Thoughts on the DIY Utopia…

Reading Paul Resnikoff’s article, The DIY Utopia, struck a chord with me. Jazz musicians and composers have been living under the radar of the pop music biz forever. Typically their ‘art’ is one of multiple music-related income streams.

The quality of the music and the musicianship is key. Good music moves people, brings them together, and naturally creates community. A powerful piece of music can create a relationship with the listener that lasts a lifetime. This shouldn’t be too hard to market, particularly if you have a defined niche. Mediocrity on the other hand, is a hard sell. The question is, “Can this model scale to the mainstream music industry?”

How Will MySpace Music make money?

Courtney Holt at EconMusic

Personally, I have never liked MySpace. It’s ugly and I don’t get the brand. There is too much going on. It has become the default bulletin board for musicians, but I don’t hear of anyone making money.

With the majors onboard they have an opportunity and Courtney Holt has some good ideas. Let’s hope they can focus and build a tribe around a clear identity & business model. Independent artists and major labels have very different marketing needs and require different strategies but the line between the two camps continues to blur. Perhaps the killer app will be a marketing model that works equally well in both directions.

Music As a Career, Pt.1

Over time, professional musicians can lose their spark after years of unexpected challenges in an ever changing and highly competitive industry. The profound love and commitment to the power of music can become tempered by the harsh realities of making a living. There’s an old joke:

Q: How do you get a musician to complain?
A: Give them a gig.

We spend years mastering every page of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, only to discover a certain lack of relevance in the real world. The reality TV guy is just looking for some ‘wacka-chucka-wacka’ to move the thing along, and if there is any way he can get music for free you are cut out of the deal altogether! Perhaps the initial disappointment is our first ‘day job’. Or, when the glow of supporting ourselves full-time in music begins to wane, we realize that the challenging and lucrative work we seek remains elusive.

The way out of this box is to learn the art of separating your love of music from the realities of building a career and making a living. Musicians have developed many unique and valuable skills that can serve them in a variety of contexts. I had a good run supporting myself composing and playing, well into my forties. My first 9-5 job (not counting the stuff I did as a kid) involved defining, creating and implementation complex, enterprise telecommunications call routing systems. Go figure. I knew nothing about this industry at the time, but was hired because of my experience as a musician, thanks to some very astute managers. The job involved figuring out and troubleshooting complex, proprietary technology, communicating effectively with a diverse array of personality types (uh-huh), synthesizing someone else’s needs and vision into a new entity, and keeping the clients happy. Sounds more than a little like modern day composing doesn’t it? Since then, I have been involved in a number of professional endeavors while continuing to stay active as a musician. In every situation I have drawn on the years of study and hard work that went into my musical development.

If you find yourself in areas of the industry that don’t feel creative anymore, look at it from another angle. Think of yourself as an entrepreneur, building a business. If you are playing, ask yourself if you would be more comfortable booking other people or perhaps teaching. If you are composing for commercial applications and things begin to dry up creatively, consider stepping back into the producer role. There are many young composers that would love to do the leg-work and learn from your experience while you build a successful business.

Above all, don’t lose the connection with your musical muse… No compromises… Whether it’s playing or composing every day, creating your own projects on the side, or teaching and sharing your passion with younger musicians, go back to the well continually. The benefits flow in both directions. Music is a conversation. Remember, nothing stays the same for long. If you can hold both realities in your mind without judgment, you will always be ready when the next opportunity presents itself.

Where do we go from here?

Change is the only constant in the world. The bigger the shift, the larger the opportunity. When people are coming from a place of scarcity and fear they hang on to what they know and miss the opportunity to embrace big change with creativity and intelligence.

The massive shifts in the record industry are creating fascinating opportunities for new business models and growth. The layoffs at EMI will hopefully result in a restructuring that brings the focus back to developing talent and creating new models for engaging consumers. In the early days of paid music downloads I was an advocate for very low per-track pricing (50 cents or less) as an approach to engaging consumers in this new way of accessing music. When industries create pricing structures based on old models they are looking backwards, not forward, and missing the opportunity to shift. See Seth Godin’s blog, ‘How much for digital?’ for a great read on this topic.

