Music Publishing and the Web: Back to Basics

At my job we build websites for people. I originally got into website design not to pay the bills, but because I really felt passionate about what websites could do for musicians (including myself). I envisioned that an artist would put up their website and immediately have the tools to publish audio, video, images, news, email lists, flyers, communicate and sell directly with their fans and visitors.

Somewhere along the way I think the hype got to me. Sites like MySpace.com, YouTube.com, Imeem.com, and catalog sites like Rhapsody and iTunes made me rethink this scenario. I began to think that a centralized service site for artist tools was the answer - a site that would provide the capabilities in the first paragraph but one which would be free and ad-driven. The site owner would make tons of money off ads to run the site, the artists would get lots of eyeballs and ears and as a result would sell more music, with maybe a percentage cut given back to the host site for handling the sale. There are already many retail services attempting to do this: Snocap/MySpace, CD Baby, and iTunes come to mind. But the problem with these centralized services is that they essentially own the content you produce or have potentially sticky licensing contracts once you use the service. I started to realize that in order for a centralized site like this to work, it would essentially have to exploit its very users to stay afloat. (This site explains this concept in more detail, although I disagree with the conclusive predictions the author makes.)

Recently I've been involved in some discussions that have made me rethink things and go back to my original concepts about how music could work on the web.

Going back to the most basic questions:

a) How do musicians publish their work and support themselves?
b) How do listeners find new music?

To answer the first, I would argue that any semi-professional musician that wishes to build a career off their work should establish their own unique website. It is more work but the benefits are tremendous - the artist maintains complete control over their work and can determine exactly how their work is published, distributed, licensed, and sold (even setting up their own storefront). The idea should be that this site is the *exclusive* method for updates, downloads, and sales of music. Why? Because having one strong website identity will mean the artist will maintain more control over their work. Online retail stores and social networking sites are a waste of time and should be avoided as much as possible unless they are able to ultimately drive more traffic to the artist's core site. Put the minimum amount of effort into these third party sites, and maximize the effort into making the core site kick ass. The web is a giant time sink and people make money off of this fact...your time is literally making people money. It's something to keep in mind when browsing the web.

The cost of building a website is becoming less and less as hosting gets cheaper, and the technology keeps getting better and better. This means that it is now possible for an artist to setup their own website with the capability for direct online sales, downloads, blogs, forums, email lists, tour schedules and much more. Instead of using Blogger for blog posts, you can run your own blogging software. Instead of uploading music to MySpace, upload as many tracks as you want to your own site. Instead of depending on these third party companies which can change their policies, you can do it yourself and have more control over everything.

To answer the second question, I think people will discover music the same way they always have - friends, music blogs, email threads, shows, music aggregators, radio, search engines, magazines, and review sites. I doubt that any automated system can really compete with a trusted friend recommending their favorite band, or a good DJ playing their favorite music. What the web *can* do is streamline these sorts of organic interactions. It can also organize the immense amount of music that is out there. It's amazing to me how many new sites pop up which try to build centralized music catalogs. The web *itself* is an enormous decentralized music catalog, it just needs to be indexed and organized. Search engines work this way - there is no reason internet radio, or Last.fm can't work this way too. One of my favorite sites that treats the web itself as an endless catalog of music is the Hype Machine. This site essentially scrapes quality music blogs for any MP3s and then lets you immediately listen to a stream of new music. You can narrow down by artist or song name. Simple, trustworthy, decentralized, scalable and powerful. Another site that supports this concept is Del.icio.us, where you can bookmark MP3 files you like and other people can listen to your "radio station". A link to an MP3 file should be all it takes to publish your work to the world - it's the job of these sites to find, index, and organize them.

