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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Top 10 ways the music business died in 2008

I think this past year has seen some interesting transitions in the way recorded music is produced and sold.

In order to properly hype-up this post, I am hereby declaring it to be, all at once, a top 10 list!, an end-of-year list!, and a list all about the death of the music business! Oh, and while I am at it, I'll throw in some predictions of the future! too. (For the astute, long-time readers of these Wrong Notes: let's just say that what follows are just some observations about how we musicians and music fans are evolving our music bazaar, circa 2008.)

These can be understood as little "deaths" of what the record companies long promoted as "the way music is supposed to be." Things actually do change. And we're now releasing and listening to recorded music in new ways—different than what we did just a few years ago.

So, here are my observations—er, em, I mean the Top 10 ways the music business died in 2008!:

10. Death of the One Package

In the past, an "album" was fundamentally a package. And, each album was almost always one package: there was an album called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one could buy the one package that was that album. Also, functionally, the package contained the music—you heard the music only by playing by the contents of the package: the disc.

Now, albums released online are fundamentally package-less. And the music isn't tied to a disc or other physical item. So, the online aspect of music breaks the "package" idea altogether: one doesn't need a package to get the music, and the music isn't attached to anything that comes in the package anyway.

But, we're people, and we like our packages! So, in 2008, we've seen a resurgence of album-packages that complement the online / digital tracks. And, since people don't really need a CD to get their digital files, these albums are "packages for packages-sake," and are being released in multiple versions to match-up with different fans' package fancies and budgets. Notable examples include Brian Eno and David Bryne's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (free, pay download, CD + download, and Deluxe Package), Radiohead's In Rainbows (download, CD, limited edition "disc box" with vinyl LPs) and Nine Inch Nails' The Slip (limited editions, CDs, free downloads).

Prediction for the future: we'll choose albums we like by getting them online for free, and then, after we find out that we like them, we'll shop amongst a variety of packages and buy ones that match our own styles of object possession and obsession (this pairs with my 2004 prediction about the future of music playbacks).

9. Death of the One Release Date

While in the past, single track and album releases would be spread-out a bit for marketing reasons, physical packages shipped on certain dates and there was this generally solid concept of a "release date" for each album. How solid you ask? Well, go into most any library catalog, CD site, or music list and there will be only one release date (year) associated with each album.

But, in 2008, this idea is no longer so solid. With albums coming out in multiple packages / formats, what's more typical are multiple release dates. This includes both albums that are released in process and/or released track by track, and albums that are released in multiple, final, forms. In some cases like Radiohead's In Rainbows and the Ear Reverends' Err or Man, the release timespan crosses multiple years (2007 and 2008 in both cases).

Prediction for the future: albums will be less and less associated with one specific release date, and will be appreciated by new audiences as new release-packages hit at different times.

8. Death of the One Price

Free downloads, pay downloads, CD and deluxe packages: need I say more? Oh yes, choose your own price, as Radiohead allowed for the digital download of In Rainbows. Also, music subscription services like eMusic offer different tiers with different costs, and Magnatune now offers a choose your own price subscription as well.

Altogether, this means, in 2008, that there is no longer "one price" for an album or track of music.

Prediction for the future: even more variety of prices for music.

7. Death of the One Transaction #1 (Subscription)

In 2008, more of us stopped paying for albums and tracks via single transactions. This can be said generally about the album purchase being folded in with overall sales of musician's offerings (concerts, merchandise, licensing, etc.). But, more generally, a lot of us got hooked up with subscription services like eMusic where we pay some amount every month, and no longer really pay on a per album or track basis.

Prediction for the future: subscription music services will grow to Netflix-like ubiquity.

6. Death of the One Transaction #2 (Advertising)

We also are paying for music via the many small, but invisible, transactions of advertising. Advertising supported music services have a long way to go to prove their viability altogether. And, advertising supported music labels like RCRD LBL were still very new in 2008. But, the general principle is there: break-up the music sale into many small transactions, and find people (in this case, advertisers) who are attracted to this pay-as-you-go arrangement.

Prediction for the future: more advertising supported music sites.

