First things first: there is nothing wrong with making money from art.
I thought we should establish some ground rules before getting into it properly. To make sure we’re all on the same page. So, making money is cool, right? Without money, a significant amount of art would be impossible, with only rich trustafarians left to squeeze out deep and meaningful expressions of whatever their pricey education and expensive drugs have lead them to believe in.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. You just wouldn’t want only that, would you?
Money from art is ok, then, and I’d even be happy to extend that to making ‘lots’ of money being ok as well. Success is alright in my book, reaping the rewards of doing what you believe in doubly so and if you’d rather your favourite artist was a bit worse off so they were more ‘authentic’ then, well, fuck you quite frankly. I think it’s a fundamental misconception that wanting to be successful, being business minded and – for want of a better word – lusting after wealth is in somehow disingenuous with being an artist. The two things aren’t coupled together.
Or, at least, they don’t need to be.
There is a line – there is always a line – where capitalism takes precedence. The “sell out line”, if you will. In days gone by (at this point I’d like to go off on a lengthy tangent on how ‘in days gone by” actually never happened, and everyone remembers it wrong and it was just as complicated and messed up as yesterday, today and tomorrow will be but I’m not going to) this line was potentially clearer for the most part: doing something overtly commercial meant you’d sold out. And the actual scope of that sort of thing was relatively small, confined to appearing in adverts and endorsing products and really not a great deal more.
Now, though – what’s commercial and what’s not? And also, what’s an endorsement and what’s not?
Commerciality runs throughout the modern art and music; it is intertwined in a way that is completely inseparable. If a band puts a video on YouTube, there is almost certainly adverts next to it and they (in a potentially roundabout way) will be getting paid for it. Is that commercial? Yes. Is that selling out? No. Has your favourite band ever played at a festival? Yeah? Well guess what: they probably played next to a massive advert for some form of tastes-a-bit-like-piss beer. Is that selling out? Again, no.
What about the mainstay of ‘selling out’; the murky world of syncs, also known as ‘having your music on a TV ad and making a fuckload of money out of it’. Is it commercial? Well, duh. Is that selling out? No. No it is not. Here’s where we define the line, and I think it’s a pretty reasonable distinction:
If the commerciality affects the art, or how people can consume it, then you’re selling out.
Simple. Makes sense, though, doesn’t it?
To put the rule into practice on the TV ad example, if you have a track licensed on a TV ad, no – that is not selling out. It’s not affected the creation of the track or its existence, or how people can consume it – all it’s done is brought it to a wider audience (which is great!) and resulted in a pay day for you (which is great!).
Let’s think of another example, then. Say you were going to release your album for free through Samsung phones a few days before it was in stores? Now, as far as we can tell the commerciality hasn’t impinged on the art itself, but it sure as dammit has affected how people can consume and listen to it. This isn’t to do with the money, this isn’t to do with brand partnerships – as Jay-Z certainly has done that plenty of times before – but it’s to do with cash getting in between an artist and their audience.
You could almost boil the rule above down to a simple “is this good for the fans?” question. Now, I guess if you’re one of the million people that downloads the album through an app on your Samsung phone then I guess the answer is ‘yes’ (although dear god is that really going to be a nice way to experience the album?), but that still leaves a huge amount of people that can’t do that without spending at least £100 on a new phone. To be a Jay-Z fan should I have had some sort of psychic foresight when I got my current non-Samsung phone in a 2 year contract 8 months ago? I guess so.
How to sell out in 2013: it’s actually pretty difficult, but don’t worry – if you innovate enough you can surely find a way (especially if you’re Jay-Z).
Last week I got in an argument on the Internet.
I know, I know; I should know better.
It was an argument born out of frustration. To summarise: Amanda Palmer, who I imagine most of you have heard of but if you haven’t is a musician of some note and has had great and widely reported success with crowdfunding, wrote a public letter to Morrissey about how he should crowdfund his next record. This letter, entirely unsurprisingly, is full of exaggerations and faulty logic to make crowdfunding seem like the only viable option.
Hence, of course, my frustration. Picture, if you will, someone intently reading on a laptop, the glow of the screen illuminating their lips as every few moments either a disgruntled gasp or a muttered swear word escapes them.
My frustration with this particular article is not actually the point of this piece – I’ll get to that in a minute – but revolves around the notion that anyone can just put something on Kickstarter, tweet about it and as if by magic watch the money roll in, all the while tittering gleefully to themselves about how record labels and shops are dinosaurs and how this is the true future and isn’t the Internet great and etc etc.
It turns out all this is actually quite hard. And it takes someone that is skilled in marketing to be able to get to that audience, and it also turns out that Amanda Palmer is exceptionally good at marketing herself online, and a lot of that skill being in social media.
Which leads us to what happened next. I tweeted a series of (not exactly sparkling with wit and verve) tweets about the article and Ms Palmer, venting my frustration to the world in a fashion that we all know is a bad idea but end up doing anyway (unless you’re far smarter and restrained then I, and if so I congratulate you on your resolve).