Here is the point - if an artist has the capability to publish their work directly, then other music sites can literally just link to the original artist when talking about them. Music blogs and review sites will be more inclined to trust and link directly to an artist because the quality of content is higher and more trustworthy. The result is increased traffic to the artist's core site where they can build a fan base, get people on their email list, get a street team going, or sell music CDs or downloads. Contrast this with a music review site linking to an artist's MySpace site, where there are a limited number of things that can occur. Aside from adding somebody as a friend and previewing some tracks, there isn't a whole lot else that can happen. As an artist you want to provide an honest and enveloping experience for potential fans, and with sites like MySpace you just hit a brick wall.

It may sound like I'm putting down social networking sites, but I'm not. They work very well for their intended purpose - connecting people. When it comes to music publishing however, I don't think these sites work very well because ownership, licensing, sales, and distribution of the work gets complicated. Plus, it is just hard to maintain content across five different social networking sites.

By publishing directly on their own site, an artist can specify the license of their work explicitly. Probably the best approach would be to give published works very loose distribution licenses so that the music can spread freely across the net and other music sites can pick up and distribute it.

I don't think I'm making any sort of astounding discoveries - I'm just trying to take a step back and think about things. Just think about it next time you buy a song on iTunes. Why are so many middlemen involved in that transaction? How much is the artist really getting and who decides how it is licensed? Or the next time you visit a MySpace page, think about who really benefits more from you visiting the page. That band you are checking out, or Ruport Murdoch?

It just seems so much simpler for an artist to publish and sell direct and sidestep all of the bullsh*t while simultaneously earning more money and decreasing the amount of time spent managing their website(s). Less time dealing with this crap means artists have more time to focus on what they do best: make music!

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Tortoise coming out with beats album on Stones Throw

This looks like it'll be really cool. The drummers from Tortoise (www.trts.com) have put together a beats album that will be coming out soon on Stones Throw (www.stonesthrow.com) records.

http://www.stonesthrow.com/bumps/

"The three percussion experts behind the seminal indie rock / post rock band Tortoise showcase their rhythmical prowess, coming together for this self-titled concept break beat record entitled Bumps.

As members of Tortoise, these three gentlemen helped infuse a new aesthetic into the indie rock scene of the 1990s. The group set itself apart by focusing on instrumental prowess and group interaction. Instead of the tried and true themes of familiar alternative and punk, Tortoise opened up their scope of influences to create a new musical vision – dubiously called “post rock” – incorporating styles from genres such as Krautrock, dub, avant-garde jazz, classical minimalism, ambient and space music, film music and British electronica.

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El-p

I just got back from seeing El-P. I skipped out on the opening acts but arrived just in time. The set opened with a bass player, DJ, and keyboardist all wearing masks or bandannas to cover their face. I wasn't sure what was going on through all the smoke (I think from the crowd) but then a man wearing a red jumpsuit and blood all over his head dove into the first rap. At first, the blood kind of reminded me of that Andrew W. K. cover - you know the one where he makes it look like he got hit in the face with a brick? This was more like El-P had just ran off the set of 28 weeks later as a zombie extra.

But then I realized as he smiled that El-P reminded me of someone else...MEL GIBSON! It was the mannerisms and the smile I think. You can't really compare using photographs since all the photographs of El-P are posed pictures. But just think about it next time you see him perform. I mean c'mon, couldn't you imagine El-P in Braveheart, Lethal Weapon 4, and Conspiracy Theory? It's a perfect fit.

Attached audio files: 
  1. Poisenville Kids No Win by El-P

    7:01 minutes (6.42 MB)
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Migrating Taste

I almost forgot to mention! Dave Segal has started an amazing music blog called Migrating Taste. I have had the great fortune over the years to learn about so much great music from Dave...it's rare to find someone as passionate about music as this kid is, who is constantly finding and learning about new music. So don't sleep on it! Check it out at migratingtaste.blogspot.com.

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Internet Radio faces deadly legislation

There is some pretty nasty legislation up that will destroy internet radio, or other internet services that require similar licenses (Pandora falls under this). These laws essentially give complete control to the license holder to charge outrageous fees to play their songs, while letting them control which songs can be played for free. This means shitty music gets played more often.

