Scarcity, abundance and making a living with music

Hot on the heels of my creation in the digital age post Jeff Jarvis wrote a blog post which analogously makes sense of all of this stuff. Jarvis writes about newspapers, but the situation is similar in the music industry.

It sort of makes me mad to think that the recordings per se have zero value. But it’s true. It’s true if you don’t distribute at all (nobody hears it) and if you distribute…well, after it’s released it’s on Youtube or other service in no time – which means that digital copies are made instantly for free. We all know this right? Yet we keep on thinking about ways how to monetize digital copies. It’s not working now and somehow (even as Steve Lawson thinks indies have a monetizing chance…) I’m not too sure about recorded music selling by piece ever working again. People are really not too willing to pay for large amounts of music by piece, it seems. All-you-can-eat services are promising, especially mobile shops like Nokia and streaming like Spotify. Nevertheless, some hacker will find a way to make a Iphone/Android/Symbian/RIM torrent application and there we go again. Kids share now a lot stuff via Bluetooth on their phones…

Furthermore there seems to be an abundant supply of recorded music against a relatively stable demand. Hit industry tried (and succeeded for a long time) to make people believe that old music is obsolete – now it seems that all of the history of pop music has come back with an vengeance as some of the most popular torrents in high quality audio have been the classic acts of 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Even in free, there is a competition for mindshare and the oldies are tried-and-true.  On the cover gigs you really have to play a lot of music from those days, it’s as if history has stopped…

Maybe what we have left is to be public: to try to sow our seeds as far and wide for free as we can. Nine Inch Nails sort of paved the way for this strategy. A risky road, you really need to be great for free – Youtube provides most of the visibility for NIN (over 11 million views for their videos…). As teasers for NIN gigs, those videos are really working: you really get to see NIN as the intense experience as they are.

Are gigs the only scarce thing we musos have left to sell? Touring is expensive, the risks are very real. For a small act there is only so much you can make on merchandise on a small pub gig and the entrance fee cannot be set too high. Is the only marketing strategy left the fan route: to be so great that the fans really shout for you on the roof tops and on the interweb?

The claws of competition are sharp, anybody can practice some more and really work their shows to an ever higher standard. Boston Consulting Group’s classic business advice was: ”you don’t have be the best, you need to be better than the competition”. Most of the people I know in music are really good at what they do and clever people to boot, so to compete those guys to the ground in being great sounds like a recipe for extremely hard and grueling work. Things are not being made any less easy by the fact that every year I see many new fantastic musicians growing up in our institutions, many more than the industry can absorb…

Some styles of music are really not that much enjoyed without a dance floor or a social situation – which is bad for some, because there’s no power play in the radio any more to pound ”Never gonna give you up” to your skull. Something to think about… Maybe we should stop calling popular music popular…the age when you could hear the same song being played in every home have gone.

If you can get the money issue out of your system, all the better. Paul Graham has said this much more eloquently than I ever could. Thinking about monetizing stuff is really taking away from just making the greatest stuff ever. How do you pull this stunt? I don’t know.

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