Regardless if you consider yourself to be a miner or pick-axe seller, for any project or business venture there becomes a time when you really have to come to a deep understanding of who you’re working with and why. Call it collaboration, interdisciplinarity, customer development or whatever you want, but entrepreneurship in itself requires everyone to listen very closely to the community of people that they’re trying to build their products for.
Music, being one of the most abstract forms of art out there, can be a very difficult subject to talk about in general, and this problem has a tendency to compound itself when founders try to turn these ideas into a startup or formulate business models around the idea of content creation. It’s not a necessarily a matter of intelligence — most philosophers, including some of the great thinkers of the previous century — avoided talking about music because they feared that they could never “do justice” to the subject itself. Philosophers will often ramble on and on and on and on about just about anything, but the fact that they tend to stay quiet on these topics might give an indication of how hard it really is just to get accurate information about issues surrounding music’s practices.
But if you’re reading this right now you’ve probably already gone off the deep end and convinced yourself that you have something to offer to the world of music, despite having all of its odds against you. I don’t claim to represent musicians’ opinions as a whole, but I’ll start with a few issues that I consider to be obvious ones that don’t tend to cause much controversy, least when musicians talk amongst themselves. (The public, on the other hand…)
These topics can be very dangerous territory to tread in, mostly because the problems of today have been deeply engrained in our psyche during the last few decades and seeing these issues from a different vantage point may prove to be very difficult for some, if not most people out there. Since the advent of the internet and mp3s, there has been a “new normalcy” in way we’ve come to think and value music, the vast majority of which has worked against the interests of musicians and the music industry (both indie and major) in an overall sense. These issues need to be confronted — or at least acknowledged — by music-related ventures out there, or the chances of sustained success will probably be slim to none.
In my opinion, the majority of music sites that exist today will probably disappear in the next couple of years, mostly because I don’t really get the sense that they’ve really been listening to the people they’re supposedly catering to. Even a lot of people in Silicon Valley seem to sense the impending doom that these companies are heading towards, and every day the startup community hears of “yet another” music startup imploding on itself. The Hollywood giants might be big enough to get away with ignoring their customer here and there, but for startup companies a mistake or two in this area can be fatal. The fates of many of these projects are, in many cases, already decided before it even had an opportunity to get on the track. Because music is a difficult subject to talk about, however, they might not be aware of that fact until it’s too late.
Founders tend to still be attached to the idea that both artists and consumers alike are still addicted to the “thrill” of discovering something new through the boundless possibilities of the world wide web. Back when the internet was still fresh and new in the eyes of everyone, this argument would have made a lot of sense. But people’s sensibilities to the medium have since evolved, and you won’t find too many people who get excited over the idea of spending hours of their day wading through hundreds of songs in order to find what they want. “Discovery” has started to feel like work rather than play, and the thought that they would actually pay money to partake in such an activity probably doesn’t cross most people’s minds at this point.
As far as artists are concerned, what they want hasn’t really changed all that much. Below are two pressing issues that professional musicians are concerned with in regard to their livelihoods and the future of their medium as a whole — listed in hope that some people will find these perspectives helpful when they begin to formulate their product and service ideas. I’ll be focusing mostly on methodological rather than aesthetic issues here, in order to find common traits between artists of varying ranges of styles. With failures and broken promises having become a common occurrence, professional musicians tend to be very skeptical about the motivations of the tech industry, for reasons which will be explained below. Even if you have the best of intentions, it’s usually wise not to take their support for granted — in fact, it’s more likely that founders will have to overcome musicians’ deep-seated skepticism in order to gain even a little bit of trust.
Artists Want to Get Paid
This one seems pretty obvious, but if you consider the fact that even the London Olympics decided not to pay their musicians, it might give you a sense of how strong the sentiment that “artists should work for free” has become in recent years. Even among directors and producers I’ve talked to in the past, a lot of them found it surprising how small of a sum musicians were willing to work for in comparison to other art types, even while art itself has become devalued in an overall sense. In lieu of proper compensation, some institutions might tout the “getting exposure” or “getting experience” line as a way to make it worth the musician’s time. This might be fine for amateur and student-level musicians, but it becomes a problem when professionals with years of experience become treated as if they were on the same level.
