We are the music industry! – Billie Ray Martin on being an independent artist in the digital age

In 1996 I attended a seminar in London in which a former major label A&R man taught us the methods needed to run our own businesses, take care of our own affairs and, essentially, become independent artists. He predicted the demise of the majors as a meaningful outlet for independently minded recording artists and urged us to start labels and release our own music, to learn about accounting and business plans. He was ahead of the time. Although I paid attention, I didn’t feel as if any of it applied to me. I had a ‘real’ record deal with a major label—I was in the middle of my 15 minutes of surviving in that environment. Little did I know that a few years later major labels would become obsolete, of no relevance to anyone trying to create innovative music.

The old system did have its advantages. Up until the end of the nineties, major record companies dished out big advances to artists, knowing full well that their future lay in investing in talent, thus supporting their artists while they created. If an artist didn’t recoup their investment they were dropped, and they could just walk away. The major label that no longer gives to get back is a pointless and purely exploitative entity. However I never shared in the opinion that major labels only ripped off; they paid a hell of a lot too.

That was the past.

Today things look different. Trent Reznor said it first: “We are the music industry”. The true meaning of this phrase has not even begun to sink in with aspiring and established artists at this point. The notion that somehow a force more powerful than us, outside of us, could bestow the success and income we desire is still prevalent, a residual memory of how the machine worked, passed on through generations. The reality is that we are the 99%. But where does that leave us?

A few years ago, the general consensus was that if you give away mp3s for free you would generate a lot of blog posts, perhaps even end up on The Hype Machine for a few days. This attention would get you gigs, recognition, a possible record deal with an independent label and ultimately earn you the money to continue making music.

One by one these opportunities failed to materialize for the independent artist. Statistics showed that small independent artists could neither draw enough punters to their shows nor get enough hype-generated recognition to convert blog coverage to money. Momentum would fail to build. The rent would go unpaid.

Social media, that purported savior of true music independency, turned out to be a smokescreen. Turning Facebook ‘likes’ into dedicated fans was manipulated into a marketing science and, as the internet distribution channels were blown apart by pirate sites, potential consumers wanted music now, with no effort, and—of course—for free.

I do not agree with giving your music away free—it devalues your art. Luckily the debate has shifted towards protecting your right to getting paid for what you’ve created. This, in my opinion, is a good thing. Sure, give away the odd mix away free if there is an incentive such as quality press coverage to do so. Otherwise let people buy into a valuable exchange between creator and consumer. Why? Like a certain cosmetic giant knows: Because you’re worth it.

What does the World Wide Web provide if not what it originally promised? A general sense of disillusionment has set in. How will the glorious internet serve us in pursuing our art in an environment where record label advances are nonexistent? Where we must be managers, agents, marketing geniuses, crowd funding administrators, publishers, accountants and, somehow, on top of all this, find time and energy to make music as well.

Many have fallen by the wayside; artists have chosen to give up, labels have closed down. The people who keep going are either the stubbornly determined or rich kids for whom daddy buys the gear.

Companies like Spotify have come along and are streaming our music, with almost no money filtering through to the smallest of independent artists at present. Major labels have edged back into the fray, their fingers back in the big pie once more because they are shareholders of the streaming companies. We need to find out how to profit from these developments which are in constant flux. We can decide whether we make Apple or Google richer by selling our music through them or use Bandcamp or other direct selling tools. If you have a large loyal following or extremely strong campaign (and only then) Kickstarter can be the most powerful way to achieve your goals. They are about to start in Europe.

The internet has rendered obsolete the all-powerful A&R man, the person on the other side, judging whether our music is worthy of getting released. This demise is not to be sniffed at. Now people on Facebook, Soundcloud and YouTube, as well as many other outlets, decide whether our stuff reaches a wider public. This is a truly democratic process and nobody can stop it from happening. It is our tool, and it is a powerful one. How this is utilized to build a business is currently unclear to even the most clued up analysts. Trust me: everybody’s winging it.

It is therefore up to all of us as independent artists in the digital age to truly understand that “we are the music industry”. We hold the ultimate power in our hands: the music.

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Neu: The Grammar of Live

Historically, prophets have been too holy to bet. But times have changed. Recently, Wired staff writer Steven Levy put his money where his mouth is after a discussion with Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly on whether live streaming would dominate online video in ten years time. Levy made his prediction official through Long Bets, a website promoting “societally or scientifically important” wagers with a minimum confirmation period of two years. Here he makes his case for why life is more live than ever before.

