Let's see...what are my main sources of new recorded music? I used to pay attention to the radio or mainstream news rags like Rolling Stone. But I stopped listening to commercial radio years ago when I finally got fed up with inane commercials, annoying DJs, and stagnant playlists; I stopped reading the larger publications because they end up reviewing the same big names--how many reviews do you need of Garth Brooks, Britney Spears or Celine Dion when most likely the marketing machine has already decided for you whether you'll buy the album or not.
Free local weeklies are a great source of live music schedules, but not consistently reliable when reviewing recordings. Small noncommercial stations, like Seattle's KCMU [or New York's WFMU --ed.], are great alternatives to the commercial stations, but I honestly cannot recall them introducing me to something new which I took to heart--at least they're conscientious about trying to stretch your sphere of listening influence.
Friends are the bulk of the grapevine. Friends whose musical tastes may differ, but their willingness to share with an open mind doesn't. Friends who take you on long late night drives when you come to town so you can play new albums for each other. Friends who feel that it's okay to say, "This doesn't do much for me, what else have you got?"
But another important source is record labels. "Wait a minute," you're thinking, "aren't record labels inherently evil to the point where they must be stopped?" No, they're not. There are many labels out there who do a good job of supporting their artists and providing wonderful new music for the listener. I know I take new offerings by NorthSide, Discipline Global Mobile and Papa Bear as implicit recommendations from fellow music lovers, and others on the eP staff feel similarly with Invisible, Cold Meat Industry, Nuclear Blast, Hydrant and more.
What you're thinking of are the "major labels." They're in it for the money--their money--and their releases are less a recommendation than an indictment of what they feel is the lowest common denominator which will maximize profits. I may have bought Polygram albums, but not once have I bought an album because it came out on Polygram. They're not about the artists, they're about sales. And we don't need them anymore.
Let's face it: major labels are a screw job. Musicians have been getting screwed over for years, but we common folk assume that if we're seeing them on the MTV they must be raking it in. Robert Fripp and Discipline have been saying it for years, so has Steve Albini [ "The Problem With Music" ]; Courtney Love [ "Courtney Love Does the Math" ]; and others are starting to speak up now. Since it doesn't seem like it will sink in until everyone can repeat it like the Pledge of Allegiance, let's go over it again here:
Still wondering why it's so common to hear about a band who has hit it big wanting to renegotiate their contract?
Finally, in the midst of all that advancing and recouping, the band delivers an album--and they don't even own the rights to it. It's standard policy for the record label to own the rights to the music, too. [it is also standard label policy these days for a band to sign over the rights to their official website as well, i.e., www.officialbandname.com. --ed.] The label can license the tunes to others to sell cars or laxatives; it can even decide not to release the album at all and the band has no legal recourse--it's not theirs anymore.
Well, there used to be something they could do: wait 35 years for the copyright to revert to their name. But now even that seems impossible, since it appears that a 1999 legal amendment has redefined recorded music as "work for hire" which means it forever belongs to the "employer." Wow, "work for hire"--it conjures up visions of landscaping, construction or assembly line jobs, getting paid by the hour. Except those jobs also get health benefits and pension plans--musicians don't.
Knowing all this ahead of time, why would anyone still want to sign a major label contract? Why not just sign with a smaller label who, even though they might screw you over (small size isn't a guarantee of integrity or even competency) at least won't do it to your face right up front?
Because the Big Four control the vast majority of the mainstream distribution channels: radio airplay, retail shelf space, video airplay. They are the ones with the biggest bullhorn, and they're the key to visibility.
Or at least they were.
There was a time when large labels made sense. Recording equipment and processes were expensive and time consuming. Packaging and distribution were a large undertaking. It made economic sense to have the process, including marketing and promotion, under one roof from start to finish.
Then recording equipment came down to the consumer. It started with "vanity studios" owned by independent artists, many of whom allowed other artists to record there as a combined act of goodwill and spreading of expense. It rapidly grew to the point where any musician, at least in this country, who seriously wanted to record could do so either by acquiring their own equipment or reasonably renting time from others. But they still needed the major label if they wanted to distribute their music on any kind of large scale outside their home town.
