artist services roundup (#6 in the series)

After post #5 in this series -- the comment by Derek Sivers -- the conversation in the comments exploded with long, excellent and well thought out dialog. This post is a heavily edited digest form of the comments, with my own replies interspersed and a concluding section at the bottom of the thread.
  1. Jay Fienberg led off the batting: October 26th, 2007 at 8:00 pm It’d be interesting to map out the history of the “recorded music business” against recording artist needs. Early on, there’s especially a need to access scarce technological resources (the means to record and manufacture physical discs). Then, later, there is especially a need to access scarce distribution channels (be part of a popular record label and/or genre outlet). These days, the needs look more and more like “commodity” services, e.g., it’s about as hard to find a way to meet my need for a bookkeeper as it is to find a way to have my CD manufactured and sold (thanks to CD Baby for the latter!). However, there are some cultural factors that come into play, as well. IMHO, being a successful musician means [having successful interactions with listeners. To the degree that any of the interactions cross into the realm of business, the musician needs to create (or work for, or buy into) a “successful business.”]. So, the “label” model has a function in that it provides a “business” for musicians who aren’t into or otherwise ready to create their own business. A lot of the “label” business models out there involve preying on musicians’ lack of business savvy. There are also cultural reasons why people think in terms of genres and gravitate towards “trusted” marketing channels, aka the so-called “taste makers.”

    { Lucas responds:

    Musicians really *aren't* businesses. By definition they do what they do for its own sake. Managers are the business half of a musician's life, and I think that they'll remain in the new world order.
    }
  2. victor said: October 26th, 2007 at 10:52 pm My ideal ["taste-sharing"] situation looks like what my childhood experiences were when a radio DJ’s shift was a *show*, authored by the DJ and reflecting their personalities (and ingested chemicals). They had fan followings for inventive sets with musical themes and soul. Everybody appreciates all the good work [CD Baby and Tunecore] have done in enabling artists to simplify a boring part of their day and therefore indirectly cultivate their art. But I could make an argument that open music won’t have it’s break out moment through these massive online catalogs. They will break through taste sharers at which point the only services necessary for the artist are paypal and a remote host. Who is cultivating the taste-sharer? Who is enabling the next Ahmet Ertegün? (I’m aware of the many attempts at podcasting-enabling sites and I suspect many of them fell down for all the typical dot-bomb reasons).
  3. Jay Fienberg said: October 27th, 2007 at 1:28 am Victor said: “I could make an argument that open music won’t have it’s break out moment through these massive online catalogs. They will break through taste sharers at which point the only services necessary for the artist are paypal and a remote host. Who is cultivating the taste-sharer? Who is enabling the next Ahmet Ertegün?” I think the near-global importance of the Ahmet Ertegüns of the world is an artifact of late-20th century communication media. Before the 1920s, there were lots of people who influenced others’ tastes in music, but there were very rarely break out moments on the national or international scale. We’ve always had thousands of “tribal” and regional tastes that had little basis of or need for agreement with each other. During the second half of the 20th century, we also had some shared national and international tastes that allowed for artists to attain large-scale popularity. I think we’re returning to a world where tribal tastes are primary over any apparent global tastes. The webs of music online connect across online tribes of interest and taste. I put “taste maker” in quotes because it tends to imply that there is some kind of “global” set of specific agreements on taste, and that there are a few people out there who help everyone globally come to these agreements and know the specifics. I think it’s all just a lot more fuzzy and distributed that that.

    { Lucas responds:

