Tuesday, January 27, 2004

New Wave

Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno have released a manifesto calling for musicians to use the Web to bypass the traditional label structure. Their argument is that musicians need to seize the day and use technology to go directly to their customers. The end result will be more money in the hands of musicians and more artistic creativity.

I've thought for a long time that the Internet really is untapped as a distribution channel for the average musician. For the most part, artists are a little wary of the web, because they've been told over and over again that it's only good for piracy. But as bands like Wilco have proven, if you learn how to use the tool to your advantage, then you stay one step ahead of the competition.

Consider my friends in the Moonlight Towers. They're planning a short tour of the East Coast in a few weeks. They've got one CD already in production and another one on the way. Up until now, the only distribution they had was at local Austin record stores and at their shows. Once they get on the road, they'll still be able to sell them at their shows, of course, but without major label backing, getting consistent representation on music-store shelves in new markets is going to be very difficult.

But as part of their tour, they are paying someone to handle their tour press. This guy's job is to send out their music to selected media outlets in the markets they'll be passing through, then follow up with the writers to make sure a review gets written, an interview scheduled, and so on. Also, one assumes, the "PR agent" will make sure the writers know about and include the URL to the band's website where they have their product for sale. Who needs a record store or a label with a mechanism like that?

The folks at Apple are slowly showing that people will pay to download music. What's to stop a band from sharing all of their content on a premium-based system, thus bypassing the need to even press CDs. Wilco did something similar in the wake of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" -- they provided 6 songs for download to people who got a code off of their store-bought "YHF" CDs. They also provided several versions of cover art for people to download and print to use with home-burned CDs.

The Gabriel/Eno manifesto follows in the footsteps of Wilco's activities. Artists should release remixes and alternative takes of "already released" tunes, for example. Bands could provide forums for online trading of live shows. The possibilities really do boggle the mind.

This isn't to say that labels will be driven completely out of existence. They still can serve a valuable function in the marketing/promotions arena. But the days of them using that as leverage over artists and taking control of the product is drawing to a close -- but only if musicians are smart enough to act now and truly establish themselves as the true owners of their own music.