If you read down the comments section of the article above you’ll see people echoing the usual arguments: 1) it’s an “honor/opportunity/experience” so they should just be happy with it and stop complaining, 2) they were aware of the conditions when they went in therefore they can’t complain, 3) it’s wrong, musicians need to eat. The first is hostile, the second, logical — but both are unfavorable to the musician’s well-being. The third point of view is favorable in some sense, although these sentiments rarely translate into action so it’s usually of little comfort. So musicians get stuck with bad options all around in a lot of cases…if the people aren’t outright hostile at the idea of musicians making a decent wage, then what they get instead are a lot of empty praises and empty promises that don’t materialize.
Here’s a meme that has been going around lately that sums up the professional musicians’ perspective pretty nicely:
These types of practices have been around as long as music has been around — many upstart artists will partake in these “promotional gigs” in order to build their resumes and experiences (which can be a legitimate reason), but as they get a better sense of how things work they start to look for paths that would allow them to take things to the next level. Unfortunately, the music tech industry as a whole has failed to provide these paths, which is the main reason why Hollywood still dominates the scene in regard to making quality content. Web-based music sites have filled a niche for amateur and hobbyists to share their work to their friends and family, but as far as content creation goes, the older, more established studios still provide the only means of individual artists earning a reliable living. Artists strive to get “noticed” on the internet, but they don’t really see it as a place where they’d like to stay or settle down in the long term.
The counter-arguments to these sentiments usually come in two forms: 1) musicians are not “entitled” to make tons of money like celebrities do, and 2) maybe the musician in question just isn’t good enough to make money. These are hyperbolic arguments — while there certainly are overambitious/overconfident musicians out there, the vast majority of professionals are just looking to make an income that is comparable to their skill, education, and talent levels. The problem is that most music platform systems, as it stands now, doesn’t make a distinction between the amateur, professional, and mega-stars that exist in their catalogs and databases. The result is that there is a tendency for music sites to trend downward in terms of its quality, as the more “serious” musicians leave in order to find projects that are deemed more worthy of their time.
As said earlier, a system of curation, or at least something that would allow visitors and artists alike to distinguish varying levels of commitment would go a long way toward helping artists find a suitable path toward their own endeavors. Rather than everyone getting a penny for their time, budgets should be tilted towards artists with higher and more serious commitment levels, which would create an incentive structure that would be much more effective than the ones that currently exist. This, however, cannot be accomplished by an algorithm or system — there is no code or AI in the world that has the capability of determining what quality is, so the the human hand will have to intervene in the process somewhere down the line.
Today’s Solutions are Tomorrow’s Problems
Entrepreneurs, especially those coming from engineering backgrounds, tend to offer their skills in the form of “solutions” to problems that they’ve encountered in the field that they’re trying to improve or revolutionize. Musicians looking to earn a living from their music has to pay attention to a lot of different avenues, all of which comes with its own sets of potentials and problems. These avenues have become targets for entrepreneurs looking to improve the career-building process for musicians looking to promote or monetize their work. Here is a list of a few things:
Activities of a Musician
Marketing/Self-Promotion, Recording Mastering/Mixing, Radio, Licensing, Finding Gigs, Rehearsals/Management, Performance Rights Issues, Teaching, Legal/Copyright Issues, Album Pressing/Artworks, Distribution, Networking…Music (If there’s any time leftover)
Notice that none of these things are contingent on any of what Silicon Valley is doing right now, because the day-to-day practice of being a working musician hasn’t really changed all that much since the advent of the modern economy. The tech industry has revolutionized the tools and the means of making these things happen, but the process of earning a living in itself has more or less stayed in tact for over a century at this point. (See: Richard Wagner’s self-promotional ramblings for the world’s first music blogger.) It’s still all about defining what/who you are as an artist and establishing/maintaining relationships with people that might be able to help what you’re doing.
In business classes they’ll usually tell you that you need to do all of these things in order to sustain a living as a musician, but expecting one person to do all of these things all at once (in addition to keeping up with their craft) can be said to be an exercise in pure insanity. They’ll be a few crazy workaholics (like me) who’ll attempt to do it anyway, thinking that they can handle it all. But eventually everyone reaches a point where they realize that they can’t do everything on their own, no matter how smart or fast they are (or think they are). The need to delegate or spread the burden of responsibility eventually becomes a necessity for anyone looking to do their art as more than a hobby. But I’d say that even the ones that do all of the things necessary to get their career off their ground, they do it because they have to, not because they want to. They rather be making music, when it comes down to it.
