On April 2, 2006, pop duo Gnarls Barkley made history. The first single from their St. Elsewhere album, “Crazy,” debuted at No. 1 on the UK Singles chart without a copy of the song ever being pressed. Following rule changes in the stringent British charts, “Crazy” became the first single to hit No. 1 based on downloads alone. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable; the iPod’s unveiling was still two months distant, and the iTunes Music Store was just a glimmer in Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ eye.
In November of 2004, Billboard Magazine—compiler of every chart that counts in the U.S. not compiled by CMJ (College Music Journal)—began listing the country’s top-selling polyphonic ringtones and so far this year, Americans have bought more than 150 million of them. Five years before that, cellphones were just beginning their stranglehold on America and no one had ever heard of a polyphonic ringtone.
It’s not an entirely brave new world yet. You can’t make an in-store appearance at the iTunes music store the way Bonnie “Prince” Billy did at Roadrunner Records last week and, for the truly record-hungry, looking at a list of 150 downloaded songs can’t quite match the visceral appeal of a 15-deep stack of vinyl. Culturally, it’s a change that’s been coming on for a while now, but economically, it’s a crisis. According to Nielsen Soundscan, overall CD sales fell 4 percent in the first half of 2006, while the sale of digital singles rose 77 percent. For the major labels (of which there are now only four—Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music Group), it could be a musical eschaton—the end of days.
For the rest of us–the consumers and the producers–the production and legitimate distribution of digital music promises nothing less than a self-sustaining, worldwide cottage industry of music makers and music buyers. For the musicians, the question is how to get your stuff digitally distributed and how to take advantage of all the possibilities out there. For the conscientious consumer, finding the music isn’t the difficulty–the problem is finding it legitimately and figuring out what’s worth paying attention to.
A little biased history
If, in the next 20 years, the major record labels find themselves sucked under by their inability to cope with the digital tide, they’ll really have no one to blame but themselves. The music industry as we know it is built on a foundation of exploitation, a fraternity of middlemen, selling artists on the idea that they need the major labels to get their music into the hands of the people. For the bulk of the history of popular music in the U.S., they’ve been right. But one need only look at the messy and ad hoc way that radio play is tracked by a performing rights organizations like ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) to see that there are some serious flaws in the music business. In essence, ASCAP takes a sampling from radio stations–playlists, actual broadcasts and digital logging, then extrapolates from those sources in order to determine artist–earnings. Compare this with the ability to see exactly how many plays each song a band on MySpace has posted has received and you can see the gap.
“The internet can give you such opportunities,” said Voxtrot guitarist Mitch Calvert when I interviewed him a few months ago. Voxtrot is one of the most hotly buzzing underground bands of the moment, due in large part to favorable reviews from bloggers and online exposure. “A few years ago, word of mouth would have been a little different than word of mouth these days and I think that we’re probably dependent most on the Internet for spreading the word. I think one of the biggest opportunities that we had was that MySpace had chosen us to be band of the week and our scope just widened proportionally.”
That kind of quasi-grassroots exposure was increasingly hard for bands to find towards the end of the last century as CD prices in major retailers like Sam Goody ballooned to $18.99. A case brought in August 2000 against the major labels and three music retailers (Musicland, Trans World Entertainment and Tower Records) charging them with artificially inflating the price of CDs was settled in 2002 to the tune of $143 million to be paid to consumers who may have overpaid for CDs. Although the defendants admitted no wrongdoing, if you were a teenager trying to buy CDs in the late ’90s, it’s hard to argue that you didn’t feel the crunch. If you could have gotten the music for free, you would have. And then, suddenly, you could.
