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.