The Gates are Wide Open, What Now?

Due to public acceptance of digital distribution, majors are now forced to compete more and more with indie artists. The world is upside down. It used to be the major labels and distributors controlled all of the content in record stores. It used to be that they were the gatekeepers. If you wanted to get heard, you more or less had to play ball with them. Much to their chagrin, it’s all moving online now.

They tried to control the distribution there too, remember? By adding DRM and doing various PR shenanigans, which only served to alienate their customers more and more. Really, they didn’t treat their customers all that well. When I bought a Compact Disc, I could make as many copies as I liked without hassle. It wasn’t copy protected. But when I just wanted the mp3 that I was going to make with my Compact Disc, they were blocking me all the way. So I waited. And waited. And finally the Apples and Amazons of the world managed to convince enough guys in suits to get their heads out of their own arses and sell me something I actually want.

But how do you cope with all the onslaught? Anybody with a few bucks can get digital distribution now, and the album is never out of stock. And that’s a good thing. Tons of new music all the time. But how are customers to choose? Where are they finding their music? These are things which keep me up at night. If access is not limited, then is it all about exposure? And who do you trust for recommendations?

Personally, I rely on friends, and chance. If I come across something I love, I’ll make an effort to find it. Otherwise, I ask for trusted friends to recommend stuff. It is the most reliable method. Strangely, they mainly recommend the same stuff. Somehow the music is snaking through the social network. And not just in the Twitter sort of way. Lately I’ve taken to having good old fashioned listening sessions with buds, sort of an extended musical show and tell. I really find it helps to cut through the mammoth mountain of choices.

For this reason I suspect some releases and careers will take longer to build. The slower the burn, the longer the fire – that type of thing. I try to take comfort in this when I ponder the microscopic corner of the music universe I presently occupy. At least I’m not some raging forest fire.

Do major labels still have something to offer? Surely they must. They are a finely oiled PR machine. They have money – lots more than the artists usually have, but less than they used to. And if you want to be a massive overnight Pop wonder, you would have a tough time doing it without big label clout.

I often think the role of the majors may eventually become more like a consultant or an investor. Like to nurture artists to grow. Leverage their experience, their contacts. Offer something the artists need. Since a distribution monopoly is no longer something they are offering, they must offer something else. Without expertise or other value, how will they inspire their bread and butter to sign on the dotted line?

Music is the Best Revenge

The last couple days Canadian indie Youtube sensation Dave Carroll is everywhere. I first heard about him on the Ceeb, and by then, I think his Youtube video sensation “United Breaks Guitars” had already garnered half a million hits. In a strange twist of life, getting his guitar violated by an airline was maybe the best thing that ever happened to him. My indie Canadian music heart was swelling like a hot air balloon.

The story goes that United Airlines busted up his guitar — any musician knows this is like someone breaking your arm — and they refused to do right by him. So vowed to take to the interwebs and put out three videos detailing his bad customer experience and wrote up his story. I imagine, at the time, they thought “What harm can this do?”

Well, they got some really funny, really touching, really bad press. They probably hadn’t bet on Dave having some nice songwriting chops. They probably forgot how much people like to tell a great story. They probably didn’t expect the Globe and Mail to pick it up… Or ABC. Or for the big O (Oprah) to be ringing him. Did they forget about the power of the viral collective?

This is how I’ve come to think of ‘new media’. It’s not about so-called social media mavens on Twitter, it’s not about ads on Facebook… it’s about the idea that if one voice is particularly interesting, on one particular subject, it actually has a window into the collective consciousness of the world. It’s about access. Everyone has access. Most people will never get heard much, but still, they can sure darn try.

So corporations, take note. If you want to treat your customers like crap, you are free to do it. But don’t forget, everybody can broadcast it now. It’s not that you should be perfect, but you have to be prepared to go up against David. And everybody knows, David always wins against Goliath.