Thursday, April 16, 2009

How I Learned To Beat The Music Industry

Subtitle: The Method Behind the Manifesto

I want to briefly explain some of the reasoning behind my previous post, "The Artist 2.0 Manifesto" (here it is, in case you missed it.)

After years of trying to "get signed," I made the decision to concentrate on teaching, while still writing and performing on the side. However, I never let go of the "musical dogma" I had developed over those years. That is, the ideas pertaining to the commercial potential of a song, sticking to a certain musical genre, creating an "image" etc. Even though I no longer had a burning desire to get signed, these thoughts still colored my thinking and perception.

Over the past 3 or 4 years, I have spent quite a bit of time researching emerging methods unsigned artist can use to disseminate and promote their music. My initial motivation was that of convincing my students that they don't need to "get signed" in order to have a successful career. I've learned a lot, which is nothing new to readers of my blog, so I won't bore you with the details.

I have also developed a theory, for which I have little or no hard data, only my own observations. I believe that most people are much more eclectic in their musical tastes than the "Music Industry" would have you believe. For example, most of the people I know, whether they are musicians or non-musicians, have a wide variety of musical styles in their ipods and iTunes music libraries. I have also noticed a number of independent artists recently who are incorporating numerous genres into their music. This is most prevalent with artists in the Creative Commons movement (Jamendo,) but I'm even seeing it on MySpace. I've also met many people who are not musicians, but enjoy listening to more "challenging" music.

I also believe that the success of Susan Boyle calls into question nearly everything the industry has asked us to believe regarding "image" over the last 30 years. If you doubt this, go to and look at some of the artists who were successful before 1981 (the year MTV went on the air.) Some of those folks were not very pretty, but they were amazingly talented. In fact, many of them continually evolved as artists as well, and one album often sounded completely different from another. In fact, you might find a wide musical variety on one album. All of those things are "no-no's" by today's major-label standards. Here's a good example: Van Morrison would probably not get signed today.

I think we have quite a bit of ground to cover before we find a working business model for musical artists, but I do believe the old rules no longer apply. It's time to let go of old dogma!
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Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Artist 2.0 Manifesto

Insofar as the nature of the transmission and dissemination of art and media has been irrevocably altered in the past 10+ years, it may also follow that the nature of the artist can and must evolve. Despite the best efforts of the Music Industry and the Entertainment Industry at large, the internet has uncorked the bottle, and the genie has been emancipated. The pigeons are no longer content to stay snug in their holes. We now live in a world where walls are being toppled, both physical and metaphysical. It is quite possible, in point of fact, that many of the aforementioned walls never even existed. Perhaps recent events have lifted the veil in front of our eyes, so that we may finally see that the walls were never there to begin with.

In our former life, the Music Industry would tell us what we liked, and we would dutifully hand over our shekels in exchange for their Product. When they sensed a disturbance in The Force, every so often they would allow an Alternative Product to emerge, only to quickly co-opt it for maximum profit.

The Artist, at the time, was a commodity, tightly controlled and groomed for maximum profitability. A Formula was instituted, and only occasionally tweaked until maximum profitability was summarily achieved. If maximum profitability was not quickly achieved after a few tweaks of the Formula, the Artist was quickly jettisoned, to be immediately replaced by a younger, fresher version. However, if the Formula proved successful, it would be milked for all it was worth over a period of many years, until the artist either self-destructed in a magical blaze of fire or was, once again, jettisoned.

If the Artist began to yearn for increased creativity or artistic evolution, he or she was quickly reigned in. Some Artists were eventually able to achieve a degree of manumission after a period of many years. Others were sometimes given their own "Boutique Label," or allowed to operate under a separate persona if they wished to create Product outside the bounds of the Formula. However, even these activities were tightly controlled, in order to achieve maximum profitability.

Despite all this, the patronage of the Music Industry, in the form of the Record Contract, was a gold ring sought after by almost every Artist. Yet, in exchange for this gold ring, the Artist usually gave up everything. The Music Industry owned the Artist, as well as the Product, with an ironclad contract. The Artist believed he or she was unable to function outside of the Industry, and this was often the case. The Industry controlled the distribution channels, as well as the flow of information and money.

Of course, the Music Industry relied heavily on the assumed naivete of the Consumer, who seemed willing to accept any Formula that was handed to them. Accordingly, they served as another wall, the wall between the Artist and the Consumer. They instituted the Filter, through which the Artist and Consumer would only see what the Music Industry allowed them to see.

Then came the internet, and we began to unplug from our matrix. The Consumer began to realize that it didn't necessarily like what it was being fed. Sure, maybe it liked Britney Spears, but it also wanted to listen to some country, and maybe some jazz. And, you know, this noise rock band it found on the internet was pretty cool. And hey, here's a really good ska band, and what about this salsa song and this rap artist? The artist, in turn, began to realize there was a way around the filter. A hole had been punched in the wall.

