Wednesday, December 12, 2007

sustainability and music (2)

I keep hearing this new orthodoxy, with slight variations, about "the music business in the digital age"...

1) the big players in the "traditional" music business (big record labels, etc.) are in trouble and don't know what to do
2) "new media" and digital downloads are a great thing for independent artists
3) in the age of digital downloads, musicians should not expect to make money from recorded music, but from live performances and merchandise sales.

To which I say:

1) looks that way, but massive multi-national conglomerates generally seem to find a way to take care of themselves (or, as they would say, their shareholders)
2) yes
3) that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

Let's think about this for a moment, beyond the obvious (though undeniably fun) demonstrations of the silliness of this idea. (Example: farmers should not expect to make money from growing produce, but from - I know! - selling t-shirts and fridge magnets...!) I at least have yet to meet any of the proponents of "standard orthodoxy #3" above who have adopted the "business model" that they so enthusiastically recommend for musicians, and vacated their salaried positions as journalists or university professors or whatever for a lifestyle of constant touring and selling frisbees, caps, and travel mugs with their faces on them...

Of course performing ("touring"), in some way and to some extent, has been and will continue to be at the core of what it means for most of us to be musicians - and to earn income as musicians - and that's a good and necessary thing.

But again, as I pointed out in the previous post, there is a "scale" that is liveable and sustainable... or not. And the mainstream "you've gotta be BIG to make a go of it... tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!" approach, it seems to me, is not.

Do we REALLY think it's a good idea - given the realities of climate change and urgent need to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions - that independent artists should buy into a business model that requires us to rely almost exclusively on MORE touring...?

Do we REALLY think it's a good idea - given those same realities - for every independent artist and band to function as itinerant purveyors of more cheap plastic trinkets and disposable crap? (I'm referring to the "merchandise sales" here - not the music, whatever you might think of it... - and I know, we do need some t-shirts and caps to wear, but don't tell me that artists relying on merchandise sales for income are buying and re-selling high quality clothing produced in environmentally friendly ways... not exactly a viable "revenue stream" for artists - believe me, I've checked it out...)

Come on. Surely we can do better than that.

The trendy catchphrase "Your failed business model is not my problem" strikes me as an interesting case in point. Typically directed at "the traditional music industry" and intellectual property rights (copyright) system, this phrase makes for a quick and handy justification for illegal downloads or file-sharing or whatever... (and is available, by the way, on t-shirts for $8, or so a 10 second Google search tells me)... and I can see the point, and I think in some ways it's partially right...

Except that it's wrong. Dead wrong.

The "failed business model" of the traditional music business IS my problem, and yours. In a big way. In fact, it's become abundantly clear to anybody that's paying attention that the "failed business model" of the western world is EVERYBODY's problem (in the form of climate change)... and that what we need are ALTERNATIVE business models that are environmentally sustainable.

Telling independent musicians that their only viable options for making a living are by touring more and selling more cheap "merch" is not an "alternative" to the mainstream model - it's buying into that model hook, line, and sinker. And, as far as I can see, it's stupid and it's just plain wrong.

We can do better. Much better.

There is all kinds of creative thinking going on out there about creative alternatives. There are all kinds of creative ways - some with the help of "new media" - to forge a lifestyle that is more fulfilling, healthy, sustainable, and true... Let's talk about those ideas, and share them and try them out, and report on their progress. Let's step up and provide some leadership in envisioning and implementing alternative business models that can be sustainable for ourselves and for the planet.

Let's not wring our hands and profess concern for climate change while we simultaneously seek "success" in the mainstream system and according to the mainstream business models that continue to accelerate the problem... settling for a business model that assumes ever-increasing levels of touring and merchandise sales as "the way of the future." That kind of business model is indeed bound to fail. And it IS our problem.

I'm looking forward to posting more ideas about what "alternative business models for the arts" might look like... and I look forward to hearing your ideas as well.



At 8:29 PM, Blogger Colleen Taylor said...

The failed traditional music business model is not just everybody's problem ecologically and economically. The failed model is also a problem morally and communally. When artists are urged to go big or go home, illegal downloads, filesharing, etc., indicate lack of integrity and absence of relationship.

The model you are pioneering is based on relationship -- mutuality, community, shared meaning. We're not after hooks and archetypes, we're after localized and/or personalized expressions of truth in our words and in our actions.

By the way, it took a lot of drilling down, but I knew I would find Wendell Berry in your writings somewhere. There he was, in "sustainability and music (1)".

Thanks, Bryan.


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