12.14.2009

The future you were waiting for has already happened (Part 1)

When I joined Strange Land 11 years ago, the music industry still worked the way it had, at least during the history of rock music. Ever since I had picked up the guitar the dream was to write and record some songs, build a fan base, get discovered, signed, rich, and famous. Pretty early on I figured out the rich and famous part was unlikely, and that is was more important (for me anyway) to be true to my artistic vision. I'm sure I could have done something more commercial with the intent to make money but I never would have been happy.

In 1999 we released our first 4 song ep. I found this new thing called mp3.com and uploaded music to it. We did pretty well, with our song Foundation reaching number 4 in their prog chart. Now, imagine how long ago that was. I was using dial-up. If you could shell out for it and you didn't live out in the country (like I did) you could get a DSL. I was recording the band on my Powermac G3, recording to a whopping 10 gig external SCSI hard drive (Tech aside: My choice of backup back then was a SCSI DVD-RW drive that used 
cartidge-loaded dvds. I still have it, and the G3 - with a G4 chip - but I haven't powered them up in years). I didn't even have a real audio interface, I recorded into the computer via the stereo line in. If I remember right we recorded drums and bass at the same time. The drums were mixed at the board and tracked in mono. What was I thinking?! But it worked and it was a good start. Hell, I released my first acoustic album in 1999 on cd and tape.

Still, the 'make an album-build local fan base-play shows-get signed' model was still the norm. It was pretty much an all-or-nothing idea. You either broke big, even for a short while, or you languished in obscurity and faded away. MP3.com and other early online avenues were just a little extra, a new way for indie bands to reach people but not to break out big. All the mp3s were 128k bitrate, I can't recall if you could do any better. By the time we released Anomaly in 2001, CD Baby had been established and it was a great way for indie bands to sell cds. Napster was around 1999-2001 (before its shut down and subsequent resurrection) but I never saw the point in using my dial-up connection to download crappy sounding mp3s from really popular bands I didn't like. Whatever you think of the fallout from Napster and all the lawsuits, the period of the late 90's and early 00's marked the beginning of the end of the industry as I knew it. Cable internet and faster DSL use spread. Some indie musicians figured out the best ways to capitalize on this but as far as I can tell most of us were still thinking of the internet as an add-on to the old ways of doing business. The internet was like TV. Consumption was passive. There wasn't even much real advertising then. You just put your web site up and hoped people would find you. And they did. But that was about it. I think in 2001 we were only slightly more likely to get an email from a fan than a phone call or a letter.



The INDUSTRY (worthy of all caps here) was already jumping all over this, like they do with any new technology. (sarcasm) Like the good gatekeepers they are, they stepped into the hero role once again to defend helpless but creative bands, gullible but well-meaning consumers, and the thousands of people whose jobs were at stake from the record producer to the guy sweeping the studio floor (/sarcasm). First recordable cassettes would doom the industry. Then it was recordable cds. Then mp3s and file sharing. It never occurred to them to examine the way they were doing business. Were they releasing good music? No, they stumbled on Nirvana and then signed every other band in Seattle that wore flannel shirts. Somebody manufactured a hit with Brittany Spears so they went out and signed every young woman they could doll up like an All-American Lolita. Did they think that maybe $15 or more wasn't a good price for a cd? No. (Food for thought: a mass produced cd costs $2 or less to make. Most major label deals pay less than $1 to the artist after recouping costs. Where is the rest of this money going?). So they drag their heels, kick up a fuss, and blame everybody else for their perceived woes. The truth is, the music biz was still doing pretty good in the early 2000's. But, the music biz emperor had no clothes. Instead of trying to figure out how to use new technology to their advantage, they tried to kill it. And then came myspace. And iTunes. And Rhapsody. And bit torrents. And Facebook.

(to be continued)