5. Death of the One Record Label

With artists planning multiple release packages, making use of online music subscription service, and all of the above mentioned developments of 2008, where do record labels fit in? If record labels are all about the music package, release date, the product-for-price, making the sale, etc., they certainly aren't the be-all-and-end-all for any recording musician.

So, for an artist looking to do a traditional release, the traditional record label still can be important. But, it's less likely to be the traditional, completely exclusive arrangement, because in 2008, musicians need to get their music out in other ways. Radiohead's example with In Rainbows is a clear one: they released the album online themselves (as their own label, essentially), and then partnered with a record label for the mass-market CD release.

Prediction for the future: record labels become more of a specialized service in some cases, more of a brand affiliation in others. But, altogether, look for musicians to be less exclusively tied to any one record label. And, also look for more labels like Asthmatic Kitty that are almost as much in partnership with other labels themselves, as they are with individual artists.

4. Death of the Compact Disc (Again)

This is a cheap-shot, but is anyone putting on CDs and listening to music on them? OK, sometimes—I put them on in my car. But, in 2008, even my friends (and I) who are the most die-hard CD addicts, are listening to all of our digital music via non-CD players (mp3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, etc.).

Of course, I am listening to vinyl LPs way more now too! But, the CD is little more than a delivery mechanism and backup copy for the files on our computers and other digital music players. The music business based on CD sales died (again) in 2008.

Prediction for the future: death of the compact disc (again). It's going to die again every year for a couple more years.

3. Death of the One Player-Format

With the death of the CD, what's emerging as its replacement is not so simply a new "format" or a new kind of music player. True, the successor to the CD is the digital music file—but the CD was really just the original way digital music files became popular.

What we have now in 2008 are people each with multiple digital music players. Between the computer, iPods, etc., people are listening to music all over the place on all kinds of devices that have huge music collections. The "format" isn't the CD or the album or the single or the playlist, and the context isn't individual / personal or shared / group. It's all of the above.

Prediction for the future: something like what I wrote about in 2004, in the future of music playbacks— lots of different players with lots of music on them in a lot of contexts. Now someone please make some software that's like iTunes, but works for with the multi-headed music library monster we're all creating!

2. Death of the One-Button-Play (Remix and Reuse)

Although it's common to talk about people as "listeners" of music, I think all of these music devices make people more like players of music. We each make music by pushing that play button—we make specific music happen in a specific setting by doing this.

But, the old music business was focused on sales to listeners. The expectation was that people would hit play and sit back. And, this missed-out on the change in attitude wherein people recognized that they were, themselves, making music—and they liked it!

In 2008, musicians are recognizing their fans as active co-creators of music. And, so, more than simply assuming fans will hit play, musicians are embracing the people who remix and reuse their music. These are the people who want to play music with more than just a play button.

Most visibly, musicians are capitalizing more on the larger music culture, that includes karaoke and karaoke-like music games like Rock Band.

Prediction for the future: more music released in games, and more musicians finding ways to connect what they do with the sales of actual musical instruments and gear (which sales increased markedly in 2008). If someone hears your music and goes out and buys a guitar, maybe you want to get in on that action.

1. Death of the Dustbin

With all of these developments in 2008, all bets are off on the demise of any particular recording. Albums are reappearing in music games, becoming popular in karaoke bars, being released in new packages, finding new life as part of subscription services, and becoming popular as digital downloads. And, let's not forget the rise of "user generated" videos on sites like YouTube, and the extensive use of old and obscure recordings in these videos.

Finally, add to this the ongoing attraction of licensing music for reuse in TV and films.

Prediction for the future: some years in the future, at least one track from Err or Man will end-up in widespread circulation via a viral video and feature film (sorry, I couldn't resist!).


So, what else happened in this last year, or so? What else should we add to this list.

Obscurity is underrated

Reflecting on 2008, the Ear Reverends are in a not-bad position to notice that obscurity is underrated.

Ironically, some of the people who would benefit from reading this are the ones who won't, because this is an obscure blog. And, this is definitely the liability with creating obscure music as well: some of the people who need to hear it or play it, won't.

But, as a musician, and also as a listener, there are benefits to playing with music in obscurity. Fundamentally, I'd characterize the benefits as representing tremendous possibility. What will you imagine when you listen to or play something that no one you know is talking about?