CD Baby and Snocap

The story of CD Baby’s partnership with Snocap struck a real chord with me.

Technology has played a powerful role in the transformation of the music industry, starting with wire and tape recorders, the phonograph, and the electric guitar. In the 1980s other musicians and I would joke about “phoning in our parts.” It’s not a joke these days. When I worked for Liquid Audio in the early days of Internet music we had intoxicating conversations about the future of music discovery and distribution. CDs would go away; would people pay for individual downloads, subscribe to huge online music libraries or swap music in P2P networks? Would recorded music lose its revenue generating power all together and become a promotional tool for other income streams? How would all of this impact independent artists and the traditional record industry?

As these early predictions come to fruition, technology is still seen as a key lynchpin in this change process, and I think rightly so. The power of the Internet cannot be underestimated and if the software tools used in today’s music production are any indication, we will continue to see technology drive huge shifts in the way people discover, consume, and monetize media. One of the pitfalls of this phenomenon is the large footprint that any significant technology displays.

Reading Derek Sivers blog describing CD Baby’s partnership with Snocap ( “What happened with CD Baby and Snocap” ) I was reminded of similar experiences during my time with Liquid Audio. Developing, implementing and managing any large-scale technology is a daunting proposition. The technology quickly takes on a life of its own, with needs that have nothing to do with its original vision. This is not unlike what happens in publicly funded social service organizations. The federal agencies designed to help the neediest kids and families in our country are bureaucratic silos, designed for upward accountability. At times it is literally impossible to deliver the simplest help to real people because the needs of the system are so complex.

Derek Sivers is smart and brave. He saw the potential Snocap offered from the perspective of his original vision and embraced the technology despite his doubts. As the snowball got bigger and bigger he was not afraid to pull the plug. The lesson here is not that technology is good or bad but that it can entrance us and at times distract us from the truth that set us on our path in the first place. Is the music in the world today any better because of the technical miracles that surround us? Beethoven’s String Quartets, The Rite of Spring, and Robert Johnson managed to appear before anyone could imagine Pro Tools or the Internet in their most delusional fantasies. As we plow ahead in this brave new world, let’s not forget that music is the best.

US Copyright Board Ruling

The recent ruling by the US Copyright Royalty Board creates a dire situation for small, independent purveyors of streaming Internet music. I am a composer myself and certainly want to be compensated for my work but I believe this decision is not in the best interest of artists, record labels, or the audience.

The music industry has become so centralized in recent years that the opportunities for new music discovery are shrinking daily. Internet radio has opened an array of new possibilities. It is a medium that is in its infancy and could provide a powerful balance to the corporate forces of the music industry. Unfortunately, this ruling will most likely be the end of the independent Internet radio provider. This is a bad thing.

I happen to believe that people who are not musicians or hard-care music fans have a much broader appreciation of music than the record industry thinks. The public is starving for access to diverse, high quality music. Eclectic music programming like that provided by Santa Monica based KCRW is an oasis in the desert to many of us.

New music discovery is key not only to the growth of the audience but also to the industry itself. The record business has become so large and cumbersome, and so philosophically driven by the sound-alike hit mentality, that there are no longer viable business models that distribute music and provide discovery tools (such as radio and Internet radio) for anything on a scale less than gargantuan. This bloated reality has created the decline the industry is currently suffering. Without discovering and nurturing new talent, the industry will die. Artists like Patty Larkin, Bill Frisell and Oliver Mtukudzi will probably never go platinum, but they will create high quality art for decades and their audiences are fiercely loyal. We desperately need business models that will support an eclectic array of new music.

Radio has traditionally functioned as the key marketing arm for the record industry. Internet radio and music discovery systems like Pandora provide the general public information that is available nowhere else. Streaming radio creates the possibility of distributing eclectic music programming from sources such as KCRW, beyond the local market. For the struggling record industry, the long-term potential benefits of streaming Internet music are huge. It would be a shame to see this opportunity destroyed by short-term thinking. The losers will be not only the Internet radio providers, but also more importantly, independent artists and the fans who love their music.