I have had my hackles raised all week by an essay from one Dave Allen - the provocatively, excellently titled ‘Musicians: Please Be Brilliant Or Get Out Of The Way’. It’s a long essay, and I think he’s somewhat wrong in various respects, although here I’ll try not to engage with with the essay itself; rather my concern at the tendency I’ve seen on many ‘industry’ blogs recently, of which I think this particular post is an example.
Dave concludes, “Musicians, please embrace the web”.
Embrace the web! It’s the same mantra that we hear day in, day out, from various sources; always those who have a vested interest in convincing us that artists are not doing so. These people seem to be the pundits, or people who want music to be free, and artists to make money in other ways - either by touring or by ‘monetising their experiential awareness’. Are these people the only people in the world who don’t receive a thousand spams a day from bands on Myspace, from people on Facebook suggesting that they become a fan, from dullards on twitter? Are they the only people who can’t seem to visit a music website without tripping over a free download from this producer or that band?
Honestly. What year do they think it is? Every band worth their salt has a Myspace page, a Facebook page - has had them for years in fact, and I can tell you that most of them are also engaging extensively with blogs too. I get more stuff sent to my blog than I could possibly publish, and it’s not all that big in the grand scheme of things. It seems, from where I’m standing, that everyone HAS embraced the web, and there is now a cacophony of voices all trying to achieve the same end: i.e. use the internet to get publicity, to sell t-shirts or other, more esoteric concepts such as mentions in song lyrics, and so on. Which, as these pundits insist, is some kind of answer to the issue that no-one wants to pay for music any more.
The kicker to all that, though, is that all this stuff has progressively less impact, the further it goes along. Five years ago, giving away a free track would guarantee you some publicity. Now, of course, producer XYZ can give away all the tracks he wants on blogs and his myspace, but it will pale in comparison if (say) Orbital give away a free track on the NME website; so we return to a situation where those with the loudest voices and biggest marketing budgets get heard.
The clincher, of course, to really nail down the fact that in 2009 a commentator doesn’t know the state of things on the ground and is in fact just parroting what the last guy said, is to cite Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Two great bands; yes. Two examples of pushing new, creative and genuinely innovative (if arguably gimmicky) business models; yes. Two examples of what can be achieved with the internet if you’ve got a ready-made fanbase, a few million pounds in the bank, some staff and a couple of decades of major label marketing behind you. How are they relevant to a band starting up today, who don’t have access to this kind of money and infrastructure? Certainly, these bands set some balls rolling, but In Rainbows was over two years ago; the pay-what-you-like model is already essentially useless to indie musicians. The main lesson to take from these artists, I think, is to have an innovative idea and market the crap out of it. Unfortunately, the average aspiring artist can only get as far as step one there - marketing budgets are not an option.
The reason I say the pay-what-you-like model is useless, is that it falls victim to the ‘lessening impact’ point. A quick case-study: Ugress from Norway is an indie musician and film & TV composer. He’s got a tight website, a popular blog, a great line in self-marketing, he runs his own label, he’s on all the major social networks as well as youtube, flickr, LastFM, thesixtyone, iTunes, iThinkmusic, Amazon, he streams concerts online, flogs merchandise, gives away free tracks, ‘communicates’ via his mailing list and twitter, and all the rest of it. He has embraced the web massively, has done so since 2002, and is now 23 albums deep(!). He also released his last album as a ‘pay-what-you-like’ download. Conclusion?
“Financially and theoretically speaking, if I could release an album like this every month, with those figures, I could actually make a living directly from that.”
But I digress.
It sometimes seems like this idea of the lazy, whining musician is something of a straw-man argument - it can certainly be used as a convenient justification for shrugging our shoulders and declaring that if musicians just got up off the sofa and did a bit of work, they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. It rings rather hollow, though, since in my experience no-one (of the full-timers, anyway) is actually like that.
The truth is actually that everyone is on their hustle now. We all know about word-of-mouth marketing, everyone is trying to get their friends on facebook and twitter to re-tweet their latest gig details, wear their t-shirts, buy their music, play their music, recommend it on iLike or favourite it on Last FM. There is no golden ticket - the old rules apply (you still have to write good tunes) but apart from that it’s all (kind of) open. Which, in many ways, is pretty exciting when you think about it.
There are a lot of options, a lot of possibilities, and I see people trying them every day. It may feel like people are not really ‘breaking through’ so much right now, but I would venture that this is because it’s getting increasingly hard to do, not because bands are not trying, or do not understand the importance of the internet. Suggesting that bands try embracing the web feels increasingly outdated as we head into the second decade of the 21st century: they are already here.
Ed Bayling is a DJ, dance music producer, engineer and editor of ‘Bass Music’ - a music blog dedicated to rugged dance music worldwide.