Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Confined Spaces and 2001: A Space Odyssey

New Business Model for the Music Industry - Chad @ fotophonic
David Byrne and Radiohead's Thom Yorke Talk Music Biz - Cory Doctorow @ BoingBoing
David Bryne's Guide to Being a Musician in the 21st Century - Cory Doctorow @ BoingBoing

I can't claim any real knowledge on the topic of how the music industry will change in the coming century so take all of this with as large a grain of salt as you'd like. Even so, I think both authors are missing a larger point about music distribution and how the last fifty or so years of the album has been a huge aberration in the traditional way music has been played and distributed. The album did not exist in our commonly understood form until the end of the 1950s. Even then it was typical to release a single or series of singles prior to or concurrently with the album to entice the consumer to buy the full album. While the advent of the album has allowed for the creation of some great masterpieces of modern music, the consumer-level experience has remained the single. On the radio, tv, in a move, on the internet, or just about anywhere these days, someone will hear a tune and ask what band is playing. The fixation is on the singular tune, not the album that track came from. And typically it's been rare for an album to come out that plays well from start to end. We each find the songs we like on an album and eventually start skipping the songs we don't like. Mixed tapes are built on singles, the singular track stripped away from its albumatic context.
All of this is to say that the album is a dying concept for the 21st century. EPs will continue, I think, but the album itself as a self-contained collection of songs recorded for a specific release I believe will falter and slowly disappear in the age of the mp3. Before albums became popular it was common for the release of collections of songs by particular artists (notably jazz and big band acts) but it was rare for the entire collection to contain songs written solely by the band. Instead, most music was taken from broadsheet style releases, the old standards idea where a band would play popular music of the time regardless of whether they wrote it or not (how many versions of "Mack the Knife" or "Beyond the Sea" do you think exist?). The royalties on these broadsheet versions were cheap since many acts would buy up the music to play. And touring was an essential part of that since rarely would you hear an extended collection of one act's music unless you saw them live.
These days constant touring does pay off for the bands but at the cost of a regular life in most cases. Unless you are defiantly, idealistically young or have reached beyond the realm of an average band, constant touring is a hard life to live. Hence the need for record companies to come to grips with the new distribution model of online digital music and adjust their royalty compensation accordingly. When it becomes almost just as easy for a band to self-release a record or even just a few songs to the public through their web site or other sites like, RCRD LBL, Hype Machine,, or Imeem just to name a few, record companies will only watch their sale fall further unless they make some drastic changes. Sure, we can continue the pattern of forcing bands to constantly tour just to make ends meet by undercutting their royalties or we can make a clear statement to organizations like the RIAA that their model is outdated and becoming more cumbersome by the day.
It's not as if I want bands to stop touring, but a fifty-date tour schedule means a lot of time on the road, stuck in shitty circumstances for most small acts and little time to actually record new music. There are better ways for bands to make money and before we simply tell them to tour more we should allow them to find new ways to make an income from their music that doesn't involve constant touring. There are many small bands that I love but before we shove them in a van for three thousand miles and three months that often bring on all the annoyances of being stuck in a confined space for a long period of time and the eventual break ups, I'd like to see both the bands and the music listeners who gain so much pleasure from what the artist do figure out a way to get the money flowing to the right places.

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