The recent announcement that No Depression Magazine was ceasing publishing, preceded only by a week or so of the announcement that CCM Magazine was ceasing publication, is only further evidence that the music business is in decline. In 2001, sales of blank CDs exceeded sales of CDs with music on them, further evidence that people are downloading music files from the Internet and burning their own CDs. While you might say that artists are now free from the corporate machine (and there’s enough blame to lay on the record labels, who won’t garner a lot of sympathy), few want to pay much if anything for their music. And that’s a problem: when you don’t value something economically, you get exactly what you pay for --- a lot of crappy music. I can only say: Please stop the music!
If you’ve cruised the aural halls of MySpace Music recently, it’s simply astounding how much music has been placed on the Internet. Most of it is terrible. Any kid with a laptop can record himself singing and playing the guitar, or messing around with his friends in a garage band, and post it. If you compare it to a record store, the shelves are cluttered with a huge inventory of albums literally falling off the racks and begging for attention. There is no reliable filter to assist you in finding something good, and the filters that do exist, while helpful, are of limited utility because their own standards may be too low at least ambiguous. For example, I subscribe to Paste Magazine so that I can get the sampler CD, but I generally find only one or two songs that are listenable, and even then it is rare I buy the album based on that song.
My conclusion is that most people who are making music for public consumption shouldn’t be doing so, and yet they won’t stop since it’s so easy to put it out there. Economic concerns used to weed out poor performers. Not now. Bad music has even been mainstreamed. For example, in the liner notes for the recent soundtrack for Juno (which, I understand, is a good movie), the producer quips how great he thought it would be to record a bunch of teenagers sitting around playing and singing crappy songs. Well, that’s a majority of what’s on the CD, and that’s what some people are paying for. Sheesh.
Back to the problem: Other than record collectors and the minority of honest record buyers, people no longer want to pay for music. For goodness sakes, it’s everywhere. Why pay? Why? So we can get something worth paying for. Will that happen? No, it won't. We're beyond that point.
There are those who have a lot of ideas about how to use the Internet and other marketing techniques to sell music. The latest I read was David Byrne’s Wired Magazine article: “Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists — and Megastars.” It's all about a more creative approach to using the Internet and digital distribution. Everyone's trying to find a better business model or tweaking the one we have. I have another idea.
What if we just went back to patronage? You know, before the advent of recorded music (and for some, after) artists survived economically because they had patrons. There was one person or a group of persons, the Church, or even a King who simply gave the artist the financial wherewithal to do what he was made to do: paint, compose music, conduct orchestras, and so on. There was no music business. Patrons might sponsor concerts in their parlors and invite friends in to hear the music. These were the inspiration for today's house concerts. A group of patrons would literally set the artist free not to worry about the business of making music. The patrons could be a sounding board, people to whom the artist could be accountable (for use of time, productivity, work product, lifestyle, and so on.) These patrons are huge believers in the giftedness of this particular artist, their vocational calling, and the need for their music. Their patronage would free the artist from the warping effect of the market or the fans (who can be fickle and demanding).
So how would they make money? To some extent, they don't need to. Patronage sets them free from this economic imperative, but it doesn't free them from accountability for work. The patrons can insist that the artist write good songs, play gigs in the community, and maintain a relationship with the patrons. The artist belongs to a community, usually local, and cannot go it alone. This results in less mimicry and more originality, as the artist is not trying to "make it."
This kind of function is well-suited to the Church though, sadly, has been little exercised. Churches go through a process of confirming the call of missionaries or pastors, identifying their gifts and providing a structure of accountability for the exercise of their gifts. Could they not do the same for artists? I have no problem at all serving on such a committee and saying to a budding young artist : "You know, we appreciate you, and while we don't know what all your gifts are, we can tell you it definitely isn't in music." This kind of candor, if listened to, would help encourage the truly gifted and prevent the others who are gifted in non-artistic ways from experiencing a lot of unwarranted hardship and grief. Artists, like pastors and missionaries, may have to do some tentmaking at the outset or long-term, but they would not depend on a fickle market to validate their gifts and call.
Will this end crappy music? No, but if those making it get little to no traffic on their web sites, they may eventually stop and do something else with their lives. Will this stop people from downloading their music for free (you know, from stealing)? No, but it won't matter. The artist with patrons will have a community endowing him and little reason to be concerned about illegal downloading. They'll have an endowment, supplemental income from gigs in the community, and even, if they sense the demand, record sales to the ones who love and support them (the community coming to the gigs). They don't need radio, labels, or distribution. You can have the music for free, if that's what you do, but that's not what it's all about. This artist is set free to really give his music to the community.
And that would be better than this whole business of music.
[For more on this issue, visit a recent post "The Selling of the Free," on my friend Tony's blog here. I think there's a lot to be said for creative packaging and even releasing in vinyl, but like Tony I don't think that alone will answer the decline of the business.]