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As new technologies and economics shake out the music business, hitting the road and making personal contact are more important than ever

The future 

As new technologies and economics shake out the music business, hitting the road and making personal contact are more important than ever

You've heard the stories of kids getting sued by the music industry for downloading songs, and you've witnessed the bizarre and desperate stunts big media companies are staging to try to get attention for their major artists, even as sales for those artists drift lower.

New technologies will certainly have an impact on the way we listen to music, but what are the ripple effects of the Internet and the oft-mentioned music industry crisis for local bands, clubs, music stores and labels? Is the independent music scene getting crushed by new technology, or has it been liberated from the majors' hold on distribution and pricing?

To get a glimpse of the brave new world of music, The Independent asked several long-time observers and participants in the local music community to look into the future and consider what lies ahead.

The future of music is ...
...digitized
"There is kind of a growing divide between the digital and the physical," says Fred Stutzman, a programmer with ibiblio, UNC's online library project. Stutzman says he still buys CDs because he loves the artwork and the liner notes, and he loves having the whole album. "Maybe I'm an object fetishist," he jokes. As part of his work building digital music archives, he's watched a shakedown--both legal and artistic--as musicians and their advocates in the music industry grapple with the new technologies.

A geek and a music lover, Stutzman sees things in a positive light. "What you're really seeing is people are re-contextualizing music. They're making it their own experience as opposed to the album, something that's presented to them. They're constructing playlists out of what they want to hear."

The move toward the digital formats is inevitable, he says; best to embrace it early. Though some see it as a threat, the effect, he says, can be helpful.

"By having access to music, legally or otherwise, I broaden my horizons and sometimes I eventually buy things that I might not have bought. If I can listen to it, I'll give it a chance and I'll experience it."

But embracing the technology doesn't necessarily mean musicians need to hand over all their songs to file swappers. Stutzman has created a site called SharedSounds.org, which he wants to make into a hub for people eager to find out about the free, shared music on the web. Material posted to Shared Sounds, whether it's audio samples or posted comments, is licensed under a "share alike" license designed by Creative Commons, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to traditional "all rights reserved" copyright.

"I like the idea of sharing," Stutzman says. "I especially like the idea of sharing in the climate of other people who want to share. The music industry has been so hard on people who want to do that."

The ripple effects of digitized music are turning out to be good for musicians, he says, though they might not be great for independent labels and record stores. It's becoming easier all the time to make your own CDs and get the word out about shows, thus easier to make a band succeed while bypassing the gatekeepers and the flailing mainstream music biz altogether.

"Talk to any band in the Triangle. One of the first things they're going to say to you is, 'Here's our Web site. You can download our songs.' I mean, people want to share their music. People want it to be heard. It's the ultimate form of viral marketing and free promotion." Stutzman says he downloads his friends' songs from their Web sites directly to his iPod. No need to walk into a store or fork over a 16-digit number.

But technology is just a small aspect of music. It can never replace the band, the show and the live experience. "There's more to being a band than just putting out MP3s. I mean, I can sit in my room and record myself on guitar and make MP3s and share them with the world. There's a big difference between [that] and a band that actually goes out and tours."

...live
For most bands, the secret to success hasn't changed much, says Frank Heath, owner of the Cat's Cradle, the Carrboro music venue that's been the touchstone of the Triangle music scene. Playing live is still the best way to get a buzz going. "The essence of a band is people going to see them. When you get the response from the crowd, that's got to be more of a rush than someone buying their CD somewhere else. They've got to be two completely different feelings."

Heath's employees are busy cleaning out old papers, posters and other detritus from the club's offices. The black walls look strange in the daylight that filters through the back door. "We do this every semester," he smiles. Such is the rhythm of life in a college town. As time goes on, the venue stays the same. Same pool table, same video games in the corner, same graffiti on the walls. Though attendance has been down since 9-11, and the economic downturn took its toll, Heath says the university crowd helps keep business steady.

While audiences may have thinned out, the number of bands seeking a show has jumped.

Heath says he's "bombarded" with demo CDs and hardly has time to check out bands' Web sites. The directory of booking agents has gotten a lot thicker, too. The result is that by late January, the club already is booked solid for late April and early May. Five years ago he probably wouldn't have had more than a couple of shows booked that far ahead.

"It's become more of a business, a dog-eat-dog kind of business. I don't know if that's good for anybody."

