Buggy Whips & 8-Tracks

January 20th, 2011 § 0 comments


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Anyone care to speculate on how much longer ‘record label’ or ‘publisher’ will be a viable business? Not even thanks to the pirates sailing their captured oil tankers down the intertubes, or whatever other newfangled method people have found to get free stuff. Simply because, as archetypal middlemen with a long and distinguished history of screwing over the vast majority of people they come into contact with, their existence was long supported only by their necessity, and that necessity is rapidly dwindling. Most artists I’ve spoken to are, to say the least, less than appreciative of their works being wrapped in DRM and denied to potential customers, purely because archaic contracts ensure that someone couldn’t possibly be allowed to buy a piece of media from a US server if they aren’t in the US at the time.

It used to be the case that physical production and distribution of media was a major issue, and economies of scale meant that the up-front costs needed to cover thousands of units. The big remaining problem at the moment is still start-up funding – labels swallow the risk of promoting a new artist in exchange for keeping them locked in to a contract if they do make it – but promotion, unlike pressing CDs or printing books, has no fixed cost, nor does it require a large and risky investment. Getting that one remaining necessity, however, generally requires accepting all the crap that comes along with a traditional record label or book publisher. Any idiot can handle basic production and distribution for themselves now, but promotion can be tricky, and hiring a decent marketing or PR firm does still cost an awful lot more than the two cans of beans and old sock which constitute the sum total of what most garage bands will part with.

As soon as a big, free, social platform for music promotion comes along, the labels are dead. Same goes for book publishers, although they do still have some advantage with the tactile physical product. Artists need a kick to get themselves off the ground, but once they do, they can be the ones calling the shots. It makes a lot more sense – the marketers are providing a service to the artist, after all – but the soon-to-be-irrelevant industry executives appear to be rather too busy blaming the whole problem on the aforementioned buccaneers to notice.

[Update, 20th Feb] A rather appropriate addendum, I feel: this video is an excellent reminder both of why publishers did have an awful lot to deal with at one point, and of how much that has changed when the entirety of ‘production’ involves clicking a button marked upload.

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