The (Indie) Music Industry Is All Right

Much positive writing about the music industry has been published recently. The writing that hasn’t been positive has been bombarded by passionate defenses from as far and wide as the headquarters of the RIAA, musicians and music consumers. All are laden with facts of the individual and study-based variety. For instance, Charles M. Blow’s recent New York Times column rightly purports, as most angels of music industry death, that CD sales are down (“Swan Songs?,” The New York Times, 31 July 2009).

Blow has been the director of the paper’s award-winning graphics for years and his current title is visual columnist. In “Swan Songs?”, he goes further than most by discussing the general financial apathy of young music fans, not just the apathy that they apply to CD purchases. As with the young Matthew Robson’s recent report on social media, the subject of my last column, Blow’s analysis is frustrating partly because young people are frustrating (see: Backslash: Teens Don’t Use Twitter). But it’s also cursory in a way that online content is allowed to, but shouldn’t be. Blow’s point is essentially: “Well, it’s over. No one cares about owning music, because none of it is good.”

Pardon? The 171 comments submitted to Blow’s article are more effective than the author’s graphics, and tell a more complete story. Commenter PSJ2001 surmises that “the profit margins in the downloadable model have to be five to ten times as high as in the old world. That means that even if music revenues fall dramatically, there is still room to pay the artists more than ever, which is what should matter in this business.” Commenter Jeffrey N says, “True, the total revenue pie for artists is smaller, though it’s available to more artists more democratically. And there is much less revenue for the industry. For the most part they refuse to accept their new, less important role.”

But commenter josh echoes the idea that Blow leaves us with: “[it’s] hard to attribute all of the industries [sic] sales decline on free music & piracy,” josh says. “The music released in the last decade has been horrible compared to decades past.” Blow says the last “truly great” album he bought was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999. I think what he meant to say is that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the last great album of the ’90s and he’s been asleep since then. In Blow’s universe, it appears that the thrills that I and millions of others get from reading end-of-year lists featuring albums we’ve bought and listened to performed live are fabricated; we don’t really like The Dirty Projectors as much as we say we do; we’re just going along with it, and while we’re at it, not paying for anything.

The reality is that there is incredible music out there that a lot of us are paying for. I don’t want a poorly ripped copy of Veckatimest in my collection (which, Mr. Blow, is something I own, not stream), and I want to see Grizzly Bear up close. “Free access” to music is not what’s killing Blow’s music industry. In fact, “free access” is, for those of us who are entrenched in the indie music industry, just a few tantalizing nibbles of a carrot.

Don’t think that if you give us unlimited streaming of your debut, or a free EP, we’ll get bored of you quickly and never see you live. If you’re good, having your album leak or releasing your first EP for free is a smart idea in the long run. If you aren’t good, you’ll either get good—and your progress will be charted on the Internet for all to see—or you’ll go home.

A very important story about the state of the indie music industry is told in Greg Kot’s new book, Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. In one particularly inspiring chapter he focuses on Dan Deacon, who went to live in Baltimore in the early years of this decade, much to the amusement of his NYC-dwelling peers. There, he paid $180 in rent and literally dumpster dived for meals while becoming one of the city’s most popular musical acts. If Spiderman of the Rings, his 2007 debut LP, hadn’t leaked when it did, he told Kot:

“(N)ot as many people would have heard it and the shows I did over the summer wouldn’t have been as well attended. All these markets that the music industry has ignored are now being exploited by people you would not think of as pop stars. No label would look at me and ever say, ‘This is the guy the kids are going to be dancing to. This guy, the creepy weirdo with the blotchy hair and the gut sticking out, he’s the next star.’”

The only ominous phrase in Deacon’s statement is “the next star”, but he knows he isn’t one of those. The whole quote belongs to the mainstream music industry and you can see his grin coming through the page. Popularity is nice, but “next” and “star” are respectively impatient and gaudy words that are seldom uttered in the indie music world. Those words have no place in the prolific, naturally grown spheres of the most lauded indie bands to have emerged in this decade. For them, it goes something like: patience is key, piracy is okay, popularity will come.

Indeed, Spiderman showed up in my mail in the late spring of 2007 and within a week I was at the Bowery Ballroom, jostling in a crowd that radiated from a messy, blinking knot of electronics in the middle of the floor. About a hundred people paid about the price of a CD to see Deacon that night. In Kot’s book, Deacon describes himself as someone who has “built up a scene through touring… we weren’t just sitting at home making music.”

“Touring is still important,” he goes on to say. If fans “see it happen in front of them, it’s going to last a lot longer and they’re going to want to see it again.”

Back to Blow’s scene. Andrew Dubber, in a recent post on his blog New Music Strategies, says he is more interested in where Blow’s chart starts (1973) than where it ends (2008). The year 1973 was a time when “[n]ew and innovative kinds of music flourished in the margins.” The year 1999, on the other hand, saw “[a] world of a few stars selling millions of copies of safe and frequently dull music” (“You’re looking at it wrong,” 17 August 2009). That may be a generalization, but his main point is that in the past 35 years, the “boom and bust pattern of each recorded music format adds up to an overall rise and decline of corporatism in the recorded music industries. Culturally, this could well be something to celebrate.”

But the media is too preoccupied with the funeral arrangements of the mainstream industry to celebrate the life that is happening elsewhere. Blow and dozens of the commenters on his article are right to suggest that the mainstream radio’s five-song loop isn’t doing it for listeners anymore. It’s Fort Knox up there in the mainstream headquarters. A quality leak in the mainstream world is less easy to come by, but you can be sure that on release day, albums are dumped over our heads in a deluge of airplay and flashy marketing.

We have no choice in the matter except to listen and quickly tire of what we hear. Or better yet, we take roads so little traveled they don’t even show up on Charles M. Blow’s proverbial map. Those roads are actually quite well trafficked and are paved with profits. They just aren’t the kinds of profits that many people pay attention to.

Blow seems preoccupied with streaming services like the much-hyped Spotify, which isn’t even available in the US, yet. It’s a streaming service that is more complete and album-based, unlike Pandora. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo told the BBC it is “better than everything that is available” over here (“Spot kicks,” 29 July 2009.) But having to sign on to the Internet to enjoy even a plethora of new and old music by the album is a hassle.

But then, going to the store to buy a CD is (now) considered a hassle to some people. Hunting around the Web for a 320 kbps version of an album (legal or not) is a hassle. Is attending a live show ever a hassle?

Yes, when surcharges are involved. So there are some outstanding hows and whys in the indie music industry debate. Why are surcharges so high, and how much money are artists actually making via digital releases and what appears to be exhausting tour schedules? Are they, as Dan Deacon appears to be, happy with their lot? The answer to the first question is clear: the industry magnates have moved away from CDs and taken a shine to tours.

The second question is harder to answer (or its answer, harder to swallow) and likely provokes the most reader comments and the most emotions. Perhaps it shouldn’t. If albums are, as Gregg Gillis aka Girl Talk describes them to Greg Kot, a kind of best-of compilation of live performances—the perfection of a craft recorded—ought they be as profitable as the numerous and varied shows a musician puts on?

The only danger is when a live musician starts being treated like a machine. Or, as George Michael once put it, when a music career is rendered into “professional slavery”.

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