Competition is fierce, and it's hard for a band to break through. Heath says fame seems to come and go faster these days, especially for the "pop-punk" bands geared toward teenage audiences. But the road to success is the same as it's always been, he says. "A lot of bands that have been popular in this area, the way they got popular was they started playing for their friends at parties. Then they got a show at a club and they told their friends, and 50 people came. And the club owner was happy because they sold some beer." When people walking by the club see a crowd listening intently, they're drawn in, too. The power of a live audience is everything.

For locals trying to maintain a national or even regional presence, staying on the road, though grueling, is a must.

David Spencer has spent the better part of the last year on the road, touring with Jim Mathus and his Knockdown Society. "I think we did 120 dates in the last year, which means that about two-and-a-half weeks of every month we were on the road." The Chapel Hill guitarist has been playing music for 15 years. He says it's hard work, but a real musician plays all the time. You play when you're sick, you play when you feel good, you play when you've had one drink too many, you play when they're charging you $4 for a beer. You play the songs in your sleep and hopefully you wake up sometime in the middle of the set. "It's almost like you need to write the name of the town on the monitor so you can remember where you are."

Knockdown Society recently moved over from the Disney-owned Mammoth Records (formerly a favorite Triangle indie label that was bought out in 1997) to Fast Horse Recordings, an emerging musician-owned indie based in Denton, Texas. "They put out the music they love, but you've got to go out and tour to support it. They're not paying us money to stay at home."

Touring is crucial both for the success of the band and for the quality of the music. "As a player, you've got to play night after night after night." The intensity of life on the road pushes the band to the next level. "The joke is, until you all walk into the Waffle House and sit in separate booths, you're not really playing music together."

Laura Ballance would prefer to stay home these days. After 15 years of touring while playing bass for indie-rock band Superchunk, she's developed an allergy to cigarette smoke and no longer likes the taste of beer. Merge, the independent record label she founded with bandmate Mac McCaughan, has been around as long as their band--maybe longer. "When we started it, there was never any intention for it to become what it is now. Now I'm stuck running a record label," she laughs.

Being a musician makes her feel that much more responsible for making sure a band's record sells. "But I also know from personal experience that you have to tour a lot, and you have to keep doing it. I think the best way to sell records is for it to translate into a personal experience for the consumer, and that's seeing the band live and going, 'Wow, they're awesome! I'm going to buy their CD right now.' And they'll listen to it because they're like, 'I saw them. I got it from them. The guy handed me my change and I looked him in the eye.'

"Which is sort of strange when you think about how impersonal the whole downloading and CD copying thing is," she adds. That may be one reason, she says, that getting out and performing live has become even more important.

...focused on hits
Ballance blames the downturn in music sales not on the Internet but on the product the major labels are pushing. "They put out a Britney Spears album with a bunch of crap on it, and there's one hit, and people are like, 'Why should I buy this album? I don't want to listen to anything but this one song.' It's been that way for years. Now people finally have the opportunity to get just the song."

Singles, not albums, are the emerging form of online music distribution. Apple's iTunes store, which allows consumers to buy individual songs for 99 cents, has become the commercial model. Merge now has a deal with iTunes. But the kind of music Merge produces has always been more album-oriented, as is most of the stuff that's played on college radio. What will a singles format mean for labels that are geared toward developing artistic talent? "Our relationship is in its infancy, so it's hard to say," Ballance says.

But the iTunes model has got her thinking: Maybe releasing singles isn't such a bad idea. "It does kind of liberate people from the concept of the album. Now you don't have to write 12 songs and record them all. You can just record a song and put it up there, and people can buy it, one song at a time." She says it's a bit more like the '40s and '50s, before the album form really existed. "That could be cool. It may be harder to make a living. I guess, just like back then, it will involve more touring for the artists to be able to support themselves. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Some crazy kids really like touring."

Musician Jenny Toomey, whose band Tsunami played many gigs in the Triangle back in the day, founded the Future of Music Coalition to deal with the economic issues artists face. The Washington, D.C.-based public interest group brings together musicians, techies, policy makers and intellectual property lawyers to come up with fair and sustaining approaches to changes in the music biz. Toomey says iTunes is the most positive development she's seen in the past year. "It's not paying for itself yet, but that said, it's demonstrating that there is a market for people who want to buy music." She hopes iTunes will continue to develop its relationship with indie labels.

