What’s happening to rock stars and Hollywood actors isn’t new…

Something has struck me about one of the major challenges facing entertainment celebrities – along with the though that maybe many more ‘normal’ people have faced something very similar over the last century.

Nash Motors Assembly Line by Wisconsin Historical Society (CC Licence)

Nash Motors Assembly Line by Wisconsin Historical Society (CC Licence)

In the past, people with in skilled manual occupations spent years learning their trade and craft, served apprenticeships, and worked their way up to a point where they had experience that gave them security – until in many cases machines were able to offer lower cost solutions which put them under threat.

Now actors and musicians who have worked at their craft for years, and been fortunate enough to have built long enough careers to become established face technology which mean that the skills they’ve built up alongside their talent – finding management, working with record companies and film studios, etc, suddenly gets challenged by the fact anyone with talent can produce a song and distribute it digitally, or create a film for a relatively low cost and release it via the internet.

I’m just wondering if other people think that this is one reason why some celebrities are taking the hugely proactive step of writing a letter to The Times complaining about the fact that internet piracy is apparently threatening the fact that the creative sector, according to the letter ‘comprises 7 per cent of the total economy, and is growing faster than any other sector.’ A bit of a paradoxical argument if ever I heard one.


Behind the music…

Sonata Music by jrossol on flickr (CC licence)

Sonata Music by jrossol on flickr (CC licence)

Apologies as I’m a bit tired, and this may descend into rambling, but I wanted to keep the music debate going, especially after some interesting comments on my first post, on why ‘Recording companies are really screwed‘.

I appreciated the comment from Michael, who rightfully pointed out that the most common examples of bands using social media and giving their music away for free are those who have already built a following – while I agree this is the most common case, these are still new tools and new revenue models, and there are some examples of bands coming through the internet – e.g. Soulja Boy. And the precedent comes from the underground hits of pirate radio and dance music, or the spread of 1960′s Stax Atlantic and Motown in the UK, which was mainly provided by soldiers and sailors from the U.S.

What forced me to respond was Eaon‘s valid questions about challenges and options beyond ‘big labels vs internet’. He’s right in saying that major labels are an easy target (not that this means we shouldn’t continue to targte them), but I don’t think he’s right in putting Murdoch’s Myspace against traditional record labels. This isn’t about a social network replacing a record company – it’s about social networks as a distribution mechanism, along with email, forums, blogs, podcasts, video streaming, and every other method of delivering music and entertainment in an electronic format vs the attempts of the traditional industry to retain models and methods that served the physical format.

Busking: Pic by joeszilagyi on Flickr (CC Licence)

Busking: Pic by joeszilagyi on Flickr (CC Licence)

Eaon also said that the broad strokes of my previous post didn’t work for him, and I can understand that, but I’m a big fan of reducing things to their most basic, and starting with the essentials. And that tends to result in the broadest picture, but also the clearest view of what’s really necessary.  So to take that to it’s ultimate conclusion:

  1. Music is created. Either recorded or transferred into a digital format.
  2. Music is published on the internet. Possibly with a video to accompany it, or a blog, website, Myspace page, Facebook fan page etc.
  3. People who like the music download it, and if they like it enough, share it with friends and contacts via email, social networks, blogs. More mainstream media will gravitate towards that which gets a significant following.
  4. The creator is rewarded with an audience of some size. Monetisation could follow with a physical release, gig tickets, merchandise.

That’s about as simple as it gets! Speaking as someone whose music career was limited to messing around with a 4-track home studio and a couple of sessions in a ‘proper’ studio to record a couple of EPs which never saw the light of day to my knowledge (perhaps fortunately), I’m hoping the more musically experienced will take a look and point out anything I’ve missed, but this seems the simplest, most direct, and most robust music creation, distribution and consumption model.

And I know it’s easier to say in a blog post than to achieve, and that the music labels still retain enough pull and advertising budget to be able to theoretically make every stage easier, more polished, and potentially more far reaching through their ability to book advertising in mainstream media and invest in the physical media and distribution with ready cash – but increasingly those days will fade. There’s no need for me to track down a rare vinyl album to establish my musical credentials with my peers as we pore over the cover and inner sleeve – unless I’m DJ’ing, it’s quicker, easier and just as good for my reputation to email an mp3 or a link to someone obscure or new. And whether you believe in influence, or emulation, if the conditions are right, that content will continue to spread, with or without support.

For instance, Youtube phenomenon OK Go had already achieved success via a major label and broadcast appearances – but did that do more than the $10 video released without record company knowledge that got seen 9 million times? Or the follow-up, which has now been seen 40 million times on the official profile on Youtube alone? (In case you missed it, here it is!)

For a more recent, homegrown example, check out Ben Walker’s Twitter Song and the story behind it.A fun ditty aimed at Twitter users as a bit of a social media experiment gets viewed 272523 times at the time of writing, and leads to interviews on national radio!

And from a financial point of view, I’ve tried to find the quote that stuck in my mind as an aspiring musician, from guitar legend Joe Satriani. He revealed that although his major label albums had brought him more fame and publicity, it was his independently recorded and released records that brought him the income he needed.

I don’t think the record companies will cease to exist this week or this month. But I think the angle of decline will increase to terminal velocity pretty soon, and I can’t see any label making the moves needed to avoid it or even flatten it out. Instead I see sites like SlicethepieAmie Street, Sellaband etc. And there’s the romantic notion that it revisits the idealised days of Stax Records allowing people to come together for the music first and financial rewards second. After all, the people with access to recording booths and vinyl pressing plants have had the power for long enough. If they don’t offer consumers and artists anything of significant value, they become redundant.

So who’s going to help me keep shaping this into a more in depth vision of the music industry? Where is the future taking us, and are there more examples of internet delivery and fame creating new success?