Greg Kot writes up the Future of Music

In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot writes up the recent Future of Music Coalition summit in Montreal. The article’s an astute if not novel analysis of the state of the music business, emphasizing the shift toward lots of bands that sell 100,000 or fewer records over a few bands that sell bazillions. The role of the net, of course, gets a mention, casting online fans as the new tastemakers in place of record labels and MTV:

A new Internet-savvy music hierarchy is being created. Commercial radio, MTV, retails stores and even record companies are losing their tastemaking status, while consumers are becoming de facto music programmers who share information and music via message boards, Web pages, e-zines and MP3 blogs.

In the end, though, Kot returns to the fact that no matter how great this digital revolution may be, ultimately there is nothing that comes close to seeing a band play live:

It’s one thing to hear an MP3 file of a new band like Montreal’s Lovely Feathers, quite another to hear that band perform that same song on stage. The breathtaking intensity of the quintet’s live performance at Pop Montreal made the songs on their latest album sound quaint in comparison.

“It’s hard to quantify how we got noticed,” said the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. “No doubt Pitchfork had an impact. But who really cares reading an article? It’s the music ultimately. You listen, and you either like it or you don’t. For us, we’ve been so much about playing live and making that connection that I don’t know any other way.”

“Live music,” said former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, “is an experience you can’t digitize.”

I’m reminded of points I made in earlier posts about the Arctic Monkeys and Hawthorne Heights trying to distance themselves from the online components of their success by referencing their touring. These are not either/or propositions — to the contrary, the more fans are digging and distributing a band’s music online, the more people are going to go to the shows and the more merchandise they’re going to buy when they’re there.

Gimme That Web Authenticity Thing

The Boston Globe has a piece up about indie bands using the internet to acheive stardom (if not affluence). It runs through the usual rigamarole — the YouTube video the label wouldn’t produce but the band did (Dresden Dolls this time, instead of the usual OK Go), concerts in Second Life (funny how a site with fewer than a million users is suddenly THE place for marketing your product, whatever that product may be), and, of course, MySpace. But there are also some nice reports of interesting strategies to involve fans in “authentic” relationships (i.e. those unmediated by labels):

The Dresden Dolls, a duo who describe their music as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” invite their fans to send in artwork and videos inspired by their songs.

“A fan can send me a beautiful painting, and seven seconds later, it’s up on our website , on the fan art page, and it’s visible to thousands of other people,” says singer Amanda Palmer. “I love that we can connect with people that way.”

That sort of authentic connection between a band and its fans is a relatively new phenomenon. Coulton, who writes quirky, fabulist folk songs about American history, star-crossed mad scientists, and technology, recently used his blog to invite the Web audience to submit an eight-bar solo for his song “Shop Vac” on the instrument of their choice. The best one — chosen by user voting — was incorporated into the finished song.

“Audiences want to feel that Web authenticity thing,” says Mike Denneen, a Somerville producer who has worked with Aimee Mann and the band Fountains of Wayne. “They don’t want to feel they’re being marketed to.” That puts the deep-pocketed marketing departments of such mega-labels as Universal Music Group and Sony BMG at a distinct disadvantage.

Ultimately, however, the piece ends up wondering whether all this immediate access to fans will really translate into money for musicians:

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for knitting together a community of passionate fans (though some question whether all those MySpace “friends” will ever pony up for a concert ticket or pay for an album download.) But the Net audience expects to get a lot of things for free, including music and videos.

“We’re looking at a changing economy, in which music is free, and artists are going to have to learn to make their living through touring and merchandise sales,” says Palmer.

“The barriers to getting your music and your image out there are lower than they’ve ever been,” says Denneen, who co founded Q Division, a recording studio and record label. “But over the long-term, the big question is, how many of these people are going to be able to make a living at it?”

It’s a good question, and it will take time for these things to shake out enough that the patterns differentiating those who make money and those who don’t become clear, but it seems more and more evident that the ones who make money will be those who have created enough of a human-to-human relationship with fans that the fans WANT to give back. It doesn’t have to mean that each and every fan will pay the same amount for the same product. It doesn’t have to mean that every MySpace “friend” (and oh, the problems I have with that label) has to go to the show (on the other hand, if they don’t go, who does?). All it has to mean is that enough fans will pay enough to make it worth the musician’s while.

