Today MySpace rolled out their digital distribution system. To the relief of basically everyone on earth, they decided to outsource the actual technology to somone else instead of rolling it themselves. SNOCAP, the company that will handle the transactions and downloads, is run by Shawn Fanning, who created Napster.
I haven't signed up, because I actually like giving music away for free. But the terms don't look brutal--there's a $.10 or 15% broker fee (whichever is bigger), a $.45 wholesale fee (probably to keep songs from undercutting iTunes and other music services), and a $30 yearly charge for unsigned artists (waived the first year of membership). If you sold 1000 songs at $1 a piece ($.40 of which would land in your pocket), you'd make enough money to pay the yearly fees.
On the other hand, that requires you to sell 1000 songs just to break even. I know we're supposed to believe that online downloads are the wave of the future, but I'm not sure that people are really "discovering" bands through MySpace as much as the media wants us to believe. My suspicion is that most bands still get most of their exposure through gigs, and can make more money by selling CDs for $5 or $10 a piece. Small bands that can get away with homemade CD-R could make a lot more money in a hurry. You'd be surprised how good a CD-R and a cheap label can look with a little care. Even going with a discount duplicator like DiskFaktory might only cost $1-4 per CD. It takes many fewer CDs than songs to make a profit.
Digital distribution doesn't just change how companies sell music, or how we buy it. Online, per-song purchases are also altering how we think about music. Bassist Max Valentino commented in the Lowdown forum that album sequencing might be turning into a thing of the past, since people will probably just buy the songs they want and listen to them in shuffle mode. To this day, I hate listening to Nine Inch Nails on shuffle. More importantly, we've complained for years about the amount of filler on music albums, but ignore the songs we might not have enjoyed at first, but grew to love.
I don't know. I feel bad for buying CDs, in a way: all those plastic disks eventually end up in a landfill. But once you get past the techno-lust, I think conscientious listeners need to sit down and ask themselves how they can best support the artists that they enjoy. Maybe we need a completely new mechanism.
Want to see something funny? Cory Doctorow, tireless champion of useless digital hysterics, takes yet another crack at the copy-protection built into iTunes files. You can apparently strip the protection out using iMovie now, which Doctorow finds terribly exciting because previously he "spent six weeks this year running two PowerBooks 24/7 to convert all my iTunes audiobooks to MP3s."
I've made no secret of my own personal animosity to Apple's digital media, largely because I dislike all compressed music on principle. So I sympathize with him on his desire to actually own the files he buys. But one is forced to wonder, I think: if Cory Doctorow really hates iTunes DRM as much as he says, enough that he's willing to dedicate expensive hardware to the relatively trivial task of re-recording them via crappy built-in sound cards, why does he keep buying them from Apple in the first place? Why doesn't he just buy the books on CDs and rip them himself, no doubt a faster process anyway?
I mean, I have a visceral reaction to Old Navy's advertising, so I don't give money to Old Navy. I go elsewhere for clothes--or at least, Belle wishes I would. The idea is that I give them an incentive (i.e. they might get my money) to change their ways (i.e., they stop running annoying faux-ironic commercials starring deadbeat D-list celebs). Whether or not Old Navy actually cares about the incentive I'm offering (so far, results of the Thomas Wilburn Old Navy Embargo have been depressingly nonexistent), I thought that the "vote with your dollars" approach was a fundamental part of capitalism. It seems kind of silly for Doctorow to moan unceasingly about how Apple should change its ways, when all the while he's funding their copy-protection with his business.
So I whine and complain about how rock is dead, and how Nickleback should be strangled with their own vas deferens, and we're all bored with my bitter old man impression. But this post, about how black rock (i.e. rock by African-American bands) has both faded away and may be critical for advancing black communities, is thought-provoking. The author, former Black Rock Coalition PR Director Rob Fields, theorizes that the loss of public school music program played a key role in the rise of hip-hop as a replacement for black rock, and wonders about the impact of its musical form.
