Do you want to be like Billy or like Trent?

We now have two great examples to point at in the music industry on adapting to change.

On one end, we have Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who ditches his label, does his own production, marketing and sales, and takes a complete hands-on approach into creating his own artistic and financial destiny.

On the other end we have Billy Bragg who simply expects to make music without him or his company taking any initiative to do anything innovative, and then sit back and wait for others to pay him, and to blame others (companies who provide an opt-in service to help artists deliver content to fans and potential fans) for taking advantage of him. Music is not worth as much as it used to be. The days of being paid a premium for your music when it is not remarkable are long gone, as is automatic payment for any use of your music.

Bragg, here is a list of other distribution service companies (some of which have had less business year over year since 2000) that have “taken advantage” of you that should be giving you money even though you have done nothing to deserve it:

Trucking Companies
Every Monday, thousands of trucks across the country would deliver new CDs, records, and tapes to independent records stores, Tower Records, SamGoody, The Wherehouse, and Virgin Mega Stores (these are all old US record store chains). These trucking companies had a business model because at the other end of supply chain was you, the artist. The funny thing is that labels (or maybe the stores themselves) where the ones paying the trucking companies for the service, not the other way around. No profit sharing with artist here.

Pressing Plants
CD and vinyl pressing plants perform a service of putting artist music on a physical media so these trucks could deliver it to the stores. A labels artists would submit the artwork, a mastering studio would deliver the glass masters, acetate, or master tapes to these facilities. Of course, these are still around. They are serving artists and labels that have figures out how to make fans buy things they can’t get for free. No, pressing plants are not responsible for paying out royalties either.

Music Stores
Label’s marketing organizations sometimes had a hand in promoting music at the stores themselves, by sending posters and promo CDs to play, and then having a rep come and visit the store to make sure the store was using the material. Also, they may have allocated shelf space to specific releases. But is this something they can rely on today to help your sales? Of course not. Amazon and iTunes might have similar equivalent, paid sponsorship of artists. But it is in their bests interest to promote artists that sell, not the ones paying the most for “virtual shelf space” (as some physical music stores were relying on for most of their income at one point).

But are any of these companies in the distribution chain charged with promotion and payment of artists? No. This was the label’s responsibility. And today, it is increasingly the artist’s responsibility to either take charge by creating his or her own destiny, or make sure they keep a management team that is not pretending that things are the same as they were 10 years ago. Back then, certain services were bundled together. Today, they are all separated. The distribution channel is not responsible for paying you unless you make this explicit, which fewer are not in the business of doing (remember Caroline? I think they are/were in this business).

Check out Bragg’s site, he links to his iLike profile. Watch out, iLike, you will be the next free service to owe him money for promoting him, and then not taking proper responsibility for making him rich.

Social networking sites with music were originally for unsigned, independents artists. Since these became some of the only places to legally listen to music online (since the major labels were to timid to participate), these sites became destination sites for music. Then came the established artists with their old-school expectations and mentalities who subtly wanted to hijack the attention established by the independents. Then the established artists cries foul for expecting the world to put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t think so.

Update 3/25/08:
Joe Weisenthal’s blog had a great thread going on that Billy Bragg himself was participating in. Well, it was great in that Joe, Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, Blaise Alleyne, Thomas Hawk, Matt Mason, and some others had the opportunity to debate the issue of the moral obligation Bebo did or did not have to pay artists. Comment were turned off. Temporary problem with the blog I guess, thanks for letting me know, Blaise.

Some argue that artists should be paid for their work, but offer no solution. Others say that the royalty organizations and/or the US Congress or the labels should have created compulsory licenses for such sites so they can pay artists. Speaking of pay for plays, I participated in the old mp3.com 10 years ago and it was a joke. I say take the bull by the horns like Trent, and just make it happen for yourself.

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One Response to Do you want to be like Billy or like Trent?

  1. Thanks for the link! By the way, I think the comments are still going, though the page appeared to be down for a while. Not sure what happened there.

    I think I’m lucky because I’m just beginning my music career now. I don’t have to rid myself of old beliefs in order to embrace new business models. I hope to get started on the right foot.

    To me, Billy’s thinking signifies the deep-seated misunderstandings that most have about copyright. Royalties aren’t owed because of some moral obligation. There are no natural rights to control the art you produce, that was never the point of copyright. Royalties are only paid as part of the incentive that copyright is supposed to serve, to encourage the production of cultural works. The sense of entitlement that some artists, like Billy, have about moral obligations and natural rights seem only to destine them for disappointment…

    Though none of the “problems with copyright” discussion is even necessary since the case we’ve been discussing is clearly one of the rights owner opting in to a deal.

    *sigh*

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