No more bottleneck

An industry is one or more organizations turning a unique thing into a mass product. The magic happens when they succeed in transferring the real value of the original to a perceived value of the copy. Which is exactly what the music industry did.

From the first LPs over 100 years ago to the CDs in the 90s, the music business was able to pull that trick because of several reasons: Everybody loves music. Music is an expression of self. Music is fashion. Being a fan of something is great. They could serve all these needs at once. And they had control over the whole system. Music corporations were not only making the discs, but also handling the licenses of the music itself. And they decided who would become the next big thing and who wouldn’t. They were the bottleneck with a built-in valve to both artists and audience.

Of course this has changed. The bottleneck has been bypassed with millions of tubes. There’s no more need for any musician to wait for an A&R’s consent so they can make an album. They make an album and give it away for free. Of course the industry doesn’t like this, because they can no more justify the prices they used to charge. It’s understandable they still blame illegal downloading, but this isn’t the real problem. Since the introduction of tape recordings, people shared their music. On the web, they can only do it on a larger scale, which means the permeation time is reduced. Illegal downloading itself is out of fashion for years.

Here’s why: People have not been re-educated. What they were educated to do was to wait for the next big thing to be announced via print or in-store ads, radio DJs or TV commercials and go buy it. Listen and repeat. A tradition they could easily pass to their children because it was all passive.

Now imagine going to somebody and saying: “There’s 10 million artists out there on the web, find one you like, become a fan and help them become superstars. You can do it. If you don’t do it, nobody will.” People still think upside down. Someone will tell them who is a star so they know what to buy and like. Same problem with radio. They too don’t know where to go. Now we get to know that they’re no experts at music at all, they only eat what they’re being served. And because great fresh produce on the music biz menu is sparse they resort to canned stuff.

What people have learned quickly is that the likelihood of excistence of a ‘more value for money’ or ‘same value for less money’ alternative is 10,000 times bigger thanks to the web. But they have no clue how to find it. This sounds like a big opportunity. Imagine having a site that allows to search for…stop.

Actually, this is what musicians promoting themselves need to do, similar to approaches Derek Sivers posted years ago. So if you are “U2 with hard guitar riffs and Shakira on drugs singing”, don’t be afraid to use that term all over your promo activities. Chances are people will (slowly) learn to search for phrases exactly like this on the web. Maybe there’s a staging post like a site with a set of modules that give users a rough idea what to look for and ultimately make sophisticated use of Google’s search to deliver to the user’s doorstep. In the long run, the new culture of finding music will have worked its way to the people who you want to be found by. One way or the other. And if they happen to be brought by their friends, you’d welcome them too, I guess. Just remember you can’t force anyone to find you.

For musicians, the old way of thinking ‘how you make it’ was more attractive because the story was one of a single effort, very hard but only once and you’d be done — like buying a lottery ticket. If you won, you’d just have to do what you like and what you’re good at — making music. Today’s story is one of continuous effort, doing what you don’t like because more often than not you’re not good at it — marketing, selling, taking care of stuff — and if you’re lucky, you can spend an hour a day making music, because the rest of your day is consumed by a job you need to have to pay your bills.
The old dream was that you had to get out of your comfort zone just once, get that record deal, and you’re good to go. The new nightmare is that you have been banned from your comfort zone permanently. Meet people. Talk to people. Get people to help you. Realize that selling music is – like selling whatever – about people. This is scary, especially for introverts.
Another problem musicians might be facing is what to tell to their (yet to become) fans. Having a blog is a sensible thing, but of course no one expects an artist to write a cat blog. Artists should be telling stories about how great the exclusive night club party was or how they totally wrecked the hotel room $50,000-a-night-suite. Or if they want to be on the safe side, what the latest charity event was like (and who they ended up in hotel with and totally wrecked…you get the idea). After all, they’re stars, aren’t they? So we want them to act like stars. People don’t want to read about how hard your day was before you picked up the guitar to write a new song. Booooorrrrinnng! Or how you tried to do whatever. Nobody cares, as long as it’s not in their particular field of interest. And 95% of the time, it’s not. Don’t bother me with details. Somehow an audience is the worst boss you’ll ever have, as long as you have to prove yourself. When you’re successful, this takes care of itself. Of course it doesn’t, but it’s easy compared to being the unknown artist, isn’t it?

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