Mp3.com was probably the closest platform where many of these avenues could be found on one site all at once. Since its downfall, however, most of these services have splintered into individual companies specializing in one service (licensing, gig-finding, legal, etc.) in order to improve one aspect of the career process. These sites all require separate logins, payment methods, and usually have fairly steep learning curves in order to use their tools effectively. I had no interest in Twitter until I found out that I could use it for work-related reasons — in my case it took several months of doing it and making a lot of mistakes just to learn how to get a few meaningful interactions here and there. Now if you multiply that by the dozen or so sites that musicians have to be on in order to stay “relevant” to current trends, then you have a situation that can be said to be unreasonable.
So even while saying that “our product will make your life easier so that you can focus more on what you love doing”, what a lot of music sites have done is actually create more work for musicians, all of which takes away time from the actual creation of content itself. Enamored with creating the perfect platform for their particular service, developers often lack the perspective that their product is only one tiny part of a bigger puzzle that an artist is trying to piece together into one. The picture right now looks like a collage painting where fragments of ideas are stuck together on canvas, loosely related but never quite coalescing into a coherent whole.
If there was something where artists could just upload an audio file and the site takes care of everything else, the response will probably be pretty strong, if not, overwhelming. If it works reasonably well, people would be willing to pay good money, maybe even a percentage of ownership of the work itself since the company would be burdening part of the risk and effort. This exists as a pipe-dream at this point, and I get the sense that for most entrepreneurs this idea reminds them too much of the traditional recording industry for them to get really excited about it. But it’s a method that works, and has worked for Hollywood in the past, at least until they started to take their talent base for granted during the last couple of decades. Both musicians and audiences remember the music of the 60s-70s with a certain fondness that you rarely see in other eras, because there’s a sense of synchronicity, meaning, and purpose between the two that simply doesn’t exist in today’s musical environments.
Hollywood has recently become bogged down in the problems that emerged as a result of its own risk-aversion, but the tech industry has the advantage of being a newcomer — they have the opportunity to do right, and do it well, this time around.
When it comes down to it, musicians just want to make music, and anything that would let them spend more time doing that will probably be of some worth in the near future. Simplicity, ease-of-use, and reduced learning curves will be key points for making these things happen in a startup’s execution stages. Combined with a curatorial process that maintains a high level of commitment on the part of the community, the potential for bringing high-quality, genuinely new content increases exponentially when entrepreneurs are mindful of the challenges that professional musicians face in their own careers.
As of today, the web is saturated by polar extremes on both sides — it’s an ongoing battle between the masses of amateur-level musicians and the Hollywood-backed superstars vying for seconds of the audience’s attention. But both these worlds are, in entrepreneurial terms, residing in the “Land of the Living Dead”…not quite dead but not quite alive, since both cultures have no means of advancing, growing, or developing their ideas beyond what they’re currently doing. The level of popularity of zombie flicks can give a pretty good indication of the overall health and ideological look of where the culture industry is as of today — like zombies, the two factions are slowly decaying from the inside-out, fighting a war of attrition that isn’t likely to get anywhere in the near future. And it’s the customers that will get caught up in the collateral damage, as the quality of content begins to dwindle in an overall sense.
On the surface, things are looking pretty bleak for anyone looking to get into the music industry, regardless if they want to go to the indie or major label route. But because things are moving in such an obvious, clearly dreadful direction, this actually provides a bigger opportunity for entrepreneurs who have the courage and buck the trend to create something that can be said to be truly disruptive. And all one has to do is the opposite of what’s currently being done.
As Code For America founder, Jennifer Pahlka presented in a talk she did at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, disruption comes from the “weird middle”, the sophisticated, yet untapped, communities of creatives and innovators whom are just waiting for something new to come along. The “weird middle” for the music industry lies in its community of dedicated professionals who have largely been overlooked by both Hollywood and the Silicon Valley in recent years, waiting to jump at the first opportunity for something different to come along. If these connections can be made, then making the impossible happen may not seem so far-fetched, after all.