Stutzman, who loves the digital format, says iTunes is not a perfect model because it assigns the same value to every song and doesn't accommodate album-oriented material. "I think that's kind of indicative of what the record companies are trying to do now," he says. Major labels are getting wise to listeners' tastes at last, releasing more compilations of singles that are reaching the top of Billboard charts.

"I think there's going to be kind of a shakeout and some efficiency shifts where the artists get more fairly compensated."

Toomey says the industry's major players are having trouble navigating the new marketplace. Some of the power grabs that seemed like done deals have been undone by smart listeners and creators who refused to let the industry dictate the terms. The Recording Industry Association of America tried to establish control over setting digital royalties, but they lost. Sound Exchange, a balanced board of half-industry and half-artistic community representatives, is in charge. "It's the first royalty system in the United States that pays performers as well as songwriters," Toomey says. And the non-commercial Webcasters hurt last year by new rules have since worked out a lower flat fee that will allow live streams of college radio broadcasts to stay on the air.

...bypassing the gatekeepers
What if iTunes were to bypass the labels entirely, setting up deals directly with musicians? An independent online music seller called CDBaby, based in Portland, Ore., is offering to help artists do just that by digitizing their music for iTunes. "There's an incredible opportunity for the artists to make 70 to 90 percent of the profit," says Toomey. "For folks who've been smart enough to hold onto their copyrights, it's a great way to make money. And for artists who are coming up, it's an incentive for them to keep their copyrights."

That sounds good to hip-hop artist Cesar Comanche. He sees online music as "a double-edged sword." "If you're smart with the way you do things and you keep your music under wraps, you can make some money." The 27-year-old and his crew, the Justus League, started their own labels, the Hall of Justus Music Group and Defenders of the Free World. "It would be in my best interest to stay independent, because the buzz continues to grow for us." His creative freedom is worth too much, he says. He also believes there's more money in independence, "because I don't have to pay other people first before I pay myself with what's leftover. I don't like that scenario."

In the 1990s, West Coast rapper Master P proved it was possible to do it yourself. His independent record store and label No Limit made him a millionaire without any help from the mainstream music industry. "That was the first time people saw that you could go platinum with your own label. I think that really changed the game," Comanche says. "And that's why cats from major labels are getting fired at the drop of a hat. It's because people are learning how to do music themselves and making money themselves."

Mike Philips, owner and buyer of the four-store, Triangle-based Schoolkids Records chain, says consignment sales remain a solid venue for local artists.

"If they sell me a CD for $10, I usually try to sell it for $10.99." Philips says there has been an increase in consignment sales, which he estimates now make up between 6 and 8 percent of his business. "Some of the CDs we take in aren't very good, and some are very good. We don't judge 'em, we just try to sell 'em for people." Little Brother, another local hip-hop success, was originally a consignment, he says. "We sold an awful lot of that. There has to be a buzz being created in order to get the kind of response that they got."

Spencer, of Knockdown Society, has some advice for aspiring musicians. "I would say, get a band together and find a way to go on the road." All you need is a record distributor, a booking agent and a publicist. Hire your own people. Sell your own merch. Buy your own bus if you can. "Record your own albums, pay for them yourself. Get a good Web site. And try to shop your own songs. Where does the money really come from? Even the greatest artists out there are making more money off of touring than record sales."

Southern Culture on the Skids is a great example, Spencer says, of a wildly successful local band that never gets played on the radio. "They have established, in marketing terms, brand-name recognition--you know what you're going to get when you see them. And they have done that so long and so well and so consistently that they have a lifetime job." As long as they're willing to spend life on the road.

...uncertain for record stores
Record stores may be the hardest hit by the change in technology. The Triangle is losing its independent music shops at an alarming rate--Lost City in Chapel Hill, Radio Free Records in Durham--and with them, the culture of the music store as arbiter of taste.

Vinyl has come back, especially among hip-hop fans who want to own the original sources of their favorite samples. That's been good for Four Four Records in downtown Raleigh, a store that actually sells records. Comanche filmed his video for "Lamb to Lion" in front of the store. "If there were no such thing as Four Four or Record Exchange, I guarantee you that you wouldn't be able to find independent stuff in Best Buy and Sam Goody and places like that."

Small-scale operations threaten the big commercial side of the music industry, Comanche insists, not the other way around. That threat could become even more powerful if the scene could get more organized. "The more I travel around--there are a lot of places that wish they had it as good as we have it in the Triangle. I think there's going to be a whole lot more innovations in marketing and getting people out there."

