When Artists Go a-Sharing…

In our recent discussions here at Enclosure, we’ve been discussing how “free rider” user-consumers – who download content without paying for it – may be making the business of selling cultural content more and more difficult, maybe unsustainable or ultimately impossible. Well, at least this is the way public discussion has been tending in the last several years.

But why blame the user? High profile artists like Radiohead and Girl Talkproducers of cultural content – have recently been offering their music online for an unspecified cost – users can choose donation-style how much they want to pay, including nothing. These artists have boldly cut the corporate middle men (or culture industry) out of the deal altogether, distributing content directly to user-consumers. This business model is most definitely not sustainable for corporate distributors (and three cheers for that!), but is it sustainable for the artists themselves? This, I think, remains to be seen; Radiohead and Girl Talk are in much the same boat as DiFranco and MacKaye, here. Though so far things look fairly affirmative.

Radiohead apparently chose to do this as part of a major sea-change for the band in 2007. Their former contract with a major label had expired, and instead of signing a new contract, they decided to go indy (see New York Times article here). They could afford the financial gamble of pay-what-you-want digital distribution because they were already a very wealthy and successful band – they made money no object in part because they didn’t need the money. But this was also a welcome gesture that they didn’t care about the money – we may say “sure, they can afford to do that,” but I suspect there’s something more highminded at work in Radiohead’s decision.

There also may have been something simply practical behind their decision. According to the NY Times article referenced above, Radiohead stood to make a good deal more profit by selling their wares directly, compared to the amount they would have made after their record label took its generous cut. What’s more, releasing the music digitally meant no lag time for producing CDs, one among several factors that often makes corporate culture distribution take longer; Radiohead could release the album themselves, the very second the final mixdown was finished. They also reduced production costs dramatically. Radiohead’s choice was as good for cold, rational-economic reasons as it was for warm, high-minded ethical reasons.

In other words, Radiohead showed that – at least under certain circumstances – going indy in the digital age could mean much more profit for artists than their major label contracts ever would have delivered. The economic reasoning is simple: cut out the middleman, and simultaneously cut out the process of manufacturing CDs. Where costs dry up, profits bloom. And here’s the kicker: they made this increased profit in spite of the fact that, according to one estimate, at least 3/5 of downloaders took the album for free. What happened to the internet “free-rider problem”?

Then, about a year ago, Girl Talk released Feed the Animals in the same pay-what-you-want, web-only format. Unlike Radiohead, though, his reasons for doing so were non-economic. His album of mash-ups was composed entirely of music sampled from other artists, and in a statement of frank copyright defiance, he made no effort to license or “clear” any of the samples. The major record companies never would have sold such a thing in any case. The compelling question about Girl Talk, according to this NY Times article, is whether this type of distribution can make Girl Talk a star and a financial success. Given his status last year one of the darlings of the underground, I think the only sensible answer in hindsight is yes.

Unlike Radiohead, who were already riding a long wave of fame thanks to almost two decades of major label promotion when they made the switch to distrubuting digital donation-based downloads, Girl Talk has never been major. If Radiohead showed that one could jump from the top of the skyscraper and fly on his own without corporate support, Girl Talk is testing whether an DIY artist (a self-contained performer,  producer and distrubutor) can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. If Girl Talk can make it economically by distributing albums on the web for free/donation/profit (and that’s really the only way to understand what he’s doing!) , maybe anyone can. Which means: maybe there is no internet free rider problem…or if there is, it would only trouble the music industry, not the artist.

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5 Comments on “When Artists Go a-Sharing…”

  1. P Says:

    A couple of points:

    First, I would suggest that when we ask whether non-commerical modes of music distribution will “work” for artists (i.e., allow them to make a living), we should also ask whether the 20th century music industry “worked” for artists. For Radiohead it did, but it certainly would not have worked for Girl Talk (they would never touch him) and regularly did not work for countless artists who were either never picked up by a label despite their efforts, or were in fact signed and then ended up in the exploitative situation Steve Albini described in his classic article, “The Problem with Music.” In other words, it’s not as if p2p is disrupting a system that has traditionally been economically sustainable for the vast majority of artists. Of course, I’m leaving out the middle ground of indie labels which may in many cases have provided a fairer shake to more artists – but this is an area where we’ve already established a need for more inquiry.

    In any case, my second point is that we should perhaps attempt to lay out exactly what it is that the major labels offered artists and the public, which in turn allowed them to become so profitable for a time. We can then ask whether these things that they offer are still valuable, but perhaps now offered by many more providers, or simply no longer in demand. A few suggestions to start off with:

    – These record companies offered wide exposure to a small subset of talented artists by distributing recordings to radio stations and record stores where the potential fans could hear them.