In the normal ebb and flow of “rants on the internet” that would be the end of the story, but as it turns out Amanda Palmer evidently searches for her name on twitter, and promptly retweeted by diatribe to her 900,000 twitter followers.
(Note to self: hey! It turns out if you say things about people on the Internet – even ones you have no connection to – they just might read it!)
60+ replies from angry – but extremely nice and polite – Amanda Palmer fans later and actually I think my original point – that she is actually more successful as a online celebrity rather then as a musician – has been inadvertently been made. And this point leads to ‘the’ point.
This whole incident highlighted how much time and effort Amanda Palmer puts into her online presence – she actively engages in the discussion (for better or worse, in my case). There aren’t many artists out there that would notice someone talking about them on twitter, highlight it and use their fanbase to make the conversation more positive for them. And this is why she can make something like crowdfunding work – you have to have skills in those sorts of areas, you have to be good and marketing and promoting yourself.
There seems to be a prevailing group thought that wafts around certain sections of the music industry that is looking for the “solution”. The new model that changes everything, that makes it easy to make music and make money out of it, that gets reams and reams of column inches written about it.
Is crowdfunding that solution? No. Turns out it works for some people, but not most people. (Known as the “Amanda Palmer”)
Is releasing your album as an app that solution? No. Turns out it works for some people, but not most people. (Known as the “Biophilia”)
Is pay what you want direct to consumer that solution? No. Turns out it works for some people, but not most people. (Known as the “In Rainbows”)
Is focusing on YouTube and not worrying about signing to a label that solution? No. Turns out it works for some people, but not most people. (Known as the “Alex Day”)
I could go on.
Every artist and every release is different. There are no quick fixes. There are no new ways of doing things that are better then the old ways of doing things, only different ways of doing things that may or may not work depending on a million and one factors that you can’t hope to control.
You have to be smart, and it isn’t easy, and by all means look at how other people have released their records but don’t pretend that you can do what they did and have the same outcome. The music industry doesn’t need solving, because there’s no one problem to be solved.
Permit me, if you will, to wonder out loud for a moment.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the “arts” and how they intersect, join and influence each other. Music and films and art and theatre and videogames. Videogames are probably the easiest to isolate and look at the influences; as a young industry they’ve cribbed their ideas and concepts from what’s pre-existed, most obviously from movies.
Compare not only the release of a big franchise game like Grand Theft Auto to that of, say, a new Tarrentino flick – with the vast marketing campaign, launch events née premieres, reviews, et cetera – but also the content itself, overflowing with cut scenes, known actors voicing key roles, and story lines half-inched from things you’ve watched before. Not to say this is a bad form of entertainment, of course, but it’s doesn’t major well for new experiences.
A good argument could be made that maybe now, with the rise of the burgeoning indie game scene and the popularity of platforms such as the App Store with their low barriers to entry, we are starting to see the games industry find its true feet and step out from the shadow of mediums that have preceded it. But maybe again, that scene could actually be more like the equivalent of TV; smaller, bite size – different, not worse or better, with traditional “blockbusters” remaining successful in both art forms.
Music plays something of a vital role across both movies and games. Their potential power is possibly even greater when placed in an interactive context; you can’t help but be more alert and concentrated. There’s a very memorable example of this in the game Red Dead Redemption. You play a cowboy, and you’re on a mission of revenge after your wife and child are taken hostage. After about 20 hours or so of gameplay you finally make it over the border into Mexico, chasing down the person you need to bring to justice. It’s a big moment, after investing all the time you feel you’re right on the cusp of succeeding. As you ride through the desert on your horse, sun starting to set in the background, for the first time in a game that has only up until this point had instrumental background music, a Jose Gonzalez song “Far Away” kicks in. It’s breathtaking in its impact.
Finally, a related thought. If you’re like me you find songs that “soundtrack” your life, that specifically tie in to moments and memories. My question is this: do we do that because of movies? We’re bombarded with imagery of such life moments on a daily basis, always accompanied by a score of some kind, so it’s only natural that we would associate moments with a soundtrack; that’s what culture is teaching us.
Do we now see memories through the lens of a mental film camera? Scored by a mix tape in our heads?
Singles are dead.
Long live tracks.
Earlier today on Twitter there was a discussion going round centring on how difficult it is to find out when a singles’ release date is. And whilst a “discussion on Twitter” isn’t normally the best foundation for, well, anything it reminded me about something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now but never gotten around to it. Namely that singles, as most people think of them at least, don’t really exist any more (or at the very least are on their deathbed).
Think about it for a second – if a track gets stuck up on YouTube, is that automatically a single? Probably not, right? Ok, how about if it’s put up for sale on iTunes at the same time? That’s a cautious “yes”, that’s a single, but then that swiftly turns into a “ah, probably not” if it turns out that track isn’t being taken to radio. Confusing, isn’t it?
