Music Industry and Post Capitalistic Distribution
In this article I would like to spark a conversation about how anti-capitalistic ideas and concepts in the music business have challenged the big corporate industry giants and helped leveling the playing field for smaller artists. Could these progressions we’ve seen the last ten years be a minor mirror of a post capitalistic society? And if so, how will we use the knowledge we’ve gained in this example?
Kontext and History
A brief look into the past of the commercial music industry shows us a world driven by manipulating talent, ripping off consumers and the overall motive of gaining as much capital as possible. This clearly manifested itself in the way contracts between musicians and labels where designed. Going way back into the time where young, black, up-and-coming jazz musicians where forced to sign papers that basically took away all personal freedom of creativity. Even today these contracts are limiting artist, rendering the labels in power of deciding when to release a record and ultimately when, where and if a band is allowed to tour. It’s not a secret that most artists today make their living through touring and selling their merchandise directly to the fans. So let’s say an artist hands in a record and because of market strategy his label decides to release the record in six months time during the Christmas shopping season, the artist would be rendered power and incomeless for that period. But these are not the only examples for how labels can have a stranglehold over artists. Speaking of album rights, it’s common that labels would lend money to the musicians to record their album, in return the band would have to hand in the record and pay back the money they where given by the company. The legal licenses would be kept by the company. After the payback they would get between 10 and 60 cent per sold unit. This was obviously way before the market was ruined by MP3s and the download culture.
Things we’ve learned from conventional music production and distribution compared to artists funding and releasing music themselves:
1. Pay what you want / Radiohead “In Rainbows”
A different way of how to marked music directly to the fan and still be profitable in the example of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”
Radiohead's six-album record contract with EMI ended after the 2003 release of Hail to the Thief. Without an album deal they went out to record the critically acclaimed “In Rainbows”. Lead singer Thom Yorke stated in an Interview with “Time”: "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say 'Fuck you' to this decaying business model."
When the band was finished with the recording of he album in 2007. On the 30 September they announced via the bands blog Dead Air Space: "Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days”. The blog post contained a link to inrainbows.com, where users could pre-order an MP3 version of the album for any amount they wanted, including £0 a landmark use of the pay_what_you_want model for music sales.
Radiohead was clear that there would also be a physical release for fans that didn’t have access to the internet, a traditional CD and vinyl release would follow in December of 2007. Also the idea of the “self release“ was to escape from traditional market and promotion acts. It also prevented the listener from experiencing the album in a low quality leak download. The band stated “It’s not about money, it’s about giving back an original experience for music lovers.”
Hear Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brian of Radiohead talk about the release of the record in the video below.
2. The Yorke Experiment / Tomorrows Modern Boxes
A few years later after falling out with the idea of streaming, Thom Yorke decided to take down all the work of is various projects (Radiohead, Atoms for Peace, solo work), in which he held total ownership for all official streaming portals, such as for example spotify.
On 26 December 2014, Yorke released “Tomorrow's Modern Boxes“.
The idea was to release the record via the peer-to-peer file sharing protocol BitTorrent using BitTorrent Inc's "bundles" initiative, whereby creators distribute their work in packaged torrent files. It was the first album to use BitTorrent's "pay-gate" feature; customers pay US$6 (£3.69) to download the Tomorrow's Modern Boxes torrent bundle containing eight MP3 files, cover artwork by Stanley Donwood, and a music video for "A Brain in a Bottle" featuring Yorke in boxing gloves. Users can also download a free torrent bundle containing only the "Brain in a Bottle" MP3 and video.
Yorke stated: “t's an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around. If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers. If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done”
3. The Reznor Experiment / Ghosts
Coming up in the late 80’s Trent Reznor, mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails (Industrial Metal, Electronic, Ambient) was brought up with the hierarchy of the music industry. He released six records under the label “Interscope” a sublabel of “Universal Music”. After fulfilling his contractual duties in 2008 he founded is own label (The Null Corporation), allowing him to release his own music in various new ways. His first experiment was a called “Ghosts”.
A 36-track instrumental album, became available via the band's official website. Ghosts I–IV was made available in a number of different formats and forms, ranging from a free download of the first volume, to a $300 Ultra-Deluxe limited edition package. All 2,500 copies of the $300 package sold out in three days. The album is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike licence. Similar to the announcement that ultimately led to the release of Ghosts I–IV, a post on the band's website in April 2008 read "2 weeks!" On May 5, Nine Inch Nails released The Slip via their website without any advertisement or promotion. The album was made available for download free of charge with a message from Reznor, "this one's on me," protected under the same Creative Commons licence as Ghosts, and has seen individual downloads surpassing 1.4 million. The Slip has since been released on CD as a limited edition set of 250,000.
To get more information on how the business models of Trent Raznor work watch the video below. It contains a presentation of Michael Masnick.
4. The Reznor Experiment / Saul Williams “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!”
Before Trent Reznor begun experimenting with the market with Nine Inch Nails, he used is partner’s record “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! ” by Saul Williams as a playground for his ideas. The album was available for purchase or free download at NiggyTardust.com. The website allowed users to pay $5 to support the artist and be given the choice of downloading a 192kbit/s MP3 version, 320kbit/s MP3 version or lossless FLAC version. Reznor publicised the album on the Nine Inch Nails website and mailing list, saying that "Saul's not the household name that Radiohead is" and urging fans to support him. This was a reference to Radiohead's In Rainbows. It was announced at nin.com that, as of January 2, 2008, two months since its release, 154,449 people had downloaded “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!”. Of that number, 28,322 people chose to pay the asked price of $5 USD ($141,610 USD Total). In comparison, Saul's self-titled album has sold 30,000 copies since its release in 2004. A physical release of the album was released on July 8, 2008. It contained five bonus tracks.