Listeners, you've probably noticed lately (and been endlessly told) that you're pouring a lot less cash into full-price, major label music releases. It's not your fault. We've all got less money to go around, and all of us are putting more of it into internet connections, data plans, and computers of varying sizes. So go the times.
Musicians, you've probably noticed lately that you're poor.
Not poor in the sense that you've got to suck it up for a couple of years before you hit it big and start living large off your art. Poor in the sense that the more time you commit to your music, the less cashflow you'll see--and that's a truth that time won't change. If you're one of the lucky ones who makes enough from shows to quit your day job, you'll still probably be running back to that cubicle in a year or three.
It happens. It's been happening for a while, and it's only happening more. Unless you're one of the very, very lucky few who catch a stray wave to something like fame--one of the ones that labels are still willing to deposit their fast-depleting funds into--then maybe you'll make it like you once thought you would. But the rest of you? Hard work and talent won't get you where they once might've. Not anymore.
Goodbye, Middleman. Hello, Poverty.
If the growth of the internet means the death of the label (and it does), then we can expect to see the music-critical populous split into two camps (and we have). On my left, we've got the idealists, the optimists, the teenage anti-consumerists. "Thank God," they say, "no more greedy label executives soaking up the profits from my precious artists." On my right sit the traditionalists, the reactionaries--and maybe, perhaps, the ones who are seeing this whole thing clearly. They're mourning the demise of the label industry because somehow they suspect that independent artists can't quite make a living off of the buck fifty you once tossed them on Bandcamp.
Yes, it feels great to eliminate the middleman and hand our cash directly to the bands that fill our hard drives. But it's naive to demonize record labels as consumerist entities looking only to exploit hardworking musicians for profit. Some labels--the big ones--have made and continue to make unthinkable amounts of money from some of our favorite records, it's true. But it's useful to think of them less as vampires and more as shareholders.
Before a label turns a profit on a hot new thing, they've got to pour their own capital into it. Producing a record costs dollars. With a few distinct exceptions, hype doesn't blossom forth from the good will of the internet alone. Some kids win the Soundcloud lottery and are blogged by the right folks off the bat, but most who strike it big have a PR rep handy--and those aren't free either. Even then, net buzz around a solid album doesn't seal the deal. To secure enough fans to cultivate a nationwide following, a new band has got to tour like mad. And who pays for all that's necessary for a breakthrough--the studio, the PR, the tour bus, the gas, the months off from work? Historically, our old friends at the label foot the bill.
The label was an investor. The label would front the costs of a new band's first steps into the business of being a touring artist and in return they would collect a portion of their profits once the investment paid off. That's how we got musical geniuses out of a batch of dirt-poor kids from Liverpool. That's how we saw Joneses become Bowies, Zimmermans become Dylans, nobodies become immortal rock stars.
But with the death of the label comes the death of the rock star narrative. You've noticed it. Noel Gallagher's noticed it. While many have celebrated the demise of the middleman (and subsequently, of the rock star), many have also decried the loss of the musician's primary investor. Who will pay for a maiden tour, for start-up gear, for a well-crafted press release? The online public? How many bands' Kickstarters have you ignored in the past month?
Making Your Own "Making It"
Musicians who once lived off the old order know better than any that their way of life is wilting into the ground. A recent post by Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing mourned the era of major label funding, of the way music was. In it, he asserts that Radiohead--arguably the last band to follow the Rock Star Narrative to a T--could not have existed without Parlophone's gamble. Without labels, he claims, there will be no more Radioheads. On the whole, there will be fewer bands.
He's wrong, of course, because he presumes that people who make music are still seeking to fit in along that old linear model of success. Either you make it or you don't. If you make it, you tour the world and sell your art to feed yourself. If you don't, you give up, let your guitar collect dust in the basement, move on to showing houses or selling stocks or making babies. That was the old dichotomy, but the emaciation of the major labels won't starve more of us toward the latter narrative. Look around you. Look at all that noise, all that music. Don't you see what's happening? Before the great big world of internet, there was only one narrative for a band's success. Now, there are thousands.
"Making it" now means whatever you make of it. There are universally beloved producers who never leave their bedrooms. There are bands that tour on trust funds. There are full-time parents who play shows whenever they can leave the kid with someone else for a night. There are students and day laborers and white-collar drones all cooking up music, sending it out into the infinite matrices of the web, waiting to see what takes.
