10 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (I)

Several months ago I clicked on a featured YouTube video because the screenie showed the headstock of an electric bass. I play (a very little bit) the electric bass and I'm always looking for cool bass videos. This wasn't a bass video, really, but it turned out to be a music video I really liked.

I have no idea who Stephanie Strand is, but looking at her other videos, I'd says she's a 20-something just out of college, in no way a professional musician, but a very talented amateur. She also won the genetic lottery and has a contralto voice that is sweet enough for pop but smokey enough for blues. Her music is just hooky and angular enough to sound fresh while being utterly familiar. She recorded this with GarageTunes, which she admits she's just figuring out (hence the funky drums), and did everything herself with a couple hundred bucks of amateur gear. And it sounds better than a great many studio (over-)produced tracks.

216,534 views of Strand's video to date, and strong comments. I liked one in particular: "You are extremely talented. In another era, recording companies would be rushing to exploit your talent and appeal. You may not be a well schooled musician, but nothing about your performance seems amateurish. To my ears your voice is a striking blend of Karen Carpenter, Billie Holiday, and the French actress/singer Jeanne Moreau."

"In another era . . ." Well, perhaps. But more likely she would never have been discovered by a label. No one but friends and family, or some locals at open mic night, would ever have heard her. She'd never have recorded and been heard by over 200,000 people in just one year. She'd probably never have made a cent on this song or any other. Now she gets Google ad revenue, and she's put Gutters & Drains out as a single on iTunes and Zune. I liked the song enough that originally I ripped the audio stream into an mp3. But now I've bought it off Zune, and I've clicked on her ads to support her. Maybe she's only made a quarter from me at the end of the day, but that's 100% more than she would have made from me just a decade ago.

And that's the future of music. Talented, anonymous people recording songs in their bedrooms, and finding hundreds of thousands of fans. Tell me again why we need the record labels?

As it turns out, even online music stores are tipping into a steep decline. Read this. People aren't even bothering to steal music any more. Now read this. DashGo is an indie music label. A year ago they were getting $25 from iTunes sales for every $1 from YouTube ad revenue. In twelve months that gap has closed to just 2:1. "Every day a few thousand people buy our content on iTunes. Every day on YouTube a few million people stream our songs."

If the music labels thought the death of overpriced CDs sucked, they ain't seen nothin' yet. The paradigms of music distribution are being totally smashed. "It appears if something’s not free, it gets no traction," says Lefsetz. "Used to be it was free on the radio. Then it was free on TV. Now it’s free online. And so ubiquitous that there’s no incentive to buy. . . . YouTube is free. Monetization is being figured out along the way. Maybe we need to admit music is free and work from there."

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