sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 20, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Music Piracy

Filed under: music, politics, society, taste — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 8:18 am

Before the advent of recording technology musicians were paid for performances, and perhaps had wealthy benefactors.  We might have come full circle.

The recording industry allowed some entertainers, like the late Beatles, to bypass the benefactors and even give up touring, concentrate instead on studio work.  The era of the concept album gave us the image of a self-indulgent rock star blowing lavish honorariums through his noses and Dark  Side of the Moon.  Speaking of drugged-addled rock stars, here is some good Pink Floyd, and I’m posting it because I can:

Affordable recording technology, coupled with independent distribution networks, was also a godsend to indie bands and labels who were able to market their products to niche audiences.  Whether or not they created the most interesting music of the turn of the 21th Century, semi-obscure bands certainly had their mystique.  Remember when everyone was supposed to have liked Nirvana before they signed to a major label?

DH (I need to come up with a different name for him, but he likes the anonymity of DH) was a beneficiary of this era.  His bands were signed to indie labels of note, and in the good old days they sold quite a few CDs and records.  His band toured the United States and Europe, and the music and merchandize sales, along with cover charges, left a small surplus in the band fund after covering the cost of vans, gasoline, transatlantic flights and an occasional night in a hotel.

DH was also a beneficiary of new technology.  The internet made booking tours easy and introduced new fans to their music before they were even signed to a record label.

We don’t have a first hand experience with it because DH doesn’t tour for family reasons, but running a band today is a very different enterprise.  Sales are definitely down.  We get so few mail orders these days, we decided to give up our P.O. Box.  Some of the requests we do get are rather unusual.  For instance, for two years in a row we received notes from a gentlemen who contends that his sister loves DH’s band, so could you please send an autograph for her Birthday.  He must be thinking that a band must be so flattered to hear that anyone likes them, that they will spend their time and money collecting signatures and standing in line at the post office.

For some reason the few orders he gets today are usually from abroad, mostly from France and Germany.  Speaking of which, here is a French band Tchiki Boum, who I’m sure would be mortified to find their video embedded on a conservative blog, but I’m sure they can use the exposure:

It could be that at the moment there is not much interest in DH’s band, but a former bandmate who records and produces other musicians, has his ego massaged all the time by clients fawning over said band.

If Big Music is merely loosing revenue, indie labels are struggling to survive.  In fact, Lookout! Records, the label that originally discovered Green Day, recently announced that they are calling it quits.

We keep hearing that the recording industry needs to innovate to re-coop the losses of intellectual property, but I’m not holding my breath.  DIY labels are certainly innovating the best they can.  The most interesting trend is to wow the customer with collector quality vinyl made of colorful plastic and lavishly illustrated.  Although in certain circles cool vinyl might be a prerequisite to getting laid, the appeal of this product is rather limited.

A printed vynil record

A printed vinyl record. Cute. I'm not stealing the image -- click through to see more

I hear about other ideas.  For instance, music website Moneyball offers an opportunity to pay bands to record their music.  So, let me get this straight, because the customers are unwilling to purchase the product once it’s released, we are invited to make advance payments to the most notoriously flaky demographic in modern history?

My feeling is that the genie is out of the bottle, and no laws, like the recently proposed SOPA and PIPA, will put it back in.  Once consumers see that they can easily obtain free high quality copies of musical material they will continue to do so.  Now, what does it mean for the musicians?

There are still other ways to support a band: merchandize sales, trust funds or — dare I suggest — day jobs.  Very few musicians make a living off their trade.  For DH it’s a labor of love.  Hundreds of thousands of young people will continue making music even if it doesn’t pay the bills because the allure of rock-n-roll is so irresistable.

Here is another proposition.  Capitalism created bohemia by introducing technologies that enabled the artists to bypass benefactors and sell their products on the market, and to do so on a mandate to shock the bourgeoisie.  But you know what Moneyball sounds like?  Patronage.  Except that patrons had a certain amount of control over the behavior of their artists, which, given who the artists, especially musicians, are, is not a bad idea.  It might be that capitalism introduced technologies that will destroy bohemia by wiping out their profits and putting them back under the tutelage of wealthy patrons.  In retrospect, the recording industry might look like an anomaly.


1 Comment »

  1. This should not be an issue that the government should take charge of, but courts if people are having a dispute. Good article.

    Comment by GreenLeaf — January 29, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

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