture will be that much poorer as a result.

A Simple Change in Perspective

Far too many well-intentioned people, both within and outside the music industry, seemingly believe that consumers are always right and what they demand necessarily must be given to them.  However, as we have learned on so many other occasions, moderation is not instinctual in American society and music would not be the first thing we destroyed through over-consumption.

Give us buffalo and we’ll slaughter them into extension.  Give us a forest and we’ll clear cut it until no trees remain standing.  Give us unlimited access to free music and we’ll download it until artists can no longer earn a living recording it.

It is foolish to dismiss Mellencamp’s and Nicks’ observations.  While their comments are full of hyperbole, the underlying concern is legitimate and we all would be wise to stop to consider what’s at stake.  As both industry participants and consumers of music, it is imperative that we not take music for granted and acknowledge that, just like the buffalo and the forest, we are capable of doing irreparable harm to the art of recorded music.

It does not require an active imagination to envision a world where our rock music landscape includes an endless churn of “indie” artists who can’t survive in the business longer than a record or two, while the only artists with sustainable careers are a select few of the most contrived, formulaic pop monsters imaginable.

Accepting this reality is no less critical of a first step towards saving our musical heritage as accepting global warming is towards the survival of our planet.

  1. August 28, 2010 1:19 pm

    I’ve worked in the music business (on the business-side) for several years and have been a musician/songwriter since my early teens. No longer on the business side of things, I choose to continue to play music. I play in a cover band to keep up my chops and continue to write songs as inspiration hits.

    In my opinion, Stevie and John have it correct – for the big pop acts. It’s a matter of scale. Similar to any business in America, you can sustain yourself as a mom-and-pop or small business without the need for “Fortune 100” backing. Stevie and John’s perspective come from the “Fortune 100” scale. You can have a great career without the requirement of grossing $10m per year in record sales and concerts.

    If you have the creative brilliance to write HIT songs that people will love for years AND (huge AND) you are focused enough to manage a career, you can sustain yourself in the music business. Of course it will take a ton or perseverance and creativity from a business perspective as well. This will also require you to have good people around you. Between writing, recording, performing, transportation, marketing, merch sales, legal, promotion, communication and accounting – all of which are essential – it’s impossible to manage without good people you can trust. Once you have your team, you’ve got a much better chance.

    Thousands of indie bands/artists have figured it out. Take a look at (I’m not affiliated in any way) to see hear them in action every day.

    • August 30, 2010 7:22 pm

      Hey Mike,

      Thanks for commenting. I have to ask, are you still relying on your songwriting as your sole source of income or do you do it only as a hobby?

      I don’t disagree that it’s possible to do it on your own and I encourage artists to do it all the time. However, it makes succeeding that much harder because you have to spend so much time on managing your career. Even if you have a professional team in place – manager, bus. manager, attorney, promo team, etc. – you are still going to be involved.

      Those who find success on their own are few and far between. I don’t deny that at any given point in time, you’ll find thousands of indie artists who are actively promoting their career. However, the big question is, how many of those same artists will be actively promoting their career 3-5 years from now? This is the endless “churn” of artists I refer to.

      Just as many economic policies have been billed as bolstering the middle class, the democratization of distribution channels in music was supposed to create a substantial musician’s middle class, where everyone does pretty well but no one is really getting rich. However, there are at least reasons for concern that, instead, we’re creating an even smaller pool of very wealthy artists while the middle class is shrinking drastically.

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