Five Reasons I’m Optimistic About the Future of Music

For some reason, I don’t blog about music much. I don’t know why. My other writing gig is all about music , and I just finished interning at a record label. I’m obsessed with my instruments. I have even pitched and completed musical multimedia projects for university history classes–twice–in lieu of old fashioned essays.

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The current state of my apartment’s blackboard wall.

Recently, I have sensed a “lost cause” attitude when people talk about the music biz. Money just isn’t flowing the same way, to the same people, or for the same reasons it used to.

In this case, that might be a good thing.

I offer you five (admittedly optimistic) reasons I’m excited about where music is heading…artistically, ethically, and even economically. Seriously. I only wish I could say the same thing about writing and journalism.

1) Fans and artists take control.

Some people are complaining about how the music industry is going, mainly because the “industry” part is becoming  less and less relevant. The success of artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis has confirmed what a lot of us 21st century kids have known for a long time–technology is changing the game, and musicians who are genuine and business savvy shouldn’t need to answer to anyone but their fans.

How is the game changing? It looks something like this:


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Maybe I’m being naive, but even though I would love to work in music, this doesn’t scare me. It excites me. Paper pushers, marketers, and managers will of course remain important–Amanda Palmer’s success came from her wide fan base, much of which was acquired while she was signed to a record label. I know how much blood, sweat, tears (and luck) go into promotions. That manpower is valuable, and will stay valuable. But as the umbrella “record label” organizations become less relevant, people will partner up more independently; artists will begin hiring consultants, ad agencies, designers and agents themselves.  This will put musicians/producers in charge of their art rather than just requiring them to be someone else’s product. Game changing time.

2) An access-based economy.

With the internet and streaming sites, music itself is now less of a product, more of a service; not about ownership, but about access. That doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to pay, it means they aren’t willing to pay just to own things. The millennial generation are not as interested in ownership as previous generations.  Instead, they are interested in renting, streaming, experiencing, and/or consuming.  So yeah, buying a CD or even downloading an mp3 is less and less appealing…streaming on YouTube, Songza, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, and other websites is on the rise.

Streaming services like Spotify and Rdio are particularly fantastic. With these services, listeners pay a monthly fee (similar to Netflix) or in some cases just sit through a few ads, in exchange for access to a massive library of all the music they could want. Users can even download the songs they like to their mobile devices for offline listening and take them on the road. It’s portable music on demand. Not only that, but these services use ad revenue and membership fees to pay artists royalties for song plays. Other ways artists can make money? Becoming a YouTube partner (thereby sharing in advertising revenue, though in my opinion YouTube needs to up the royalties it pays), starting a Kickstarter project, or organizing fan patronage through a site like Patreon.

3) Sustainable printing and touring.

Because people are purchasing access more than anything, less stuff has to be made. The only product that seems to be selling more these days are vinyl records, because they’re the only thing that genuinely sound better than an mp3. So what products are being made? Essentially we’re whittling it down to LPs and their packaging, t-shirts, and promotional materials (stickers, posters, etc).

Compared to before, that’s not much.  You’re welcome, trees.

Moreover, smart decisions can be made with what is being produced.  While pressing new vinyl isn’t a particularly “green” call, smart packaging can make an impact. As an intern, I discovered (and fell in love with) PURE labels. The stickers they print are gorgeous and affordable…not to mention 100% tree-free with a sustainable adhesive (‘sup, technology). The availability of products like these, along with fair trade clothing options, will help with the positive impact of lowered production.

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With the focus on live performance (in Canada, the live music industry just had a record breaking year), of course, comes the question of a tour’s carbon footprint.  The good news is that artists will have a lot more power over the decisions made with stage performance than they did when merchandise production was king. Musicians like K.T. Tunstall, Radiohead and Pearl Jam are among those who actively use eco-friendly touring options, and organizations like Julie’s Bicycle have heavily researched sustainability in the live music industry.  For more optimism, check out this list of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “15 most eco-friendly artists”: www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/the-15-most-eco-friendly-rockers-20101216/

4) Music sampling meets international development.

Pop music sampling, you have destroyed enough 80s songs. Seriously. Time to get creative.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if ethnomusicologists hooked up popular artists with musicians in poorer areas of the world for some sweet collaborations. Organizations like Smithsonian Folkways record and distribute music from communities around the world, and pay extensive royalties to artists for these works. An example?  All the royalties from Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda go straight to an education fund for children in the community where the music was recorded. If a commercial or film featured a song from that album, or an artist sampled from it (and paid royalties), that would mean a great deal for the community.

deliciouspeace

With African music-inspired indie artists like Vampire Weekend, rapper J. Cole’s sample of music from Guinea, and up-and-coming success of A Tribe Called Red, there seems to be a market for a more worldly sound. I would like to see popular artists looking for an exotic beat, new style or even just a choir in the background consider what those royalties and exposure could mean to a disadvantaged community.

5) Grassroots charity links.

Big musicians like U2, Springsteen, and Neil Young have been instrumental (…hah. pun.) in connecting the star power of musicians with charitable and fundraising ventures.  This is awesome. However, a lot of those projects have been connected with BIG national organizations.  While these are no doubt valuable, many of today’s artists are tapping into the power of connecting directly with communities and grassroots projects.

ally coalition

Because live performance (read: going on tour) is basically where the paycheck is coming from for musicians these days, two things are more possible than ever.  Firstly, artists have been able to catch and affect their fans literally in their hometowns by connecting with local charities and encouraging activism.  Secondly, being on the road make it far easier for artists to spread the word about important issues and ask for participation from their crowd.  Take the band Fun., who created The Ally Coalition. They not only donate a dollar off each ticket sold to local LGBT and equality groups, they also set up an “Equality Village” at every gig where people can declare their support for the cause. Sheryl Crow has done the same by creating an “Eco-Village” wherever she performs, and like the band Phish (who are super philanthropic), she encourages carpooling to her shows. The bottom line is that if you are in a lot of cities, you can impact a lot of cities, individuals, and grassroots organizations.

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