    Per Bhattacharjee et al., the dominance of acts at the very top of the charts has not been significantly changed by the rise of filesharing. (Which I assume implies lightnet impact as well). You have to go down the charts a bit before you see tribalization of taste.
    }
  4. gurdonark said: October 27th, 2007 at 3:05 am I agree that CDbaby offers artists a set of services useful to artists. I appreciate Derek’s post, as I’ve observed that CDbaby has worked for independent artists in just the way he’s described, as a resource for the indie to distribute product. So many times artists need one-click convenience for ministerial but important business things, and that’s what artist services offer. I love hearing things like “this will show up on your credit card as CDbaby” instead of “I can only take cash, and I don’t have any more change”. I still think that Victor has a point about taste-makers (personally, I put things in quotes or not in quotes according to the guiding rule of whim). I do think that new taste-makers will arise and are arising. I agree with Victor that nobody much expects/wants/falls for “being told what to listen to”, but I do think that gifted people have always helped find cool stuff in popular music. My own feeling is that new taste makers are arising, and will continue to arise. I find the most useful ones to be websites, whether it is biotic’s black sweater white cat or gorilla v. bear or, for my own beloved genre as a listener, ambient music, the forum at www.hypnos.com. Victor’s point is a powerful one. When I was a young teen, one listened at midnight to one particular radio station in Chicago to figure out what was cool and new. Did we accept that station’s DJ’s judgment as gospel? No. We took and we discarded. A similar thing happened with Bingenheimer in Los Angeles, on an even larger scale with Peel in the UK. On a recording front, the Stax sound was not sheer serendipity, but a set of choices made not only by musicians but also by record-company-types who believed in them. The technology now exists to liberate us from the market dominance of record labels. Yet as Derek and Peter Wells both point out, their companies are to serve artists and not to replace labels. They bundle services to make artists’ lives easier. Jay’s point is right in that the construct of how we thought about labels no longer need apply. Among the essential industries that must arise in this era of “commodity services” is effective ways to “get the word out” on signal amid noise. Don’t get me wrong–there is no one signal, and noise (believe me) is delightful. But a community of music lovers benefits from people who help create community through recommendations. I don’t read Victor at all as saying that there is One True Global Taste which taste-makers can point to (indeed, Victor would be the absolute last person to say so). Yet the sense of shared commmunity which taste-makers provide is one thing that binds similar-minded listeners together in their musical interests. I still believe that such taste-makers will inevitably arise (and are already arising), but I don’t deny that they’re a good thing. I just think, as Derek suggests, they need not be part of a record label (or, to extend the point, cdbaby or tunecore). At the same time, I don’t really disagree with Jay so much as see the “tribal” nature of music spread as inevitably including taste-making on a big scale. The tribes are virtually bigger, so to speak, even as the niches get smaller. I have a bit of nostalgia for times when I was 13ish and Lisa Robinson was putting out a teen photo magazine which told me about these incredible unsigned bands called the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Television (or, now that I think of it, Wayne/Jayne County). Those were heady days, when one could find destiny in a pulp magazine at the local IGA grocery. That kind of taste-maker was an essential and wonderful thing. Finding that kind of taste-making again will be the liberation of artists from the old record label paradigms. The technology makes it every bit as possible and inexpensive for them to arise as using tunecord and cdbaby. It just requires practicality amid the visionary dreams. In the communitarian (archive.org) v. Ahmet Ertegun divide, my sympathies are definitely communitarian. I favor free download music, Creative Commons BY licenses, and a conspiracy of user/hobbyist/creator/fans to share culture. But I believe that the era of artist services and indie direct releases will benefit as taste-makers arise. We see the first embers, but the burn is inevitably going to come. Let’s take a simple example. A few years ago, a weblog friend of mine named CP McDill announced that, having sold only a handful of CDs as an artist, he intended to start a Creative Commons netlabel. He would release his albums for free under his Webbed Hand Records netlabel, and then release other artists as well. Webbed Hand releases were soon rather popular in the way of such things, because the label’s experimental/dark ambient “branding” meant that people knew what they were downloading when they downloaded a Webbed Hand release. A free album on Webbed Hand is not directly analogous to a commercial release (being on the communitarian side of the fence). The idea, though, plays on the commercial side of the street, I believe. People will arise, whether journalists, website maintainers, label owners for a new type of label, or webloggers, who will help create this kind of “branding” and association. This is not the robotic “look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy” hypnosis theory of forcing style down one’s throat. This is organize style-making. But until those style makers have the sway of late night Chicago rock radio blaring 100,000s of thousands of watts across the midwest and south, then the rocket has not yet launched. My optimism, though, is that this rocket will indeed launch. My belief is that the next fame/money/glory will go to the people who figure out how to light the way the way that the talented locators of talent once did. I don’t care who emplys ‘em–I just care that we all connect to the cool music.

    { Lucas responds:

    Does web search qualify as lighting the way?
    }
  5. Jay Fienberg said: October 27th, 2007 at 6:20 am I don’t know if there can ever be another, say, Ray Charles–because Ray Charles is the combination of a great talent and a no longer existent world boxed in by nascent inter/national media. Imagine, in 1955, when “I Got a Woman” went to #1 in the US, how many other R&B artists were out there who never ended up getting a chance to make records, and whom we’ve now never heard of. Or ones who cut a 45 that is now lost to obscurity. I don’t know that we’d see Ray Charles as such an amazingly legendary talent if all of those other artists could have made albums, and we could hear them a lot. And, looking at it the other way, people don’t know that the Motown girl-group, The Velvelettes are great because The Supremes, etc., were the ones Motown turned into legends, circa 1964-65. It’s not that Ray Charles or The Supremes are made less talented by suddenly being seen against more obscure contemporaries. It’s just that there’s less space for them to be legends on a pedestal.
  6. gurdonark said: October 27th, 2007 at 9:32 am Jay, at the same time that you make an excellent point about “finding a Ray Charles”, I also believe that the wonderful thing about ‘net culture music is that there is every prospect we will after all learn who is a next Ray Charles—and he may be uploading from Mali, or Greenland, where before he or she would toil in solitude.

