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22 September 2017

Music Production and Distribution in the Digital Era: a New Model

As I've written about before, I am pursing some new research. It is a direct outgrowth of my recent return to my first love, music. My new project, Self-fulfilling Prophets, is poised to start releasing some original music out into the world. It involves a new model for music distribution, and since I think it's actually sociologically relevant (Feel free to skip to paragraph six.), I thought I'd share it here.

The basic idea is to release a new single every month digitally. In part, this is a solution to being a parent and a person with a day job, but there are other reasons. Let me elaborate a bit.

We can write, perform, record, mix, and master the songs by ourselves.
The writing and performing parts involve many, many years of practice, but changes in technology (and falling prices) have really democratized the recording, mixing, and mastering aspects. For just a few hundred dollars, one can purchase recording software (otherwise known as digital audio workstations, or DAW's) that are the same things used in professional recording studios. (I run Cubase.) I did minor in music business with an emphasis in audio production so I may have had a bit of a head start in learning the basics, but frankly, almost everything has changed since I was in school, and I've had to relearn much. For example, I was required to learn how to align and clean multitrack tape machines, a skill that is now almost completely anachronistic. Fortunately, there is an education to be had for free on YouTube (here, for example).

We can distribute the music online cheaply/freely. 
We plan to use Bandcamp as the primary site since it offers the best returns for musicians, but we'll also use DistroKid to get the music up pretty much everywhere else online (including Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon.com, Google Play, YouTube Music, and Pandora). CD’s really are a dead medium, and albums as a format are on their way out for sure. I have lamented about this shift before. The regular release of music allows one to build a fanbase who are constantly rewarded with new material and reminded that the group exists, instead of waiting for a year or more for an LP and then forgetting about them until the next release. It also leaves the possibility to remaster and package a year’s worth of singles into an album, possibly with bonus material. (Compare to the practice of Victorian novelists, like Dickens, to serialize their works and then resell the same pages [often literally] bound into a collector's edition hardback.)

This model will revolutionize the music business. Expensive studios with expensive gear are going to become rarer. Traditional record labels, which are essentially just banks that specialize in exploiting musicians, are increasingly unnecessary for funding. (There is arguably still a role for marketing/promotion, merchandising, and tour support for musicians in this new model, though these services could easily be outsourced to independent contractors. In fact, this is probably a set of areas ripe for investment.)

How is this sociological? The music business used to be an institution controlled by elite gatekeepers who exploited the labor of workers for private profit. It was capitalism in the extreme. These technological advances relocate the means of production from the studio to the bedroom. Record labels in the past created false scarcity by being able to limit people's access to music. There were many acts, but few got record deals. Even fewer saw their music promoted and distributed adequately. These new advances are surely more democratic.

A similar conundrum exists regarding compensation for musicians. Many (e.g. Metallica) have lamented the rise of web-based, streaming music services, the issue being that the Spotifies and Pandoras of the world pay paltry returns for each performance (i.e. play). While that may be true--and even problematic--it misses a larger point: subscription fees for streaming music mean that many more can make money from making music than could have in the past; the biggest loss comes to those acts that benefitted most from those artificially small markets constrained by an oligopoly. Cue the worlds smallest violin.

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