Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is This Really Helping Us? Mp3 blogs and the sublime chaos of online music

2006 has been a big year for music. Everything is changing so fast that it’s hard to know what’s a fad and what’s a fundamental shift in the way musicians and fans do business. Myspace seems ubiquitous. YouTube has made celebrities out of nobodies. Mp3 blogs are everywhere, and now they are all being archived and aggregated. Microsoft has entered the mp3 player fray, and what the hell is a mog? The New York rock scene is burgeoning, and the RIAA is kicking and screaming and scrambling for any penny it can find.

The question that I hope to answer is how, out of all of this confusion and over-saturation, do musicians stand to benefit? Call me an anarchist, but as a composer I can’t help feeling intensely optimistic about the chaos surrounding music this year. And here’s why:

Among musicians and record executives alike there is an idea that people have a limited amount of room in their lives for music. (So by extension, access to free music will fill some if not all of that space). The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that digital music isn’t just changing music, it’s also seriously changing us. The fact that iPods create instant and random access to vast music collections, and that google and myspace create instant access to artists and their music means to me that musical “meta-geography” is drastically compressed. We get more music in less time and less space. But what does that mean?

1. Music is worth less now that the supply lines are so vastly broadened.
2. Fans know about more artists and are connected online to the artists they like.
3. Fans are more connected to musicians’ touring schedules, merchandise and videos.
4. Mp3 Blogs, podcasts, and web radio have created a host of new ways for musicians to get their music to an audience.
5. Internet users are becoming more knowledgeable about music because they hold more artists in their heads (and iPods/computers) at once. Just as how multi-disc CD players made extended and randomized listening possible, digital/online music has taken that plurality to a new extreme.

I won’t argue that this is all good news for major record labels and their artists. Those corporations depend to a certain degree on a uniformity of taste to skyrocket their profits. And the uniformity of taste is in a downward spiral. From the New York Times (December 11, 2006):

“Consumer fickleness has become evident on the Billboard charts, where the old blockbuster album appears to be a dying breed. More titles have come and gone from the No. 1 place on the magazine’s national album sales chart this year than in any other year since the industry began computerized tracking of sales in 1991. Analysts say that reflects the lackluster staying power even among songs in demand.”

I would call this “fickleness” a new plurality in global taste. I'd also call it good news. It’s not that people are listening to less music. It’s that people don’t depend as much on the record labels and Clear Channel to tell them what to buy. Now they can go on iTunes or eMusic and preview the album before they buy it. They can go to Hype Machine or to link to reviews/downloads and hear tracks, or go to an artist’s myspace page. And for the independent recording artists this is huge because they can now compete. The fact is that all of these new avenues are crawling with talented independent acts, which the record industry has managed to keep out of big radio and record shops for decades.

Of course there are problems:

1. A lot of mp3 blogs are just trying to get traffic (and adsense dollars), so they post whatever is buzzing on hype-machine and feed a kind of hyped conformity.

2. Many people are using Mp3 blogs to freeload tracks. (But I think all of that is actually reifying the value and meaning of “The Album” which is rarely posted in its entirety. And in my opinion most artists that aren’t already on a major label benefit from some free downloads of their tracks. I argue that some one would be more likely to see you live, buy your album, pass you along, if they’ve gotten a good taste of your music for free.)

3. Most Mp3 blogs are focused on one sector of taste: indie-rock. So the hip-hop, classical, folk, electronic, experimental, blogs might need to sprout their own hype machines so that their posts aren’t drowned out by Mp3-hunters/bloggers feverishly hunting for the next not-so-big-big-thing in indie rock.

4. The iTunes model of a paid download with restricted sharing capabilities is fading. CDs are things still worth buying and mp3s are everywhere for free, so why buy an mp3 that you can’t share?

So how can independent musicians use the new landscape of digital music promotion?

Find the blogs, podcasts, online zines and web radio programs that feature the kind of music you play. These blogs are always looking for new music, but case them first. I’d say, again, that the majority of Mp3 blogs right now are dedicated to alternative and indie rock. But there are blogs dedicated to hip-hop, dance, electronic, world, folk, experimental, classical, eclectic, country, etc. (post suggestions for non-indie rock blogs in comments), and most of the "indie-rock" blogs are open to many types of music. Read them and take note of what they request of musicians submitting their music. Many have disclaimers like this one from Said the Gramophone “if you would like to say hello, find out our mailing addresses or invite us to shows, please get in touch: (emails here) please don't send us emails with tons of huge attachments,” or this amazing one from Confessions of a Music Addict. Be respectful, send smart and well put together emails, don’t spam and maybe you’ll get some bloggers to check out your CD, come to a show, write a review or post a few Mp3s.

Hype-Machine and are Mp3 blog aggregators, which means they archive the blog reviews and postings that your band receives. These are sites that actually keep track of the kind of press which was previously way under the radar. Of course if your band starts to get serious buzz from blogs, hype-machine will be great help, but that’s kind of like saying if you jump in the lake you’ll be wet.

It remains to be seen what a site like Hype-Machine will contribute to independent musicians’ struggle to connect with people who will like and support them. Hype Machine and friends have helped to fuel the frenzies around bands like Beirut et al but I don’t think the 20 year old who runs it has totally considered the way it’s shaping the hype that it wants to track.

Yet I’m still optimistic.

I’m optimistic that people all over the world are activating their own music tastes so much that they are creating serious new media force with mp3 blogs.

I’m optimistic that access to music has become so rapid online that if I want to hear the new Joanna Newsom album I can do it in one second.

I’m optimistic because even after listening to the whole thing on hype-machine I still couldn’t resist buying the album at a small record store in Greensboro.

I’m optimistic that a lot of musicians aren’t being so precious about when and where they are releasing their music. Leaking tracks to blogs and posting works in progress on myspace all draws fans in more and let’s people into the process in a great way.

I’m optimistic that musicians seem to be giving away their music more and more but also seem all the more hopeful about their chances at making a life out of music. I don’t think it’s false hope. The fact that the RIAA is hysterical about falling profits is good news for all the artists who have been and will be shut out of the Major Label Machine. The Internet is allowing those artists to market and distribute a lot more freely and effectively. The Internet is also making it more likely that the average Joe might listen to an independent act.

And finally I think that the more music people listen to the more variety and creativity they’ll desire. So the fact that more music is fitting into the same space in peoples’ lives is good news for anyone making music that is less than conventionally marketable. I hope that the chaos and innovation of online music culture actually goes hand in hand with more chaos and innovation in music making.

further reading:
Mp3 blogs Sell Out!
The Boston Globe on Mp3 Blogs
CNN Money on the Hype Machine
A summary of mp3 blog legality
Music is free now and here's why
How to Misuse the Hype Machine
Mp3 blog list on Hype-Machine

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