Now, it's possible to read this as just another kind of curmudgeonry. I'm not sure that the opening thesis is bulletproof:
After all, this doesn't preclude hip-hop. There are notable hip-hop and rap groups that perform with instruments live, including Black Eyed Peas and The Roots. Is the difference simply the way that rock champions instrumental virtuosity (sometimes to the point of extremes, and I'm looking at you, Yngwie)? And do we need to make an exception for Lenny Kravitz and Prince, or do we consider them something separate?
Moreover, I'm not completely convinced that it's purely the audience's responsibility for the market failure of black rock. Take Fishbone, for example: fans still try to figure out why that band, arguably better than Jane's Addiction or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, never broke out beyond a niche audience. Living Colour had one semi-mainstream hit, "Cult of Personality," before suffering much the same fate. And of course, anyone with a radio may notice that Jimi Hendrix is practically the only black artist played on "classic rock" stations. Is this just because the audience wasn't interested? Or is it because the industry wouldn't back them?
On the other hand, I'm in favor of anything that gets more music education into schools and more rock bands onto the charts, particularly from a range of backgrounds.
The news that MySpace will begin allowing bands to sell their .mp3s has gotten people talking. I have a few concerns, though. One is that we should watch very carefully for the license conditions--before a few artists forced them to reconsider, the site's terms and conditions granted them extensive royalty-free rights to any songs posted there. Also, let's face it: MySpace is a mess. It's the programming equivalent of a Ford Pinto, likely to explode at even the slightest provocation. Right now that's just inconvenient, since all you're facing is the technical error message. With e-commerce and customers' credit card numbers involved, it'd be nice if the whole system felt like you could kick it without losing a foot.
This error has been forwarded to MySpace's technical group.
I was always rooting for CD Baby, personally. I've got a bias towards lossless formats.
But just as MySpace is stylistically the Web from a decade back, it's become the resurgence of all those old fears as well. Pedophiles, hacked bank accounts, spammers, and now scammers. I got a message from the Emerganza Festival today. They're a long-standing battle-of-the-bands style promoter, but of course it's a $70 entry fee and you have to sell your own tickets. In return, you get to play at venues like the 9:30 Club and the Velvet Lounge in DC. Not to be too blunt about it, but that's not like being told that the Nissan Pavilion will open its doors to you. I have friends who are playing at both of those venues now. They got there by playing at other clubs and being really dedicated, not by paying a promoter. Never pay to play, kids. If you're any good, you won't have to.
It took me a bit to get used to this homey approach to music and performance. New Yorkers are sadly more “professional” in their attitude towards their art. We usually perform for money under controlled circumstances. We see ourselves as artistes whose performances are as controlled as we can manage them. (More on control later.) The camaraderie amongst musicians does exists up here in NY, but can you imagine a house party where Madonna picks up a guitar after dinner and serenades the drunken guests with a new song, and then passes the guitar to David Bowie? Not likely, I imagine, though who knows? But amongst Texans it’s the normal course of events. When I fist encountered and participated in these campfire sings I realized the meaning and resonance of these things goes deeper — to some extent this is a way of resisting the century-old trend of produced and commodified entertainment and culture.
We tend to see our culture and entertainment as something made by “others”, by “professionals”, which we then buy, attend, consume or purchase. It has been removed from us, our own culture. It’s made by those with distant professionals with the requisite levels of skill. craft and polish. When it was discovered that there was money to be made in marketing and packaging what was once locally produced and amateur popular music (and everything else) it slowly was insinuated that it was weird and uncool to make it at home with your friends — how unprofessional! It became considered strange and unlikely to create your own entertainment and to leave the TV off (as well as being unprofitable.) But in quite a few places this never took hold — Texas, Brazil, and Spain I can personally vouch for as examples of cultures where this process of creation and performance continued being transparent and public (well, amongst friends.)
My roots, in case anyone was wondering, are basically white-trash Appalachian. My dad's from southern Virginia, my mom hails from North Carolina. They're the first generation of their families to graduate from college. Whereas the running joke with my friends in college was that I grew up in "urban Kentucky," a phrase that's apparently hilarious to people who A) are not familiar with Lexington and B) prefer to live in a stunted, stuffy, yuppie-filled fever swamp like Washington, DC.
