Being a better “artistic citizen”

February 4, 2011

I was recently reading this Techdirt post about the awkwardness of cutting out the middleman in music. Michael points out that asking for money is always difficult- that it can very often feel awkward dealing with money directly. It’s why middlemen exist. But it got me thinking about the challenge that “cutting out the middleman” actually poses for us as music FANS.

Many people have talked about how artists in this now (decade old!) new music environment need to man-up and get business like. But isn’t it just as true that PEOPLE, FANS, LISTENERS also have a responsibility here – that getting comfortable opening your wallets directly to artists, engaging with them directly – literally handing them the money, is also a revolution that needs to happen?

MANY people have written about how the “mystique” of artists has been eroded with social media and direct connections to artists e.g. “I wouldn’t want to have known what Jimmy Page just ate for lunch etc. etc.”

But clearly part of this feeling comes from the awkwardness of being so CLOSE to the art and the artist. Some people feel the need to be DISTANT from the music and music maker.

In one sense, it’s perfectly natural – if a particular kind of music makes you feel preternaturally happy, ecstatic, or informs or heightens a massive emotional shift or experience in your life, then the creator of said music must OF COURSE be some kind of super-human. And if you hear that the $50 you just spent on his $15 album will actually put petrol in his car, or go toward getting him a good meal, then that mundanity might rub off on your experience.

And we don’t want that. Giving the $50 to the retailer, who gives it to the distributor, who gives it to the label, who gives a fraction of it to the artist is sufficiently convoluted enough to allow us to retain the myth, and therefore the “sanctity” of the emotional experience.

But looking at that logically, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially in 2011. The experience was the experience. You felt that way no matter who made the music. To a large degree, once the music maker creates and releases the music, it’s not his anymore – your emotional connection to it is entirely your own. The author has an intended message – but the message you receive is your interpretation alone – that’s the joy of art!

As Michael puts it in the article “… after all of this, when the deal does go through, and you realize that it’s a direct connection between two people who are happy about how each came out of the transaction, people begin to realize it shouldn’t be awkward at all.”

Now I’m guessing this isn’t news to a lot of people – people who host house concerts, like Amanda’s in the example above, are well on board. People who use Paypal to send cash to independent artists or who make a point of buying t-shirts and chatting to the band after a show are already there – but I think they’re in the minority.

I think we have a responsibility as fans, in this hyper-connected, musically abundant new media world.

I think we should, as music fans, be challenging ourselves constantly to make sure that our money gets DIRECTLY into artists hands, to cut out middle-men – challenging ourselves to be good “artistic citizens”, if you will. And it will feel uncomfortable at first: it is a taboo, after all. But I do think it needs to be done.

Artists are growing, casting off the old ways of thinking about music and music careers. I think it’s time for me, and fans in general, to closely examine long-held beliefs about music, money and our relationships with artists as well.

License yourself clean

January 14, 2011

For the second time in as many years, the good folks at have thought my innane ramblings good enough to be “Most Read of the Year”. I wrote about music licensing and strategy in July, and the post is here.

Glenfiddich, Richard Hawley and “selling out”.

November 20, 2010

Just listening to the new songs by the ever-excellent Richard Hawley. He’s taken a different tack to releasing some new music by going full-on with the sponsorship of Scotch Whiskey (whisky?) maker Glenfiddich.

I’ve not read anything about his motivation for the partnership, but doubtless if asked it’d be something about the “changing face of the music industry” and “brand partnerships being a viable artist platform”.

This is a thorny line to walk – fans, especially in a new transparent area of fandom, do have a sensitivity toward brand partnerships, but there’s certainly not the vehemence against them there once was. The big question, I think, is what do Richard Hawley fans think? I can’t say many – who admire his heartfelt and “earthy” sound- would be too impressed by the clearly marketing-department-politico-spin of Richard’s “quote” that leads off the website –

“(I) enjoyed the time I spent in Scotland learning about Glenfiddich’s pioneering approach to whisky making and talking to people who have worked there for years. It has given me some wonderful ideas for new songs.”