    { Lucas responds:

    I am certain that fantastic geniuses will be discovered in Mali or Greenland or somewhere else where they wouldn't have been able to reach the ears of the masses via traditional record labels. We're living in a milestone time for music.
    }
  7. Jay Fienberg said: October 27th, 2007 at 5:31 pm Gurdonark, yes. The more I think about it, too, the more I think we’ll keep seeing the figures behind the music we love as being legends in some way. Probably just more legends, more often. p.s. I really like your “Roadrunner” — listening now.

    { Lucas responds:

    Roadrunner (from this Negative Sound Institute page) is a really nice tune. I dig it too. I also like Forgotten Fields.
    }
The thread which fired my imagination the most was this exchange between Victor and Derek. victor (who is a musician and runs the CC Mixter music community where gurdonark is a major star) said: October 26th, 2007 at 10:52 pm
I don’t want to put anybody on the defensive but I challenge the idea that you really see it as someone else’s job to serve as bridge between consumer and warehouse. CD Baby has ‘editor pick’ and ‘music for your mood’ ‘flavor of the month’ etc. I don’t know of an artist, upon seeing that, who would assume you are truly unbiased and uninterested in their ultimate success. paypal is unbiased. archive.org is unbiased. you guys want a hit.
Derek Sivers (who is the lead at CD Baby) said:
October 27th, 2007 at 5:37 pm Yeah. I agree. In a new future version of the site, I could see us not having that editorial aspect at all anymore, but rather finding a way to import/syndicate others’ editorial reviews, instead. But we do listen to every CD anyway, so that we can make sure the clips are correct, and know which albums to link to which others. I really would prefer CD Baby to be absolutely neutral with no “Editor’s Picks”. No we’re not looking for a hit. See http://cdbaby.org/equal and http://cdbaby.org/featured
So here's the really big question: do the business of hit records that they do at the major labels and the business of non-hit records that they do at the artist services companies have to be in competition? What is the economic relationship between record labels and artist services companies? /me scratches head. A comparable issue that comes up all the time at Yahoo is that content projects like Live Sets can have good return on investment, but can't grow as large as generic applications like web mail and search. (This isn't confidential info, by the way). Content can be a fine line of business, but can never be as big a business as horizontal products like search, because each bit of content has to be hand-made. The implication for this conversation is that artist services companies are expecting to have lower returns on investment than record labels but be larger businesses overall. They have gained the ability to grow larger by refusing to accept projects which can't be automated and offered to all of their clients on equal terms. If you were a venture capitalist, what you would care about is that artist services companies have bigger upside than record labels. The potential payout is lower for a label than an artist services company. Investors looking at Tunecore or CD Baby on one side vs Sony/BMG or Universal Music Group on the other side would treat them very differently.

Category: business, music 3 comments »

3 Responses to “artist services roundup (#6 in the series)”

  1. Music business futures: classical and services - Creative Commons

    [...] version of ccMixter in 2004) on the business of artist services, see comments on followup posts (roundup) for insightful discussion of the role of artists, artist services, labels, and tastemakers, [...]

  2. Jay Fienberg

    Lucas said: “Musicians really *aren’t* businesses. By definition they do what they do for its own sake. Managers are the business half of a musician’s life, and I think that they’ll remain in the new world order.”

    There are a lot of different types of relationships between being a musician and any business that might come into play around that. When a musician ends up having business interests around their music, they may find others to perform roles, like management, that serve those interests. A great manager might practically represent all of a musician’s business interests.

    But, it’s still the musician’s business interests. It’s ultimately the musician’s business, whether they think about it that way, or not. (Many don’t want to think about it that way. Many later regret not thinking about it that way. . .)

    Right now, in many areas of work and business, there are more and more opportunities for people to directly manage their own service needs (e.g., financial, real estate, printing, CD replication, advertising, etc.) without hiring a dedicated (personal) manager.

    Effectively, services like CD Baby provides a direct interface to certain business operations such that a musician can choose not to have a dedicated “music business” manager.

    CD Baby is a true “web business” not just because it’s a website-based service, but because it’s part of the “web model” of business services that is eating away at monolithic corporate / vertical-ownership models across most areas of business. For any type of work now, you more and more build a business by linking to and into services.

    IMHO, to be a musician with business interests in the era of the web means embracing true web business, either directly or via the peeps who look out for your interests.

  3. gurdonark

    Thanks to Lucas and Jay for the kind words about my music, and to Victor for the “star” thing.

    I wonder if this notion of musicians needing to acquire their own basic business skills might be a healthy thing. I’d like to see music-making become less of an “artiste in a garret or tower” thing in a cultural context that no longer requires that approach. I’d rather music creators be like small-business craftspeople–artists and business folks, all combined. I am not opposed to managers or non-musician specialists, of course–but I love the idea of
    an electronic informal guild.

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