Right now, as usual, there are multiple threads on social media from musicians bemoaning the fact that the general public would still rather obtain their music via free downloads than pay 99c for a song on iTunes. One pretty well executed advert shows a cup of Starbucks coffee and a band and asks the question: Why will you pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee and not 99c for a song?
This is all going quite well I feel, until they get to the pay off line: Respect the artist, buy the music. Because this is precisely where the music industry as a monolith seems to have lost the plot entirely. You know what they say about respect? It is earned. The simple truth of the matter is that the buying public doesn’t BUY digital music because they see no value in it by and large. In short, it just doesn’t seem worthwhile.
This lack of value comes packaged up around issues of convenience, online security, laziness but also with scepticism, cynicism, tonnes of better value options and a mass media which just doesn’t expose as many artists to large numbers of people as in the past.
But more importantly it points to a massive psychological mind-shift on the part of the audience. They simply no longer perceive of music as a value adding aspect of their lives. In sort it is a nice to have, not a need to have. It is a commodity, not an art. Or something like that. It’s quite hard to get to the bottom of it without a PhD in Psychology, especially when, as a music lover and creator oneself, one is AS guilty of this crime as the general public.
Part of the answer lies in an aspect of the Digital Divide. The haves (famous artists with financial backing) seem to be able to use the digital space to leverage their live shows, merchandise and indeed digital sales well enough to be doing just fine… maybe even better in some ways as often their deals with the middle men (record labels, online platforms) are more fair than in the past.
However, for everyone else, cutting through the clutter has become such an issue that they are simply battling to stay alive. The brutal truth appears to be that, if you are riding some form of popularity wave, are hoping to make it rather than working on it, or maybe, regrettably, just not really that good, you are pretty much doomed by virtue of the sheer numbers of the competition.
Digital music was heralded as the golden age of the independent artist, allowing them to speak directly to an interested, niche audience and making more money because they can do it all themselves. When envisioning this changed Utopia of the music business, the visionary regrettably forgot to anticipate that maybe, as a result of all this internet stuff, the audience might change too. And they appear to have. Niche markets are not what they used to be. Most people’s music tastes have broadened in the face of so much choice. Even die-hard thrash metal heads have been known to like dance music…
Further, the attention span of this niche has drifted so radically that you have to be repeatedly, insistently and profoundly present to snag and hold their attention with QUALITY. And the last word is the kicker… it’s hard to consistently deliver quality when you are essentially looking for a quick fix. To do that requires, planning, foresight, support and, well, dammit, money!
In other words, the way the internet is turning out, it is not a meritocracy, but once again a place where he who has the most cash wins. Or is it? There are numbers of cases where no-name, no-hope artists used the internet to explode and get deals etc. This is true. But two things are important here: What percentage of musicians do these examples represent? And what do all these success stories have in common?
The answers I suspect (with no research for the former) are scary. If I extrapolate how many bands I know in, for example Johannesburg, versus how many do well, I come up with a figure of about 5%… That’s for a couple of hundred bands. If you take the millions of artists globally that strive for online success versus they few examples of such success we know of, I fear we are talking percentages of percentage points.
The second answer seems to be that the people who DO succeed, who break through, do so because of:
Eye catching videos
Consistent, clear and busy online presence
An accompanying tour and live campaign
Lots of product
Or in other words: a shit load of hard work!
What has any of this got to do with why we all steal music? Well it all brings us neatly to the notion of expectations. In our modern, 21st century western world, it is unpopular to think in elitist ways about anything. It is very important that ANYONE can succeed. It is how we currently raise our kids and how we talk about the world. If we can get everyone to buy into the idea that THEY could succeed, the status quo doesn’t have to expend too much effort explaining why you might fail: you should imply try harder. Reality TV is the best example I can think of as a demonstration of this idea. Trouble is that artists are also infected with this egalitarian “We can!” notion. And while, at base, the supposition remains true: Everyone COULD do anything, there is always the hidden rider: the thing that Idols and Pop Stars and all the others continue to obscure: IF YOU WORK DAMN HARD ON BEING THE TOTAL PACKAGE THAT IS. You simpler have to be better than everyone else, which is of course wherein lies the rub.
Your audience expects a total package and the value it represents to them and too many artists just assume it will happen. Therein lies the biggest logical gap currently. As an artist you can’t afford to care about WHY your audience is this way, if you want a big audience you need to act accordingly. But maybe you don’t… maybe you just want to do what you do. But please at least do it eyes open, knowing the adds that you face…