Is the digital revolution really the renaissance for independent musicians that people say it is? Thoughts from Macworld and the San Francisco music scene, after the jump.
Words and photos by Tyler Callister
The Macworld Expo, Apple's annual software and gadget conference, tore through San Francisco last week, leaving some of us still wondering what exactly is so cool about a laptop that fits in a manila envelope. Macs are the music industry standard, so it's no surprise that music was a big part of Macworld's labyrinth of tech booths and presentations. It's also no surprise that independent musicians wandered amongst Macworld's tech nerds and Silicon Valley elite.
In case you haven't heard, the record industry is in major flux right now, and much of it is related to the digital revolution. Independent and unsigned musicians started utilizing the internet more than a decade ago, and the major labels are still catching up. Now, from MySpace to YouTube, the Web 2.0 generation has further opened the doors for unsigned musicians to reach an international audience without signing a single record deal. From the surface, it seems that all an artist needs to do is buy some home recording software, get a MySpace account, and join this new independent music block party.
But the problem is, if every musician now has international exposure, that depreciates the monetary value of having international exposure at all. Mike Carrera, a presenter at Macworld on behalf of the Berklee College of Music, agrees that this poses a challenge for independent acts. "Now that everybody has it, is that a good thing? Does is it make it harder for the musicians?" he says. "I think in the end ... the independent artists need to find some voice in the millions of other people out there all doing the same the thing."
Some have found that mainstream voice, and the MySpace-to-riches stories are out there. Lily Allen discovered buzz artist Kate Nash's bedroom recordings on MySpace, and the then-18-year-old Nash signed a deal with Polydor's Fiction Records shortly after. On the more humorous side, bespectacled YouTube sensation Tay Zonday released an awesomely bad Internet video that's earned him national press. But these are anomalies in a massive, tangled orgy of musicians. Online music is an oversaturated medium where it's sometimes hard to distinguish between bands and spam, and where the audience hasn't fully learned to pay for digital downloads.
So even with the prevalence of music in Web 2.0 culture, both independent musicians and major labels are still searching for the next big business paradigm (though everyone will swear to you that they've already found it). One emerging model brings the music back to its most primitive setting: Carrera says the decline of record sales as a profitable business is catalyzing greater emphasis on live shows. Madonna underscored this model by recently abandoning her Warner Music Group record label and signing up with a concert promotions company instead -- Live Nation.
This model also manifests as the corporate-sponsored, weekend-long festival show (a la Coachella or Rock the Bells) which promoters across the country have found very profitable. And it's not just the corporate giants catching onto this model. San Francisco has its own Noise Pop and Treasure Island music festivals, which both feature national acts paired with local acts.
Another model, and one that it's impossible to avoid when talking about modern independent music sales, is the Radiohead model -- put the songs up for download, tell the fans to name their price, and, most importantly, completely bypass any kind of traditional record label. But do music fans have enough social conscience to make this model work? "By the amount of music that's stolen every year right now, I would have to say no," Carrera says. "I think the real fans of the band will. ... But I think in general, if kids can get it for free, they're gonna get it for free. And it's not because they wanna consciously steal the music, it's just that they wanna listen to the music."
So even with all this technology, is it possible for independent musicians to make a living? Lia Rose, vocalist for San Francisco band Built for the Sea, says it's possible, but "you have to get really creative, and you're gonna have to have fairly modest living standards."
Even if the digital revolution doesn't provide independent musicians with much direct monetary gain, there are other advantages. Rose emphasizes the communitarian aspects of music in Web 2.0 culture. "You'd be hard-pressed to create this kind of expansive networking without it," she says. "There were always different underground cultures. ... They would spread by mix tapes and things like that, and printed flyers, and I think that's happening on a bigger scale now that the digital age is upon us."
And, according to Rose, if your music is good, it'll find a place. "If you're making music that also happens to be something that people want to hear," she says. "People will spread it out around themselves, it'll naturally happen."
But to make really good music, musicians need to be able to do it full-time rather than squeezing it in between their day jobs. So the question remains, how does an artist, unsigned or even on a small independent label, make a living? A few lesser-known business avenues are out there. One is Fuzz.com, a self-described "next-generation music label" whose manifesto says things like, "We believe artists are the economic foundation of the music business and should be compensated accordingly," and, "We believe in partnership not ownership."
Another is Magnatune, an online label with hundreds of artists where the audience pays on a sliding scale (similar to the Radiohead model but it actually predates the release of In Rainbows) and artists are compensated in a 50/50 split. These are the types of companies that major labels may one day need to ally themselves with. In the meantime, whether the independent artist benefits from all this remains to be seen.
Click here to read the first installment, Macworld and Beyond: Independent Musicians and Digital Recording