Online the concept of singles really has no meaning. If a song is online – and when I say online I mean streaming or available for download somewhere – then it is “out”. If you have to prescribe a release date to a track then look no further then the upload date on the SoundCloud/YouTube page. And guess what? A track can appear online for free, and then at a later date be up for sale. In an ideal world most of the time there wouldn’t be a delay on that (and for a lot of tracks their aren’t), but for a lot of reasons like delivery schedules, production deadlines and radio impact there quite often is.
Ah yes; radio. They make all this a bit more complicated.
To say that radio is still locked in to the old way of dealing with singles would be overstating things somewhat, but generally speaking (and I’m talking about UK radio here specifically) they still work a playlist format that was devised back in the day of the CD single (if not before). So you have a roughly 8 week single campaign leading to what used to be the single release date, but is now commonly referred to as the “focus date” or “impact date”, because quite often the track is actually available to buy already – either just as single, or as a single track purchase from an album that’s out already.
So pretty straight forward? You premiere a track, it goes online streaming and for sale digitally, the radio campaign starts and reaches a focus some 8 weeks later. Except… if you want to have a “hit”. In some situations.
Look, I said this got complicated.
The thinking goes – and it’s sound thinking – that if you want to make an impact on the charts (and whether you want or need to do that is a whole other discussion) then you don’t put it on sale until your focus date, so that you get all your sales in one go as opposed to building over several weeks, and you make a bigger impact. This makes everyone happy. The other factor to take into account is that by putting a track on sale you’re showing your hand – people can look at the singles or iTunes chart and actually see how it’s doing, meaning that any spin you’re trying to put into action to, say, get the track onto the playlist can be null and void. “The track is reacting amazingly well” doesn’t ring so true if someone can check and see you’ve sold 32 copies of it but then maybe it would react well if it got onto a playlist. The catch-22 of radio plugging.
But then of course, if you’re Lady Gaga/Justin Bieber/etc you can quite happily release a track at the same time it premieres (the oft. mentioned “on air on sale”) and it’ll all work out. Success gives you flexibility, and if you’re not playing the chart game you can enjoy that flexibility as well – it’s just if you’re stuck in between those two camps where it gets tricky.
What this all boils down to though is that singles don’t mean anything… except if you’re talking about a 7”. I think we can all agree that that is a single, can’t we?
In conclusion: if it’s out on a bit of vinyl, the lesser spotted CD single or a maybe even a multi-track digital bundle then it’s a single (and by it’s very definition has a proper release date). But these formats are a dying breed. If not, it’s a track which may or may not get taken to radio, given a “focus date” and put on sale but doesn’t need to pretend to be anything other then a piece of music. Welcome to 2013.
“Bowie isn’t dead!”
“BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWIE! BOWIEBOWIEBOWIEBOWIEBOWIEBOWIE! hyperventilates BOWIE! #Bowie”
All these tweets were posted within about 20 minutes of each other yesterday morning.
They simultaneously represent the best and worst of twitter.
Twitter is probably the best tool for breaking news you could think of. I remember in the weeks that followed the 7/7 London bombing when everything felt dangerous, strange and on edge pondering about the idea of a “breaking news” notification system that could pop up something on your computer if something important happened. Now we have that, but not just for what’s important to the world in general, but what’s important to you – a hand picked, curated importance. If something of interest happens and I’m near an open twitter client I’ll know what’s happened within minutes (if not seconds).
Same goes for when a funny picture of a cat get’s uploaded somewhere, but that’s my point – it’s curated.
But whilst we’ve gained something have we lost something as well?
In the speed to report events, there’s no time for opinion, no time for accuracy, no time for anything but “this happened!”. Frothy excitement, with no substance. All bubbles.
Maybe this is fine. The first wave of froth hits the shore in a wave of excitement – to stretch the metaphor to breaking point – and then slowly but surely more considered opinions will follow as people spend some time actually thinking about what’s happened, instead of simply reacting. But here’s my concern: “popular opinion”, as in mass opinion amongst a social group, gets formed by the people that talk first and talk loudest. Once the tone has been set it takes work to unset it, and invariably with twitter the tone set is “this exciting thing has happened”, which leaves out any hope of either positive or negative criticism, or thought.
There’s another level to this though; the constant interactions and near dependancy that twitter can lead to means that the reason for this excitement and “post first, ask questions later” are nothing to do with the content or story that they relate to. The excitement is for the excitement. The rush of discovering something new and getting to tell everybody about it first. The internet as a video game, with (mental) points awarded for being quick off the mark.
Take yesterday’s story as an example. People aren’t excited about the new David Bowie track, they’re excited about that there is a new David Bowie track. But that inflection doesn’t translate well through to the real time medium of twitter. Not only does it feel like excitement for the track, not the concept of the track, but it sets the tone for what follows. Criticism in a swarm of capital-letter excitement is hard to find, but also if you’ve put your heart on the line, digitally at least, by being massively excited are you really going to admit – either publicly, or just to yourself – if the end result isn’t what you were hopping for?
I could, of course, be being pessimistic. Maybe people can make their own minds up on these things, and that the instant non-reactions of empty excitement are just that: instant, and hence fleeting. But it feels like the truth maybe slightly different from that.