 A.J. Samuels: Live streaming has become commonplace, but a lot of people still like their entertainment with some narrative. Do you think you’re underestimating the importance of scripts and editing in predicting live supremacy?

Steven Levy: Streaming encompasses more than just material geared for a broader public; it’s also as much about customized streams. We’re entering an era where everything we see can be captured and streamed live, whether it’s people holding up their smartphones to stream for friends and family, or something more professional for a wider audience. That said, I also think that we’ll soon have the capabilities of streaming our kids’ soccer games more professionally, with effects and multiple camera angles and all that. Our live editing capabilities will vastly improve and be easier to use—just like with photo editing or the professionalization of amateur recording with new plug-ins. I’m pretty convinced that there won’t be many family events in the future not being livestreamed.

AS: Is this just one more nail in the coffin for network television?

SL: Not necessarily. I think the bulk of television postproduction and movies will remain as is. But live will have more cache, and as that happens, pre-taped stuff will try harder to capture the feeling of live. Over the past few years you’ve seen network TV do a number of live series episodes—30 Rock’s done it, House has done it—and they’ve been hugely popular. People connect with the immediacy of live action, even if it’s simulated. I would also venture to say that it goes for movies and reality TV too. Shooting with handheld cameras might predate streaming, but it’ll also be bolstered by it. The same goes for reality TV. The grammar of live will permeate all forms of video.

AS: Which platforms are at the forefront?

SL: There’s still an enormous infrastructural challenge. Some of the big network providers simply don’t want to give up the bandwidth. That’s probably the biggest obstacle at the moment. But I would say Google has the best foundation with YouTube. There’s also Google+’s Hangouts, which has replaced Google’s traditional video conferencing tools that the company used to get from a third party. Hangouts has become the most important part of Google+ and I believe it’s merging with YouTube. To be honest, this is where I’d expect to watch my daughter’s soccer game in the future when I’m on the road. Other platforms like Justin.tv have been geared towards streaming for a while, but they don’t quite have the name or the following to be dominant players.

AS: I recently checked out a few Justin.tv users’ live streams and  was surprised by being interrupted with ads at seemingly random intervals. Imagine missing your daughter’s goal because of a poorly placed VW commercial. Fahrvergnügen kaput. All parties lose.

SL: Streaming is still in its infancy, and continuous observation channels haven’t reached their full potential. Justin.tv was forced to adopt that business model to stay afloat, but randomly placed ads aren’t ideal. I can imagine streamers in the future with the power to block or indicate the right time for a commercial. Like television.

AS: Other than personalized streams, what are you interested in seeing live?

SL: I’d gladly pay five bucks to watch a well-shot concert stream with good sound, and soon, all concerts will be live streamed. I’m sure there are plenty of people wondering when they’ll be able to follow the Boss or Best Coast on tour from their computer. Personally, I’d also like to see more politics, on all levels. Oligarchs controlling bandwidth, like Berlusconi in Italy, is a scary reality. I guess it’s the same in the US, but instead of politicians owning it, private companies pay off regulators. Freeing the spectrum for innovation is the real struggle.


Illustration: Kraftwerk/Emil Schult, Antenne. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers, Berlin London.

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Deezer: easy to stream, fun to say

Deezer: easy to stream, fun to say Deezer. Deeeeeeeezer. Yeah, it’s pretty fun to say, but it’s also pretty damn useful as well. The Paris-based streaming service began life in 2006 as Blogmusik, and swiftly attracted users throughout Europe….including us, actually. No, we’re not trying to sell you a thing, but hey, if you like something, you want to talk about it. With more than fifteen million tracks available (and loads of exclusives for T-Mobile users in Austria, which is sweet if you’re Austrian) it’s certainly worth talking about, especially since the company is planning to make the leap to worldwide availability later this year (with the Netherlands being one of the first new members of the family from June) .

If you’re music nerds like us, Deezer is also great for obsessively organizing music libraries, importing mp3s (from your own computer or other streaming sites like Soundcloud) or following certain artists. Besides which, all that music you’re gathering together can be streamed on any device, even if you’re offline… yes, we know that ‘offline’ is a strange concept, but it happens. There are a few different accounts you can get with various services attached, but even the most expensive is like ten bucks. The website is pretty intuitive and includes a graphic equalizer to adjust the bass, treble and whatnot on each track. All in all, it’s just a damn good service. We’re really happy to use it, and we think you will be too. And hey, it’s way more fun to say than ‘Spotify’. Check it out here.

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