Sunday, May 4, 2008

The New Independent Music World

Things have changed a lot recently, and it is virtually inarguable that musicians have been emancipated over the last decade by a number of social developments and new technologies. With the collapse of the major record labels and the the emergence and of online sales of music and alternative distribution, any artist can now promote their music via their personal websites, MySpace, blogs, and a myriad of other online opportunities and can thus compete for the attention of the consumer. The current vacuum of major labels has also helped several small labels become larger players in the jazz scene, several of whom have taken some of the big names recently abandoned by the major labels and given them a fairer deal than they had before. On the consumer end, this liberation has come in the form of the option to now hear samples of most anything that is available, to read (and contribute) extensive reviews, to obtain previously obscure items at the touch of a button, and to purchase singe tracks at a reasonable cost.

This is all very exciting, but, perhaps because of the speed at which the music world has changed, very few people seem to be asking the question of whether this will be good for the music itself, and if there is long-term sustenance for musicians in this new world. When the day is done, there is still a bottom-line that must be met in order for music to thrive and maintain a high level. Many artists can dig deep into their own coffers for that pivotal first recording, but how many second and third recordings will surface given current sales numbers? What are the true economic realities of releasing your own music these days, and will these realities really allow for artistic growth?

A lot of media attention seems to go to the independent rock scene, which, at least by jazz and classical standards, is thriving. Obviously, this scene has a larger, more mainstream audience to tap into, but there is another important difference that allows this scene to thrive. Due to the musical nature of most indie rock, it can be recorded on a very small budget, often at home recording studios, without compromising the integrity of the music itself. Chamber music and jazz, however, are acoustic styles that demand that the players play together, at the same time, in a carefully designed space that complements the natural sounds of the instruments involved. To record this music well, the costs are quite substantial. Aside from paying the musicians on the recording a respectable amount for rehearsals and the session(s), a good recording studio that offers adequate tracking rooms, quality gear, a good piano, and a good engineer starts at about $1000 per day. Mixing can then cost another few thousand dollars, and mastering, the final step that makes a bunch of varied songs seem to fit together into a unified body, another $500-1000. Add to this graphic design, printing, licensing and various logistical and basic distribution costs and you have arrived at a substantial sum, often over $10,000 for a basic small-group release.

A lot of talk also is about established artists who are beginning to skirt the big labels by releasing their own music. These artists, most notably Branford Marsalis, Dave Douglas, and Bill Frisell, are likely thriving with the new model. However, unlike emerging artists, these musicians have substantial reputations to draw on and a wealth of invaluable recording experience making CD’s for sizable labels over the years.

Despite this new restructuring of record production and sales, an outdated consumer mentality still dominates the marketplace and is keeping sales figures quite low. This mentality is dominated by the conviction that there isn’t a connection between true listeners and the people at the top deciding what is produced and that artists are not seeing anything from sales. As the corporate structure bent on short term gain took over the record industry, many buyers felt that a record purchase only went to pay for the next bubble-gum music production, lucrative reissue, or fluffy adult-contemporary album, leaving serious music listeners without a voice in the marketplace.

Given the high cost of production and the marginal sales most artists are experiencing today, much of it due to this old mentality and the sheer glut of music on the market that this democratization has produced, today’s climate is decreasingly viable for emerging (and many established) jazz artists. With the vast amount of music that one can hear for free through promotional downloads, MySpace, artist websites, and, let’s face it, rampant burning of MP3’s and file-sharing, it is easy to take recorded music for granted and to forget that there are economics involved in its production. If the consumer wishes to hear a continuing crop of adventurous, noncommercial, and developed jazz recordings, it is essential that they shift their attitudes and see the direct impact their purchases now have in the marketplace. Unless sales increase, there will come a point where worthy recordings will disappear, and we will only be left with recordings by the top players and rookies willing to lose money in order to gain some crucial initial exposure.

The new, independent movement in music (if one can still call it a movement - I think it is more simply the reality for most artists) clearly offers something wonderful and liberating to the consumer, something that drives the people involved with New Amsterdam Records, the artist-run label with which I am affiliated with. Now that the artist is getting a fair share of the pot, proceeds from sales will directly allow them to continue to record and release music. Without the corporate structure and vast number of middlemen previously involved in music production and distribution, the general public now becomes a true arts-supporter when they purchase the music they hear. No, purchases won’t be tax-deductible, but the listener now enters a relationship and becomes an integral part of this brave new continuum by purchasing music. Next time you hear live music that you like, read a glowing or intriguing review of a new release, or are trolling the internet listening to music samples and find something that captivates you, please remember the important role you can now play and do your part in ensuring that artists continue to be able to produce the high level of music that you demand.

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