Of Troubadours and P2P

There is a good chance that, if you’re reading this, you’ll have at least ten songs on your media player of choice whose origins are, shall we say… questionable? Napster, much to the chagrin of the world’s media tyrants, was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Or, perhaps more accurately, just the first trickle of a giant flood. The development and perfection of peer to peer distribution cannot be considered anything short of a drastic paradigm shift for the music industry: one that absolutely none of the industry giants have, as yet, successfully adapted to.

It took the RIAA’s pack of tamed lawyers years of fruitless lawsuits, but even they’ve finally hoisted the white flag. Though they now seek the aid of internet service providers to stamp down more directly on media piracy, the technology to spoof, mask or otherwise circumvent their detection already exists – notably, via the same established routes famously utilized by Chinese political dissidents and other underground journalists around the world.

Information, as the hacker credo goes, wants to be free. And once it’s public, only the destruction of every recording device ever exposed to it can ensure its continued privacy – including the very brains of those exposed to it. After all, what is remembered can be reconstructed or reverse-engineered.

This is not, however, to say that the birth of Bittorrent was the death knell of the music industry. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that any artist or studio that isn’t thriving in the digital era only and solely have themselves to blame. Or, perhaps, their publicitors.

While P2P is a threat to the RIAA, it also represents unprecedented power for individual studios, groups and artists. Nothing gets the word out about a new release or hot new talent anywhere as fast as a youtube clip, digital sample, forum post or favorable blog review. There exists no better or more efficient method of grabbing a giant audience right off the bat than to literally give away your music- remove all obstructions, including financial, between your music and a potential new fan.

Of course, the RIAA already knows this. What they somehow still don’t know is how to answer the followup question: “how to turn exposure into sales?”

Short answer: you don’t.

Long answer: Stop thinking in terms of CD sales!

Radiohead’s experimentation with voluntary payment proved two things: the first was that the combination of good music, a recognizable name and smart publicity trumps the entirety of the RIAA’s industrial machinations. People are more than willing to pay the studio or artist directly to show support for good music.

The second was that there is a nontrivial minority willing to pay extra for even better quality. The technical superiority of analog, vinyl records, and their inherent collectibility, is still very much in demand.

Since their door-smashing debut of “Funeral,” The Arcade Fire has been one of the most pirated indie bands in existence. Their fame, built upon a foundation of whimsical, melancholic, tragic, nostalgic and stunningly beautiful pop rock, is well-deserved. The uniformly positive blog reviews didn’t quite match their CD sales – which were nonetheless red-hot – but matched perfectly with the enthusiasm of their perpetually sold-out, and lucrative, live performances.

The career of Pablo Francisco, called “a Latino Robin Williams, only funnier and more relevant,” by Wave Magazine’s Mitchell Alan Parker, mirrors this trend. Said Francisco during an interview with Parker, “I sold 17,000 copies of my last album, but sold out shows in Europe like crazy. … If you want to hijack Pablito, you go right ahead, because I don’t care about the album sales. My money is away.”

An assertion: the RIAA is obsolete and deserves a quick and final death. What artists need aren’t giant physical media distribution controllers – which strip away the vast majority of the revenues generated by CD sales – but server farms, vinyl presses and savvy agents. What artists need to do is mingle with their fans. Hold concerts. Perfect their showmanship alongside their craft. Take a lesson from their most ancient of forebearers, the lowly troubadour, and blend in an eclectic mix of digital wizardry and global relevance.

A brilliant, dazzling, multifaceted future exists for this new generation of artists, just waiting for the first geek with an amplified six-stringer to figure out how to exploit it. Ignore the old, decrepit dinosaurs in suits- ignore their outdated propaganda. Go ahead and remind them why the future is the domain of the young, and that the punk spirit is well and truly alive.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on January 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “Of Troubadours and P2P”

  1. Well said. I don’t understand how piracy could even negatively effect music artists (financially)… I always assumed they made a lot more from shows and merchandise then they did CD sales. Especially those under mega labels.

  2. They don’t get much – pennies or a dollar at most on every album sale. Merch and shows and options that let them cut out the middle man entirely, like “pay something for this, and download it” (which also happens to have the “pay nothing” option, for people who might want to just sample the group and see if they like their sound. Having to pay $13-$20 to experiment on whether you like a group is expensive, and it’s not like radio play actually gives you any sense of the real sound of the group. (ex. Gorillaz, who, on the radio, you would think are pretty musical and beat-oriented… but on their albums are much less polished and more single-loop based with verse over the top.)

    Anyway, I think the communications networks that we have now are robust enough that people can abandon the idea of using a media conglomerate to achieve popularity, and can instead go direct-to-digital and profit. If they’re good, they’ll get the people and the money. And they won’t have to pay anyone but themselves.

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