One of those innovations is the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, a national network of 75 stores that works much like the BookSense model for independent bookstores. Philips, owner of Schoolkids, says CIMS lobbies for lower prices, "and we share ideas and swap merchandizing ideas and discuss ways to stay in business."

Philips isn't saying business is bad. "We do OK, but only because we're very cool people. Being independent, we can react to trends very quickly. We quite honestly carry a lot of stuff that nobody else wants to carry, a lot of local merchandise that the big chains just don't want to deal with." He says that most of Schoolkids' sales come from used CDs and CDs from small, independent labels, which tend to be more affordable, as opposed to the bait-and-switch discounts at places like Best Buy.

To hear him tell it, you would almost believe there are two separate music businesses: one for the mainstream, and one for those seeking out the obscure.

Are the connections that have held together that smaller side of the business under strain?

The Web has been good for Heath's business. "The Internet for the Cat's Cradle is a godsend, because we sell about half of our tickets online." It's easier to promote shows, too. "I don't feel as frantic about going through every avenue possible to put up flyers." But Heath has mixed feelings about online ticket sales. "It's too bad that those 200 people aren't going into record stores."

He also thinks the ability to get concert tickets as an impulse buy contributes to "a throw-away mentality." Etix, the Cradle's online ticket seller, estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of tickets they sell are never cashed, versus the 2-to-3 percent of printed tickets that go unused. "Which means people are buying them like they buy milk. These shows don't mean as much to these people, or they don't have as much of a vested interest in seeing a show in general." He suspects that the impersonal nature of the Web can mean less personal connection to the music.

...uncertain for labels
That lack of awareness, or interest, among consumers of the impact of their buying habits is the very issue the major labels are complaining about. But considering the slim margins that indies exist on, the ethical issue is more serious.

"I think CD copying has hurt more than downloading," says Ballance of Merge Records. Whereas people are unlikely to download an entire album, they can copy an album from a friend who has it. "What really pisses me off is how people will tell me they do it, and act like, well you know, it's normal. And the fucked up thing is, it is normal. Everybody does it. People will tell me, 'Yeah, I got a copy of your record from a friend of mine. It's great.' What am I supposed to say? 'Thanks!'?"

But she acknowledges that technology is making the old models irrelevant. "What it boils down to is that record labels just have to be adaptable," Ballance says. "It seems like it's inevitable that possibly physical product will be eliminated, if not completely then almost. Because while you and I are attached to having the physical CD and the artwork, kids who have grown up downloading music, it doesn't matter as much to them. Music is something they hear, it's not something they hold in their hand."

...shaking out now
So what is the future of music? Despite her organization's name, Toomey says, "That's not a question we answer. Anybody who says they know what the future is has an ulterior motive, and we're here to point out that ulterior motive."

There's a lot of change right now, she says. "But the new structures being created are being created in the view of the public, which means that there's pressure to make them more equitable than the structures negotiated behind closed doors."

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Internet is not quite the great equalizer it was heralded to be. When companies have a monopoly in other media, that dominance translates online. Consolidation pressure--which Toomey's group has been fighting intensely--could jeopardize advances for musicians online. "The structures that are being built on the Internet are being built in a way that's more equitable. But in the face of extreme consolidation, it's very difficult for musicians or independent contractors to sustain the benefits of those new equitable structures."

Go back to the impetus for the label's creation, and perhaps there's a clue what role it can play now. "We started Merge because there were a lot of bands in the area who were really good and doing great stuff and being productive," Ballance says, "but they'd be around for a while and then just disappear. There was nothing locally to preserve any record that they ever existed, or to keep them going." Bands can cut out the record label altogether. "There has to be someone, though, to help promote the band."

The number of bands is truly overwhelming, after all. "We help narrow things down a little bit," Ballance says. And labels like Merge--and Sugar Hill, and Yep Roc, and Pidgeon English--each have their own identities. That's something that bands want to be a part of because listeners are drawn to it. "That's what gives me hope," she says. EndBlock

Links

  • Shared Sounds: www.sharedsounds.org
  • Cat's Cradle: www.catscradle.com
  • Knockdown Society: www.jamesmathus.com
  • The Future of Music Coalition: www.futureofmusic.org
  • Cesar Comanche: www.cesarcomanche.com
  • Merge Records: www.mergerecords.com
  • Coalition of Independent Music Stores: www.cimsmusic.com
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