I remember as a kid that my parents would sometimes just sit down in our townhouse with various instruments--my father was a music major who played french horn, my mother played trumpet and (speaking of the mountains) hammer dulcimer--to go through a few songs. I'm not aware of any other real musical history in the family, and certainly few of my relatives (outside of my immediate family) have ever shown any interest in performing music rather than just listening to it, but it would be pointless to deny the front-porch legacy of Appalachian musicians. Once upon a time, the past tells us, that's what you did. Before we had a million other things--produced distractions--to occupy our time.
Were we profound? Or just bored stupid?
Maybe this is a symptom of the volume and bombast of Rock music, but I don't meet a lot of people who just get together and play a few songs with each other any more. It's a part of the culture that's been lost. It puts music into the realm of the inaccessible, turns it into something that Other People do. And the few of us who do learn how to play an instrument, to make a pleasing sound or two, we don't gather others around and share that sound just out of friendship. We try to reach the level of Other People on a stage, in an event.
Which is one reason why I don't really go looking for gigs any more. And why Belle needs to get cracking on learning to play her guitar.
Wired's on the cutting edge of instrument news with this article on copycat instrument makers.
No, wait a second. That's not news at all. It's an old, old story.
One of the most well-known and successful instrument makers on the market today, Ibanez, got their start in the 70's by making copies of then better-known guitars. They were good at it. A bit too good--the copies were cheaper than the originals, and often better quality. Gibson (the same company that was suing PRS for making a Les Paul singlecut copy--notice a pattern?) took them to court based on the headstock design. Today the copycat instruments are worth a decent amount of money on eBay.
Other than Gibson, the only other big manufacturer that still actively pursues copycats is Rickenbacker (as far as I know). But then, the Rick body shape and pickup design is radically different from anything else on the market. Both companies have profited from their mystique--you can't buy a Rickenbacker 4003 or an SG from anyone other than those two companies. But on the other hand, you can buy a knockoff of a Fender Strat from almost every company on the market, and it hasn't hurt their sales any. Musicians are still willing to pay more money for a real Fender, even if the only difference is the logo stamped onto the neck.
No offense, but musicians are kinda stupid that way.
The title for this post is the abbreviation for New Old Stock. You see it used when buying amplifier tubes a lot--it means that the parts in question are "new" in that they've never been used, but they're technically old parts.
CDM has a couple of really good posts about online music promotion this week: one on becoming a Web Rock Star and another on a death metal parrot. If I worked harder at this kind of thing, instead of half-heartedly throwing together a website as a substitute for the hassle of real gigs, I'd probably have more to say about it.
Josh Ellis writes:
Or to put it another way: if you don't want to get sued for sampling, learn to play an instrument.
Or to put it another way: Idris Muhammad plays drums. Timbaland plays Idris Muhammad playing drums. This is not the same thing. The two actions do not require the same level of skill or talent.
Or to put it even another way: when did the curators replace the artists as the stars of the show?
I don't have a problem with the concept of a remix, or of a mashup. I'm sure at times it can be very clever, taking two songs with contrasting or complimenting messages and combining them. Everyone needs a hobby.
My problem with mashups is the way that copyleft advocates like the EFF trumpet them as great art just because they break existing copyright laws. Their illegal status elevates them far beyond the amount of attention they could possibly deserve. Let's be honest: it's novelty music created from the labor of others. Is that really the best example that intellectual freedom has to offer? Is that really an art form that we should spend a lot of time defending?
Update: In a post today on CDM, editor and digital music guru Peter Kirn links to an article in Keyboard that he wrote regarding the recent (late 2004) court ruling on digital sampling. It's a complicated case, but I'm inclined to agree with the court myself: get a license, or re-record it. As I noted in comments, it's easier for some people (read: major label artists) to get that license than for others. It doesn't help that until recently many musicians didn't own their work, and they still often don't own all of it.
It still seems odd to me that intellectual property advocates are the ones arguing that it should be easier for other people to sample my work.