Sunday, January 24, 2010

Still No DIY Breakout Artists

The music industry news on the net has recently been abuzz with some comments that Tommy Boy Records and New Music Seminar founder Tommy Silverman made regarding the scarcity of DIY (do-it-yourself) breakout artists.

Tommy analyzed all 105,575 album releases from 2008 and found that only 225 had sales of more than 10,000 units. Of that, only 12 were unaffiliated with a record label, be it major label related or indie. Now this seems like a staggeringly small number but it illustrates a couple of points:

1) Just because distribution is relatively easy in Music 3.0, it doesn't mean that you don't need to infrastructure to get to the next level. Modern M30 music distribution, either physically or digitally, still requires specialists in promotion, PR, social media and distribution techniques to make an audience or potential audience aware of the product, then make it easy for them to consume it, then find something that the artist can monetize. While you're starting to see some indie acts breaking through lately (most visibly Vampire Weekend at number 1 last week), it's still an overwhelming job that requires a lot more time and expertise than a DIY artist usually has available.

Granted, Silverman is the longtime owner of a successful label so he's biased on the label side, but facts are facts. As it stands right now, DIY can only take you so far, then you need a label to take you the rest of the way. Except that there are a few companies on the horizon which might turn out to be the intermediary between DIY and label that will become an alternative for the artist. Stay tuned for more news as it becomes available.

2) Just because production is so easy it doesn't mean the music will be any good. It's easier today to make a recording than ever before. The simplest, lowliest, least expensive recording package has more horsepower than the Beatles ever had at their disposal in their prime, yet you can't say that we're in the golden age of music at the moment. I've had an ongoing debate with several of my contemporaries about whether this is a musical, social, economic, or cultural phenomena, but whatever it is, we've had periods when music was far more vital than what we're living through at the moment. One thing you can say about Music 1.0 through 2.5, the labels were great gatekeepers and you really had to be good to get by them, and they usually just took the cream off the top.

Once again, just because it's easy doesn't mean it'll be any good. If you don't put in the time (the 10,000 hours to genius as Malcolm Gladwell would put it), you just can't develop the skills, and today's songwriters, musicians, producers and engineers have far fewer opportunities to develop that skill than ever before. Fewer studios to apprentice at, fewer venues to play at, and fewer teachers who really know how to make a record to learn from severely limits someone just starting today and it reflects in the music.

Keith Barr, one of the founders of Alesis, once complained to me that he thought that his ADAT digital tape machines would cause of revolution in music that would bring about new artists every bit the equal of The Beatles, Stones, etc., but unfortunately that never came to pass. That's continued into the current day of DAWs, but you can't blame today's musicians, it's just the unfortunate hand they've been dealt.

We really need a revolution in the music business. One that takes everyone by the ear like we know it can be done. We're in a transitional period in Music 3.0, but the new dawn is just around the corner. We can all feel it.

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