As with any new development, there is a ton of speculation regarding the emergence of the Indie market for new music. of course, nobody knows with 100% certainty, but if history is a good indicator, then much of the speculation will turn out to be wrong 5 years down the road when we look back.
While I am among those who speculate, I have no special powers of seeing the future so there are no guarantees that I will be correct. Luckily, few will remember those who were wrong in their prognostications. In fact, few will remember those who were correct as we will have all moved on to something more compelling by that time. it will no longer matter unless we happen to be historians. I have no interest in looking back to say whether I was right or wrong. But, I do have an interest in the music industry.
First, I believe it is important to understand the forces that exist. Most understand the power of money and influence in this business of music, so it really makes sense for us to give consideration to it. That is, money and influence will continue to be a factor. however, there is a new force in town that will change the overall composition of the previous infrastructure.
As we all know, the big difference is the emergence of mass communication, new digital media and resulting file sharing capabilities. Today, an individual has the potential to reach as many people as the big guys. please note that I say potential. having a great product, or in the case of a songwriter, a great song, does not mean that everyone will hear it. The new model is continuously shifting around under our feet as we explore ways to have our music heard.
The big names in music continue to have an advantage despite the shifting landscape. Songwriters and bands that have a huge following already have name recognition so they are able to step outside of the traditional box and carry a lot of existing power and influence with them. We have all heard about Radiohead’s grand experiment and we all know that it worked for them. In case you don’t know, Radiohead decided to split with their label and produce an independent CD. They offered it online and only asked people to donate what they believed it was worth. Folks responded by donating money. Why did it work? it worked because we already knew them. it also worked because much of the traditional system infrastructure had been removed and the profit margins were greatly improved as a result. however, it is only fair to say that the recognition of the brand Radiohead was originally made possible by the traditional infrastructure of the old music business.
The point is, let’s not move too fast in our assumption that it will work for us. Most of us do not have the name recognition of Radiohead. therefore, we have less probability for success without some form of assistance. The big publishers and labels also continue to have an advantage. Their advantage remains deep pockets from which they may obtain resources for promotions, etc. They also have huge networks of partners who have faith in their ability to make lucrative deals. Corporate sponsors, advertisers, and distributors will continue to see less risk with the existing larger organizations with proven track records. it will take years for new players in this market to emerge. That is, a new online label or publisher will need to demonstrate some success before having the credibility to succeed in the traditional system. this system is also changing, but it will not change overnight. I believe that it is somewhat naive to assume that the new players will not change in the process. That is, they will begin to resemble the old players as the old players begin to resemble the new players.
In the meantime, we see an occasional breakout of Indie artists that give us little guys hope for the future of our own music. Ingrid Michaelson is the best example of Indie success that I know, if you consider that she was previously unknown. The label of Indie artist has many definitions, so we must be careful to understand the differences between an artist who is considered an Indie artist because they are not considered mainstream, and an Indie artist who is truly independent in terms of their availability of resources. Actually, I don’t know of any artist that is both successful and truly independent. having some success generally requires an artist to receive assistance somewhere along the way. it is difficult to know the source of the assistance as it is less likely to be publicized, but I contend that the assistance exists nonetheless. In the case of Ingrid Michaelson, she was very fortunate to have her song played on an Old Navy commercial. How did this happen? I don’t know with 100% certainty, but I doubt that it was only Ingrid. I suspect that she had some assistance throughout the entire process. as an engineer, I also know that a complex, dynamic system such as the music market consisting of the general public and the music industry is very difficult to predict. there are many variables, and again, there are forces that must be considered.
So now, what will the future look like? I believe there will be a meeting somewhere in the middle between the remaining traditional music models and the ideal model of Indie music produced by the people for the people. We are already seeing a shift in the strategies of the big guys to use the Internet to their own advantage. this should be expected. While some people will continue to rage against the power of capital, money will eventually find a place despite any idealistic notions to the contrary. it just makes sense that capital is a force that must be given due consideration. Otherwise, we would have seen individuals making their own brand of automobiles. Certain industries are much more capital intensive, such as the automobile industry, but the analogy is valid. there are many industries that will change in these uncertain times, but the collective aspect of getting high quality products to market will remain in place.
