Sunday, January 20, 2008

Smart guy

If you haven't seen it already, Seth Godin's quick summary of the state of the music business circa 2008 is chock-full of all kinds of analytical exactitude. In a way that few such summaries are.

Some samples:

The music business had a spectacular run alongside the baby boomers. Starting with the Beatles and Dylan, they just kept minting money. The co-incidence of expanding purchasing power of teens along with the birth of rock, the invention of the transistor and changing social mores meant a long, long growth curve.

As a result, the music business built huge systems. They created top-heavy organizations, dedicated superstores, a loss-leader touring industry, extraordinarily high profit margins, MTV and more. It was a well-greased system, but the key question: why did it deserve to last forever?

Why indeed? It's funny the way things can seem inevitable after they've been around for a mere fifty years or so.

On the other hand, it's important to remember that the above-inferred decline (and the generally gloomy media prognostications) do not necessarily signal the crash of the CD market as a whole. A few weeks back I was actually wondering -- again -- do I really need to release the next IJG album as a CD? Why not, from this point onward, just create a spiffy website "frame" (i.e., an online equivalent of liner notes, artwork, etc.) in which to "house" each new "album" (i.e., collection of downloadable audio files)?

And then I was reminded: yes, the major CD releases are tanking more and more every year, but indies seem to be doing better than ever -- as in, indie CD sales are up by 35%. (Of course, this suggests a whole other can of worms: potential disagreements over what exactly the definition of "indie" is.)

Copy protection in a digital age is a pipe dream

If the product you make becomes digital, expect that the product you make will be copied.


Most items of value derive that value from scarcity. Digital changes that, and you can derive value from ubiquity now.

The solution isn’t to somehow try to become obscure, to get your song off the (digital) radio. The solution is to change your business.

You used to sell plastic and vinyl. Now, you can sell interactivity and souvenirs.

It's not that music itself is less valuable. It's just that the ways people are connecting with it are... potentially different. Again, it's easy to forget that the carefully catalogued CD collection is a very historically (and culturally) limited phenomenon -- one that owes a great deal to, say, nineteenth/twentieth century practices of book collecting (hello, Walter Benjamin!). It is not at all the default position via which to experience music (though, alas, until recently it has happened to be my favorite).

Perhaps this moment is about the gradual de-commodification of music itself, and the simultaneous commodification (or ramping up of same) of the activities that surround music. And if the commodification of music is what led to nonsense like this, then perhaps undoing those commercial entanglements would be a good thing -- you know, for art's sake.

But perhaps I'm being too naive and optimistic (I've certainly been guilty of that before). Perhaps the commodification of music is somehow vital to our perception of it as "art"? (Or is that just a historical coincidence? Or an inherent western weakness?)

Interactivity can’t be copied

Music is social. Music is current and everchanging. And most of all, music requires musicians. The winners in the music business of tomorrow are individuals and organizations that create communities, connect people, spread ideas and act as the hub of the wheel... indispensable and well-compensated.

How does one create a community around the idea of jazz? Let alone "new" or "avant" or "wacky" forms of jazz?

It should be the easiest thing in the world. These art-forms are generally improvisatory, which means (to me, anyway) that they are not just opportunities to showcase the mad extemporaneous skills of specific performers, in a top-down way (see Kris Tiner's heartbreaking account of this idea taken way too far), but that they are customized; i.e., responsive to the specifics of a particular environment or audience. In a very real sense, the audience and the space participate in the creation of the music itself.

To the discriminating ear, performances always vary, regardless of the genre. But with jazz -- yes, even big band jazz -- one of the charms is that the performance (and to some extent the "content" of that performance) is going to be really different from night to night. What could be more interactive than that?

Many musicians have understood that all they need to make a (very good) living is to have 10,000 fans. 10,000 people who look forward to the next record, who are willing to trek out to the next concert. Add 7 fans a day and you’re done in 5 years. Set for life. A life making music for your fans, not finding fans for your music.

The opportunity of digital distribution is this:

When you can distribute something digitally, for free, it will spread (if it’s good). If it spreads, you can use it as a vehicle to allow people to come back to you and register, to sign up, to give you permission to interact and to keep them in the loop.

Again, selling the experience, not the product.

And 10,000 fans? Holy shit, that actually seems do-able. Who needs a gold record?

No comments: