Samuel Webster

October 18, 2010 “Cheap” will never be free. Posted In: Blog

Some of you will be aware that over on my Twitter account, I tend to occasionally come forth with my ideas on the two major publishing industries I’ve had some contact with; both the music industry and the print industry. As a result of my new project, Mood of Monk, I’ve had to spend some time engaged with the output of the music industry, both in the form of independent and mainstream artists, and what you are about to read is something which comes from that mode of thinking, sparked by the conversation which I continue to enjoy Twitter for.

On the 15th of October, the BBC  reported that Rob Dickins, former label boss over at Warner Music UK, believes that ‘”radically” lowering prices would help beat piracy and lead to a rapid sales rise.’ The article is well worth the time, in terms of the shift which has lead the music industry into the ditch it finds itself today, but it boils down to this: Dickins believes that since chart CDs have fallen from 14 pounds to 4 pounds at retail price, that new releases should be sold at 1 pound per complete album, a move that would severely undercut iTunes, and hopefully stem privacy by making it less appealing. Of course, free is always going to trump a cost, but the industry has one thing on its side, physical product.

Before we go any further into my thoughts on this idea, I want to quote a little from independent artist Steve Lawson‘s response to Dickins, for the sake of covering both sides. In his blog post entitled “Music is Worthless”, Lawson explains:

steve001“Music, as in noises that fit within the ‘organised sound’ definition that most of us recognise as music, has no inherent value at all. All the value is contextual. It can be invested, it can be enhanced, it can even be manufactured counter to any previously measured notions of ‘quality’ with a particular idiom, but it’s not innate. Noise is not a saleable commodity… the financial value of music is entirely based on the listeners sense of gratitude for it – that gratitude can be

o    to the music itself for existing,

o    to the artist for making it,

o    to the person who introduced it to them and to the community/culture that fosters its existence.”

I think there’s a lot of merit to Steve’s opinion whereby, even as musicians and fans, we can distance ourselves from the cultural phenomenon and really examine what it is we are creating. There is an undertone to Lawson’s argument which I believe is the best option for surviving in an age of musical piracy which he has not addressed, and which Dickins would possibly disagree with.

Dickins wants to create one pound albums, and this seems to the consumer a wonderful idea, but seems to me that all it will do is rip off more artists. Presently, upwards of 90% is removed from the retail price before the artists even get a chance to consider their cut. It is this statistic which drives artists to look elsewhere, online or through smaller labels, for handling their output of what Lawson has explained to us as a commodity of sound sources. It simply makes no sense for any person with an artistic output for the distribution channel to make more money than the creator. Artists were shackled to this economic model by sheer monopoly. Before the internet, there was no other method for international distribution. Before smaller studios and labels, no-one had the expertise, equipment, or budget to support new work. These days, artists find it so hard to get the interest of major labels that they end up funding their first EP or album themselves just to play the ball game. To continue the metaphor, some go from there into the major league, and some create private games on the weekend; games which their wives and girlfriends watch, and then bring their friends to. Independent artists pray for the day when they can say that their own blood, sweat and tears has generated enough hype that they can play in a major league stadium without being part of the official system.

Dickins proposal is like going to a major league baseball team under threat from smaller locals and telling them they should all take a paycut, to up sales. Yes, the industry will survive, but each major artist will either suffer for their art financially, or suffer for their art through production levels and reduced budgets, and after all of this, the industry will not be any better off. The industry will be producing McDonalds when it used to be fine dining; it will throw curve balls and call them straight. It will survive, but it will be a shell driven by economics, with a low grade product passing as art.

What suffers is the art, and is anyone going to stop pirating albums when the disc they buy at the local store is as transient and forgettable as the MP3 experience? Dickins other point, that consumers will ‘try’ new artists if they are affordable, just increases the push for major artists to try, and dump, new artists in an attempt to corner an elusive market based on taste; the very practise independent artists have run from.

Now, in Lawson’s response, he goes on to say that the system which works is one where the consumer supports what they appreciate, and Steve, I’m a big fan of your ideological approach but there are some issues with that system and mostly they come down to availability. Yes, the internet has made it easier to make your product available, but art is, unfortunately, still a system which needs to be advertised, publicised, reviewed and yes, financially supported. If the major record industry collapses, every album will be produced at home in a bedroom, or the local studio and though some artists and genres can survive like this, production value is something we have come to appreciate, most obviously within the pop aesthetic, but just as equally in minority genres. If the industry collapses as a result of piracy, independent artists will suffer as their art follows suit.

The best system is one where the major label survives and fosters independent talent who have already exhausted the audience available to them independently. Realistically, the major label deserves no place in emerging artists because they have so frequently made mistakes in the past. Call it ‘time out’ if you wish, I believe the industry needs to step back from constantly signing artist it only expects one song, or one album from. The industry needs to step back from buying up the rights to material which is a clone of the charts. Pop music is going down the path of highly polished duplication, not originality.

The way to survive is to make product a premium. Let the independent artists have their places to exhibit their work (government supported, but if not, economically supported by major artists who use it to filter out the lazy and replaceable) and take on the most successful ones when they can be used on a grander scale. At this point the product is king. Piracy would not have trumped the artwork of a vinyl album. Record labels, in an attempt to follow models similar to Dickins, began to cut costs on artwork, first with unimaginative design, and secondly by cutting down booklets to two page leaflets. They shot themselves in the foot by literally taking the product out of an album and leaving only the bit which could be pirated.

Include a DVD, come up with new packaging (I heard of a wooden CD case being sent out by one independent artist today, unpractical but memorable), give album buyers access to premium content or movie tickets. Define a DRM system which does not lock people out of using the files that they rip themselves, but stops their upload online. Include posters and video clips with your product, sell it at signings. I don’t care what you do, but FIND a way to make your product BETTER than the inferior pirated counterpart, because cheap is never going to be free, music is never going to be free to make and appreciation comes through providing content, not through rescuing the bottom line.

*Image courtesy of Maciej Bliziński from Dublin, Ireland via Creative Commons

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  1. Steve Lawson • October 18, 2010

    Hi Sam,

    I don't see a problem with the existence of 'big infrastructure' in music. It's just that the old infrastructure, that is still costing the labels millions of dollars a year to keep in place, is no longer fit for purpose. So they're going to keep trying (for now) to force the dialogue around music towards pushing a transformatively altered music environment back into a pre-millenial industrial model - 'downloads are digitized Cds'.

    The important distinction, philosophically, is between 'music' and 'my music' - music has no scrap-value. You can't turn music into capital just because it's music. it needs to be something else. it needs to become 'my music' for it to have value. And what a value - 'my music', the music that soundtracks my days, that reminds me of good times, that calms me in tough times, that gives me poetry with which to negotiate the world, is priceless. I would do anything necessary to keep it in my life if it were threatened. Now, any one artist is only part of the canvas that makes up 'my music'. So I can subdivide 'priceless' into a more specific and situational sense of my gratitude to that artist for making the music that I love.

    building web apps and environments for music is all about facilitating that transaction at the point when it makes most sense to the person expressing their gratitude, whether it's through sharing, thanks or payment.

    What happens when an artist gets to the point where they are 'too big to manage that kind of relationship with their audience' is, at this point, moot. It'll be an awesome problem to have when it happens, but realistically there VERY few artists on the planet in that position. There are many who think they're there, and many many more who pretend they are, but the reality is that the percentage of an artist's listeners who want to talk to them daily will drop over time, and those listeners who self-define as 'fans', as advocates, can then start to tell stories for you. Suddenly, your time and access to you becomes a scarce and chargeable commodity...

    But discussions about whether 'noise chopped into 10 chunks of roughly 4 minutes each is worth a pound or ten pounds' is entirely pointless, as that's not how we measure the value in it.

    We're putting value on length of recording, while ignoring the fact that shit music isn't worth the time it takes to discover it's shit, and great music makes us dress like the people who make it - a far greater commitment than squabbling over a few quid can make sense of...


  2. Steve thack • October 19, 2010

    Just thinking of effect on major artists of reducing price. Surely the point is reduced price equals increased sales. The album that i might listen to at a friends , on Spotify or whatever i may well download for a quid. Combine that with a download direct from the label strips out all distribution costs, retailers profit etc. To suggest that dickens model involves either major artists taking a pay cut or lower production values is bull. Dickens interest is purely in profit maximization. Model lawson suggests is suggested with small artists in mind but no reason it shouldn't work on large scale. What it won't do is provide capital upfront for either recordings or advertising. Artists will still be able to get massive just might take bit longer. (You'll need a minor hit to finance the next bigger project) Lets be honest if i buy under current model i buy an album from say amazon or asda for seven quid, strip off retailers profit, distribution costs, cost of manufacturing etc. Amount left over for either artist or label ain't a lot. I don't doubt the average returns on a pay what you can afford deal will fall as fan base grows.
    But i'll happily bet on it providing more cash than a major deal regardless. This post also seems to equate higher production costs on recordings with better results. Now thats true to a point but large budgets can be an exercise in polishing turds. Vast budgets have also resulted in crazy over production. Or artists producing so many tracks they don't end up using. So if recording budgets did fall at the top end i don't think that would be a bad thing. Far as suggestions of improved cd packaging. Decent booklet, nice bonus disc, innovative box etc. I'm totally in favour. I have box sets of records in nicewood box without even owning a record player. :) a good cd booklet beats having to check a web site for lyrics, lists of band members and guests etc. Packaging should be something sensual part of the overall experience.

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