Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Being a Digital Only Artist by Lefty

It is pretty safe to say, without doing any research that the vast majority of music consumed, procured, and purchased nowadays is done so digitally. Slowly but surely CDs are becoming a thing of the past (much to my chagrin) as MP3s have become the music medium of choice.

The same technological boom that changed the world with the personal computer and then the internet also changed how musicians record music. With the right software and computer, it became possible for artists to record their music at home without the expense of going to a studio. And after a while, the quality of those types of recordings got better and better allowing an artist the freedom to create his/her own music without spending hundreds of dollars (if not thousands) in the studio. A band could make a one-time investment in a high quality computer and high-end recording software and turn their bedroom into their own personal studio. Now said band can record their music whenever they want, but who will release it?

The DIY movement that began in the 1980s underground scene in America proved that you didn’t need a major label to put out a record. You could record the album and put it out yourself, on your own label. This was an amazing revelation that sparked one of the most influential and revolutionary periods in rock ‘n’ roll history. But it still took money to get it all done. Many of those bands and labels struggled to stay afloat (heck many of them struggled just to earn enough to eat) and even though the door to putting out your own records has been kicked open, it was still a daunting endeavor to undertake. Enter the internet. Once things with the internet started taking off and services like Napster began changing the way that people get their music, artists were able to release their musically completely independently. It took some time for all of this to fall into place (Napster launched in 1999 and it took probably a good seven or eight years before self-releasing music online really took hold) but now a band can record a record and release it through sites like BandCamp completely on their own. No label needed.

Thanks to technology, artists can have complete artistic freedom to record and release whatever they so choose without anyone telling them what to do. But the real question is, is this a good thing? Yes often record labels can be stifling to an artist, especially major record labels looking for a hit, but sometimes a label with the right perspective can help an artist hone his/her craft. To make a related comparison, I’d like to quote Jack Rabid’s review of Guided By Voices records Universal Truths and Cycles from the 2002 50th issue of The Big Takover (which I happened to be re-reading a few months ago at work). This quote is specifically discussing GBV leaving a bigger label and returning to a smaller one and how that affected the music.
Robert Pollard’s release from the TVT label, with whom he had irreconcilable differences, and subsequent return to his old Matador home is something he desired as a strong-willed, independent artist. But is it an improvement artistically? If one considers his tenure with TVT as his attempt to go for a bigger audience than the usual 100,000 or so he routinely sells—by honing and editing his material for a bigger label into the best it could be, then working with a strong producer to make it sound deeper—then his return to a more organic, less arduous approach could feel like a step back, a white flag waved, a surrender from the truly transcendent GBV we saw last time on the band’s most developed LP, the climacteric Isolation Drills.

Rabid goes on to say that “the results of this path were never guaranteed,” meaning that it doesn’t always work out having someone help in the production/development of a record.

The case mentioned above shows the results of going from one type of record label to another, but what if there were no labels involved? How many potentially great artists will be lost in the avalanche of self-released digital-only artists because they never got the proper guidance or support that they needed for their music to grow? Some artists need that guidance to help them become the best that they can be and with the digital revolution, many of those artists can potentially go right along writing and releasing music that is not as good as it could be.

In some cases, bands start out as digital only, recording and releasing music themselves; move on to working with a label. Case in point – Candy Heart released their debut album Ripped Up Jeans and Silly Dreams in 2010 via BandCamp (see my review here). The record was quite good and the band has since signed to Kind of Like Records who will release their follow-up Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy in September. This is a path that I foresee a lot of the better digital-only bands following (I could see the same thing happen to a band like Wagers, whose 2011 digital-only releases I recently reviewed). I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a common phenomenon in the music industry. From a label stand point its great because they get to take on a band that potentially has an already large, worldwide, audience thanks to the internet. That’s less development that they will need to invest in. Plus the artist will have already asserted themselves and cultivated an audience that is bigger than their hometown.

How is this any different though then the way that things have been done for the past 30 years? With the internet a band can grow an audience without having to tour all over the world. From an investment standpoint, they have been able to create an audience without the expense or time of living in a van and putting their lives/jobs at home on hold. What’s good about this is that when said band/artist does tour there will potentially be more fans waiting to see them the first time they come to a particular city. Obviously this is the best-case scenario thinking. Just because you have a lot of fans of Facebook or followers on Twitter doesn’t mean that people will actually come out to see you play on a Tuesday night.

As I see it there are two major pros and three major cons to being a digital only artist.

The Pros –
> It’s cheaper and can be done completely independent of a record label. With doing digital only releases a band limits the cost to the recording process and if they are being self released, then the band gets the vast majority of the money from the sales of the songs and releases (minus any fees/cuts taken by sites like iTunes, BandCamp, etc.). This provides complete control to the artist for the sale and distribution of the release. It also gives them complete and total creative control over not only the music but the artwork, etc.

> More bands will be able to get there music out to be heard. Thanks to the digital age, artists have more opportunities to connect with their fans and get their music out there. Artists can get demos and new songs out to their fans nearly immediately if they so choose. They can also preview up coming releases by making individual tracks available to download prior to the release of their album.

The Cons –
> By doing digital only releases, artists have less merchandise to sell at shows. Even though people nowadays tend to buy/get a lot of their music online, many people often like to buy releases from bands at shows and that is harder to do with a digital only releases (it can be done buy selling a download code but that’s not as cool as leaving a show with a CD or record in hand).

> The flipside of avoiding working with a record label is that sometimes there are some very smart people at record labels that have a deep understanding on music and how to structure albums most affectively. There are times that an artist needs a guiding hand and with the digital revolution many bands are going to miss out on those opportunities.

> The flipside of the more bands will be able to get their music heard coin is the sad reality that there are a lot of pretty awful bands out there and now thanks to the internet their music becomes part of the thousands of other artists that people are able to sift through.

Obviously there are other pros and cons to this debate but as I see it, most of them tend to fall into the categories above.

The music industry is at a crossroads at the moment and it is still undecided whether or not the internet and digital age has been good or bad for music (you can hear an excellent discussion on this very issue from NPR’s Planet Money here). Personally I think that it has been both good and bad, just like there are good and bad aspects to being a digital only artist. Speaking purely as a fan and a music consumer, I prefer physical releases (CDs specially) to digital only releases. Have I been introduced to some great bands through the internet? Absolutely, and while I’m glad to have the releases on my computer that I do, for the ones that I really, really like, I pine to actually have the record as a CD so I can hold it and read the liner notes while listening to the music. This of course could be a generational thing. Those who have grown up with the MP3, they probably don’t have the same love for a hard copy of the release that someone who grew up with records, cassettes, and CDs does.

Finally, if you are at all curious about the history of the MP3 I highly suggest that you read The MP3: A History of Innovation and Betrayal from NPR’s The Record.

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