And the results of that process, that grind, are completely and unbelievably profound when examined in earnest. These aren’t just songs that people are creating, they are cultural artifacts, things that will endure for generations after their creator is gone. They are a form of inspiration, a new means of expression deployed when language won’t suffice.
There is an intense, palpable value inherent to this type of output, but because it can’t be transacted in some cut and dry economic sense, its cultural value is deeply undercut by what people are willing to actually spend on it.
Of course, this problem was less of an issue throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the Music Industry Heyday, during which those in charge were able to figure out how to “commodify” art. During this period, the suits in charge were able to uphold the illusion that they could assign a legitimate monetary value to music as an art form. I use the word “illusion,” because what people actually paid for during this period couldn’t have had less to do with music in any artistic sense.
No. We paid the costs associated with creating a physical release. We paid for distribution. The “product” wasn’t so much the music being created, but the physical thing that was needed to get that music out to the masses. But since the industry could now tie music to something physical, something tangible, because they were able to turn it into a product, they could sell it like any other consumer good.
This approach ran contrary to music’s historical role in society, where it has existed as an ethereal cultural force unbound by any prescribed economic structure.
But when then money started rolling in, when music stopped just being music and started being the Music Industry, things started to get ugly. And like any other industry where there’s money to be made, greed and exploitation soon ran rampant.
And what’s worst, the music industry was extremely fertile for this kind of manipulation, in that its content creators, the engine that kept the business going, were young, naive, inexperienced creative types that for the most part lacked a mind for business. These musicians were putty in the hands of the industry leaders, who spent more than a half-century bleeding them dry from behind a desk.
Today we are on the other side of that boom. We are post music-as-a-product, and back to music just being music. The file sharing revolution, kicked off by Napster’s ascendency in 1999, made sure of that. But the structures of that era still remain, largely as detritus of an industry that still hasn’t realized that things will never again be the same.
When there were tens of millions of dollars to be made from a successful album, the label machinery of A&R staff, lawyers, publicists, producers, tour managers, and the like were a much more sound investment. That is no longer the case.
Many of the excuses flying around to explain this downturn are completely misguided. File sharing is not the problem. Neither is piracy. It’s not that music just isn’t good anymore either. It’s that records, eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs, etc. were NEVER the product. That was simply the illusion everybody bought into while they were still making a killing.
Music listeners of that era were not the moral crusaders that many paint them as; they didn’t spend their hard earned money on music because it was the right thing to do – they did it because there wasn’t another option. It was a means to an end.
The current industry slump is a common sense reaction to the world waking up and realizing that the music you can spend $16 on the store is not materially different from the music you can torrent for free or stream in your underwear from the couch.
The true value to music, the thing that will persist through all future industry shifts and sea changes, isn’t even the songs or albums themselves – it is the experience of loving a piece of music and feeling it communicate with you on some deep, universal level. It’s in the fan communities that coalesce around a shared love for that experience. It’s in the artist/ fan relationships, which at their best create a bridge between both groups, a window into the creator’s world and a real feeling of profound acknowledgement on the part of the fan.
Modern music history is littered with myriad examples of creators who understand this notion and have leveraged it to their benefit. A prototypical example can be seen in the Grateful Dead, who have been fostering this type of dynamic since the 60’s.
Despite having a catalog of music spanning the entire breadth of rock history, many discerning listeners would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of Dead songs. They are not a group that built its legacy through extensive radio airplay, album sales, or licensing deals. Instead, they focused on elevating the experience of being their fan, a Dead Head, to the point where that label could be worn as a cultural badge, an emblem that could define one’s own identity.
Loving the Dead has become a pastime in and of itself; there are legions of people who will enthusiastically pay any amount of money for Dead merchandise, Dead bootlegs, and tickets to see the Dead play live in whatever incarnation they choose to present themselves, simply because being a Dead fan is who they are. This model has carried forward into the contemporary era successfully, with many current jam bands acting as its modern-day torch bearers.
This model has also been applied successfully by bands who do have a legacy success as defined by the traditional industry paradigm. In 2001, Wilco left their label to acquire the rights to their upcoming fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, after executives expressed reticence toward releasing it.
Now in limbo without a label, Wilco made the album available to stream for free from their website while they calculated their next move. Meanwhile, the album steadily gained exposure, lit up the blogosphere, and ended up on numerous end-of-year “Best Of” lists from music journalists the world over.
With the success of this “controversial” album now empirically confirmed, Wilco signed with a new label to proceed with a “real” release.
And when they did, fans flocked to it in droves.
Despite the album already existing online for the better part of a year, fans were ready and willing to pay for the experience of listening to it again, eventually making it the most financially successful release in the band’s catalog. The decision of “giving” away the album didn’t cripple Wilco, it launched them to new heights.
This phenomenon would repeat a few years later, and would prove even more disruptive. In 2007, after years of consistent success within the label system, Radiohead opted to let their contract expire, which allowed them to self release their next project, In Rainbows.
They distributed it digitally, through their own website, and used a revolutionary “pay what you want” model to define its price. In doing so, they put themselves firmly at the mercy of their fans, ready to accept a $0 profit if that is what the market dictated.
Instead they made they made one of the most profitable albums of their careers. Sure, some fans snatched the album for free, some paid a standard price, but others enthusiastically forked over thousands for it, proud to express their extreme fandom in monetary terms.
The success of this experiment showed the world that, when the music economy is distilled down to its most essential elements, creators and listeners, when all excess fat is pared back, there is still money to be made.
I’m declaring it R1N’s mission to help facilitate these kinds of relationships between artists and fans. Our very first efforts in accomplishing this have been published and can be had here for free.
The truth is that success in the modern industry isn’t getting your music in front of 10 million people and hoping 1% of them like it. It isn’t touring at an unrelenting clip hoping to reach a tipping point where things start to go your way.
It’s leveraging the technology that brought the industry down in the first place to find your niche, find your people, and start communicating to them in a human and meaningful way that will compel them to support you.
We live in a world where 10,000 highly engaged fans can change a creator’s world. And given today’s means of engagement, finding and reaching those 10,000 people has never been more achievable.
If a musician can accomplish that, they might not get rich, but they will always be taken care of, surrounded by a support system of listeners who would move heaven and earth for them should the need arise.
On the other side of that coin, it is my dream for R1N to help bring fans behind the curtain of the creative process. I want to show people the human element of the music they love. I want them to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the music they enjoy is a labor of love from the person who created it.
I want anybody who listens to an R1N artist to not just think “that’s a good song” but, “this artist is a vital creator who needs my support.”
It’s true that these goals are outside the scope of a normal recording studio’s ambitions, but maybe we aren’t a normal recording studio. Our belief is that the only businesses that will survive the music industry’s collapse and resurrection are those that play a direct role in the supply chain of creators disseminating music to their fans.
Everything in excess of that is on the way out.
Recording studios are arguably safe from that qualifier, but only if they can update their practices to stay current and sympathetic to the needs of modern musicians.
To that end, we feel it is our responsibility to become more than just a place where people can come together to make a record. More than just a stop on a musician’s journey.
We strive to create a studio environment that fulfills that traditional goal, while also serving as a hub for musicians to learn, develop, and grow into consummate professionals, who possess the skills necessary to navigate the new musical frontier as it unfolds before them.