The Ear Reverends started as a musical outlet that was outside of the pressures of running a band, putting on stage shows, or producing commodity products for sale. Some years later, in 2008 and going into 2009, the Ear Reverends still work this way.

So, from start until now, I've gotten into this obscurity—and gotten a lot out of it. And, I highly recommend a spoonful of it to everyone—listen to and/or play some obscure music every week. Go ahead and add that to your list of new year's resolutions for 2009.

My so-called life as a music business of one

The Ear Reverends is not a business, but the more the Ear Reverends is happening, the more there's a lot of busy-ness around that.

I've been working on a really cool update to the Ear Reverends website, that's around adding a novel, homemade, music player. But, it's taking a while, in part because it's another "job" I am doing on top of everything else. This made me think about all of the "jobs" I am doing associated with this music.

To the degree all of this is happening through me alone, or through just a small group of people, maybe it's odd to say this is "music business." But, it's also maybe indicative of what it means to be a musician today, where one can choose DIY + creative freedom over the record company sharecropping arrangements common during the 20th century. But that DIY = do-it-yourself = things you spend a lot of time doing.

So, what follows is a sketch of these "busy-ness obligations" in which I am finding myself somewhat mired.

To set the stage: by day, I create websites for a living; by night I write and record new music. That's a pretty virtuous circle in itself, except it limits the amount of time I have to do music, and also doesn't really address the potential that other people might want to know this music. So, I build out from there.

My efforts have gone into creating HereJam, which I call a startup music label. It also encompasses HereJam recording studio. It's really associated with almost all of my music business: it touches on record engineering and production, it touches on artist and music project development, and it's music distribution, licensing, merchandising, marketing. It's a lot of stuff!

There's also the administrative tasks associated with copyrights and performing rights. The music gets registered with the US Copyright office (easier now that one can do it online), and I've also created Magnolia Harvest as a music publisher, affiliated with BMI (also easier via online registration).

So, all of this translates into these tasks (outside of the creative writing / recording part):

  • studio maintenance
  • asset management (e.g., sound files)
  • engineering and production (which is mostly creative for me, but project management comes into play—and I do work with outside mastering engineers, so scheduling is an issue, as well)
  • contracts (with other musicians, etc.)
  • cataloging (data about songs, tracks, copyright status, etc.)
  • copyright administration
  • performance rights administration (via Magnolia Harvest)
  • editorial (liner notes, etc.)
  • song and album art, layout and design
  • production file management (making mp3s, FLAC files, etc., and tagging them)
  • file distribution (getting the files online in the right place)
  • CD manufacturing (it's still part of the picture)
  • Book / art printing (part of our interest in novel formats)
  • CD distribution (currently via CD Baby, but takes some effort)
  • Postcard and marketing design
  • Postcard printing, and mailings
  • Merch design (t-shirts, stickers, buttons)
  • Managing inventory (CDs, books, prints, postcards, merch, etc.)
  • Emailings, blog posts and other communications to fans
  • "Fan mail" correspondence (can't complain about this!)
  • Updating canned artists sites on MySpace, Facebook, Soundcloud, etc.
  • Updating custom websites (for each artist, and for HereJam, and for Magnolia Harvest)

Because of the web and various ways these services can be outsourced to third-parties, in some sense, it's pretty easy to do all of this—even as an individual. And, it's possible this could even be pretty efficient if you're in a band where, say, the guitarist does the website and the drummer does the art and the bassist does the mailings (sorry bassists, but I know you always get the crap jobs), etc. Even better: your friends and fans step in and help with some of these tasks.

And, most importantly, if you've got this freedom to do this all yourself, you also have the freedom to not do a bunch of it. Don't care about performance rights? just skip them. Don't care to make merch? don't bother. Don't want a custom website? just use MySpace, etc.

But, for the Ear Reverends / HereJam / Magnolia Harvest, it's more like a startup where all these things are being done. And, the idea is that they'll eventually be in place enough to be a foundation, e.g., there was busy-ness that allowed Err or Man to happen, and now there's busy-ness that should allow the next Ear Reverends' album to happen AND the debut album from Equal Squeaky AND the reissue release of Slobot AND maybe even the debut from Elvis Shellfish and the Negative Mariachi (working with a Rock 'n Roll shellfish involves a whole other set of creative talent management tasks I won't even get into ;-).

