December 20, 2007 by

Shelving the record labels (or, “Where Death Is Most Alive”)

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Categories: musings, Tags: , , , ,

The music industry is on the rack, growing up the hard way. Their former pets are working the levers. There are people in the world—myself included, of course—who view this process as long overdue, who are pleased to see the turn of the tables, the despot stretched across his own rack.

Check out this particular former pet, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, exhorting his fans to download his new album illegally.

I transcribe his words here for posterity.

Has anyone seen the price come down? OK, well, you know what that means: Steal it! Steal away. Steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing. Because one way or another these motherfuckers will get it through their head that they’re ripping people off and that’s not right.

Powerful words from such a well established musician. But it gets better.

Very recently 50 Cent gave an interview and offered a very sensible, realist perspective on the current situation of digital piracy.

“The advances in technology impacts everyone, and we all must adapt. Most of all hip-hop, a style of music dependent upon a youthful audience. This market consists of individuals embracing innovations faster than the fans of classical and jazz music.”“What is important for the music industry to understand is that this really doesn’t hurt the artists.”

[...]

“A young fan may be just as devout and dedicated no matter if he bought it or stole it.”

[...]

“The concerts are crowded and the industry must understand that they have to manage all the 360 degrees around an artist. They, (the industry), have to maximize their income from concerts and merchandise. It is the only way they can get their marketing money back.”

This guy gets it. Now, before I go too crazy, I should mention that the interview was originally conducted in Norwegian, and was then translated for the write-up on TorrentFreak. The validity of the translation should be questioned, as a site like TorrentFreak would have a lot of reason for putting words in 50 Cent’s mouth. Although I’ve seen the TF article linked all over Technorati, I haven’t yet seen a separate translation done.

I have two stories about my experience with such sentiments by artists, if you’ll bear with me.

Anecdote The First

In March of 2007, I saw Dark Tranquillity live in Philadelphia. It was a damn good show, and they were touring for their newest album, Fiction. They came out on stage and the keyboardist opened up with a slick synth riff that has characterized the latter half of the band’s discography. The crowd erupted in cheers even before the heavy guitars came in. We all knew the song, Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive), even though the CD hadn’t been released yet.

After the band finished the song, the vocalist, Mike Stanne asked, “Seems like you guys have heard that one before. How many of you knew it?” The whole venue went nuts. “Ahhhh, you damn pirates!” Stanne said, then laughed and introduced the next track.

When Stanne started to sing Terminus, and the crowd was with him on every word, he honestly looked surprised on stage. But there was not a hint of anger or resentment. I honestly believe that amazement gave way to feeling flattered, although I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to meet the band and ask him personally whether I understood his reaction correctly. But the obvious fact is that the majority of the fans there that night had downloaded illegal advanced copies of the album from torrent sites, in anticipation of the band playing new material at the show.

Like 80% of the fans there that night, I bought a Dark Tranquillity t-shirt for $20 to prove I’d seen them live. I wear it way more often than is healthy.

Now, Dark Tranquillity are in a somewhat unique position in the industry, given that their rhythm guitarist (and former lyricist for both Dark Tranquillity and early In Flames) Niklas Sundin is a graphic artist, and thus designs the band’s merchandise himself. This means the label doesn’t appropriate money from the band’s revenue to pay for merch. It’s self-funded and the profit margin for them is huge. Sundin has designed almost 150 album covers for various metal bands, and has released a book of his sketches that sound incredibly well among fans of Dark Tranquillity.

It’s entirely possible that onstage, Stanne was just biting the bullet and smiling at his executioners. Maybe he hates his fans for downloading that album early. But maybe, just maybe, he loves them for it. And Dark Tranquillity seems to be doing just fine, seeing as they’re still on tour for the Fiction album.

Anecdote The Second

At that same show in Philadelphia, March 24, 2007, I also had the chance to see Into Eternity live for the third time. Fortunately, I was even able to catch some of the band up in the venue’s bar later that night, and I tried my best not to giggle with joy.

I told the band’s lead guitarist and songwriter, Tim Roth, how awesome I thought it was that he was posting step-by-step instruction videos on YouTube for how to play his songs. His riffs are extremely intricate, and most of the time blazing fast, so slowing them down and piecing them together is really necessary for most people trying to learn the play along with the CD. Here’s an example of what I mean.

I play guitar, and I freaking loved those videos. They were so low-budget that it felt like you were sitting down with him in his house, and he was just showing you some licks he came up with. Stellar, stellar stuff—and posted on YouTube by the band’s label, Century Media, I should note. But I was interested in hearing his motivation to do this because I’d at the time been quite pissed at the attempts of labels to take down guitar tab sites, a move they claimed was to protect their intellectual property rights.Here I convey Roth’s reaction as best I can. I’m going to put quotes around what he said, because I’m a dialog fiend, but please understand it’s not a verbatim transcription of the words that came out of his mouth. I promise the message is true to his, though.

“That’s just stupid. Why would you go after your best fans? The last people I would want to alienate are the guys listening to my songs again and again, trying to piece together how I played a riff. Those are the guys that love the music, you know? Everybody wishes they could play this stuff, and you see them at the shows, hypnotized by the fretboard, they don’t even headbang most of the time.

“People writing out tabs to our music doesn’t hurt the band. It sure as hell isn’t stealing. It helps everybody, like the labels should support it, because it keeps the music alive.”

That resonated with me. More than anything, I came away from my conversation with Roth believing that was a passionate musician. He didn’t seem to care too much about the legal issues or want to talk about band income. He just wanted to get up on stage and shred, then cross state lines, hop an ocean or two, and do it some more. Yes, Into Eternity are a young band.

The Point

Now we come to the point of this whole post. Amazon has recently partnered with a new and wonderfully bizarre record label called Sellaband. Sellaband is different in that it tries to eschew a lot of the presence of a middleman and empowers the fans of the music to more directly influence the fate of the band.

Unsigned bands upload their music, and if fans like it, they can buy a stake in the profits of any future album sales for $10 (£4.90).

Once a $50,000 (£24,500) threshold is reached, Sellaband helps the band produce an album. A fan can buy any number of $10 investments, each of which equates to a one five thousandth stake.

When the album is made, the backers each receive a copy, which they can either keep or sell at a 10 per cent profit on their personal Sellaband page. They also receive a cut of future sales on the Sellaband or other sites, as well as of any advertising revenue when the song is streamed.

This is quite a novel idea, but I have concerns with how well it’ll manage quality. I think there will be a lot of people who don’t give a damn about the artists, and just invest in those they think will sell well. That doesn’t sound like it’s going to solve the problem of most pop music in the country being utter dreck.

Also, the focus on “making a profit” seems a bit inappropriate, especially for fans of music that can only be considered marginally popular. It’s thoroughly unrealistic that many people will ever see income from this plan. What I do like about this is that the system permits and even encourages fans to pay more money than the standard cost of a CD. This is appropriate, especially for niche music. If the band Arsis would put a PayPal link on their site, I would give them $100 easily. I’ve already bought every CD they’ve made and attended several concerts just to see them. I’ll probably rebuy their discography, because I can’t help it. They’re that good.

I think it’s time this industry stopped focusing on forcing people to pay and started concentrating on making them want to pay. I think this Amazon and Sellaband deal is a step in that direction.

7 Responses to Shelving the record labels (or, “Where Death Is Most Alive”)

  1. Conor GERMANY Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 2.0.0.11 Post author

    Thanks, Alex! I will be ordering on my next paycheck, provided you guys can ship to Germany! I always prefer to buy direct from the label or at a live show than order from a reseller like Amazon or a shop.

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