Dave Allen: Supporting Musicians On The Social Web

This quest post is by Dave Allen, digital pundit, bass player for Gang Of Four and CASH Music board member.
image from blog.cashmusic.orgThe online music “business” has long been a minefield for musicians, especially unsigned independent musicians. When the default business plan for streaming services such as SpotifyPandora and Mog, is to raise investor money, license music from the recording labels and then launch a service that requires advertising in the stream, one has to wonder what’s in it for the musicians who receive a fraction of compensation in royalties from the labels for their labours, or the music fans who have to endure the bombardment of non-contextual advertising or pay to escape it?

Having had a long career as a professional musician I can attest to the lack of fair compensation: in March of this year I received a royalty statement from Warner Music who hold the copyrights to my Gang of Four catalog. The statement was about 82 pages double-sided thick and included this gem – for the period October to December 31st 2010 a song of mine, Natural’s Not In It, was streamed or downloaded just under 7,000 times. I received a check for $17.22, or rather I didn’t because the statement stamped in bold, red ink noted “Do Not Pay under $25.00.” Which is not surprising given this shout out about their service from Spotify “Millions of tracks, any time you like. Just search for it in Spotify, then play it. Just help yourself to whatever you want, whenever you want it.” Or from MOG “MOG is millions of songs, albums, and radio stations, all on demand.”

Help yourself to whatever you want.” Fun times.

The genie is out of bottle. The record labels have been licensing their music catalogs as a way to generate past lost revenue; of course this is a wrong-headed idea that I describe as ‘cashing out in the present to solve the problems of the past.’ The problem of course was the decline in physical sales. Instead of focusing on the problem and doing something concrete about it, the labels fell for the idea that online music sales and streaming services would fill the gap and all would be well. Unfortunately that didn’t work and if we are honest it will never work. A whole generation or two of music fans no longer want to own their music, they simply want access to it. For those that do want to own music, Apple is the largest online retailer of music and with iCloud they now provide a tool for easy synchronization of music catalogs and downloads via the iTunes store. Apple’s iTunes didn’t save the recorded music industry, Apple simply took advantage of the vacuum that existed due to the label executive’s lack of intellectual thinking and long-term solutions. A quick fix always gets you high.

As I see it the biggest issue with streaming services is a two-fold road to ruin: streaming music services create a passive experience where music is relegated to being a backdrop to your daily activities (think Pandora, switched on in the a.m. at work. As music drifts by all day you’ll be hard pressed to recall what artists you’ve heard. And you’ll most likely miss the advertising too which I suppose is one blessing of passive engagement with streaming music.) Secondly, giving people cheap, if not free, access to all the music available out there commoditizes music. Music’s dollar value hits the lower bound: Zero.

In the spirit of getting beyond the culture of complaint I am intrigued about all the potential benefits that CASH Music brings to the table. All it takes is for musicians to have a small amount of inquisitiveness and curiosity to get behind the project for it to have legs and become a self-sustaining business model for those that embrace the benefits of the social web, while the CASH Music open source development team continues to push for improvements under the hood.

For musicians the key is simplicity of implementation. For music fans it’s the ability to support their favorite artists by dealing with them directly, without the middlemen.

I’ve discussed the issues of musicians, online music and the social web so many times here that I’ve lost count: I’ve included links to the relevant articles below. Perhaps this Venn diagram can give you an overview, a simple visual, of what CASH Music offers and would like to achieve for musicians and music fans alike. I for one am looking forward to it.

Venn Diagram

The CASH Music Mission Statement:

CASH Music is a nonprofit organization that builds open source digital tools for musicians and labels. Our mission is to help educate and empower artists and their fans to foster a more viable and sustainable future for music. What WordPress did for bloggers, we’re doing for musicians. We’re building a free and open platform that’s available to all artists, designed in partnership with the artists and labels who are members of our organization.

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  1. The quality of music is declining.
    I say that because every November, I typically have about 150 songs queued up as candidates for my end of year mix. This year, there’s less than 30 songs in my playlist.
    The business of streaming is destroying music creation.
    On the whole, people are incentivized to create music simply out of passion. BUT passion only goes so far when the economics don’t work out.
    The shift from CDs to downloads was bad enough; the shift from downloads to streams means that a musician/band can’t survive on record sales. Simple case and point: it takes at least 100 Spotify streams to equal 1 iTunes download.
    For the past 5 years, the Internet has opened the doors to musicians to create, market, and distribute a world of music on the cheap only to find out they’re brand building efforts are not sellable.
    The ease of creation has crowded the music market, and compounded by lower royalties on streams, musicians are completely discouraged from following their passion and producing good work.
    The rise of cloud music lockers also negatively affects music consumption, to the point where music consumers are confused between which service to use and where and and how they’re going to play back their collection.
    Such morass in music marketing and music consumption puts the industry at a dead end to which only Coldplay, Lady Gaga, and high tech music listeners will survive.

  2. Whoever has the most exposure and connections to that exposure will be the most profitable. Of course, musicians can also make money playing live. With unique album packaging, t-shirts, and limited edition items they, too, can turn a profit. Yes, the easy days of making money from music is over, but that doesn’t mean making money from music altogether is over.
    Free album download at http://www.facebook.com/chancius

  3. @Chancius – I don’t know about this ‘profiting’ from playing live thing … in these recessionary times a lot of people aren’t going to gigs, and a lot of venues aren’t paying much to bands. Many areas have a ‘pay to play’ situation. Maybe it’s different where you are?

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