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Power to the people

"Hey mister record man, the joke’s on you.
Running your label like it was 1992.
Hey mister record man, your system can’t compete,
It’s the new artist model, file transfer –  complete."
         – Download this Song – MC Lars 2006

MC Lars sits on a stool in front of his computer music system in his cramped New York loft as the sun comes up.  With his boyish good looks and talent, Lars could be a young exec on the rise at any Wall Street firm.  But instead, the 25 year old graduate of Stanford and Oxford Universities is breaking into the music business – and making money.  His style is Post Punk Laptop Rap hitting the US and the UK reaching the iGeneration, kids raised in the time of the Ninja Turtles and new wave music.

MC Lars is wired, amazingly fresh after being out all night playing at a club.  And he won’t crash until he’s finished laying down the final track for a new song.  He plays a little, tweaks the software, listens for awhile, repeats the process, then shoots the song to his fans over the internet with the push of a button – for nothing.

Giving music away, MC Lars says, makes him as much money as being on a major label.

“Well any artist wishes that ideally people are going to get their music on iTunes or something but, it’s better for them to get it for free than not to listen to the artist at all. That’s the inspiration for Download this Song,” MC Lars says.

The tide has turned.  The music we love is flowing increasingly like water around the globe – seeking its new level in the digital media economy.  Today, we can get music like MC Lars’ in MP3 downloads, ring tones, file sharing, playlists, podcasts, music blogs, iPods and more. 

Music is flowing directly into pcs, cell phones and portable digital music players of fans – running through the cupped hands of a diseased major record label system.  At the same time artists are debunking the myth that downloading will kill music sales.  MC Lars is one of many artists carving new paths through the ice fields left by the glacial major label monopolies. MC Lars is building a loyal following by touring and working his myspace and purevolume pages with a new artist model.

"It’s pretty amazing what a 22 year old kid did from a dorm room.” say Lars manager Tom Gates from Nettwerk.  “He’s going back to the UK for the 5th time in one year opening for Simple Plan and soon for his first headline tour…this all without label tour support.  We’re about 6 months from his new genre busting called "nerdcore" and he’s going to make ten times as much bank than he would have if he had signed to a major.  Then you add in the costs of what he’s spent to do this and it just all points to the future, especially when you compare it to what majors spend on developing artists.  $7,500 recording costs vs. $250k on a major label.   $400 photo shoot vs. major label $15k photo shoot.  $7,000 video vs. $50k major.  Art $0 vs. $10k major label. Recoupability takes on a whole new light."

I asked MC Lars how he felt about file sharing and free music. On Download this Song, Lars says “I wanted to figure out a way to put my experiences and the best way to make people listen is to have the catchiest kind of chorus I could think of, and so I sampled the Iggy Pop chorus, one of my favorite songs.  My manager gets annoyed that I use samples because then you have to do all the legal stuff.  But I think artists need to be compensated for sampling.  With the Iggy Pop thing, it was interesting because someone at the publisher didn’t really like the message of the song, but Iggy was able to override it after he listened to it.  He liked the message and he had the final say.”

Many artists are mashing up new music on their laptops by sampling snippets from other artists and combining that with original material.  So powerful is the software today for making music with programs like Garageband, Reason, Live and ProTools, that amazing songs can be composed and recorded in bedroom studios and with the push of a button can find their way into online distribution channels. 

What do they get paid for? How do they make music? The line between music producer and music consumer is beginning to blur.  Music fans are becoming participants in the music creation and this trend is only going to accelerate as the technology and digital infrastructure for music evolves.  All of this makes for much needed debate about copyright law and is sure to be a great business for the barristers and lawmakers in the years ahead.  There is no stopping the headlong plunge of people into making and distributing new music themselves and the flow of music is already beginning to drown the current copyright systems.

“Over there there’s broken bones
There’s only music, so that there’s new ringtones
And it doesn’t take no Sherlock Holmes
To see it’s a little different around here.”
– A Certain Romance – Artic Monkeys 2006

This fundamental shift in the power balance of the music business is great for artists, songwriters and managers who grok the implications of it.  Witness the resurgence of nimble indie music labels, who are enjoying some of their biggest successes in many years.  The stories abound of indie bands cleverly exploiting the new digital reality to break through the noise and find and develop a fan base and get people buzzing about it. 

Properly managed bands can sell-out tours before releasing a CD.  Songs are being shared online by the millions and still, the band can sell CDs.  Lots of them.  Catch the attention of a hot music website like pitchforkmedia.com and you can light your band on fire.  It is an extraordinary time to be in the music business if you have the stomach for it, and the willingness and ability to try new things.

