and why they should fear funny people.

By Tasman Richardson

So I finally got my music collection in order and I only had to buy the whole damn thing five times over. But I’m not complaining; I’m really glad the industry is coming around. First they sold me vinyl, which was amazing: it sounded the best, the artwork was huge, and it was great collecting it. Then along came cassettes and all the mix tape making and trading. Then came CDs, which kind of sucked because I’d just replaced everything and then I had to do it again. Also, they skipped and wore out. Finally, I transferred all those tunes to my iPod, along with a mixture of mp3s that I downloaded. Of course, the downloads cost almost as much as a regular album, but didn’t have any cool artwork, liner notes or sound quality. To top it off, I couldn’t share a damn thing; most of it was locked, so trades were out. Long story short, I felt a bit ripped off and I’m not surprised that piracy has managed to get a strong foothold among a group of bitter consumers. There’s hope for the record industry though, now that all the new music is coming out on vinyl again. Not even regular vinyl either, but suped up uber vinyl, 180-gram vinyl, so it’ll last longer and sound better. But the real revolution is the free digital download code that comes with my albums. One purchase, two formats. Have your cake and eat it too.

So I’m a bit baffled by the publishing industry’s confusion in the face of what (in my humble opinion) appears to be THE EXACT SAME PROBLEM. Booklovers are such a similar breed to vinyl collectors, a fact anyone can tell by comparing their list of esthetic preferences: good cover art (turns out you can judge a book by it… more on that later), interesting liner notes, early editions (original releases) and publisher/label loyalty. Bookworms also share a browsing gene with disc lovers. The first group are found milling around in aisles, comfortably wrapped by the sound-dampening pulp and the smell of ink on paper. The second group will dig through bins, carefully flipping through square foot stacks of 12” selections.

The wonderful thing about browsing is the opportunity for discovery. In a world of online, streamlined shopping, I rarely discover anything I’m not already seeking. If I do come across something new, I can be sure it’s efficient, topical, relevant, and completely, utterly, zzzzzzzzzz… predictable. Not to mention the fact that ebooks still haven’t sorted out the glitches associated with cover art. It’s just a thumbnail and it’s not very consistent. Many of them have a generic look, like a templated afterthought. The effort that’s put into cover art has always been a hint to me about where the money of a publisher is invested. Craftsmanship and art are costly, and disposable fad releases rarely get the finer treatment. In a strictly digital store, it’s a lot harder to judge a book by its cover. But I digress. I’ve strayed off topic onto something completely different, which is exactly what browsing is all about! So give us our Penguin paperback classics to have and to hold and throw in a free ebook version, and we’ll call it even okay?

A third model is emerging from this petri dish of industry, artist, consumer, and format: The DIY direct sale revolution. I say, “revolution” with a little zeal because I feel that for some time now, we’ve been at the mercy of what is available in a kind of producer versus consumer market. It’s amazing to think that the infrastructure that was first developed for online industry sales could be just as easily used to skip the middleman and sell directly from artist to fan base. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a fan base without the industry marketing, so maybe they still have a place in the grand scheme of things… for now.

If there were any doubt that direct DIY sales could rival those of a major record company or publisher, just consider the entertainers that fall between the categorical cracks. Although the DIY direct sale was started by punk bands like Fugazi, the press didn’t really take notice until mega band Radiohead side-stepped iTunes to sell their album direct to fans from their own website. The most amazing thing was that they didn’t set a price on it. Instead they left it up to fans to decide how much the album was worth shelling out for. If that meant nothing, so be it. Actually, there’s a lot of speculation going around that 2/3 of people thought exactly that and downloaded the album for free in droves. The important thing to understand here is, IT WAS STILL WORTH IT FOR THE BAND. Not in a philosophical, warm, touchy-feely way. In a cold, economically viable way, it was still worth it to the artists because they were getting paid directly and paid more than any industry machinery would have paid in royalties. The few consumers were able to sustain the many. Eat your heart out Mr. Marx.

In another amazing example of DIY direct sale success is the now legendary project by the stand-up comedian Louis C. K. To be fair, not just anyone can up and do this and expect the same results as Louis, because not everyone has a massive loyal fan base (i.e., early punk bands that toured there asses off). He produced his own documentation for a comedy special, financed it, posted it online and made it available for $5 to download from his website. You pay and your money goes to him and him alone. In return you get a high-definition video of his new stand-up material, recorded with professional production values, polished nicely (crafted you might say), and no restrictive digital locks of any kind. The result of this little experiment: in ten days he earned more than a million dollars. Yes, he sold a million dollars in downloads, gave more than half to charity and to cover expenses and still had enough left over to pay himself. Another comedian, Aziz Ansari, followed suit, as have a pile of indie bands and desktop publishers. The DIY funding has even extended into the charity arena, where sites like Ignite.com give people a chance to post their project/cause and invite individuals to finance it directly.
To summarize, the old industry system is having to compete with emerging retail models, passing the control from corporation to artist, and in some cases to the consumer themselves. But that’s a pretty dry way to leave you, so I’ll just send you to this link at The Oatmeal instead, which I think says it best: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/music_industry

Thanks for reading, and if you come across any other artist-controlled or consumer-controlled examples, post them in the comments.

Sources and additional reading:

http://popculturez.com/for-the-record-why-vinyl-is-making-a-comeback/
http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/should-paperback-books-come-with-a-free-ebook/
http://www.killerstartups.com/bootstrapping-money-makers/diy-bootstrapping-success-for-comedian-louis-c-k-with-1-million-in-10-days/
http://www.wired.com/listening_post/2007/10/estimates-radio/
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15143704