Now along comes MP3 and accessibility to higher bandwidth. It's easier than ever for musicians to take the recordings they've already made and digitally encode it into smaller files than standard CD audio; it's easier than ever for end users to get those files onto their own computers and give them a listen. What are we using this wonderful enabling technology for? Ripped copies of commercially available albums. What a waste.
We have in our hands the seeds of a whole new music industry: one which cuts down the layers of middle men and power brokers; one which reduces the price paid by the end listener while dramatically increasing the income of the original artist. Everyone wins but the leeches, yet we decide to thumb our nose at them and taunt: "Neener, neener, we're getting your music for free."
Not surprisingly, the labels are fighting back and not only do they have the money and the lawyers to do so, they've got something more important on their side: the law. Because as crappy as it may feel to you and as slimy as the contracts may look in the light of day, they do own the rights to the music and distributing unreimbursed copies of that music is copyright infringement.
There are two possible outcomes from going head-to-head with a Goliath: defeat, followed by annihilation as "protective measures"; and assimilation (as some say is http://pr.mp3.com/pr/111.html currently happening with MP3.com). Extreme optimists seem to think the Goliath will lose; even given that miniscule change, what would happen to the bands that fall free from the toppling corpse of the monster labels?
So screw 'em. Move on. Let the Big Four have their Backstreet Boys and Jennifer Love Hewitt body-double Christina Aguilera and "work for hire" Monkees. Point the way to labels who treat artists fairly both financially and morally. Who treat customers as fans and not meal tickets, and who hopefully manage to turn a labor of love into enough income to put food on the table and then some--so they are encouraged to support more artists. Let artists know that it's possible for them to make more money for themselves with more artistic freedom and ownership of their music. We can have a music industry without the corporate megaliths. Sure, there may not emerge as many dominant superstars, but is that really such a bad thing?
Imagine being able to browse the catalog of an artist anywhere in the world, listen to samples of their music, and decide to buy an album at significantly less than current retail (let's say $10)--all from their own website. Immediately begin downloading the MP3 files and start listening, maybe even pop them into your portable MP3 player before heading out the door. "Boring, trite, everyday," you're thinking.
Except you're heading out the door to your local Media Outlet, a Kinko's-type place where your online purchase also included the right to have a CD-quality copy printed. Why do I say "printed" and not "burned"? Because they digital data they will download at your request isn't restricted to a particular format. Want a CD? They can do that. MiniDisc? No problem. Cassette, DAT, DCC, something yet-to-be-invented--all restricted only by the store's available equipment. Complete with cover art and liner notes, all ready for you in less time than it takes to get your film developed and prescription filled (although I imagine vinyl would be the most difficult format to properly cut on demand).
Your gain? The convenience of purchasing almost any album you want, in the format you want, without waiting for it to be shipped to you (and the wonderful breakage rate that entails). Media Outlet's gain? The ability to sell a customer almost any album they want, in whatever format they want, without the possibility of being out of stock or overstocked, with reduced storage and display space requirements. The musician's gain? The ability to sell their music just as readily in Stockholm, Tokyo or New York as in their hometown, without having to deal with mail order--and receive a higher percentage of each sale, to boot.
It's not quite ready for prime time, but the tools are already available to make this a possibility: digital signatures for payment vouchers, single-use encryption keys for secure data transfer, reasonably high bandwidth availability to obtain higher-quality audio. Digital storefronts like MP3.com and EMusic aren't perfect, but they're a start in the right direction and EMusic has dipped its toe in the waters of a slightly similar distribution concept with the latest They Might Be Giants EP.
I'm sure all this sounds trite to anyone who has had an e-mail account for more than six months, but we hold within our computers the means to have access to a wider range of music than ever before, with less investment of time and effort; to build a more symbiotic relationship betwen artist and fan than simply producer/consumer; to allow more artists access to more potential fans without geographic barriers, and for them to recoup more of the dollars the fan spends.
But only if we focus our efforts on more constructive endeavors than "sticking it to the man."