The long plastic hallway

I've been reading a lot about DRM lately, and it has made me think about the music business more than I would like.

Here are some places where I'm getting hung up.

1. I am a drummer, and I've been in and out of bands since I was 17. One of the guys I play with, a bassist I've known since middle school, is really gung-ho about being a musician. He wants to be able to quit his job, pack up his kids, move to a town with a lot of studios, and play music for a living. He asked the rest of the band once if we wanted to be rock stars, and everybody else said something to the effect of "oh hell yes." I said no. I don't want to be a rock star. Rock stars are boring, predictable anachronisms, a sweaty amalgamation of strippers, substance abuse, and bullshit so thick it squishes when they walk. They are dissected, poked, prodded, glossed over and dumbed down; their sound, their look, and their identity tweaked by market analysis, as if they were tennis shoes or blue jeans. They are an artifact from the times where it took the machinery of a large corporation to make compelling records. Now all you need is music worth listening to and a MySpace account. Pro Tools will do the rest.

2. Emusic is a shining example of that trend. Why even bother with albums from enormous, faceless conglomerates, whose catalogs are picked by the marketing department, whose music is locked down by DRM in order to ensure the broadest possible revenue streams, when you can just get MP3 files that work on everything imaginable? Sure, they may not have that new Justin Timberlake CD, but you can get that anywhere. Which leads to . . .

3. Today, I read "Courtney Love Does The Math" for the first time. Yes, I know I live under a rock. Yes, I know it's 7 years old. It's still relevant, as long as you replace "Napster" with "BitTorrent." Anyway, she said something that go me thinking.

Record companies don't understand the intimacy between artists and their fans. They put records on the radio and buy some advertising and hope for the best. Digital distribution gives everyone worldwide, instant access to music.

And filters are replacing gatekeepers. In a world where we can get anything we want, whenever we want it, how does a company create value? By filtering. In a world without friction, the only friction people value is editing. A filter is valuable when it understands the needs of both artists and the public. New companies should be conduits between musicians and their fans.

The Nashville market has over 40 FM stations, and I listen to only one of them: WRVU. Why do I listen to WRVU? Well, WRVU is a college station run by Vanderbilt University, so right away it has the dual advantages of being non-commercial and having to serve a diverse, discerning community. That's not why I listen, though. Hell, NPR has the same advantages. I listen because every song that goes on the air was handpicked by a DJ who happens to be playing the song because he or she likes it and wants to share it with other people. Couple this with the elitism and pretense eclectic taste of your usual college DJ and the fact that the people making the radio are the same type of people that I hang out with, and the experience becomes a powerful filter in which all kinds of music is dug out of obscurity by its devoted fans and shared in a way that make me feel like we're digging through MP3s over beers on Saturday night.

Commercial radio could be like this. It should be like this. But, alas, Clear Channel and its ilk have so homogenized the airwaves in their scramble to maximize profit that people are paying monthly fees and buying expensive equipment just to get radio that doesn't suck. If you had said in 1992 that in fifteen years people would be paying for satellite radio just so they didn't have to listen to their hometown stations, you would have been laughed out of the room. The problem is compounded by payola, in which record companies get the same things played over and over again, which leads to those songs getting higher chart position, which leads to them getting played more, which leads to more song that sound similar, etc. until it becomes an narrowly incestuous loop. The marketing tail is wagging the music dog at the exact same moment technologies emerge to offer choices so broad even those of us who grew up with them are baffled.

So, what happens when your business plan narrows at the exact same time your audience becomes accustomed to unimagined width? I can't imagine it bodes well.

posted by John @ 6:10 PM,


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