It’s probably the wrong metaphor, but as a teacher at a big public institution, I teach a lot of students who are there to fill their day and do what it takes to keep their parents paying the bills so they can go about the real business of getting drunk at night — but they don’t all have to want to learn so long as there are enough that do. I cultivate relationships with all of them, knowing that nowhere near all of them will make it worth my while. The metaphor breaks down since my pay isn’t directly related to their tuition, and their tuition doesn’t reflect what they get out of or put into the class, but I think there’s still something there in terms of recognizing that some of the people we work for are just going to give back an awful lot more than others.

What I keep wondering is how many bands, managers, marketers, labels, and others have the requisite interpersonal savvy to build and maintain relationships with audiences in a way that makes fans feel truly involved. It’s one thing to make good music, another to craft an appealing public image, and yet a third to craft what feel like interpersonal relationships with large groups of people.

Pandora plans to boost fan-to-fan communication

Aside from personal charts, probably the #1 thing last.fm has going for it in comparison with Pandora is its enabling of listener-to-listener interaction. Apparently building communication amongst its users is on Pandora’s agenda for the coming year:

Harmonium: What do you have in store? Is there anything up your sleeve for 2007?

Westergren: Well, there’s lots of different things we’re working on. We’re working on mobility — where you can listen to Pandora on the go. We’re working on international growth, we’re trying to spread Pandora outside the U.S., and also add a lot more international music to the collection. And we’re also doing a little bit more work on the listener-to-listener part of Pandora, allowing people to talk to each other … and share favorites and discoveries and so on.

Smart move, too bad it’s only “a little bit.”

Ryan Adams Message Board Shut Down

Pitchfork, ever eager to poke Ryan Adams in the eye with a fork, sets their animosity aside to report on the shutting down of his unaffiliated fan board. Apparently rumour had it that Adams couldn’t handle the negative criticism on the site, but:

Pitchfork contacted David Smith, proprietor of RyanAdams.org, who set the record straight. “Ryan’s management contacted me Tuesday, asking that the board be temporarily shut down,” he disclosed. “Initially there were reports of censorship or an inability to deal with criticism and negative show reviews. But I’ve since had the opportunity to discuss the issue directly with Ryan…and apparently sensitive information of a personal nature had been exposed on the board which was a threat to the band.

Information is said to have included his hotel room number (shades of gawker.com anyone?). Meanwhile his fans have relocated elsewhere en masse while Smith figures out how to make it harder to register for the board.

Another fine line.

Making money by fostering emotional ties

Derek Webb is a Christian musician whose records have sold about 20,000 copies apiece. He’s trying to increase interest by giving his CD away on his website, a strategy which may be increasing its sales. His label president describes it as getting “emotional, relational currency” instead of cash:

For Ino Records President Jeff Moseley, the word-of-mouth buzz that the giveaway has generated is as interchangeable as cold hard cash at this point in Webb’s career.

“This is emotional, relational currency that we’re trading for an album, as opposed to dollars and cents,” Moseley said. “We think ultimately that will turn into some type of monetary value.”

Though it’s still too early to measure results, early indications are that the effort is paying off in harder dividends than just warm-and-fuzzy feelings among Webb’s relatively narrow fan base.

On Wednesday, Moseley said that he’s seeing anecdotal evidence that Webb’s weekly album sales of about 300-500 are actually experiencing significant percentage increases in the week following the launch of the free download. Official data is not yet available.

And Webb reports that merchandise and CD sales doubled on the road following his announcement to give away the album for free download.

John Styll, president of the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association, who has been involved in battling music piracy alongside his peers in the industry over the past few years, said if Webb finds a way to make the model work, he expects other artists and labels to follow suit.

The mystery remains how exactly emotional currency translates into the green kind, but I believe he’s right that it will. Fans who feel connected, who feel grateful, who feel like you’ve been generous with them, are surely more likely to fork over money. The article also mentions another Christian artist, Keith Green, who made “a surprising amount of money giving his albums away for free in the 1980s and simply asking for a donation in return.”

Time will tell what the best way to deal with piracy is, but this sort of turning on its head is a creative way to approach it. There’s a nice theory of relationships called Social Exchange theory. The basic premise is that we seek relationships where the rewards we receive outweigh the costs we have to pay. It’s a very rationalistic model and not without problems, but it still works surpisingly well at describing and explaining much of people’s sense of what’s fair and what’s worth maintaining. One of its core premises is that when the exchange is social (versus commercial) it inherently engenders feelings of obligation — you gave me something, I owe you something next time. When I teach this, I often use the example of when you get an expensive birthday present from a friend and next time it’s her birthday you feel obliged to buy a gift of comparable value lest you be seen as a jerk. If we make the musician-fan relationship more social and less explicitly commercial, or if we at least build the social side more alongside the commercial, fans are more and more likely to feel personal obligation to the musicians.