Recession, what recession? That’s what resourceful, internet savvy musicians are saying as a digital cottage industry begins to supplant the major record labels. Daniel Tapper is our guide to the online trend-bucking.
Things are terrible. You are worried about your job, if you are lucky enough to have one. Your 2:1 in Fine Art has led to an internship at ITV when what you really wanted was a grant from the Arts Council. Your parents’ pension has dissipated to nothing; rendering the retirement which they have worked their whole lives for, meaningless, and your sister who was looking forward to a lifetime of nuptial bliss can no longer afford the wedding – she is a ‘budget bride’. Worse still, fears of a collapsing housing market and the gloom of the greyest winter for decades has depressed the public so much that vacuous acts like Coldplay are topping internet playlists, again. We really must be in recession.
But if history is anything to learn from, there is some hope. Contemporary musicians are hinting at a new musical trajectory, one that embraces the current economic climate and even uses it to their advantage. Rising solo artist and ex Pipettes member Rose Dougall is one such: “If you look throughout history, times of economic crisis have always coincided with interesting developments within music. This is exactly when people turn to music – consumerism is no longer at the top of everyone’s agenda.”
It’s certainly not the first time music has been forced to look to its laurels. Arguably some of the best hip-hop records of the last two decades were produced during the last global recession between 1990 and 1994, including Wu- Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and the Gangstarr album Daily Operation. Despite hard economic times the Wu-Tangs actually paved the way for hip-hop’s very own corporate voice – bringing the hood to the mass market and “kicking the truth to the young black youth”. In fact, they offered a whole new model for hip hop, allowing artists to negotiate with multiple larger labels rather than pledging allegiance to just one. Wu-Tang alone dealt with Geffen, Sony and Def Jam. Those straightened times didn’t stop benchmark albums such as Morrissey’s Kill Uncle, The Fall’s Shift-Work or Sonic Youth’s Goo being released. A recession doesn’t necessarily signal the death of the music industry.
Today, we are faced with an entirely different context in which the industry is forced to operate. The closure of record shops – compounded by a voracious, internet-inculcated desire for ‘instant’ (and free) music, has hobbled and decentred the mainstream music biz. There is no town square anymore, no cohesive market place that everybody passes through. The acts that do sell today are being overexposed as, in an attempt to salvage what they can from dwindling record sales, the major labels are squeezing every last drop of publicity from their artists. But worse still, in order to stimulate an arid consumer base, music has to be increasingly palatable, bland and inoffensive. This is the nature of a major label. Although these labels have never been in the business of nurturing leftfield artists, it’s worse now than ever – tighter budgets mean that labels want to play it safe by only signing musicians who will make them money, and an already paranoid industry is scared stiff of file-sharing technology. The backdrop to this recession is one of massive technological diversification driven by the proliferation of internet outlets and the growth of sites like YouTube, MySpace and Vimeo.
So what effect is all this having on indie labels? And, if you are a musician starting out today, what exactly is the best way to get your music heard? Is it plausible to do it all yourself? Or are the latest developments just as hollow and cynical as an ‘I love you too’ text template on your mobile phone?
Kooky synth-glam singer Marina Diamond of Marina and the Diamonds is one person to have utilized new technology as a bulwark against prevailing economic pessimism. “I’ve been able to expose my work to thousands of people who would never have otherwise heard about me this early in the game. You'd usually have to wait to get loads of radio play and press stories in order for people to hear about you. Record labels also have easy access to your site, and therefore your music and personality, cutting out ‘the middle man’. Word spreads faster than you might think.”
The epicentre of change continues to be the troika of MySpace, as a tool for marketing, and YouTube and iTunes as means of distribution. All three have circumvented the cash-strapped traditional music biz while empowering a huge number of otherwise unheard musicians. The prevailing philosophy is that, yes, you can do it yourself and no, you don’t need a major label to throw cash at you. Or, as Marina eloquently points out, “do you really need to spend £100,000 on a video? Are you so creatively inept that you have to drown something in money to make it look half decent? Hopefully now we might see the birth of new, exciting artists and designers whose ‘true artistic genius’ shines through – without the use of a big budget.”
Hotly-tipped electro-pop ‘sensation’ Little Boots is, typically among young musicians, deeply sceptical about major labels: “People need to be thinking of new ideas and looking to the future, which I think is starting to happen. The major labels are realizing that they can't carry on like they did ten years ago and are starting to adapt. I think indie labels will continue to be on the increase as it gets easier and cheaper to record, market and distribute music through new technologies.”
