Industrial Revolution: Revaluing Music

Unlike some of the more desperate record company execs, indie artists today are not clinging to the fading music revenue models of the past. Instead of mourning the loss of record sales, these musicians are rethinking the value of their music, pioneering new methods of conveying their artistic output to listeners while still receiving something of value in return.

Many artists find that selling their music direct to fans, via their own Web sites and utilizing the variety of commerce tools available on the web, can make up for the decrease in overall sales. Many such commerce tools are highly user-friendly and in the end take only a very small piece of the revenue pie, relative to retail stores like iTunes and longtime artist favorites like CD Baby. The artist, then, receives the lion’s share of the price paid by the fan.

In addition, buying music direct from the band makes a difference from the perspective of the fan. The perception by the latter that they are giving money to an artist that they like and want to support, rather than to a company (retail or record”even if the artist has a label that obviously receives a share), personalizes the music attainment experience and breaks down the growing cognitive barrier to paying for music at all.

Other artists are experimenting with new ways of seeing a return for their recorded output. Many observers wonder how vinyl sales could possibly be growing while music sales are generally way down, but the answer is that it is expressly because of the de-valuation of common CDs and MP3s that vinyl has found new worth. The rarity of vinyl (though growing at a very healthy clip, vinyl still comprises a minute fraction of music sales), along with the relative opulence of the packaging, the (arguably) higher-fidelity and the retro-chic factor, have made vinyl LPs seem worth shelling out for to music consumers otherwise reluctant to pay for the ubiquitous compact disc or completely intangible MP3 file. The increasingly common practice of making a digital download part of the package has boosted this value immensely. Very recently, many artists have taken this concept and run with it, releasing unique versions of their albums on that near-extinct portable favorite, the cassette.

Have you heard their new tape?

It’s not only indie bands getting in on the action. Radiohead, as previously discussed in this column, is always trying something different, from the pay-what-you-like model of 2007’s In Rainbows to the newspaper album version of this year’s The King of Limbs. And when you’re The Flaming Lips, what else is left to do but release your music on a flash drive, buried in a life-sized human skull made entirely of gummy?

Damien Hirst's favorite new album.

Still other artists try to add value to the more pedestrian CDs and MP3s by bundling them with non-music merchandise, like t-shirts and posters. In effect, neither the music nor the merch is the primary product. Only together do they appear to comprise something worth buying. Sometimes even that doesn’t whet the appetite of the fan, who steadfastly refuses to pay for something they feel is and/or should be available for free. There is a way, however, that clever artists can still see something in exchange for their music. Money, after all, isn’t everything. In a recent experiment, David Byrne and Brian Eno released their record Everything That Happens Will Happen Today in exchange for just the listener’s email address, via the Topspin platform, a young company which exists to seek additional answers regarding the new way of doing things in music. Email addresses are extremely valuable, both practically and theoretically, in ways not even developed yet. Direct access to music fans via email is a way to cut through the sound and fury of Internet and media bombardment.

In any of the examples discussed here, the running theme is getting direct-to-fan involvement and cutting out the middleman. Let’s face it, cassettes won’t ever come back and Radiohead already ditched pay-what-you-like and probably won’t be doing another newspaper album. But these are all important steps in boiling down the exceptional opportunity provided by the web to kill off the old and often artist-suffocating music business model.