I read a fair amount of music-related publications, web-based and otherwise. There’s been a lot of talk all over the place about the future of music (for recent examples, see this post at Analog Industries or this post at EM411, or, god help you, google the idiocy that is “Music 2.0″). Trouble is, so much of it speculates on what will be the ultimate outcome of current trends, say five or ten years down the line, but little of it addresses anything of any practical use, for example the next twelve months.

Now that Intelligent Machinery is no longer a collective, my immediate future plans are up in the air. I could start a label. I could just sell my stuff on my own, either downloads only or CDs or wax cylinders or whatever as well. I could just continue the formless dabbling I’ve done up until now. I’m not opposed to any of it, except that I have little interest in losing money. As long as breaking even is viable, anything is up for consideration.

So, what should I (or anyone else seeking to do something a little broader than just keeping a website and writing some tunes) do as a next step? Ultimately I’ll make a choice of what to do and get on with it, so there’s no crisis to be resolved, but I’m interested to hear what any of you (the few readers this blog nets) have to say about it. In the next twelve months, what would be a wise or unwise step to make in expanding one’s role in music? Are labels and discs as they exist today still necessary for at least the next five years?

Comments: (7)

  1. I think I can frame my response by quoting from your first link’s post: “All mid-sized artists (as opposed to those that play at Madison Square Garden) and lower will just put up their output essentially as they create it, for free, and their personal incomes will be realized either by touring, merch sales, or bartending.”

    I don’t know what industry he thinks he has been watching, but that is how MOST musicians, except at the very highest levels have ALWAYS made their living. The only thing that has changed is that the top levels are much less dominated by an oligopoly of labels who monopolize the means of distribution. The statistically few artists who have ever made their living mostly off records sales are the moral equivalent of lottery winners. In the future (and also right now) the lottery winners are just starting to shift their winnings into licensing deals, endorsements and “brand diversification”.

    So what good does this do the part-time independent artist? I think actually that the time has never been better to be an independent musician: the means of creation and distribution are relatively cheap and accessible. The downside is that this accessibility means that each artist is competing with even more other artists to be heard and appreciated. And that’s where labels (large and small) come in.

    A label is, was and always will be a mechanism for marketing and distribution. Even the indiest label needs to have someone to answer the phone, send out promo materials, build a network of contacts with reviewers, etc. and that is really the service that they provide: generating awareness of what the artist has to offer among the people who might possibly care.

    Even with good marketing, a label needs to have as many marketable offerings from the artist in order that they might both have a chance to make some money: recordings (in whatever format the target audience may want), merch, live gigs, sponsorships, etc. (Interestingly, each of these things is both a potential source of income as well as a form of marketing for the other offerings.)

    In the end, the same rules apply as for making money from ANYTHING: figure out who is interested in what you have to offer (your music), figure out what they are willing to pay for that’s related to it, and figure out how to get them to find out about it so they can actually do so.

  2. I suspect what Chris was emphasizing in the first link was that while records were never a big moneymaker for mid-sized artists, it was still worth it enough to sell them. You’d get some spare cash usually, or break even at the very least. Whereas now it’s barely worth even doing that.

    Chris is a somewhat special case, in that he’s been a professional musician for 20 years, but the bulk of independent musicians rarely make a wage above poverty line from music (at least the one’s I know and encounter. Chris is the only professional musician I have regular dealings with). I suspect those interested in running a business will survive. Rather, it’s the dabblers and dilettantes I’d guess will a) flood the market while b) not making any money from it and generally keeping most other dabblers and dilettantes from making any significant monetary progress from their music along the way. Which is different, since twenty years ago there were a lot fewer of the dabblers, making it easier for at least a few of them to do alright by it.

    I’ve never loved the idea of having to make derivative merchandise to make money, since I’m more interested in making music than printing coffee table books and tshirts, but I suppose it’ll always be a hard sell to get folk to consider music valuable enough to pay out a livable wage on.

    You’ve given me some ideas to pursue though. And sorry about deleting the message the first time, still getting used to using WordPress.

  3. You and like-minded (eg. me, Dystonia, Mystahr etc.) should make an elitist meta blog about the noisy, experimental and strange music scene and ourselves (think boingboing) and thus elevating us into the stratosphere of famousness.



  4. I could be just like Cory Doctorow!

    A metablog is something to consider, although it didn’t entirely work out at Intelligent Machinery (we weren’t especially dedicated to the idea, though).

  5. IM wasn’t focused IMHO. You need a crystal clear concept with no noise. I’d be interested in giving it a go. At least working out the concept.


  6. Hmmm. I have the resources to put something together along those lines, too. Even have a spare URL that I’ve never been able to figure out what to do with.

    I’ll think about it and email you if any good ideas come to me. I believe you have my email address already, so maybe send me something if you have further thoughts.

    I agree, IM wasn’t ever focused on anything specific, and so always felt a bit ramshackle (part of its charm to some extent, also part of why I left, since I could easily handle being aimless on my own).

  7. Late to it all… as usual

    The future; didn’t that start ages ago?

    There’s no telling where it all may lead, but adding my two cents to this conversation.
    Since I took over NTNS radio early 2007 I can tell that the Creative Commons world has grown extensively. Even some of the big names today are choosing CC for free releasing material (Trent Reznor for one). Every week I see new netlabels arrive, and its getting virtually impossible to keep good track of what is being released. The quality of released music has gone up significantly as well and the support for it all seems to be on the rise, but there’s a lot of improvement to be had there.
    NTNS radio grew into releasing compilation albums of released material just to try and give an overview of what is out there and help expose artists and their albums. The next natural progression was starting up Just not Normal where I would have the ability to release albums by solo artists and help giving these artists a bit more exposure. This also prompted the biggest problem JNN faces; how and where to market and advertise these albums. There are a few sites out there that overview/review new releases (Earlabs, Phlow, InqMag, Mnml, noerror, etc) but none really thrive that greatly if you look at activity of its members. With the overwhelming offerings of material on one side and the lazy character of ‘consumers’ on the other end it is hard to build a community or even a place where these two find each other.
    But there is where the answer should be for future’s sake.

    Meanwhile I’ll just keep moving forward and DIY myself into this great big realm of free music. If there’s one thing I have learned through time, is that you cannot expect others to do the (marketing) work for you and if you want to get something done, do it yourself is the only way forward.

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