I think there’s a line Richard’s crossed here with this partnership – it’s a subtle line but it leans too heavily in the brands favor (songs like “In The Barrel” scream of outside pressure on Richard’s creativity). I can see the logic from the brand’s point of view – leveraging Richard’s support of the product as heavily as possible. But is it all for naught if it FEELS forced, false? Who wins, really, when the brand and artist aren’t properly balanced.

This post over at MBV addresses the issue in an interesting way – that art is only art if we choose to engage with it as such, and we tend to be much more forgiving about music when it’s in the form of “content” – easily digestable, shareable links which pass us by daily and leave little impression. Art requires an effort to engage, content is throw-away.

But apply this to the Hawley example and you’ve got crossed wires – content trying to be art and vice-versa. Nobody wins.

Brand sponsorships still work – they always will. But getting the balance right, making the artist and brand message work in concert, is clearly as elusive as ever…

Let’s get physical

November 5, 2010

Reading Jason Feinberg’s excellent post over at PBS Mediashift blog, it’s struck me how far the music industry has come and how far it has to go.

The point that caught my eye the most was his point about physical fulfillment. The accepted pattern among the new media cognoscenti is that while digital goods proliferate there is a sub-section of consumers willing to pay premium for the physical version of goods, mainly vinyl. Certainly vinyl sales spikes over the last few years has proven that out.

I find it interesting that despite massive leaps in music consumption, marketing and digital distribution, that a simple solution to physical distribution has yet to present itself.

I’d be keen to hear your stories on physical fulfillment – do you focus on DIY, use a fulfillment service or sign a distribution deal to get your physical product to fans? Why did you choose that method? And how do you think technology can help with physical distribution?

#failcamp – embrace the fail

October 8, 2010

Failure’s what happens in the dark rooms of the world – the corners of nowhere where we forget that loss of something that was important to us to the gaping maws of obscurity.

I had conversations with Irishmen, Ozzies, Germans, Japanese over the last month and the thing that unites us is the fear of FAIL.

Go read the manifesto of FAIL –

Or watch this.

Then, come to Belfast for #failcamp.

DRM is the BEST!

September 3, 2010

Remember DRM? That finickity old system which locked down the music files you owned so you couldn’t share, burn or generally use them where, when and if you wanted?

Much debate was had in the early 00’s over the relevance and necessity of DRM for music – “You’re pissing off your customers!” opponents would cry, “We need to be properly compensated for our work!”, label and artist advocates would respond. Services who insisted on DRM (such as Rhapsody) were roundly snubbed in favour of those who were more lenient.

It certainly seemed a dead issue once Apple stopped using DRM to a large extent. Eventually, label after label dropped the more restrictive forms of DRM and the launch of Amazon.MP3s entirely DRM free service seemed to be the nail in the coffin of the debate.

But a recent tweet exchange with the ever adroit @jherskowitz made me realize that DRM is still very much with us. And WE LOVE IT.

If you use Spotify, you’re using a DRM-laden, freedom sapping monster. Well, not quite. But it is still DRM – you stop paying your £9.99/month, and your freedoms with the music are severely restricted, particularly your ability to use the playlists you’ve compiled on your mobile device.

I suppose that means both sides of the DRM debate were right. People will pay for something if the service is compelling enough – and you don’t screw people around.

Old Spice? Really?

August 12, 2010

Yep. Old Spice matters.

I’d been thinking about a live launch event for the wee project I’ve been working on lately and I got to thinking about OldSpice. Just in case you missed it, OldSpice launched an ad campaign back during the SuperBowl that was a viral hit – go check it out for a quick giggle if you’ve not seen it.

But the agency behind the OldSpice ads took it a bit further – they started taking random replies to @oldspiceguy on Twitter and filming RESPONSES to them. Some of them were hilarious.

But more than that, the event was an edge-of-your-seat, real-time experience. Could they keep pulling off hilarious videos throughout the day in response to tweets? Would some of them fall horribly flat and SUCK?

The closest thing in my mind in music which captured that “anything-can-happen-will-it-work?” lately was the live recording sessions by Belfast artist Tom McShane (disclosure: I was part of the recording process).