While capital will help produce flashy, high quality products, there is a growing taste for something new and exciting. many people are growing tired of formulaic music. We are now hearing new sounds and rhythms that give us new sensations. unfortunately for the big guys, they have put most of their eggs into the basket of supporting the same old styles that have been repackaged. indeed, there seems to be little regard for our taste as listeners. this will also change, but it will also be very slow. Most of the labels have completely eliminated their earlier practice of developing new artists. this has now shifted to a system of cherry picking among the up and coming artists who are starting to show signs of independent success. So, the Indie artists are now being given a choice at some point in their career. Do they wish to continue as so-called independents or do they wish to have a larger sponsor that can help them on a much larger scale?
The divide that exists between the Indie artist and the signed artist is very large until you consider some of the newly emerging systems for providing assistance. That is, the divide is being filled by a variety of people who will provide some form of assistance. You can now find a multitude of services online that can help you as an artist. Most of these services are provided for a fee. of course, as with any new market, there will be a period of excitement due to the valid perception of new opportunity. there will also be the inevitable overshoot that occurs. Systems tend to operate in cycles and this new infrastructure will be no different. That is, the provision of services will go beyond the actual demand which will result in a pendulum swing in the opposite direction at some point in the future.
The services that survive will be those services that have something to show for the associated cost. That is, services that have something to offer will continue to flourish while other services will eventually disappear. this is already becoming somewhat apparent, but I believe it will take a few years to really shake out. it is interesting to me that the one element that is really missing in the middle ground between 100% independent artists and 100% dependent artists is money. Eventually, someone must realize that money is the missing link on two separate levels. First of all, on a personal level, money is needed for artists to survive. having services available is of little use to people who have little money to invest in their own careers. secondly, on a business level, there is a need for more than an internet presence to actually provide services to artists. That is, capital is needed to have something more than a website. Indie labels are good examples of capital intensive services that can be offered to assist an artist. this much should be clear. however, many of the other services also require equipment more than just a computer. Finally, there is a need for many of the services to have a ground game. For example, there is a big difference between running a website and having the ability to actually show up in person to adequately represent an artist.
I believe these voids will eventually be filled by enterprising music entrepreneurs. however, I believe that more emphasis must be placed on money and the ground game before it will begin to really make sense. Finally, I believe that seed money needs to become available for promising artists. That is, an artist who has sufficient music collateral should have more options available to them for growing their career and their earning potential. In these times, investment money is becoming very difficult to find. however, traditional investments may not be as attractive as we move forward in this brave new world. Most of us remember when companies listed among the Dow Industrials had very little chance of failure. this is no longer true in the global economy that exists today. So, why not create a fund in which at least a portion of the money can be invested in the career of promising artists? this type of fund could also provide the means by which artists may invest in their own future.
Another model would involve private investors providing seed money to select individual artists for a return on their investment. of course, the arrangement must be contractual for it to work. Guess what? this already exists in the form of publishers and labels. however, there will be a new demand for funding in this middle ground between unknown artists and stardom. this funding, I believe, will be needed to help bridge the gap between the availability of services and the need for assistance.
Of course, there is the model of pure public opinion in which the better music bubbles to the top as more people listen on the social networks. I believe there is some validity to this model but it also is not perfect given the vast number of uploads from which to choose. The odds will continue to decline as more people attempt to break out by way of the internet. The pioneers of this medium had a much better chance as there was much less competition. it should now be clear that the numbers have grown to the point of making the job of gaining recognition just as difficult as before the internet. just like the services, the artists must also have a ground game. That is, artists must be available to perform with regularity rather than depend solely on an internet presence.
In closing, I would love to say that a great song can produce enough energy to break out by virtue of it’s own merits, but I believe that would be the idealist that still lingers from my youth, wanting good to win out without regard for the way our system operates. unfortunately, I believe our society is too dependent on the flow of money to allow more than a fraction of a percent in the way of lucky breaks to defy the odds. In the meantime, I would not recommend throwing money away in an attempt to build a music career. rather, I believe it makes sense for artists to build relationships while continuing to build a catalog of work. We all understand the value of a network of fellow artists, but it also makes sense for artists to build relationships over time with those in the business of music.