    – They provided the facilities and equipment to produce those recordings.

    – They provide marketing and publicity for artists that they represent.

    – They (or their affiliates) booked gigs for acts on tour, probably at venues that are difficult for independent artists to secure

    What else do they provide? And to what extent do their services still “add value” for artists?

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      The record companies neither work (for the artists), nor ‘work for’ the artists – the artists work for them. They offer the stability of indentured servitude – fairly feudal, esp. when you look at Albini’s numbers on the band’s cut.

      Compare this with an Indy Label like British post-punk staple Rough Trade, which memorably gave all of its artists non-binding one-record contracts at a 50/50 share. Bands always got half of profits straight up, and never owed a second record.

      I can’t say that major labels provide artists with nothing – surely your list above is close to comprehensive – but I think many artists have appreciated the value added by signing with minor labels.

      Mostly what the majors do for artists, I guess, is handle large, up-front production costs (the cost of recording, duplicating, packaging and shipping CDs or other media). But PC CD burners in the 1990s made this process much easier to do at home, and began to lower the price. PC sound editing software made home recording a viable alternative to renting a big studio. In the 2000s, distribution by internet has removed a huge set of costs – duplicating, packaging and shipping – gone!

      These successive waves of economic and technological change have left the majors in a bad place. If Greg Kot is right, it is easier than ever to make it AND easier than ever to break it as an independent artist in the internet era. The internet shines a bright light on artists, and fans burn out easily. There is more opportunity for artists to try and make it without major label help, but much more viable competition out there as a result (other small bands), and just as much risk as ever.

  2. P Says:

    I think it’s also worth noting that major labels almost certainly negotiate some business relationships that would be very difficult for artists to navigate independently. For example, a band that had enough of a fan base to do some sort of world tour where they were playing gigs at stadium venues etc. would probably require a lot of help in making all of the contractual arrangements required. That said, the agreements that management/the label provide here are certainly structured for their own benefit rather than that of the artists.

    So, while the horizons of exposure for independent artists might be getting lower, or changing shape, it may be that these corporate entities remain to manage this sort of business even if they can no longer generate the profit margins to make record sales a viable business.

  3. pizzapelsa Says:

    Sure. I can’t deny that there are some financial, legal, logistic and organization benefits to working with a major label – the example of paperwork/contracts that you mentioned is a particularly good example.

    The Record Industry, however, often argues – in fearful self-defense – that digital music distribution will make it HARDER for smaller artists to achieve success/fame/fortune, etc. But faced with many examples of bands recently using digital distribution to get big (Lady Sovereign, Arcade Fire, Girl Talk, etc.), it looks more and more like the problem is not digital distribution – the problem is the record industry. THEY are making it hard for small artists to make it, as they have throughout the 20th century. Only artists who have “broken” and become label darlings get the full support of the industry. Smaller bands get used and thrown out if they don’t have any commercial potential.

    Because our perspective is generally anti-Record Industry on this site, we may feel the need to be rational and fair, and give the Industry credit where credit is due – to guard against simplistic, facile denunciations of RIAA, etc. Hence our recent dialogue about the benefits of major label affiliation. But we must also consider the DRAWBACKS of major label affiliation, and the drawbacks of the structure of the record industry in general.

    E.G. Payola. If “making it” as a musician means airplay of some kind, then success = getting your music onto the airwaves. If the last decade, where airwaves are increasingly governed by Clear Channel the ONLY way to ensure you get on the air is to have your record label bribe Clear Channel. Smaller labels can’t compete in this pay-to-play system, and so their content ends up on totally different networks (college radio, P2P networks, etc.).

    It’s also worthwhile to note that record companies have become so shameless and monopolistic in these practices that they have drawn fire from the Govt – Russ Feingold, John Conyers and Eliot Spitzer have all been involved in investigating the majors and Clear Channel on anti-trust grounds.

  4. P Says:

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement here. My purpose was not even to “give credit where credit is due” regarding the RI, but rather to suggest a disconnect from the business they say they are in (finding small bands and bringing them to the public) and the business they are actually in (conducting business deals with other large corporate entities), for which independent artists are often the fodder.

    The question I’m trying to get at here is the one we asked earlier on – whether these corporate entities will necessarily be extinct in a world of unrestrained p2p, or whether there will still be room for their kind of business (as opposed to the kind of business they say they are in).

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