I did a bit of quick and not particularly authoritative research to discover that the first United States art museum open to the public was the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which opened in 1842 (as with many such things, a museum in Pennsylvania also claims the title, with a slightly different chronology). The first public art museum west of the Mississippi dates from 1881 (Washington University in St. Louis).
The first public library in this country only dates from 1848. My favorite statistic is that the first bookmobile west of the Mississippi, in Richmond, California, dates from 1947. I will explain in a subsequent post someday my theory that the bookmobile cured disease, inspired spontaneous eruptions of grace, and probably won the Cold War. Yet another post will no doubt cover my theory of a "chessmobile", a travelling chess tournament on wheels, or my idea of the "Ant Mobile" and the "Protozoan Mobile", travelling museums appealing to inquiring minds that want to know.
Today I have been reading up on netlabels and archive.org, which strike me as a way out of the woods in so many ways.
The system of music distribution in this country causes much consternation and
weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, although, sadly, much of the music produced by the corporate labels does not have a pleasing sound of outer darkness about it.
I'm going to refrain, if you'll pardon me, from railing about reality television,
the works of Ms. Ashlee Simpson, and the sad misfortunes of the entrepreneurial Olson twins. I'll drop here a brief aside that if kids want to listen to someone peppy though retreaded, that's fine with me. I don't see my goal in life to knock other people's music merely because it is not mine. I tend to knock it sometimes for a good laugh, or by way of inevitable critical comparison, but that's more a matter of taste than societal indictment.
I do think, though, that the way in which the music industry promotes artists is geared entirely to one vision of how to make money from their product. In contrast to some folks, I do not see the goal of making money as inherently wrong or sinful, so long as one is doing so by having Lindsey Lohan sing to teenagers as opposed to, say, dumping toxic sludge into childrens' lunch boxes (did I mention, though, how much I like and miss eating Twinkies?). If folks want to start companies that convince us to listen to kids singing light pop, so be it.
The dilemma for the recording artist is that there is very little in the way of a "mid list" anymore. The cost of production and promotion of a CD, along with relevant add-ons such as videos and tour expenses, usually swamp with expense recoupments the royalties earned from a particular mildly successful release, and always swamp the royalties of a relatively unsuccessful release.
This is a function of the way in which music contracts are structured, and have always been structured. For all but the most clout-filled artists, each album is a little business investment assumed by the artist, funded by the record company, which also brings to the table an effective national distribution machinery and
a rather high overhead to access and use it. The advent of the CD actually prejudiced the artist a bit, even as the price of the CD (in my opinion, too high a price for optimum sales) remained too high.
The result is that for "mid list" and below recording artists, the recording release offers exposure and perhaps a bit of tour advance, but any real income results from merchandising rights and concert appearances. Thus, the record label becomes a financing tool rather than the folks who let the narrator in "Rosalita" get married.
It's interesting to contrast this with the film situation. Motion picture producers who license to distributors also must "recoup" expenses and advances before receiving any royalties from films. The negotiation of the advance in independent films gets to be quite important, because of the simple film business saying "what you get up front is what you get". Artists, by contrast, tend to get paid a fee for the picture, with some promise, if they have sufficient clout, of some percentage in certain successful scenarios (sometimes these profit-sharing opportunities are so weighed down with caveats that the term "monkey points" has been evolved to describe them, as only a monkey would believe he or she is ever getting any money, and the recoupment clauses permit the studio to "monkey around" with the profits).
Thus, while a rock band is usually the unit of risk in a CD release, the
actor usually is instead paid a fee, and a "money person" takes the risk.
Small CD labels work differently, across a spectrum of choices. Some offer fairly liberal "percentage of gross sales" deals. Some use liberalized versions of the traditonal model. The successful ones figure out how to niche market, as they lack the capitalization to get into Wal Mart and Best Buy as the large labels can.
The unsuccessful ones mean well, and probably their insiders all make great dates for four hour coffee shop chats about music over pancakes, or, for those involved in long-term relationships, great "guess what happened at work today" conversationalists.
In this milieu, internet file-sharing technology has caused some to merely appropriate large-label releases by way of convenience or protest. Although I know this is a common practice, it is not a practice I support. Copyright laws, even when wielded by large corporations, are fundamental property protections. I would like to see copyrights expire after a few decades, rather than being continually extended as our Congress lately has done. But I do not support the Napster/Kazaa forms of protest.
Instead, I want to see the replacement of the current recording labels with
netlabels, net releases, and materials easily available on the net because the artist has made them available for reduced pricing or free. The theory of these releases is two fold. One, the artist needs exposure most of all to be able to sell out concerts and merchandise products. Second, the only way for those who do not put out songs which "fit the groove" to appear is to release via the net.