Artic Monkeys are today’s example of the new music paradigm at work, online and offline.  The lads from Sheffield have built a huge and global fan base in a matter of months by burning their demo and giving it away at their shows –actively encouraging their fans to share the songs and tell their friends.  Mick Jagger mentioned them in a Rolling Stone interview.  How’s that for a recommendation.  The torrent began to snowball as they toured like animals and garnered the support of notoriously transigent music rags like NME, local radio, satellite and internet channels.  To be sure, these talented boys have attitude and chops.  Wicked observers of popular culture, their subtly sophisticated songs and solid stage performances combined with giving their fans “permission to steal”, catapulted them into the hearts and minds of millions of friends almost overnight.  Raw talent meets viral marketing.  Brilliant. 

Artic Monkeys have the fastest selling album in UK history and currently #3 on the U.K. charts.  Hmm, fastest selling record amid massive amounts of file sharing?  This defies major label thinking.  Somebody should tell the IFPI and RIAA, the litigious trade associations representing the recording industry worldwide and presently suing tens of thousands of file sharing music fans as I write this.  Duhh?   These Monkeys sold out the Cavern in under an hour and completely sold out two U.S. tours before ever releasing a single or an album. No major radio promotion, no MTV, no huge advertising budget, no headliner tours.  Just a good band with a clear vision about their future and the smarts to get there. Lets see if they can develop this momentum into a career.

Other examples abound.  Britain’s James Blunt soared to success this past summer with the single “You’re Beautiful” reaching #1 across the continent along with the best selling album.  By the time he was signed in the U.S. by Atlantic, his song had been downloaded there nearly a million times according to Joe Fleischer of online media measurement company Big Champaign.  “When it finally got airplay in the States, the song hit a ready audience.”  That audience has propelled Blunt to #2 on both the Billboard Pop 100 and 200 charts.

#3 on the Billboard 200, indie screamo band Hawthorne Heights have built a loyal following by developing online relationships with thousands of fans.  “When we were trying to get everything going, all of us would spend at least four hours every day just adding myspace friends,” says singer JT Woodruff in a recent Billboard interview, and all of this behind heavy touring.  Websites like myspace, purevolume, absolutepunk and others get massive traffic from rabid music fans listening to new music and checking out what other kids are listening to and savvy bands like Hawthorne Heights are taking advantage. 

As music fans we are now in the driver’s seat.  In the new music economy we have fingertip access to thousands of musical niches and the ability to search for the music that we like, pull it to us, and easily recommend things we like to our friends. We are breaking bands, not the labels.  We are the new tastemakers.

We got some amazing software to help us find new music like Pandora and MusicStrands and way more to come.  The power of our online communities and networks are spawning word-of-mouth referrals and interactions that drive the songs and bands that become popular today. This is in stark contrast to old skool shove ‘em down their throat tactics of major label radio promotion.  We are now in charge.  We are choosing what we like and buzzing like bees when we find it.  We are the new radio.

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Comments

7 replies
  1. vargas says:

    That’s all very nice but musicians should be paid for their labor. My feeling is that music may not be available to enjoy in the future like it is now if people refuse to pay for it.

  2. vargas says:

    That’s all very nice but musicians should be paid for their labor. My feeling is that music may not be available to enjoy in the future like it is now if people refuse to pay for it.

  3. pup says:

    Absolutely musicians should be paid for their efforts. I don’t think that’s Lars’ point. It’s all about changing the paradigm so it fits with the digital age. In fact, I have a feeling he does a pretty good job of living by what he says in his song.

    I legitimately downloaded 9 of his songs for free, from his Myspace page, and his web page, and from special links for his street team members. Okay, he didn’t get any money from that. But I decided I wanted 8 more songs, and I paid $9 to download them, and given the current economics of music downloading, I expect he got about half of that. If his album had been released on a major label, and I bought it for $13.98, I doubt he would have gotten $4.50. Then I attended two shows that he played at. Hopefully he got some money from my tickets. I expect he did get at least a little. And at the shows, he was selling his CDs and books and t-shirts. (And, one time, giving away sandwiches that he made himself.) Like he says in the lyrics, buy the t-shirt and get the MP3. I haven’t yet, because he didn’t have my size in stock, but when he gets it, I’m going to. Hopefully he’ll throw in the 18th MP3 that I want and can’t find a legitimate source for. I expect if I ask him nicely he will. In the meantime, I’ve already brought two of my friends with me to his shows, and I told another friend about him and he likes Lars too. And I have a feeling from all of that, he will get more of my money than he would have if he were on a major label.

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