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Is music still a product?

Rob Walker links to this long, compelling post by Rhodri Marsden about the difficulty musicians have in making money. Marsden paints a picture of the misery of pre-internet record distribution, when warehousing middlemen absorbed the brute facts of consumer indifference, to contrast that with the current state of affairs, in which the internet lets bands track their own sales metrics. That blessed space of ignorance of the marketplace, which once bred fantasies of stardom, is now gone.

Now that we're put in touch directly with our audience and that distributors can be completely removed from the equation, and replaced by MP3 aggregators who (a) don't need warehousing space for your MP3s, (b) will put them into a range of online stores for a flat fee and, crucially, (c) don't care whether you're brilliant or whether you're bloody awful, we have exactly the same problem selling the music as the distributors had. Just because the songs are available to buy, doesn't mean we can sell them -- in the same way that (and excuse the often-used analogy) installing a landline doesn't mean that the phone is going to ring. And we can't blame the distributors any more. The only people that are left to blame are ourselves. And that hurts.

It hurts because web technology lets us see exactly how many people are listening to our music. We can see the MySpace hit counters spin round, with the total number of listeners for each track. Our stats pages on our blogs show us how people arrived at our page, which country they're from, even which web browser they're using. We've got information about the reach of our music that we couldn't have dreamed of 10 years ago, and it tells us that thousands upon thousands of people have their ears open, and they're listening. But, by and large, and with a few exceptions, we can't fucking sell music to them. And we're starting to obsess about it. We can't stand the fact that we have 2,739 friends on MySpace, several of whom have posted highly encouraging messages such as "thnx 4 the add", and yet none of them are prepared to dig in their pocket, or Paypal account, and just send us a few quid – despite the fact that we've poured our heart, our soul and our cash into the whole endeavour.

So lots of people may be listening, but these listeners, when consuming music on the internet, are not shoppers. They are not in a mode where they are browsing for something to spend money on. Instead, they are paying for the music by paying attention, and that's all they are willing to give, and really, that should be enough, considering all the competition for it.

As Marsden points out, despite the hype about the long tail and Web 2.0, the internet doesn't give musicians new ways to make money. It creates conditions in which musicians are paid instead in a different currency, recognition, and whether or not this has any value depends on the context one's working in. If you need to sell music to feed yourself and pay rent, you are not cheered by the number of views your song's video has received. But if you are making money through some other job and make music for a feeling of cultural participation, the clicks count.

In the unlikely event of anyone wanting my advice, it would be to stop worrying about selling recordings. Just give them away. Let them go. Put them online for free, and tell people that they're there. And if, against the odds, you've been given some cash, you've managed to release an album commercially, and you see that someone has posted it on a blog for readers to download – for god's sake don't get angry. Don't see it as being down £20. See it as being up 20 listeners. Yes, your music might conceivably have been stolen, but there are no police. So get used to it. And now you're freed of this burden, pursue all the other things that you want from being in a band – writing songs, rehearsing, doing gigs, building relationships with other bands, going on wallet-busting tours, receiving unmemorable blowjobs. Because seriously, you're almost more likely to get a blowjob after a gig than sell an MP3. And remember – just because music doesn't make you money, certainly does NOT mean that it's worth nothing.

The point is that the intense commercialism of our society prompts us to measure the worth of things by their saleability, by their price tag, and it encourages us to regard the value of our effort as residing in a paycheck rather than in the work itself. But making art is its own reward; it's a considerable luxury to be able to have the time to do it at all. It's extremely unsympathetic when artists then complain that the people who spend their own precious time acknowledging other people's art (instead of, say, making some of their own) are somehow ingrates because they won't pay for the chance. Popular music, a social art whose power rests in its ability to be shared, ultimately doesn't lend itself well to becoming intellectual property.

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