So, I guess that all is a way of saying: stay tuned!

RIP Mitch Mitchell / Voodoo drums

Coincidentally, I was just reading-up about the new Jimi Hendrix Park in Seattle when I heard about the death of Mitch Mitchell (drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience).

I am kind-of at a loss for words simply because nothing says more about Mitch Mitchell's drumming than listening to Mitch Mitchell's drumming. But, great drummer—and, over the years, I always wished he'd shown up on more recordings with post-Hendrix artists.

A couple videos to remember Mitch: first a drum solo on "Voodoo Chile" with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Sweden, 1969. Then, a video with Mitch as the drummer in The Dirty Mac (John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell) doing "Yer Blues" on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968.

(On this second video, the song comes on after a minute of silly dialog between John Lennon and Mick Jagger.)

RIP Mitch Mitchell

Can’t get no satisfaction

This could apply to so many things (like, say, getting the update to this site finished "soon").

But, in this case, I thought I'd try out the new MTV Music site—and so I refer instead to Devo's version of the Rolling Stone's "Satisfaction," and the classic video thereof, include herein.

Actually, I was thinking that people addicted to news and commentary about the upcoming US election are going to need a new drug after next Tuesday, and access to 20,000+ MTV music videos might offer an alternative fix for a while. But, then again, watch the video below—you know what I mean?

Beautiful Great Egret photos

I am surprised more people aren't sharing links to these incredible fine art photos of Great Egrets.

Photographer Terry Turrentine takes stunning photos of Great Egrets in the wild. They're quite amazing photos: the birds themselves are interesting to look at, but the photos also capture their setting in a way that's almost hard to imagine—it's almost so non-human that you can't imagine a photographer being present.

The tonality of Terry's photos and prints—the technical quality, is also notably excellent. (I am fortunate to have one of her prints, and I can attest to their technical artistry.)

Terry also has a surprising artist bio—one involving a long history with firearms. I don't want to give away the story, but it's worth reading.

(Disclosure: I got to know Terry's work via my day job, where we designed and built her Great Egret website.)

The Simpsons as radio show

If only copyright laws weren't so draconian, I'd make and release some cut-ups purely out of audio from The Simpsons.

So, I pointed the music player at Songs in the Key of Springfield and let it play through while working on some stuff. If you've seen all the shows a couple times, at this point, I think there's no better way to enjoy them then as radio shows. Since sitting around listening to new radio sitcoms is a lost art, maybe a revival could be had via now-classic TV shows re-imagined as radio.

With The Simpsons audio-only, you get witty dialog, funny vocal characterizations, clever songs, interesting arrangements, goofy sound effects and, most importantly, your imagination open to all kinds of entertainment beyond the TV show visuals. The CDs, like Songs in the Key of Springfield are a great way to get into this. But, if you already have The Simpsons on DVD, you could put a disc on, turn-up the volume, and walk away until the TV screen is out of view.

But, maybe some of the creators of The Simpsons will someday create an all-Simpsons-all-the-time radio station—e.g., on satellite radio. Or, even a weekly radio show made purely of audio from The Simpsons, which could be great—it'd be like a funny version of A Prairie Home Companion.

Also notable: Alf Clausen, makes really great music on The Simpsons. I mean, Canyonero!:

Can you name the car with a four-wheel drive
Smells like a steak and seats thirty-five?

Shaky Hands

I've been getting into this band, from Portland, the Shaky Hands.

They're actually playing tonight in Seattle, at the Tractor Tavern. Although I really wanted to go see them, and they haven't actually played yet (I am guessing they're going on around 10:30 or 11p), based on the reading on my MellowMeter (currently pronounced mel-low-OM-eat-a-a-a-a-r), looks like I am going to miss the show.

But, if you are in the area (or, when they're playing in your town), definitely go and check them out—and let me know what you hear.

As consolation, I found a cool video of one of their songs, "We Are Young":

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. . . the new music player is very coming soon and such . . .