artist services #6

Comment from Greg from Grabb.it on artist services:

For my part, while I can admire it as a virtuous response to the excesses of the labels, I’m not sure that the “separation of duties” approach that Derek advocates tells the whole story. While distribution channels free of the editorial filters required by the costs of shipping chunks of vinyl and plastic around are a great benefit for contemporary indie acts (my own band has sold its CDs on CD Baby since our first record), I think that the move to a web-centric music world will actually make the work of taste-makers and music purveyors even more intertwingled than they’ve ever been.

On the web, conversation is distribution. Music bloggers don’t write about songs and then expect you to go find them somewhere else. They link to them. And if their writing convinces you to click, now you’ve got the song.

Right now, the only thing that web music writers can do to monetize their ownership of this distribution channel is to put iTunes and Amazon affiliate links right next to the mp3 links and run ads (an option which, in a truly profitable form, is really only available to the big fish like Pitchfork and Stereogum). But there’s little — besides a good idea — preventing some technology company from coming along and turning them, as a whole, into serious competition for the existing distribution channels.

Secondly, even though these new forms of online taste-making seem virginal and pure, that doesn’t mean they’ll remain free of label influence forever. Granted the majors got a slow start because of their entrenched historical view of the internet as a frightening den of immoral file-sharing pimple-faced pirates, but they aren’t going to stay clueless forever. They’re already starting to send out ‘exclusive’ promotional mp3s to the best-read music sites and the bigger bloggers when promoting their indie artists (Feist, TV on the Radio, etc.). How long before those missives are accompanied by Paypal-ed payola (or even the old fashioned physical kind)? I would bet that, somewhere out there, is a blogger or Pitchfork author whose web-published opinion’s been swayed by a back-room SXSW meeting, a stack of free CDs, or an offer of an exclusive track or interview.

When you put these two factors side-by-side, the current situation looks an awful lot like a race between Music 2.0 companies and the long tail of blogs on the one side and a new generation of web-savvy music biz publicists on the other. Will we figure out a way for the conversation to empower and profit music bloggers at all scales before the majors figure out how to manipulate this new promotional outlet like they have every other? Or, more diplomatically, when these two sides finally drop their most vicious differences and meet in the middle, what will the balance of power look like?

I’m skeptical that the money available to independent influencers will ever be significant enough to sway them. How much would a record promoter pay to improve their standing within Greg’s personal recommendations? On one hand the stakes just aren’t that high, because his personal page doesn’t (and isn’t supposed to) do huge numbers, so the amount of payola available is pretty low. On the other hand, his page is his digital identity, which is worth a lot to him. He stands to lose plenty if he comes across as accepting $$$ to fake opinions about music.

This goes to the long standing conversation about paying bloggers for promotion, which I know from the perspective of a paid blogger. When I was taking money to incorporate a sponsor into my blogging (a project which Marc Canter arranged), it was a delicate act that didn’t always work, but at least the money was always pretty decent. Since that bootstrapping phase in 2004 the pay for blog shilling has gone down.

2 thoughts on “artist services #6

  1. I share your skepticism about the labels ever trying to influence the taste-spam output (i.e. Grabb.it and Last.fm user pages) of someone like me, but that’s just because, as a taste-maker, I’m pretty far down the long tail. Their way of interfering in that part of the curve wil likely look a lot more like ‘astroturf’ — faking the appearance of grass roots support for an artist (as can already be seen happening on MySpace).

    But, I guess one difference I seem to have with other people in this conversation is that I see a relatively strong head already emerging to the online taste-makers curve. Site like Pitchfork, Stereogum, Said the Gramophone, and a handful of others (pretty much anybody running real ads) already set the agenda for the rest of the music blogosphere. Those sites have large readerships, often paid staffs, and are for-profit enterprises. For a whole generation of indie music fans, these sites have already replaced Rolling Stone and Spin as the primary way they find out about new ‘cool’ music.

    I don’t necessarily mean to impugn these sites’ ethics so strongly as to imply that they’d blog for cash, but I do think the labels (major and indie alike) are going to bring more and more pressure to bear on trying to influence their opinions — starting with the carrot of ‘leaked’ early mp3s by hot bands that is already so common and moving into the whole panoply of ‘access journalism’ techniques that have been so effective in influencing the mainstream press.

    If these sites can get some of the growth-mojo that comes from recognizing and building on their position as a distribution platform (kind of the opposite of the direction that MySpace has gone with the creation of its record label) it’ll act as a bulwark. Pitchfork, I think, is leading the way here with its moves into concert promotion with their music festival. How long before Pitchfork is putting out records? Who’s better positioned than they are to know who to sign and how to get the word out there?

  2. I don’t worry that marketplaces behave like marketplaces, with better-capitalized resources spending to get the word out on their product.
    I don’t worry that we live in a marketplace culture, or that people want to figure out ways to make money by influencing tastes.

    I also don’t worry that today’s up-and-coming
    indie voice in the wilderness is tomorrow’s corporate megalith, either releasing its own records or singing a corporate song about label releases. I remember when a few magazines we now may think of as similarly passe’ were “the voices of the 1960s counterculture”.

    What interests me is that the technology removes a sufficient amount of the economic marketplace hegemony to give indies alternative ways to get the word out. As I sit here listening on my mp3 player to Dosem’s fine new electronica EP on the Spanish netlabel Antiritmo, I begin to believe that even the least-capitalized but best-intentioned people releasing in the Creative Commons can bridge the gap from Spain to north Texas.

    It looks like to me that a musician with a good recording can find ways to get distribution, and notice, and sell downloads of her/his work. This is a great step, even if, in the worst pessimistic world, the market share captured is relatively small. It will still be a way for indie and different voices to find ways to earn income off of their music.

    I hope for a small-business-model music industry of savvy acts marketing themselves that way,
    even if the local video store and the local ad aggregator promote behemoths of age and wing-span formerly known only to japanese cinema.
    We can have our dinosaurs, and hide from them, too.

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