What really became clear very early on, was that no one, not even the musicians, knew what would happen when the recording started. The audience were right there in the room, so they didn’t know what would happen, either. Although preparations were meticulous, there was just no way of predicting what would go wrong, what would work, and what would flop. There would be no over-dubs.

And that, at it’s essence, was why it was an amazing experience for both audience and musician.

This “live theatre” type of experience was lost during the hey-day of pre-recorded media. Mistakes could be edited out, changes in tempo regimented – everything was fixable.

But an audience will always prefer an edge – and as I’ve said before, the audience is the only thing that matters. So take off the safety harness and go try something dangerous.

“When someone demands to know what is going to replace the music industry…

August 6, 2010

“When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.”

The above quote from Clay Shirky, in my mind, perfectly encapsulates the fear inherent in business models effected by the internet, social media and new methods of information distribution.

And it fits perfectly for music – specifically the line “They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place.” If the 10 years (!) since Napster has taught has anything, it’s that even the smartest (cough *Snocap* cough), best funded (cough *SpiralFrog* cough) and even most popular (COUGH *myspace* COUGH) music services/systems invented don’t cut it during a revolution. And they certainly can’t “replace” music sales.

Nothing is sacred.

So what to do? Try. Measure. Optimize. Fail. Try again. Same as it ever was.


May 22, 2010

I’ve talked before about the Rock mystique, or the myth of the rock star.

It’s an old story by now : with Twitter and vlogs describing the minutae of your favourite artists, where is the mystique, the awesome “otherness” that surrounded visionaries like Page and Morrison?

Watching The Fiery Furnaces at ATP last weekend, it confirmed to me just how false, and ridiculous, the idea of “mystique” is.

Mystique is manifest not in the artist but in the music and the way it’s presented.

It’s created in the feeling of “why are they doing THAT?” “how are they making that sound?” and most universally “how are they making me FEEL that way?”

Bottom line: Forget about the image. Make amazing music, dangerous music, nonsensical music. The music will take care of the mystique.

Some thoughts on “Slow Music”

May 6, 2010

The slow food movement has been around for years – stressing an appreciation of local produce, hand-preparation and eschewing food that’s been processed.

By “slow music”, I’m emphasising not so much the locally produced aspect (which I’ve always felt is highly valuable but a lenghty discussion of that value is for another post). Rather, I want to emphasize the idea of taking time to appreciate music – to really let it blossom.

I recently realized, to my disappointment, that there’d been far to many albums in the past 5 years that I’ve loved – and only listened to once or twice. One of the clearest examples being the excellent Portishead “Third”, an album that clearly deserves my time – but has, up to this point, not been given it.

Why this lack of attention? Because searching, discovering and sharing music has usurped truly *falling in love* with music. In my hurry to find the next great album, and the wave of music blogs, stores and “filters” doing the same thing, I’ve begun to notice that I’m missing something.

Recent online music startup mFlow has the tagline “Because discovery is the greatest thrill in music” – all well and good, but dead wrong. *Music* is the greatest thrill in music.

For me, there’s a hole where the love affairs should be; where in the past I gave my whole summer to “Kid A”, or my time in a new city to Aimee Mann, now there’s just a blur of albums and songs, the gems of which have been washed away among the tidal wave of new music coming at me every day.

So, there’s something wrong – what’s the solution? Well, if Clay Shirky is to be believed, there’s no “information overload” just a “filter failure”.

If that’s the case, I’d love an iPhone/iTunes app that is basically Instapaper for albums. When a record really REALLY moves me, I just mark it “Listen again later” – it’s stored in a special folder (a VERY special folder, as this won’t be for just ANY album). That way it doesn’t get lost in the deluge. I understand this can be done with a combo of smart playlists etc, but it needs to be as intuitive as Instapaper to really hit home so I can listen and relisten at my leisure.

I’d love to hear if you’ve experienced something similar, whether you think there’s a need to think about slow music, or how you’ve moved toward “slow music” habits already.

Props to the excellent Juggernaut Brew blog & the ever wonderful @ianmcnulty & @thoughtwax for inspiring this post.