I recently watched this video of Richard Nash’s lecture on the past, present, and future of the book publishing industry.
The opening quote: “The 20th Century was about about sorting out supply…The 21st Century will be about sorting out demand…”
He touches on how this applies to music as well, how books and music, these sources of content that were once tangible products with production costs, they are now intangibles that cost nothing to produce. Where there was once a separation of the artist and those who distributed the artist’s content, the artist can now be the distributor. Exciting, right? Consumers now get their content directly from its creator, the artist. I know we all know this to be true, but it’s worth mentioning. We are at a point in history with an unprecedented level of accessibility to our artists. This is exciting for everyone. I met a guy, he’s actually an uncle of one of our band members, and he was in a band that was so good, they were an opener for Ray Charles on the road for three months back in the day. They also opened for Frankie Valli, and Tommy James and the Shondells. His band never recorded a single song because studio time was too expensive for them to afford.
I am trying to break your heart.
While the cost of distributing art in select media has gone to zero, and the cost of recording it has also decreased significantly, I’d like to remind everyone that the labor involved has not. This brings us to the concept of working for free. If you are organizing a music festival, only book as many bands as you can pay. Bands that are festival material are also acting as programmers for your festival. They’re not simply musicians playing a set. People are already getting the music for free. Why would musicians give them the live performance for free?
Getting back to meeting demand in the 21st Century, musicians have to ask what their audience needs to connect. This is the burning question, and the uncertain answers come in the form of merchandise. Tom Petty sold tickets through Ticketmaster for a SuperHighway tour, an online tour through old concert footage/recordings at various points in his career, a new spin on documentary footage/anthology release. A more common popular item is the vinyl record, the old-is-new idea. I love vinyl records because I can’t be on the move and listen to them, the album covers decorate my place, and when someone comes over, they see the covers and pick them up. This used to be the only way to get music, and now it’s a novelty, but the aesthetic of the product is in demand. Limited production and a feeling of exclusivity. In a world of infinite, intangible content, we crave something limited and tangible that takes up a lot of space. Unfortunately the production costs of these tangible novelties rests in the hands of the artist, who must also spend money on recording/mixing./mastering, print media promotions(flyers on the simplest level), web design/maintenance, e-commerce platform management, and TOURING. Richard Nash speaks of writers getting sidetracked with the supply side of things, that supply will not make us happy as artists because it is not a means to connection. “Only to the extent that the supply chain enables us to connect writer and reader should we use the supply chain that we’ve constructed.” What’s the supply chain for the music industry? We have songs available in various formats (intangible mp3s to box sets of vinyl records), we have merchandise, and we have live performances. Regarding a connection to the art form, the music itself, it does not matter in which format you hear a song, right? It’s the same song on mp3 as a vinyl record with slight differences in richness of sound. So, connecting with the music costs nothing, but what about connecting with the musician? What’s the demand? How can a fan connect with the musician if connecting with the music isn’t enough? Do you feel more connected to Tom Petty with access to backstage footage on his old tours? Do vinyl records make you feel more connected than an mp3? Is an autograph or meet-and-greet worth more? How much more? What’s that connection worth? How do musicians put a price on it? Arguably the strongest connection has to be a live performance shared between the musician and fan. That is worth something. For a musician to agree to play for free in a for-profit festival or concert venue is to devalue this unique experience.
As an artist in this time of direct communication to my fans, I want to hear from you. What do you want from me as an artist? What will you pay for? What will help you connect with me in the current supply chain for music? What are your demands in the music culture? Perhaps now more than ever in history, artists can meet your demands. For years, musicians have forfeited creative control to a third party in exchange for distribution. Now we don’t have to do that anymore, and one of the things we can do now that we couldn’t do before is…
share creative control with our fans.
That blows my mind.