SomaFM, a popular internet radio station, explains:

"The Copyright Royalty Board has announced new copyright licensing fees for internet radio stations. The new fees are a staggering increase over our previous annual royalty rate of about $22,000 to over $600,000 for 2006. And the fees are even higher in 2007, based on our current listenership, they'll be over $1 million dollars for 2007! (Which is 3-4 times what we hope to raise in 2007). If you think this is unfair to internet radio, and you are an American citizen, you can send a letter to your congressman showing your support for internet radio. We already have the attention of Congress, so now you have to let them know you support internet radio and that royalty rates shouldn't be structured in a way that will put small webcasters out of business."

Email your congressmen quickly here, just enter in your zipcode and fill out the email webform. I didn't know about congress.org, seems like a pretty quick way to shoot out a message.

Sample text to send them.

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In the future, we'll all be pioneers

Some people think that the early nineties scene was the "last time music mattered." I'm not sure how I feel about that. In the eighties there seemed to be a growing sense of community and rallying around ideals and creativity. Nobody knew what they were doing and having a lot of fun making it up. You had style wars in hiphop, and underground indie/punk bands playing shows where nobody showed up, and the emergence of independent grassroot networks, zines, labels, venues, etc. - looking back it seems like an explosion. But I imagine at the time, and especially for bands like Black Flag starting out - they really had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and maybe didn't see that they were part of a cohesive movement.

I think there is a lot of great music being made right now but it is very fragmented. There is no sense of community or a cohesive movement. And it's able to operate this way because of tools like the internet allowing fans to laser beam in on music they like and completely bypass mainstream outlets. The iPod lets us even fragment albums and split them, and iTunes lets you pick and choose from entire back catalogs. And while all this freedom is cool, the majority of the positive change is happening on the consumer end of things. It's easier as a consumer of music to find what you want, but as a musician it seems harder than ever to get heard above the noise. In the past a band would write a few good songs, go record a demo at a studio, and then play shows while waiting to get signed. Nowadays more responsibility and work is being put on the musician, because this old model is dying. As a musician it only makes sense to conduct marketing, promotion, and distribution on the web and record high quality recordings at home with digital recording gear. No need for a label, right? It's empowering, but much more work, and confusing since nobody really knows how things are supposed to operate now.

These videos of Fugazi are great. Check out the big bell the drummer starts wailing on halfway through in the second one. Finding old videos/performances of bands is probably my favorite part of YouTube.



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Ben Allison - Beardy - OD show

Hey all! The show was a lot of fun. Thanks especially to those that came on time, and apologies for having to wait around a long time. The last band that was supposed to play canceled and apparently didn't tell anyone...except for a myspace bulletin message that had been sent out a few hours before the show. Lame! Shout out to Justin for making the trek from Champaign and for bringing a huge entourage, much appreciated.

This was my first show playing with Orange Drink, and my first show in a long while. I think the last show I played was with Brendan in Champaign last year (which was also a duo). Jesus, that was last summer. I suppose between moving to Chicago and other life changes shows have taken a backseat but I really would like to start playing more regularly again.

I thought the show went really well, it was the first time I had a microphone next to my drums that I could speak into. WITTY BANTER! WITTY BANTER!

I think it was also the sloshiest, rockiest feeling show I've played. I found myself really digging in a lot harder into the drums and favoring more rawness over technique. Maybe 'cause I've been listening to too much Soundgarden these days? :D

On Friday Drew and I had the good fortune of catching two sets of Ben Allison at the Green Mill jazz club. Ben Allison is one of my favorite contemporary jazz composers as he's able to fuse a lot of different styles and genres in a way that is both grounded and innovative. Although he is technically gifted, I find myself listening past all of the technical details and really getting immersed in the melodic lines and introspective harmonies. In the end he just writes damn good songs, and they always feel fresh. I highly, highly recommend any Ben Allison record. It was doubly awesome to see him in the oldest jazz club still in existence.