As well as new forms of marketing and distribution, the way we physically experience music is also in flux. Today, ‘digging in the crates’ is increasingly replaced by searching for a song on YouTube or iTunes. Folk singer-songwriter Sam Barrett is one of the brains behind the DIY roots and country label YaDig Records. While happy to use the internet to maintain creative integrity, the Blues man has some reservations: “The worst thing for me is the fact that accessibility can make music seem too disposable. When I was a kid if you wanted an obscure record you had to go to the shop and maybe order it on import. If you lived away from a big town you would have to take a bus and a train ride. That kind of legwork made record buying a labour of love. Now you just press a button and download it for free.”
Nonetheless, the internet may actually be broadening the musical landscape of the ‘average’ consumer. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been on YouTube and have discovered a new band – usually completely unrelated to the artist I originally set out to hear; the sludge metal band Dystopia, say, when in fact what I was looking for Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’, or the nihilistic Joe Frank when I’d been after a bit of The Incredible String Band. Sites like YouTube and Wikipedia mercilessly suggest links to other, sometimes tenuously related topics. YouTube offers Jeff Buckley, KD Lang, and Rufus Wainwright when you search for Leonard Cohen. Searching for the same name on Wikipedia produces links to Fidel Castro, depression, and the French Resistance.
The indiscriminate nature of the internet has also allowed us to defy the regimented character of the old record industry. Playwright Alan Bennett draws on a similar idea here, when discussing the rise of identity specific TV channels: “The official philosophy of Sky TV is that we are all customers and we know exactly what we want. But we don’t, the great thing about normal television is that you might catch a snippet of David Attenborough when in fact what you had tuned in for was Russ Abbot!” The point being, that sometimes it’s more exciting, and potentially more productive, to not know what you are going to experience.
In fact, the organic and indiscriminate nature of the internet was responsible for the single most revelatory moment of the last five years for me. This was the personal discovery of musicians/artists Ariel Pink, Nite Jewel and Gary Wilson, all artists on the independent label Human Ear Music and perfect examples of a new DIY aesthetic. There is something deeply empowering about discovering things on your own, rather than through the edicts of some esoteric record geek. Suddenly the air of elitism surrounding independent ‘niche’ music dissipates.
John Cage, and the experimental music scene of 1960s and ’70s New York, originally nurtured the solo musician Gary Wilson. But he has now managed to cultivate a contemporary following using the internet, without diluting any of his avant-garde sensibilities. “I started making my own records independently starting around 1973”, Wilson reflects. “At that time there was no internet, you had to be persistent back then. I waited for hours to meet (CBGB’s owner) Hilly Krystal at his club and when he finally walked in I convinced him to give me a shot. This was around 1977 and I ended up playing at CBGB’s numerous times. But now we definitely have more choices since almost anyone can record and produce their own record due to computers and the internet. But as it was back in the late ’70s, you still had to sort through a lot of mundane music to find any quality.”
Though we have easier access to a wider range of quality music now, contemporary music industry rhetoric would have you believe that this is just increased access to stealing; the idea is that you, as a potential customer, now consume music for free and then discard it as if no weightier investment was ever merited. We are all out to get something for nothing, apparently. But who asked to spend £15 on a record in the first place? The abundance of durable cottage industry labels proves that excessive revenue from record sales is not essential to sustain a viable music infrastructure, even if it isn’t exactly awash in cash. If you’re after lots of big houses and Ferraris, try banking.
Today, all one needs to sustain a meaningful musical presence are the basic tools of production (instruments and creativity) and a (not necessarily huge) fanbase to support what you are doing. At one time a fanbase would have been attracted through radio and TV marketing paid for by a label, but new technology has allowed artists to be in control of their own marketing at little or no cost. Another of the ‘middle-men’ has been cut out of the loop.
Music with integrity has never depended on vast budgets; from Sun in the ’50s to Atlantic in the ’60s, Factory in the late ’70s and ’80s and Dischord in the ’90s. Since the dawn of rock’n’roll great, enduring independent records have always been produced on the cheap by committed, under-funded imprints. Now you don’t even need a label.
