The streets are paved with pyrite
May 24, 2012 3 Comments
David Lowery wrote a fascinating article about the music business, and it got me thinking.
I met Mr. Lowery right when Cracker was new (right after Camper van Beethoven broke up) – they played a little show in the University of Utah student union building. That was the first time I was start-to-finish responsible for running sound (such as it was – it was a mostly acoustic show, with vocal and acoustic guitar reinforcement). I’m still mystified that “Low” became the big radio hit rather than “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, but hey, you can’t understand them all.
I was pretty happy with how nice he was to me – I was the 18-year-old student promoter who thought I was all worldly, and he humored me and was both professional and charming.
Now, on to the essay – I think he’s on to something: that while the de jure royalties and margins nowadays look better for artists, de facto they are not, and the reason is that we no longer have labels making bets on bands (where the bands fundamentally keep the bet if it’s a loser).
However, I’m not sure that a single variable is the way to view this. Start by imagining sales as a curve, where some bands are ultra-mega-sellers, some are in the middle, going all the way to the band who sold 11 copies to friends whom they dragooned into buying it (no, I don’t resemble that at all). Then it becomes clear that (as he says) the folks in the middle (the “unrecouped”) benefited tremendously from the old system, and pretty much get the shaft in the new one. The ultra-mega-stars? They’re making boatloads of cash either way, and their attorneys can fight it out. However, there are some winners in the new system: the long tail bands (like mine) – these are bands who aren’t doing this for their primary living, and yet can make some music that (a small number of) people like. The new system lowered the barrier to entry to the point that you don’t have to be able to convince a label to fund you – you can save up and record your own album.
This is a pretty nice thing – I’ve encountered some bands who came nowhere near a label, and yet made music which is on my top rated list (ADHD, Hudson River School, Welbilt (cheating slightly – Virgin records did fund a demo of theirs, but then passed on it), and of course my hero Jonathan Coulton) – each of these are bands I never would have heard of had it not been the random drift, and they’ve all had the option of making some money from me. Other little bands like Dayglow and Grandma’s Mini I discovered (and fell in love with) due to playing shows with them.
I do think Lowery is right on the money in one sense, though – the folks advocating for “free stuff” and thinking that creators shouldn’t get paid for stuff they create are behaving in a jerky manner.