In 1999, the launch of Napster ushered in the era of music sharing via peer-to-peer networks, often called P2P. There’s a lot of technical mumbo jumbo to go into about this issue, but in essence, a P2P network is one that relies on harnessing the connections and power of multiple computers rather than relying on a centralized server. With a service like Napster, these computers could share not just term papers and e-mails, but digital music, and thus was born the practice of illegal file-sharing. Despite suits by (most famously) Metallica in 2000 and various bands, labels and entities, illegal music sharing continues. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has led the charge against piracy: they’re the people bringing lawsuits against 12-year-olds and declaring victory in press statements like the following by CEO and Chariman Mitch Bainwol in the wake of P2P service Kazaa’s transformation into a legitimate business: “Steadily but surely, we are passing another important marker on the remarkable journey that is the continuing transformation and development of the digital marketplace. The winners are fans, artists and labels and everyone else involved in making music, and our partners in the technology community.”
Their latest bogeyman is the Pioneer Inno, a portable XM satellite radio receiver which can record songs from XM radio and play them back at will like an mp3 player. I’ve tried out the Inno, and I could see this one coming. It’s a nifty enough little gadget, even if the songs don’t play back at anywhere near the quality you can get from ripping CDs or buying the mp3s legitimately. Fortunately, the Inno integrates with the now above-board Napster store, allowing you to record a song on the fly if you like it and then pay for a high-quality version later. However, as technology blog engadget.com points out, “The Tivo-like capability has music industry executives claiming that such devices allow for “permanent ownership of copyrighted material without paying for it.” We’re sure screwed if they find out about all those mix-tapes we made from radio rips back in the ’90s.”
War on drugs, anyone?
The benefits of going legitimate
I don’t mean to sound like I’m supporting music piracy here–I don’t support the cocaine trade either–but whatever the results of the wrongfooted attempts to legitimize the digital music industry, the real good news, for independent artists and the consumers who support them, is that it’s getting easier and easier to get your music heard, and sometimes even get paid for it.
If you’re a musician or music fan and haven’t heard of MySpace, where have you been? The easiest way to get your songs cranking out of tiny computer speakers nationwide is to start a MySpace page for your band. Of course, you probably did that before your band finished its first rehearsal if you formed in the last year, but if you really have your head in the sand, go to myspace.com and get on it. A couple of tips for neophytes: There’s a page where you can change the genres your band is listed under: Change these frequently, because users often search based on the style of music they’re looking for. Besides, it can be fun. I remember the first time I went to semi-local bar band heroes The Hold Steady’s page and noticed their genre was listed as Rock / Rock / Rock. Or my personal favorite combo: Tropical / Crunk / Showtunes.
Additionally, if you want to treat MySpace like the promotional tool it’s meant to be, may I suggest friendadder.com? The site will allow you to download a nifty little program that will allow you to add friends based on their interests (say, local music, folk rock or bar bands) or by tapping into the friend lists of other bands. It costs $24.95, making its use for a personal MySpace page a little expensive, but if you’re a band (or, say, the organizer of two Twin Town High release shows) it’s a great way to get a lot of friends who are actually interested in what you’re doing pretty quickly. As Jeremy Enigk (now solo, formerly of indie heroes Sunny Day Real Estate) said in our interview a couple of weeks ago, “Exposure is what it’s really about and not record sales. I think any starting band would rather have a huge amount of hits on MySpace as opposed to selling tons of records through other means.”
But you want to sell records, you say
Sure, MySpace is great for letting people hear your songs, but sooner or later, you’ll want to get some cash back on that investment. It used to be that the path to getting your music distributed by the big legitimate sites (iTunes Music Store, eMusic, Rhapsody, Sony Connect, MusicNet and Napster) wasn’t that different from getting a record deal. Most independent labels have ties that allow them to distribute their artists” music to the digital resellers in the same way they do to the brick-and-mortar stores.
Martin Devaney, who started local Americana and alt.country label Eclectone Records, has gotten Eclectone releases digitally distributed through Redeye Music Distribution. But of course, getting the distribution is only half the battle and Devaney’s got good tips to offer for getting the most out of digital releases. “Offer exclusive tracks through the various digital options that you have (in addition to regular releases),” he says. “That way, you’re giving something special that will keep people coming back and checking out what’s going on with your music.”
Redeye came to Devaney after he had already established Eclectone as an independent label, but in the recent past, new programs and companies have sprung up to accommodate the digital distribution needs of musicians without a label.
