Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I cannot believe how hard it is to get my music heard. I know there are plenty of musicians like me out there who want nothing more than exposure. Forget mansions and SUVs, we just want appreciation for our art and the knowledge that something we have an emotional investment in is being shared by others. But sometimes it seems almost impossible.

Why is it that innovative, intelligent music is almost never popular? And what causes the situation when an artist is "ahead of his/her time"? Why must popular music first be developed as a niche before "blowing up"? How does that process work? If everyone that considers him/herself a music connoisseur knows so much about what makes music good then why isn't the music they like more popular? What the hell is music anyway? (Perhaps that question is way out of the scope of this blog). How did the current business model for music develop, and why do almost all business models stifle creativity (music, movies, TV, video games etc.)? Can creativity and profit coexist? Is there a balance to be found between innovation and profit, and should one even be found?

I kind of like those last two questions. It's obvious that in most businesses the ultimate goal is to maximize profit by whatever means necessary. This goal also serves to stifle creativity and promote imitation and the blockbuster mentality.

Science and art differ strongly here because with science (and technology) all R&D is done by the same companies that benefit from the R&D. They have a vested interest in innovation - they pay for it, and they profit from it. If a tech company rests on its laurels and uses its profits to reward its employees instead of promoting R&D the company will fall behind the curve and die as a result. It's all about evolution and competition, we all know that.

Art is different, because corporations (music labels) do not develop talent themselves. (In the past this was done to a limited extent). The innovation is done, for free, by individuals and bands as a form of self expression and for fun. The labels then decide which artists will provide them with the most profit and attempt to turn that music into cash. It's a capitalistic system, in that the labels have all the capital (money), and therefore they assume all the risk but also get to make all the decisions.

Now, it's true that innovation is not the only way to make a profit in tech businesses. After all, when a new product comes out the imitations are not far behind. And I can only guess that inordinate amounts of money are probably allocated to R&D divisions that have the greatest chance of developing a blockbuster product or technology, rather than the ones that provide the greatest boost to knowledge or usefulness. So I suppose there are more parallels between the tech sector and the music biz than I thought.

But I still think there are severe limits to the similarities. A tech company cannot simply repackage old ideas/technologies. Take computers, for instance. No matter how Intel markets an old 333 Mhz Pentium chip, it ain't gonna bite. Nobody wants that, because it is quantifiably worse than today's cutting-edge chips.

And I think that is the crux of the problem. There is no quantifiable way to judge music, and therefore no objective means of placing value upon it - music is therefore vulnerable to subjective opinions, and that's what marketing and buzz is all about. Innovation is unnecessary if consumers can be convinced that existing music and/or existing styles of music is worth a piece of their wallet.

Another aspect of music's subjectivity that hampers the business side of things (from an artist's perspective) is that music is purely free. It's like an open source code. If I start a band and create a new style of music, there is no way for me to patent that style. Any band can copy my style and add their own personal touch to it. This is a good thing. I can't think of a single person who would be an advocate for patenting musical styles, both on the ground of principle and feasibility. It would be impossible.

But this fact serves in favor of big labels, because they have no motivation to seek out innovative bands on the cutting edge. Sure, they'll keep an eye out and track various subgenres of subgenres, but they have no need to invest in these bands until a subgenre grows in popularity, at which point there will be many, many bands to choose from. But by this point the vanguard of music will have already been passed on to other subgenres, still far outside the scope of the labels' interest.

All this time I've been talking about musical innovation, which is great, but certainly not necessary and it definitely does not guarantee quality. What about all the artists, new and otherwise, who are of exceptional quality but not popularity? If there's one thing I've learned, it's that there is no denying a quality band or artist, no matter what my personal tastes may be. If you're good, I'm going to realize it. I still might not like it, but you'll have my respect. Likewise, if your music is truly heartfelt and meaningful you can get away with a few lame lyrics… I won't mind. In fact, they won't even be lame, because they'll take on a certain gravitas. The appreciation for musicianship that I am talking about is highly subjective, so I don't want to pursue it any further. I don't think talking about it will help solve the business problem.

So, you and I can appreciate good musicianship and musical quality because we're really, really into music. We're the connoisseurs. We're the outliers on the bell graph. We simply cannot expect the average consumer to appreciate music the same way we do. Yet we're all frustrated and pissed when Britney goes platinum. Yes, we're frustrated with the system. I don't think anybody really blames the consumer, or the artist for that matter. But we certainly blame the middleman, the one who makes it happen: the labels. Should they have a responsibility (a financial responsibility or, dare I say, an ethical one) to provide the consumer with the highest caliber music possible? Well, obviously labels don't have an ethical responsibility; as I said before, it's their dollar, so they can decide what to do with it.

But what about a financial responsibility? Is it possible for the label that pushes the boundaries and rewards quality to be profitable, or in the case of major labels, to stay even with or ahead of the competition?
I don't think there is any question about this: of course it's possible. It happens all the time. Almost every label has at least a couple of respectable, and profitable, artists. Look at Interscope: Eminem, Trail of Dead, Beck, Nine Inch Nails. They're a great example of a quality-based label.

Sounds easy, right? But look, just about every artist out there, myself included, wants to make a living via art. I want money for my music. Yes, I began this rant by saying 'forget about mansions and SUVs,' and I mean it. But I do want food on the table. I want a car to drive around town. I want to be able to take my girlfriend out to dinner and to travel. Modest goals, but they all require money. And that means turning my art, music, into a business. And the subjective world of music and the objective world of business are all but mutually exclusive.

To become a musical outlier, someone who truly understands and appreciates music, requires an incredible investment of time and effort, not to mention a specific kind of subjective, emotional intellect. This intellect is pretty much directly at odds with the intellect ideally suited to running a business. Not many people can pull it off. The same time and effort you or I put into appreciating music is spent studying business theories and management techniques by CEOs of corporations. One man or woman cannot be an expert in both fields, or in any two disparate fields for that matter. Something's got to give. That's why there often seems to be an inverse relationship between a label's size and its output quality. To put it differently, the average person could become a superb long distance runner and a decend poker player, or a superb poker player but only a decent runner, or he/she could become pretty darn good (but not superb) at both. The average person, and the average corporation, have limited resources of time, money and energy with which to draw from, and therefore compromises must be made.

(Sidenote: is what I'm writing about right now even considered a tangent? How did I get here? What the hell am I writing about? Who am I?)

It's for these reasons that the majors have all the money and the indies have all the talent. If the owners of indie labels were better businessmen then quality innovative music would be much more popular. Likewise, if the owners of major labels had a greater appreciation for music the same would be true. Or, if the musical intelligence of the average consumer were to be raised the same result would follow.

Which of these three conclusions is most important? I think the third one, because supply follows demand. But let's not forget the famous mouthwash ad campaigns of the early 20th century: "Not even your best friend will tell you" (about halitosis… I think the campaign was for mouthwash, it could have been mints or even deodorant though). In other words, if indie label owners were better businessmen (ie: better marketers) they could create demand. I think indie music can be marketed in a way that gives the average consumer the impression of quality. Just like a 3.5 gigahertz Pentium 8 processor or whatever, I believe indie labels can promote and assume an identity of quantifiable quality and market it to consumers, if only they knew how.

This is a good place to stop for now. I did not even remotely answer my main question, which is 'how the hell can I get more people to listen to my music'? But this was fun to write and there's plenty more to come. The floodgates have been opened. Feel free to write me with any thoughts or ideas about this subject (especially you, Shmails). I'll post em up if I get any good ones.

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