If Google were to start a record label, what would it look like? How would the music they produce sound? I’ve been talking to someone about the possibility of co-authoring a blog/book relating to music entrepreneurship, and the conversation started to drift in that direction — about the future of the music industry and how things might start to look in the (near) future.
Ever since Google started consulting Hollywood executives to manage their YouTube content there’s been a lot of speculation about the company possibly getting their hands in content creation. Content creation is, of course, business speak for letting artists do what they do, which is to make things for people to enjoy. It won’t be long, some people have said, that YouTube videos will start showing up with Google’s stamp on it, having had their hands in the process from the beginning to end.
Being in the Los Angeles area, I see a lot of people from the tech sector wanting to become the “next big thing” in the entertainment/arts. Many of them moved from Silicon Valley with the intent of starting or joining companies that will compete directly against the Hollywood giants. Paul Graham of Y-Combinator even went as far to say that Hollywood is dead, and the tech industry is going to be the one to finish it off for good. (He seemed a little angry about the whole SOPA thing, as made obvious in his post.) There’s definitely no shortage of ambition and drive in LA’s startup community, and if you listen to their arguments enough you might start believing that they could really do it.
But I do think that these speculations are a little premature — maybe even a bit naïve in some cases — because as most of them find out, making content with high, or even passable, amounts of quality is actually very, very difficult. You have to find the right talent, tell a compelling story (to the right audience), provide the right resources and support, anticipate and execute on cultural trends which are in constant shift, all the while providing the right working conditions in order to retain its talent base. The last part is especially crucial, since I’ve known lots of highly talented people who either left town or switched to another line of work because they simply weren’t able to find a place where they felt appreciated. The “decline” of Hollywood (which almost everyone agrees has happened) is a result of its talent-base having left the industry, having become tired of the way they were treated while there. (You can ask electronic musician Moby if you want to know why he went “indie”.)
I believe that services like CD Baby and Tunecore have done a lot of good for musicians by simplifying the music-making process from a distribution standpoint. Their services are effective, fairly priced, and undeniably a significant improvement from what came before. (People like Derek Sivers, who sold his company for $23 million and gave it all away to music education, clearly has musicians’ interests at heart.) But they are a service, after all — by default, musicians are seen as their customers, not partners. A partnership implies sharing the burden of risk-taking that comes with every artistic project, as opposed to being treated “well” as a consumer.
So the reality of the situation is: from the perspective of musicians and artists, the tech industry currently exists as “just another middleman” for achieving a means to an end. (If you’re in tech and your enthusiasm has been met with skepticism by creative types, this will explain why.) Even in “free” services like SoundCloud, Reverb Nation, Myspace Music and so on, the artist assumes all of the risk in every project that they do, because they’re using these sites as consumers, not producers. Artists pay to use these platforms, and if they’re good or lucky, they might get a positive return on their investment. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two never tends to develop beyond that, because it was never designed to do so.
If making a living for the artist isn’t the goal of the site, then a lot of this doesn’t matter. But a “free” site is, by definition, a site for the amateur and hobbyist, and it’s content will be limited as such. (What you see on the internet is not “everything”.) I think that attracting serious talent on platforms and systems will be incredibly difficult unless they start seeing artists as investment opportunities, rather than “serving” them as potential customers. For that to happen, however, these companies will have to start doing the things that record labels have traditionally done for music, which would require talent and skills that the industry is currently unfamiliar with.
If the tech sector is looking to “disrupt” the entertainment industry, however, the path they need to take seems pretty clear: content creation. Companies like Google are moving in the right direction, with their YouTube partnership programs that allow people to monetize their works directly. But the next step is to fund music projects directly, assuming some of the risk that goes with every endeavor. They’ve done this with software, so in theory it’s not something that they shouldn’t already be familiar with, even if the skill sets are different. Hollywood and Silicon Valley have much more in common than they usually like to admit, even if their value systems run on very different principals.
The question on musicians’ minds right now is if the tech industry is going to treat artists better than the industry that they’re looking to replace, or will it simply be another reiteration of an industry creating another tiered system, taking care of their own kind first. Most artists tend to be skeptics, but you can’t fault people for what they haven’t done…yet, anyway. Actions will speak louder than words, in either case.
As it stands now this doesn’t seem to be on too many people’s radars right now, probably because it’s seen as too difficult and too risky. But someone might do it — and LA’s startup scene is in the prime position and location to make it happen. Time will tell, either way…keep your eyes out for the next up-and-comings.