Why Music Needs Another Revolution

His_Master_s_VoiceThere hasn’t been a game changing revolution for unsigned artists since the start of the recording industry. That has to change and here’s why.

In 1877 Thomas Edison brought the world the phonograph, the first invention of its kind to play recorded sound. Game Changer.

The technological advancements didn’t stop there however, and over the next 50 years, both the invention of radio and the ability to mass produce ‘records’ to play on phonographs – don’t you love saying, ‘His Master’s Voice or Victrola’? – meant that how people enjoyed music would be forever changed.

You can almost hear the Luddites bemoan, ‘Is live music dead?’ This of course all led to the massive, star-making, mogul-driven industry of today. It is an industry fuelled by big promotional tours that sell more of those mass produced records.

The Old Way Is No Longer the Right Way

Star making and music moguls – the dream of many unsigned artists. Get a record deal and go on tour. Make a video for MTV. Go on tour. Make another record. Repeat. This version of the music industry produced a few global superstars and a few regional stars.  If an artist didn’t make money for the label, they were dropped.

But this method produces only a small, nearly impenetrable circle of artists. For those of us who wanted to discover new music outside this small circle, it is a labour of love going to local gigs in the underground clubs.

But then there’s the thing about technology – it doesn’t stand still. 1990s – the internet and MP3s. Game Changer. And the music moguls cried.

20 years later, digital streaming services and digital music downloads are what we know – it being no secret that the revenues from digital music sales will never outpace those from the previous era of record sales, according to the Atlantic.  So what happened to the big promotional tours? What happened to live music?

Discovering new music that we love is one of the greatest universal thrills. And playing live is an important aspect for almost any musician’s career. The energy between the artist and the audience participant creates a unique magic in the performance which transcends any era.

While the digital age has given us more opportunities to discover new music by recommendation engines, or easier ways to share through social media, it still seems hit and miss – almost a random occurrence.

We might add these recommended songs to our playlists, but would we take the next step and look to see where they perform live, if it’s even local to us? So with all these new digital tools, especially with social media, how is it that discovering new live music hasn’t changed all that much? Sure there are lots of new sites and apps for tracking bands, but how do we discover them first?

We can buy music in vinyl, CD, or digital download. We can stream countless songs from any number of sites, some with recommendation engines. We can find out where our already known favourite bands are playing with Songkick or Bandsintown.

But we can not find new music without diving into a slush pile of hit or miss artists. I just Googled ‘gigs in london’ and there were 100s of sites…the variations were endless.

“To Be Online or Not to Be?” Why Is That the Question?

This summer I went to the Hebrides, the remote islands off the west coast of Scotland, and I attended an awesome music festival called Hebcelt Fest. I heard some amazing artists and bands like Scott McWatt, Bella and the Bear, and Le Vent Du Nord.

I had no idea who they were before I got there and I loved the music, their performances and the feeling of discovering new music. But I kept asking myself, ‘Do I need to come to a remote place like the Hebrides to find new, good music?’

Back in 1994 I saw the opportunity given by new technology and tried to address this problem co-founding Artist Underground Music with music producer Joe Seta.  AUMusic’s purpose was to showcase and distribute the music of unsigned artists. We had a ‘soundbyte’ for each artist (which had to be downloaded) and a link to buy their CD. ArtistUnderground

We started to showcase events at a local club where artists could perform live and by 1996 were able to stream certain performances live – some of the earliest live streams online in history. At the time, our mission was for an artist to get discovered more easily by both record labels and music fans.

But without the dizzying array of social tools available to us today, or even a search engine like Google, Artist Underground Music was too early to use this technology effectively. Music over modems was a terribly slow business.

It also turned out that playing live in the club, was the best way for the bands on our site to get discovered. Our website became a gig guide for our artists.

It’s Time for a Change

20 years later, we still need a solution to the problem of discovering new artists. The dream of being signed to a label for riches and big promotional touring as a loss leader to sell records is over. Today’s musicians need to play to crowds – to an engaged fan base – in order to make a living from touring. Just like in the days before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.

19th-century composers like Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin are a great example of what live performance can do for a musician. Chopin, an undeniable genius on the piano, rarely performed live. He struggled constantly to make ends meet by teaching piano lessons to rich clients.

Meanwhile, Liszt lived it up on stage often with over 300 gigs a year. He was the 19th century’s version of a rock superstar. He never worried about money (the original sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll star).

For today’s unsigned artist, building a loyal following can be a full-time job in and of itself. They have to manage their online presences and be experts in social media marketing, as Rock Sound emphasizes. They have to continually introduce new music and be strong content marketers. They have to book themselves into gigs anywhere that will take them and sell tickets.

The tools at their disposal are myriad and varied, but they’re also fragmented. Major media companies have no interest in investing in independent artists, because there is no way to make money unless it is packaged into some other form (e.g. reality TV). At the same time, independent artists are the ones pushing the artform forward.

They are the pioneers of new sound and innovative artistry. They deserve to be heard and they deserve a platform that makes it easier for them to help us to discover them.

(Main image credit: Beverly & Pack/flickr)

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