The Music Industry was flabbergasted. How were they going to control the Consumer and the Artist now? The internet didn't have nicely segregated bins like Sam Goode! Communication between the neatly defined segments of Consumer and Artist was now possible. Different Consumer segments could intercommunicate, and they could communicate with the Artist as well. The cat was out of the bag, and thus began the slow, steady, continuing decline of the powers-that-be.

It is a new order, a time for a new business artistic model. In a world without borders, we must assume that the Audience (formerly the Consumer) will be as sophisticated, and perhaps even as eclectic, as we are. In the early days of our movement, before we were all part of the collective hive mind, this was the case, and it seems to have returned to the spirit of those halcyon days.

In accordance, we the undersigned, artists, pledge the following:
  1. We will no longer create art solely for a specific audience or demographic.
  2. We do not need to create separate artistic personas for different aspects of our creativity.
  3. We will allow our creativity free reign.
  4. We will no longer refer to our art solely as a Product.
  5. We will not allow our art to be governed by a Formula.
  6. There is no longer a Consumer. There is only the Audience.
  7. It is perfectly acceptable for an artist to release a country song and a freeform jazz exploration on the same record.
  8. We will no longer use the phrases "is this accessible" or "could someone whistle this melody?"
  9. We will no longer use the terms "single edit," "radio mix," or "commercial," and we will no longer use the phrase "is this too long?"
  10. We do not necessarily want or need to "get signed" to a major record label.
  11. We will never again surrender our artistic control to any person or entity.
  12. As we are able to control our art, we are also able to control our commerce and our livelihood.
  13. We will control our own "brand" or "image." This includes the freedom to completely reject those concepts if we so desire.
  14. We summarily reject genre labels when possible, by labeling our music "other."
  15. We are free to use any and every artistic medium available.
  16. We will interact with the Audience without a middleman or filter. If we chose to allow the Audience to participate in the creation of our art, this is perfectly acceptable as well.
  17. We are free to use new and emerging distribution channels, or create our own if necessary.
  18. In short, none of the old rules apply. We are free to make our own rules, or declare that there are no rules if we wish. Furthermore, we are free to amend or emend this manifesto whenever we desire!

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The Artist 2.0 Manifesto by Michael J Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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Trent Reznor: Advice for Up and Coming Bands/Artists

If you ever get a chance, you should watch all 40 minutes of this interview. However, I feel this particular segment is very important to new and emerging artists!

Update: The video was supposed to stop when he began talking about his favorite gadgets, but apparently it does not. Feel free to watch the rest, but understand that there are 20 more minutes. Also, look for @recdmavn's name and (briefly) her face while Trent is talking about Topspin!
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

20 Albums That Changed My Life, Part 3

This is a continuation of my series on 20 life-changing albums. If you missed the first two, here they are:

Now, on to the good stuff:

5) Subliminal Plastic Motives - Self
I discovered this record literally by accident. There was one hit that was being played on the then-fledgling alternative rock stations, the song "So Low." At the time, I liked the song because it sounded a bit like Nine Inch Nails. I came to realize later that Self (which, like Nine Inch Nails, was actually one person, Matt Mahaffey) was actually poking fun at the morose and depressing lyrics that were dominating alt rock at the time.
When I finally found the record, it was so much more than I had bargained for. Here was a true original, an artist who was able to effortlessly and effectively blend elements from a wide variety of musical genres into his own unique, quirky style. There are elements of grunge, hip-hop, jazz, and more, with a healthy dose of weird noises and samples. Bridges tend to consist either of blasts of noise and samples over music or a foray into an entirely different musical style, and there is not a guitar solo to be found. Above it all, Mahaffey's voice weaves catchy pop melodies. It seems like it wouldn't work, but it does. Here are some of the highlights:
  • "Sophomore Jinx" - a humorous song about the curse of the sophomore album, blending hip-hop, grunge and powerpop, if you can believe that!
  • "So Low" - What begins with industrial mayhem suddenly breaks into a Beatle-esque bridge, and pulls it off nicely.
  • "Marathon Shirt" - What starts out sounding almost like a prog rock song with some Sting influences breaks suddenly into a cocktail lounge jazz bridge.
  • "Big Important Nothing" - A song about the marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. The verses are sung over a Thelonious Monk-inspired piano loop with a loping shuffle beat, and the chorus is plucked right out of the vocal jazz stylebook. The song also has the trademark Mahaffey blast of noise in the instrumental bridge.
"Subliminal" sounds a bit dated now, mostly due to the guitar sounds as well as a few of the lyrical themes. Still, it's one of those rare records that I can listen to without skipping over songs. The next full-length Self album, "Breakfast With Girls," is arguably even better, taking the genre-bending even further with higher production values. The 3rd and final Self full-length was "Gizmodgery," made entirely with toy instruments.
It's obvious to me and most of his fans that Mahaffey is a musical genius, and it almost seems like his lack of commercial success is intentional. He enjoys subverting and/or overturning pop conventions, both lyrically and musically. He is still working actively as a producer, did a recent collaboration with Jeff Turzo of God Lives Underwater called "Wired All Wrong," and does a bit of soundtrack work as well. I don't think we have seen the last of him.
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