Also, last week I was forced beyond my will to take a picture for work. I took way more photos of myself than I'd like to admit, and in the end still couldn't decide on a photo, so I decided to have some fun with it. Here was the result. Taking pictures of myself ranks up there with my least favorite things to do like getting my hair cut in a barbershop and returning things I just bought from a store.

BEARDY!!!

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Spinnerty wins remix contest!

Meant to post this before...but remember that dance dance revolutionary remix contest a while back my sister organized? Turns out spinnerty won! * head nods and pats on backs all around* Also check out spinnerty's "slow boil" track on his website, it features my ride cymbal.

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Rhys Chatham

I just went with Drew to see Rhys Chatham at the Empty Bottle. For those of you who don't know (and I didn't before last week), Rhys Chatham is a minimalist avant garde composer from the seventies, who was heavily influenced by rock and punk music. Basically if you can imagine, this guy composes pieces that involve sometimes hundreds of guitars playing one note or drone with a rock beat underneath. It sounds really simple but there is something raw that he is catching, the slight variations between all the guitars, the gut feeling and sheer volume from the performance. It's exactly what minimalist performances should be like, making the audience realize all the details of what they are hearing while putting them in a trance. It just has the added flavor of raw guitars and a heavy beat.

The opening performances were good, warming up the crowd for what was to come. Rhys Chatham came out on stage, as well as members of Tortoise and other local groups. All together there were eleven people on stage - one drummer, one bassist, and nine guitars. The first piece was Guitar Trio, a recreation of a piece he first played around NYC in 1977. It was basically, and I kid you not, the same note played for 40 minutes. Rhys jumped up and down on stage and opened his eyes wide, strumming furiously, despite it being thirty years since the piece was first performed. That's punk rock for ya. The second piece was very similar except the drummer (John McEntire) layed down a heavier beat, the strum rhythms were slightly different, and there was a slideshow displayed at the same time. The second piece also had more dynamics, more like a wave with a few ups and downs, while the first was a straight noise build up.

The "encore" took a moment of preparation, as all the members detuned their guitars randomly. Then all of a sudden they simultaneously strummed their guitars, creating a wall of sound that sounded like a bomb went off. McEntire continued a fury of drum playing (he was sweating his ass off and it looked like he was about to devour the drumset) while the rest of the band played disjunct, chopped, chunky bits of sound that made you want to bang your head against a wall (in a good way).

Oh one more thing...it was the LOUDEST F@#%IN show I've ever been to!

Himself influenced by minimalists Morton Subotnik and La Monte Young, the influence of Rhys on such contemporary groups as Sonic Youth and other experimental noise rockers is pretty clear after hearing him. Not just sonically, but also in terms of combining formal highbrow art theories with rock music in a way that makes it much less cerebral and more visceral. I'm glad I got a chance to check him out, it was a great experience, and definitely challenging. I recommend catching him if he is playing in your area, although it's pretty rare.

Links:
http://perso.orange.fr/rhys.chatham/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhys_Chatham

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Let the Music be Free!

Apple’s Chief Calls for End to Music Copy Protection

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is like attaching a ball and chain to a CD you buy from the store. It's an invention by the RIAA and record labels to try and apply control measures to a technology that by its very nature WANTS to be copied and distributed. As the industry loosens its grip on these pointless control measures they'll realize that consumers will thank them by buying even more music.

Beyond this, labels need to think about their artists as much more than a hit factory. Selling the music was never the point, and you'd think that they'd understand that by now.

My point: digital music begs to be a freely distributed and traded entity. Applying control measures won't work. Trust your consumers and they'll reward you.

The most successful online systems will figure out the next pieces of this puzzle:
1) How to create an ad based revenue stream to allow free downloading/streaming of digital content and
2) How to sell direct to bypass so called online vendors.

Artists should take a note of this as well. If you can sell direct, in enough volume, you don't need to depend on anyone. That leveling of the playing field is what makes the internet so powerful.

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