Mostly, there are folks from all walks who are trying really, really hard to play the songs they love so well to anyone they can get in the door. Maybe their audience is a handful of whichever friends could take the night off work. Maybe it's a not insignificant fraction of the people who choose to be young in Brooklyn. Maybe it's thousands of festival-goers at the main Pitchfork stage. Does it matter? We all cluster around what speaks to us--in twos, in tens, in thousands.
Point A To Point B
You could once measure success across two dimensions. You were successful or you weren't, and while there were points in between, they fell along the same rule. Everything depended on how much label support you could muster. Without label support, there could be no distribution--no singles, no records, no tours. Without distribution, there could be no fans. Without fans, what future can the life of a band possibly hold?
Now, methods of distribution and production are as mutable and varied for works of music as they are for works of text. Want to make a record? You've got a laptop, now shell out for software. The tools to make an album are cheaper and more accessible than ever. We're losing labels because we've realized that we don't need them to shell out for a producer when we can make a perfect recording in our parents' walk-in closet. Getting our latest single out to the public is as easy as uploading it to Bandcamp. We don't need to hire a representative to hound Rolling Stone for us when we can send out two thousand press releases for free with the click of a button.
We're losing the means to send the best young bands on whirlwind tours across the country, but what we're gaining in exchange is even more valuable than celebrity. What we're gaining is community.
Small-Scale Success And Community Pride
Major labels will take fewer risks and send fewer new bands on world tours without the promise of a return on their expenses. So yes--we will see fewer Radioheads. But we will not see fewer bands. We will see more--and they will be dispersed in a manner that's surprisingly anachronistic.
If you've lived in one of the big musical hubs of the world in the past five to ten years, you know that music has been overflowing. Take any party in Brooklyn and at least eight people in a given room will be in a band. There are shows every night in every nook and cranny of the borough. There's so much music it's spilling everywhere and soaking everybody's clothes.
Fewer bands? Fewer world-famous bands, maybe. Fewer world-famous bands as universally adored as Radiohead. But the machine churns away--in Brooklyn, Nashville, Chicago, L.A. Kids plug midi controllers into their MacBooks and weave genius EPs out of Live presets. Kids howl at the exposed ductwork of their loft apartments. Everywhere, seeping out of the seams of every major city, is music--raw, wild, stupid brilliant fucking music.
I hear musicians here in Chicago lament, sometimes, that most bands never break out of their local scene. That the city itself is teeming with bands, but few stir up a following outside the midwest. Yet I see these artists draw adoring crowds to the Windy City's dimly-lit bars and clubs and house parties and lofts. Their friends and their friends' friends and pretty soon a good fraction of the city come out to see them play Reggie's on a Tuesday. They make records and t-shirts and stickers and sell them for a couple bucks to whoever shows up to scream along. They put out cassette tapes and 7 inches with a label someone runs out of his basement. They skitter across the local blogs, they tour through Minneapolis and back with their friends, they have so much fucking fun.
In an ironic twist in the industry's kaleidoscope future, the internet and all its accompanying technology has only localized the way we consume music. The web has done wonders to get names to the world, but for most bands to truly connect with an audience, they're still going to have to put on one hell of a live show. And without label funding, those live shows are going to have to stay in and around their hometowns.
The vast majority of DIY bands are, by necessity, local bands. They participate in strong, active local scenes and in doing so they make them stronger. They shrug off the yearning for global fame and get to know their audience on a personal level. They chat up fans after shows, they hang in and around city haunts, they play benefits for their buddies in need. Their fans speak wildly about them to out-of-towners. They're proud to call the same city home. Is that such a bad thing? Do we really feel we have to ship out on a UK tour to justify our commitment to making music? Or can we settle in, plan a basement show with our friends, and enjoy an experience that's honestly human?
As a replacement for the institution of the label, the internet is making more bands, not less. They're more widely dispersed, scattered around blogs and bars and radio stations. Maybe you find them trawling the Hype Machine or maybe you make a point to get out and catch shows at dive bars just to see what's out there, to see who's yowling into the night. Does it matter? There'll be more bands and they'll each have fewer fans and more day jobs. The economy is changing. That's a given. But it's not withering. It's decentralizing. The monopoly is toppling. In its wake comes a mosaic of music that's more diverse and manic and strange than anything we've seen. And it'll draw us closer to our communities, whether they're online congregations of people who are only into post-ironic darkwave or whether they're the nightly crowd at your favorite club. The explosion of consumer technology has created necessarily insular scenes. But if they only make us prouder to be from Brooklyn, Chicago, or Portland, then what grounds have we to complain?
Photo is of White Mystery, one of the best bands to make Chicago proud.