Of these, the oldest and most well-established is CDBaby. CEO Derek Sivers began the company in 1997 after struggling with distribution as an independent musician. At first, it was just him, riding on a bike down to the post office with a backpack full of CDs in mailers. Sivers’ modus operandi has remained consistent since the beginning: distribute artists’ music and give them back most of the money. As opposed to getting only a dollar or two on each CD, bands get back $12 per disc from CDBaby and it costs nothing to start an account there. Starting in 2003, CDBaby began offering digital distribution to all the major internet music retailers free of charge.
“When Apple iTunes launched,” says Sivers via e-mail, “we got a call from Apple’s office, asking us to come down to talk to them about getting CD Baby artists into iTunes. Steve Jobs pitched us on the idea of CD Baby acting like a digital distributor: passing through all the albums into their system, then paying the artists directly. All we really had to do was say ‘OK!”
Once iTunes was in place, the other internet music retailers fell in. It’s in their best interest to have the broadest selection possible, and there’s none of that pesky physical product lying around in warehouses getting dusty. True to their physical distribution model, CDBaby has a great digital distribution payment structure; they keep 9 percent of the sale, paying the other 91 percent to the artist.
“I’ll bet the traditional record store, with bins of discs you can see but not hear, will die,” Sivers says, “but the idea of a music discovery place, a lounge where you go to be turned on to new music, and pay to copy it to your iPod or whatever, will always be valuable to enough people to make it viable.” So maybe an in-store performance in a digital world is possible–the vision of a musician in a centralized location playing live and being broadcast to listening lounges doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
In addition to distribution, both physical and digital, CDBaby provides advice and tips for musicians when it comes to promotion and practice. CDBaby.org provides a message board for musicians to exchange tips on everything from licensing to performing rights organizations, and if you visit hostbaby.com, they’ll even host your band’s website. Digital distribution specific info can be found at cdbaby.net/dd.
There are also several other options that will allow you to get your music to the internet music retailers. TuneCore (at tunecore.com) gives you the kind of rights you really need to hang onto if you’re a musician; like any deal worth its salt, the agreement is non-exclusive, and you retain all the rights to your music. Unlike CDBaby, there are basic charges built in–$0.99 per song and a yearly $7.98 maintenance fee on each album you sell through them, but you get 100 percent of the profits from the sales. Even Keri Weiss, manager of local boys made good Tapes ‘n’ Tapes, chimes in on their homepage: “We … retained all the rights, just paid a one-time fee and then in turn received all the money … and could easily remove everything if we wanted.” TuneCore organizes songs by album and will let you upload album art to go along with the songs when they go for digital sale.
Another website that’ll do much the same for you is FoxyMelody (foxymelody.com). There’s no annual fee and they take no percentage for their services, but getting your first album up online via M.A.D.E. (Music Artist Distribution Empowerment–a better acronym than name, really) will put you out $17.99, and each additional album will run you $9.99. You also manage all your content for sale through A.M.P. (Artist Management Portal–these guys love acronyms), which also gives you access to artist resources.
Obviously, things like uploading your art and getting access to services like sample clearance and musician classified ads has more to do with promotion than with getting the stuff out there. Thus comes the second challenge, as outlined by Aimee Mann when I spoke with her. “There are so many bands,” said Mann, “and so many artists and it’s so difficult to grab anybody’s attention because there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention in terms of how they’re going to spend their leisure time–whether it’s listening to music or watching TV or playing video games–and I think people are really oversaturated with leisure opportunities. I think having thousands more bands and artists than there ever used to be just kind of compounds the problem.”
