I got an email a couple of days ago from Ruth. You may not think you know who Ruth is, but I bet you do really: she is in two of my favourite recent discoveries, The Moulettes and Modernaire. In fact, the only reason I know about Modernaire in the first place is because they appear on the Moulettes MySpace page. Well Ruth and Hannah were so nice to me when I first wrote about The Moulettes that when something of a spat developed over the concept of ‘Internet Exclusivity’ after I was asked to take some Modernaire songs down I felt bloody awful about it. Anyhow, she emailed to say the following:
I don’t understand what you meant by internet exclusivity being a silly thing, can you explain? I didn’t know we were exclusive.
So thought I’d explain in the form of a post and give them the chance to respond as well, so we get to hear their side of it. I might even ask a couple of other music industry folk I know to chip in, just to try and get a full picture of the dilemma facing small record labels and bands in the shifting sands that today’s record industry has become.
Well quite simply I meant two very basic things: firstly that internet exclusivity is, on a practical level, impossible; and secondly that internet exclusivity and the policing thereof is actively harmful to a band in the early stages of gaining an audience.
In terms of practicality, a label, manager or band asking a blog to take a couple of songs down is pointless. Music piracy does not get spread far and wide by mp3 blogs to anything like the extent it does in the more efficient channels of P2P and BitTorrent. Encrypted Torrents are massively on the increase ever since ISPs threatened to start snooping on what is essentially people’s private communication, so there is no real end in sight for this particular problem. And for every blog like my own that will take things down without an argument, there are a dozen who will not do so. Once something is out there, it is out there. Trying to stop it is utterly futile; all you end up doing is alienating the more cooperative sites and wasting massive amounts of your own time.
Why alienating? Well because we really do think we are helping and having that thrown back in your face when you are genuinely being sincere and genuinely think that what you are doing is in the best interests of the band is depressing. A quick look at the Hype Machine page for Modernaire will show you that they are hardly a household name at this stage, although they have had some good reaction from the mainstream press, so I was frankly amazed that anyone managing a band at this sort of embryonic stage of their career would react in that sort of a way.
Any sort of publicity at this stage of a band’s career is like oxygen – it’s crucial, and at this sort of early stage doing anything to hinder it is just crazy, if you ask me. More than anything else at this point I would have thought that a band needs to be known and, almost as importantly, to be known of. People need to have heard the name as much as possible and mp3 blogs and The Hype Machine can be an incredibly powerful way of achieving that. The Hype Machine has an audience of millions and is easy to browse and search. Because it indexes mp3s, without that mp3 you are denying access to that entire audience which, given the fact that the mp3 is almost certainly already out there on the P2P networks anyway, seems daft.
The dilemma for bands is obvious enough. Especially if you are a newish band, there is a limited amount of material for which you can actually charge; in some cases only a couple of finished songs. So if these are already ‘out there’ then how the hell can you hope to make any money off anything? This is a genuine dilemma and I don’t really think anyone knows the answers at the moment.
My personal (and highly debatable) position on it is this: people buying stuff at this stage of a band’s career are collectors and fans who are actually looking to spend the money. I think, I am fairly confident anyway, that they are very likely to buy it anyway. There is a well-established economic model for this: they are the Early Adopters. People actively looking to avoid spending anything will just get it from a torrent site anyway, not from a blog – I just don’t think you’re costing yourself anything by allowing that mp3 to sit on a blog page, complete with band bio, a bit of personal feedback and links to your site, your tour or your MySpace page.
It’s like radio play, just the fact that the mp3 is downloadable confuses everyone, but basically mp3 blogs are like 21st Century radio stations. Even the big labels know nowadays that they are part of your marketing strategy and a crucial avenue for getting your music out to people. Even at my level I get 36 000 views per month – about half the sales of the big music magazines – and it’s growing.
Licensing exists in the first place because when recorded music was invented there was outrage amongst musicians that it would kill music. A bit like home taping. A bit like teh internetz. Something has always been killing music. So licensing was invented to ensure that even when they themselves weren’t playing it, artists still benefited financially from having their music played on the radio or manufactured on record. Should mp3 blogs pay royalties if that’s the game they want to play? Yes, I suppose so, although blanket fees would be insane. The vast majority of mp3 blogs are amateur and make no profit, so it would have to be a ‘percentage of income’ deal and the amount of income earned for artists would be negligible for the time being, although there’s no reason that won’t change in the future. And bear in mind that money will overwhelmingly go to the likes of EMI and Warners, and won’t support the lesser-known bands we are trying to support, so it’s hardly a great solution.
The big problem with this situation is that at the moment the only real currency in the internet game for the likes of me is pageviews. In forcing unworkable, restrictive conditions on bands like ‘internet exclusivity’ my guess, although I don’t claim to know, is that the label in question wants to claim audience. It wants to drive people to their site and effectively own a crucial portion of the internet conversation about the band. I can see their point: if they can’t necessarily guarantee money back for their investment from sales, it makes sense to think about other forms of capital they can accumulate instead.
Ultimately though, I think it’s misguided. The internet doesn’t work well under those kind of conditions. If I recommend someone click on a link to go to an external page where they can look around and download some mp3s they haven’t heard, the chances of them doing that are very small, compared to playing direct from the page. People just can’t be arsed, most of the time. The world of small music websites works best when people are more cooperative because it spreads goodwill. Fail to spread goodwill and people slowly stop wanting to interact with you. I’ve seen this myself: as I put more and more work into this site, I am finding less and less time to browse other people’s pages and chat about their choices. The result: my audience may be growing, but I am getting fewer comments from other bloggers, and probably fewer links too. To keep them onside I have to help make their enterprises better, show that I’m on their side rather than just my own, and make a contribution.
There will come a point where you have a following, a critical mass, and an established audience. Then having anything and everything available for nothing probably does eat into what you’ll sell, to some extent. I am not entirely convinced by that argument, but I definitely think it has some validity. But in the early days you want to encourage the flow of chatter as much as you possibly can and I think that anything that shuts it down is just suicidal. It’s dubious enough to state that it’s in the interests of the label, although I can see how they would think it would be, but it is categorically not in the interests of the band.
I could be wrong, but I think that’s how it works. And for all this sounds like the rant of a selfish arse who just wants his own way, it isn’t. I genuinely love both of these groups and I really want them to do well, I am just trying to figure out what I think the best way is to achieve that. That’s why I want them to respond. Their take on all this will be different, as would a label’s, and I think the best way we can find a solution to this at the moment is to try and really understand the dilemma as viewed through the eyes of the other party. There are plenty of blogs out there slapping one another on the back and insisting that their way is the best and only way. I don’t think that. I have my views, of course I do, but if bands and labels and retailers and distributors want to tell me how and why I am wrong then I really want to know. I may still disagree, but hearing each other out is going to be far more productive way of getting it straight. And ultimately, as I said at the beginning, I want to help. I actually do not want to be seen as a hindrance or a parasite by the music industry because I love music, and I really do want to make a positive contribution. Most of us, especially at this level, genuinely do.
R.E.M. – What if We Give it Away
Pete Wylie – Stay Free
Sleeper – Sale of the Century