Making Money with Music in the Digital Age by Going Analog

One of the interesting things I find about the current “revolution” is how the digital space is becoming more and more fragmented. The post WWII era is characterized by mass distribution and global marketing where multinationals would push a product globally. Now this may still work with electronics, automobiles, and other consumer goods that translate well across cultures (at least the bastardized global culture of today) but it always felt forced when extended to movies and music.

Broadband and distribution tools like cheap hosting bandwidth, sites like YouTube and many other small players are giving creators a way to reach niche markets. Although it isn’t enough to knock down the big names in the industry, it’s more than enough to eat away at the market share of mid-level artists. There is no mainstream. The bell curve is stretched out in the middle and hard to capture.

What we now have is an ironic, “old is new” again creative market where we’re seeing a lot of fragmentation and fermentation in the trenches. Some have great talent while others are talented amateurs. What you wont find are boring entertainment executives without so much as an eye or ear for art calling the shots. This in itself is progress but it’s forcing all kinds of adjustments.

Music is definitely one of the first to go. A whole album encoded in high-quality is rarely more than 100MB. This is small change in the age of broadband and gigabytes of storage (soon to be terabytes). There is little to prevent music from distributing itself. But that’s just the digital side.

Check out this quote from an article about aging rock stars touring Germany to milk the baby boomers and old fans.

“It is business interests that are keeping them going. Sales of recordings have been falling for years in face of the digital challenge and new sources of revenue are needed: live concerts.” German critics mock wrinkled rockers on tour trail | U.S. | Reuters

Of course, this is referring to rockers from the golden era before digital downloads that built up their presence with years of hard work catering to an aging fan base that is more forgiving along with newer fans more in love with their past work than their current state. Still, I think this trend is more or less universal. The best way for an artist to make money in this day and age is to tour.

Although piracy sucks for an artist, I think it’s great that need is pushing artists to stay in direct contact with their fans. Some people just don’t think twice about copying a music file so much as they think about clicking and saving something they found on the net and as a result have become adverse to paying $12-20 for an album filled with a couple hits spaced between worthless filler. Yet, the live experience is something else altogether that can never be downloaded.

While iTunes is a great innovative solution that served as a true pioneer in digital distribution it’s essentially closed to Apple-approved content and I honestly don’t like it. I think it should be an open platform for independent artists to distribute their music (eBay-style) where artists can submit content at will for a minimal cut provided they have ownership.

In the meantime, it’s time for upcoming artists to take their show on the road, hone their skills, and build a fan base the old-fashioned way. Naturally, this doesn’t fare well for synthesizer-heavy cut-and-paste production with weak vocals that are digitally-enhanced (ie most of the mainstream) but hey.