Getting heard above the din, then
An increased number of bands vying for attention is the natural result of the proliferation of music in digital format, so how do listeners find the music that’s really worth finding? Sometimes it seems like the number of blogs out there is only exceeded by the number of music-related blogs–it’s something like the relationship between rational and irrational numbers. A really excellent place to start is Salon’s Audiofile column (salon.com/ent/audiofile). Thomas Bartlett posts mp3s almost daily and pulls together reviews of high-profile releases, along the way writing about live shows and interviewing everyone from Air Guitar World Champion Dan Crane to Tommy Chong. One of the nice things about Audiofile is that it covers a broader range of music (read: classical and even adult contemporary in addition to a steady diet of indie rock and electronica) than most of the blogs out there. It’s also a great place to start surveying the wealth of music blogs that are out there, but even Bartlett’s list can be a little daunting. So here’s just a handful to get you started:
Brooklyn Vegan (brooklynvegan.com): This blog is blatantly New York-centric, but when they’re not talking about shows in New York, they’re busy helping break bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes ’n’ Tapes before Pitchfork gets their hands on them. Plus, this blog and many of the others here regularly post mp3s that can be legitimately downloaded for free. Features include photos from shows, tour dates and links to interesting stories in other media outlets. The genres of music covered usually stick to the underground and independent rock circuit.
Chromewaves (chromewaves.net): This blog, run by a guy named Frank in Toronto, is one of my faves. He has a good mix of CD reviews, concert reviews and general commentary, and most of the posts have links at the end to other news tidbits and/or free mp3s. Aside from that, he lists his current reading, movie watching and concert going plans. That kind of cultural crossover is what makes hooking into the culture of online music posting and commentary rewarding to me; who knows when you’ll come across a new favorite book or film when you thought you were looking for music info? Chromewaves is strongly indie rock, although it dips a little more into electronic music than some other sites. Plus, Frank is not a hipster’s hipster; he’s thoughtful about the music and open-minded.
Gorilla vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.net): GvB is one of the few indie blogs to have brought in a specifically “Non-Indie Dude” columnist (Austin LaRoche) to give a more mainstream take on music. His entry from this year’s Pitchfork Festival in Chicago was hilarious. Representative sample: “I did some heavy people watching, and at no time did I ever feel that anyone was even attempting at hooking up later that evening. Maybe someone else saw it, but this was like the hipster event of the year. Hipsters from all over came here–the cream of the crop … There were thousands of choices here, and it seemed no one was on the prowl.” GvB also has a regular show on Sirius Satellite Radio and the playlists (along with links to free, legit mp3s) are posted the day after.
Perfect Porridge (perfectporridge.com): For those of you who are locally inclined, Greg Swan’s Perfect Porridge successfully blends coverage of Twin Cities bands (his most recent local feature was on Popcycle and their new release, Major Changes / Minor Chords) with coverage of the latest national releases (Australian maybe-It band Van She got a review the same day as Popcycle). It’s a formula that’s always seemed like a good idea to me: Local bands get exposure to people who are looking for national coverage, and nothing makes those bands look better than holding them up to the same standards as the national releases. Expect streaming audio from bands and also a whole bunch of contests. Winning stuff is the kind of interactivity everyone can get behind.
Pitchfork gets the bulk of the media coverage (both good and bad), but quietly, Cokemachineglow.com has turned into one of the best review sites on the internet, not to mention having a regular podcast. The site is updated weekly on Friday and the writing is consistently better and way less snarky than Pitchfork’s. There a regular interview features and the diet is again largely indie rock, but with a goodly amount of column space given over to hip-hop, and they’re a great source for truly intelligent writing on hip-hop. The sympathetic but ultimately disappointed review of Soul Position’s Things Go Better with RJ and Al is a virtual clinic on how to write a critical review without taking potshots or being simply negative.
Getting press on some of these sites might not be easy, but if you can get the ear of an influential blog or review website, it’s the quickest path to building buzz in the industry these days. It doesn’t hurt if you’re good, as Derek Sivers was quick to point out.
“Too many artists are spending too much time surfing the web.” he says, “when they should really shut off their computer and focus on re-writing and improving their music.” Having digital distribution and music that nobody wants to hear won’t get you far. Neither will having all the talent in the world or a surefire pop hit and no idea how to get it into people’s hands.
Take your pop hit and hook into digital distribution, though, and maybe music fans will make you the next Gnarls Barkley. After all, no single has yet crashed the party at No. 1 from downloads alone on the Billboard charts. Yet. Get at ’em.