“I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.” - Brian Eno in The Guardian
The above passage is interesting in that at face value, it makes total sense. Whalers aren’t really a thing anymore. People move on. Technology changes. I do find it slightly flawed because unlike what he says about whale oil being replaced by gas, people still consume music. Music hasn’t been replaced. Recorded music hasn’t even been replaced. My analogy would have fifty pirate ships pulling up alongside your whaling ship and stripping the carcass clean the second the harpoon is stuck in.
So we spent money, like fools, making recorded music. We knew this was a fool’s errand in the first place, but we still did it. The difference between the fool’s errand now and ten years ago is that ten years ago, you could flop in the music industry and still break even. It really doesn’t take that many copies sold to recover recording and manufacturing costs, provided you don’t (A) blow your money on an obscene advertising and promotion budget, (B) spend way too much in the studio, or (C) print way too many copies.
Everybody is talking about how the recording industry is crashing. Well, it totally is. The thing is, it doesn’t crush bands like Coldplay and U2. Selling half what they would have sold ten years ago is enough to live off of, and all the power to them. However, selling half of what a small band just starting out sells can make all the difference between making back all the money it costs to record and manufacture, and being three grand in the hole. If one considers that many of one’s favourite bands may have had a record or two like that before they hit it big, one also has to consider that stealing music instead of buying it might have snuffed those bands out before they made the music that the whole world enjoyed. Furthermore, my favourite songwriter, Frank Portman hasn’t put out a new full-length album in about a decade, simply because as he states here, he can’t fund recordings anymore. To a guy like me, this would be like cutting off Da Vinci’s hands.
All of this, however, is what we already know. The real question is, if you do choose to make music, what is the logical step as far as handling recordings? It’s hard to release digital music when the second people get their hands on it, torrent sites are everywhere offering up the tracks for free. These are the google results for the last record Shane and I did. We weren’t even popular, and yet the first page of hits include two hits from the label providing general information, one hit from a record review, and seven ways to steal the record online. It’s tragic, really, because with great streaming sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud out there, not to mention YouTube, one can quite readily make a splash with recorded music. The internet has rendered radio and traditional (broadcast) music videos pretty irrelevant. However, the double-edged sword is that the internet has also made it impossible to prevent stealing. People all over the world can like your band and you don’t even have to tour to them. However, they sure aren’t going to buy your record. The fact that digital sales exclude shipping costs and manufacturing costs quickly becomes irrelevant.
The second option is, press a bunch of vinyl because (anecdotally) real music fans still go to record stores, buy records, and play them on a turntable. Um, do they? Because as Greg Adams points out here, that doesn’t quite seem to be enough either. I personally buy music this way, but I know I’m a dinosaur. Is making tangible, vinyl copies of a sound recording throwing good money after bad? It’s really hard to say.
As far as labels go (and we’ve been trying to drum up offers), I often question if they are obsolete as well. I mean, if the pie is that much smaller, do you want more hands taking a slice? A label has to be able to enable you to sell significantly more copies than simply self-releasing in order to fund things a label does, like having an office, having staff, and sending out promotional materials while still giving the bands enough of a cut to recover their initial investment. You don’t need a label to get your music heard all over the world, thanks to the internet. What they can and do offer is a stamp of approval, which in this day and age of way too many bands all over the world trying to impress, is worth more than one might think. A label with good taste and well-versed in brand protection can actually have fans separate from the fans of the bands. These fans will check out every band that gets signed on thoroughly, just based upon label reputation.
Creative fundraising is the final thing that we have looked at. A lot of people, like Billy the Kid, use kickstarter in order to fund band expenses. Rather than making a product and then selling it, they treat the whole thing like a PBS telethon, offering various tiers of rewards for generous donation. I like this, but I still feel a little old-fashioned. I want a simple world where work has a price and work costs money, and when you start a business venture, you either fail because people don’t want your product, or you succeed because they do. I’m living in the past, but this problem is definitely generational.
Consider this: When I was 17 (15 years ago) I spent all of my disposable income on records. A kid who is 17 now was about seven when Napster made paying for music completely optional. My memories of getting my first records, bringing them home, and playing them for the first time don’t exist for today’s 17-year-olds. These people probably have fond memories of downloading their first record, or of finally upgrading to the bigger iPod to hold all the songs they love so dearly. As far as I’m concerned, record sales decline every year because every year, another year of people who have never bought a record in their lives comes of age.
So anyhow, we do have a full-length record in the can. We are doing something with it. We just sincerely have no clue what to do with it.
Disclaimer: These views are Justin’s and don’t necessarily represent the views of the other members of the Radii. Also, this isn’t whining. It is simply thoughtful analysis.