Yet easier access to a broader spectrum of music doesn’t necessarily signal a change in the listening habits of consumers. Sam Barrett offers a more sobering perspective: “The major labels have more power than they ever did despite all the stuff everyone used to say about file sharing and how it would make underground music more accessible. That’s because they realised they could buy up small labels as soon as they started to make any money. I guess we have more choice now and that's a good thing, but the majority of people are just downloading really mainstream music.” Even more disconcerting is the fact that good music heard online often translates lamentably to the live area, as anyone who’s seen the band Chairlift live will testify. Does this inability to physically translate music into a live context signal a widening gap between artist and consumer? I hope not. But it is worth mentioning that while the traditional music industry withers sales-wise, the live circuit is thriving as never before. Bands can now exist on relatively tiny record (and download) sales, bolstered by heavy gigging and merchandise business, all of it co-ordinated and marketed via MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.
Perhaps the most significant corollary of the recession and DIY technology double-whammy has been the re-evaluation of what music can mean to us. Those that are primarily interested in using the internet as a vehicle to disseminate their work, without it being predicated purely on economic gain, are actually pioneers for a new relationship between producers and consumers; they are making work that is evaluated almost solely on merit rather than through the dubious prism of marketing, record plugging and so on. As a result, recorded music becomes an experience, not just a commodity.
Daniel Tapper talks to Julia Holter and Jason Grier, founders of Human Ear Music. Launched in 2006 as a micro-indie label, Human Ear has recently transformed into a not-for-profit, performing arts imprint.
For people who are thinking of using MySpace as a tool of promotion what are your main tips? How can they stand out from the crowd?
Julia: You can have a MySpace page but the thing is everyone has one now, and they are all making recordings in their homes just like you. So that in itself is not going to be the interesting part. The interesting part will be when you play shows.
Jason: Yeah, it's kind of obligatory. I don't think anyone carries on with the myth that you can ‘get discovered’ that way, but people do get to you, calling card style. At least get some kind of bulletin auto-poster to keep your news from getting buried and don’t add friends automatically or just because they look good. Try to make real connections with people that are real to you.
How would things have looked if you’d embarked on a music career pre-internet?
Jason: Well you have to remember that all this communications technology we have now isn’t what created the miracle we’re talking about. But there’s a lot more of it going on now, which has a quantitative effect. In truth, it may fall back on people like Gary Wilson and [former member and Monika Enterprise label boss] Gudrun Gut. I think in some ways whatever happened in the late ’80s – which was a real resurgence of vertical integration in the industry – kind of obscures that. So now is more of a return to the past than we realize. And what we’re really talking about – more so than promotional mojo – is the miracle of self-empowered musicianship.
What are your main criticisms of the involvement of the internet in the music industry?
Jason: We’ve managed, in our time, with the internet as our main tool, to do away with the vertically integrated beasts, the major labels. But for whatever reason, the mythology that enabled those entities to capture so many hearts and minds remains. So we still crave attention in that we want to make ourselves out as stars. You can be a star on your MySpace and you can hire a freelancer to get you on iTunes and even if you don't invest that much in it, you still get the ‘star power’ fix. But – and you’re asking me for criticism here – what does that give us?
Julia: What we have now is a horizontally integrated version of major labels. But right now, as a listening public, when it comes to the internet I’m not certain we're getting a fair share of quality.
Do we really have more cultural choice now due to the massive amount of material available at our fingertips, or is it just a more aggressive way of promoting the status quo?
Julia: I think we do have more cultural choice, in terms of promoting to the invisible listener. Now you can make any one of your home-grown ideas look real and official. But I guess that's what’s hard to tell because what is cool about the internet is you have no idea who cares, and who is reading about your cultural choices. Probably not many, but maybe a huge cluster of people in a town in Norway are keeping really good track of your choices. It’s fascinating if you want to make art and get it out there but it’s no good if you want to make money from it, that’s another issue.
Jason: It’s bewildering. It’s almost like another ‘nature’. If you think even a hundred years ago most of the stuff in the world was natural phenomena. Now most of what’s in the world is human, for better or worse, that’s the wealth of cultural choice we have.
How do you think the recession has impacted the music scene? Will we see a rise in cottage industry labels and a decline in the traditional major labels?
Julia: I think the recession already has affected things, especially combined with the access to cheap or free music. There is still the Top 40. The only solidly, truly popular music out there is hip hop, but other than that, things are all over the place. The good thing is that lots of interesting artists are getting critical recognition right now. So as long as we are aware that doesn’t mean we will make lots of money, we are hopeful.