Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Then ‘Til Now – Is It Better?

From Firebrand Magazine Issue #1, October 2012

Back in 1982, when I was first turning pro in the music industry, there was a standard way of getting your music under the noses of radio programmers and record labels. You transferred your carefully-crafted demos (recorded in a proper studio if you could afford it) onto cassette tapes – normally from a ‘master’ cassette that you made either at home or in-studio – and labelled them as neatly as possible. If you had some extra money, you could have a heap of tapes made at a duplicating facility that could run off multiple copies at once, saving time, energy and tape wear on the precious master. If the tape machines were not perfectly calibrated, the songs might be a tiny bit out of concert pitch, but it was hardly noticeable unless one of the machines was way out of whack, so it hardly mattered. The next step was to type out the band bio – with a typewriter (remember them?) – and take the prepared pages to a post office to get them photocopied – no home printers in those days. Once the tapes and bio sheets were ready, all that remained was to add some 8 x 10 inch glossy black-and-white photographs of the band (professionally done if possible) to the packages, then back to the post office to send them to the recipients. After all of that came the wait to see if the music and images were what the radio stations and record labels wanted for their playlists or artist rosters.

Today in 2012, you can put a band bio and photos in a PDF, put it in a zip folder with a selection of mp3 audio files, and email it – done. We’ve come a long way from photocopies and the humble audio cassette. But is it any easier to make it in the music industry? Are we better off? Maybe, maybe not.

The world music industry has indeed changed since the halcyon days of rock and roll, when massive acts played massive concert tours to massive audiences and travelled in their own airliners – this is now the exception rather than the rule. Musical tastes have changed, the world economy has changed, the media has changed, and public accessibility to music has changed. The thing is, it is debatable whether or not all these changes have been for the better. The obvious thing that has had a huge impact is, of course, the internet.

The sudden appearance and spread of the World Wide Web caught the music industry – and probably many others – with their pants down. Legally and logistically, there was simply nothing in place to deal or cope with the new deal in entertainment consumption. Songs, movies, games and books were placed online to be accessed and downloaded anonymously by anyone with an internet connection, and there seemed to be little any of the regulating bodies could do to stem the tide of pirated copies and illegal downloads. The original dramas surrounding the Napster download website are now the stuff of legend, and some of the reactions by the industry have been a case of too little too late, or in some cases, too much directed at the wrong people. For a lot of people in the general public, the net seemed like a paradise of everything they wanted, available for free at the click of a mouse button. For musicians and other artists trying to sell their wares through traditional means, this felt very much like the death knell for their established or nascent careers. Widespread panic ensued, and the dust had yet to fully settle on a number of fronts.

To be sure, there are other factors affecting the legitimate sale of music and various forms of entertainment – if people are under financial hardship, they are less likely to spend their hard-earned cash on trifles and luxuries. Likewise, if people are living in a war zone, entertainment makes way for survival. Thus, economic and political factors will always figure into the habits of any particular population. These factors have always been with us. The internet is something new that has not been experienced before, and the adjustment, locally and globally, will be a protracted and uncertain one.

But is all of this stopping us from creating and expressing that which burns within our creative hearts and souls? Most certainly not. For those of us who have made music our lives, it is not so much something that we want to do – it is something that we have to do. In fact, being a musician is not a matter of what we do, but who we are. For this reason, it is in our own best interests to come to grips with this new, ever-changing landscape and find a way of continuing to do what we were born to do without selling our souls (nothing new there), yet still turn a profit. For all the creative and artistic satisfaction that being a musician brings, we still have to make a living. To do so, we must find ways of making this new technology work for us – we have to get smart, and get educated about this twenty-first century way of doing things.

For those of us without ready access to the big record labels, the internet age has provided myriad ways of reaching our potential audience without having to score that elusive record contract. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook give us a free place to hang our shingle and display our wares, and to directly touch people that may like our music enough to purchase it, via digital download or good old hard copy. Building a web page, however, is the easy part – people still have to be made aware of the existence of the web page, and have to be driven to it in order to be impressed with our product. This has its analogue in the ‘real’ world, where you would take up residence in a store and advertise the location and content of said store. Putting a website online is like sitting in the middle of a very large ocean and dangling a single line in the water, hoping for the big fish to happen by. Possible, but improbable. Luck plays a huge part in ‘making it’ in this business, but with the right strategy and a lot of persistence and hard work, luck can be tipped a little in our favour. Getting informed is the first step.

One encouraging thing about the new musical landscape is the emergence of the independent label. Once relegated to the fringes of the music biz and dealing with obscure acts, there are now a number of well-run indie labels that have done good things for the acts on their books. While not having the cash reserves of their big league counterparts, the indies have shown that in some cases, dedication and application, combined with a sound work ethic can do amazing things in the absence of massive advertising budgets. Labels like Frontiers and Roadrunner now boast some impressive names on their artist rosters, and have become a viable alternative to major labels that may or may not put time, money and effort into any given artist at any given time. Internet radio, similarly, is more accessible to unsigned artists, and a good way to reach an otherwise unreachable audience.

Today, we stand on the threshold of a new ‘normal’, where big label advances for bands have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and kids listen to crappy mp3 files on iPods with tiny earbuds. Just as when people first witnessed the phenomenon that was Jimi Hendrix, music will never be the same. The music industry as we knew it has been irrevocably altered, and it is up to us to find our place in the new state of things. Those of us who are driven to create and express will continue to do so – nothing will change that. Those of us who take the time and effort to explore the new possibilities on offer will stand a much better chance of finding a way to do what we love and, with a bit of luck, find a way to make it pay.

Is this new way better? Many would argue no, and they would have a valid point. The fact of the matter is that things have changed. Whether the change is for better or worse, we have to adjust, to adapt, to evolve in order to survive. Living organisms have been doing just that for millions of years without leaving our planet a barren wasteland. It can be done, and with our famous human ingenuity, perhaps we stand a better chance than the dinosaurs.

Want to help? Get out and see a band. If they have product for sale at the gig, buy some. You might just be helping to save a precious species from extinction.

To read the issue of Firebrand Magazine (#1) that this column is taken from, click here.
To read Issue #2 of Firebrand, click here.

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