I'm not doctrinaire that things should be "free" or "low cost". I am all for experimenting in tons of different pricing models, to see how artists can make more money than in the current regime.
The wonderful thing right now is that there's a plethora of great music available either a low cost or free, as well as a host of great small label stuff with conventional pricing. As soon as I can get breathing space from work, I want to understand better the "netlabel" concept, in which releases are made for free.
So far my own forays into this area has been to conduct a handful of eBay auctions of the two releases on my kitchen-table label, which, to my relief, sold some copies. I found that my own CD, an amateur exploration of the song-potential of the electric football field, sold to enthusiasts of the electric football game, while my friend Scott's more traditional three chord pop-rock album sold to people who actually listen to music. I also gave my CD alway fairly liberally (and need to send a copy out now, actually), which resulted in some revulsion, some praise, and
one invitation to appear on someone else's compilation.
I listened yesterday to a netradio station I learned about over in microsound called "Darkdrone". It was a good accompaniment to work, primarily consisting of dark ambience and mildly experimental work. The artists appeared to be a combination of netlabel artists and small label conventional release artists.
I had not heard of most of them before. I think it was great that these folks, also kitchen-table projects, could make such professional and intriguing sounds to keep me listening at work on a Saturday.
The thing that makes this time so fascinating is that we are still discovering what this can all mean to people wishing to interconnect through the arts. I have a few observations, ill-formed:
a. when something is "free", is it tempting to take it for granted?
b. if something is a "hobby" instead of an "occupation", does that make it a lesser thing?
c. granted that mechanisms to distribute music are in place, who will take on the more challenging tasks of marketing the music of others?
These questions all have obvious enough answers, but I set them out to frame the issues a bit. I'll make the point, though, that technology has taken away from large corporations the exclusive ability to economically generate professional-sounding recordings. Technology has also taken away the immnese advantage that physical distribution infrastructure can create over independent artists.
The missing ingredient is for someone to make the neighborhood internet resource more interesting to the mass of kids than CDs they buy off of Disney Channel.
Right now, the netlabels are essentially an audiophile/hobbyist domain. Change is no longer a matter of technology, but of marketing.
The criticism has justly been made of the weblog universe and of the zine universe that when product is released in profusion independently, then there is no "quality control" over the product. This was the supposed advantage of huge publishing houses and big music labels--quality control. But now, profesional production is possible for lots of folks--and the myth is over that there is some intelligentsia in New York and London who know better than all of us do. As an aside, Heaven knows the idea of an intelligentsia in Washington was exploded merely by getting more of them to appear on cable television and pontificate to us. We now know that the "Washington media" bores us when they do not aggravate us.
The whole advantage to a popular new media is that it will emphasize the decentralization of culture, to the advantage of culture. No longer will one need to buy a fifteen dollar CD and a thirty dollar concert ticket to enjoy the experience. The future will feature the low cost CD and concert tickets which people can afford--and yet the musicians make a living.
I love "Behind the Music", because it shows all sorts of cool things about what happens to people who become pawns in the record industry's hands. But it does not show what happens to all the worthy, useful bands who stay mid-list or below.
Rank and File did more for country music while spending time off the charts playing cowpunk not many people bought than anyone did for music in Nashville with top 10 country hits did in the mid-80s. The band members of Rank and File had their moments of glory, in that band and other,s but did not end up rich or fat or happy. They are not even famous enough for a "Behind the Music" episode.
I am less concerned with whether people make a living from music, than with people being able to get alternative visions of music out into the ether. But I also believe that the way for artists to get more income from music is for alternative distribution systems to replace the punitive major label recording contract. A few artists do sell well independently, DiFranco being a familiar example, but other examples such as Trout Fishing in America coming to mind. But these new media offer
all sorts of opportunities for the creation of a new popular aesthetic for music.
As things get released that fall outside the grooves, the grooves are going to inevitably get re-carved.
In this vein, though, I think that the key is not the "we are collectivists, and hate all corporations" approach adopted by some labels. I'm all for individual choice, and certainly have nothing against collectives. But what is going to need to be part of this new movement is good old fashioned sales technique. What is needed now just as much as artists is promoters and reviewers and evocative dreamers and salespeople. When indepedent artists come to see independent release as more profitable and appealing then a big record company advance, then we'll see the barricades begin to fall. I see already sites devoted to this promotion. It's just a matter of good-hearted time and effort (or, if this effort does not appear, simple failure).
The most amazing thing to me is my feeling that the current netlabels and other distribution systems are transitory, and will be replaced in a decade with more cool, more fun ways to access new music.
I've got a lot more thoughts on all this, but I don't have them all sorted out.
It makes me want to explore and learn much more, as there is so much more out there than I know now. I think we're all plugged into a new amplifier, and a new, loud music will result.