The scene is late 1999, while the world awaits disaster as a result of a threat they’re calling ‘Y2K’, they are preparing to deal with many changes that the turn of the century will bring. One thing that couldn’t have possibly been anticipated was the impact that the internet, still called the world-wide web in conversation at the time, would have on daily life in the new century. In just over a decade, the web expanded to become an all-reaching entity in western civilization. Accessible from anything including TVs and cell phones these days, the internet is changing many facets of life.
One important change beginning to take place today is that of economic importance. In the 1900s, artists needed publishers and distributors to ensure that their work would see the masses and that they would see financial return.
Today, this archaic system has been pushed off and now floats aimlessly across the river Styx. While it hasn’t been fully developed yet, a competing model is rising out of the primordial soup which is the internet. In order to appreciate it, it’s important to take a look at some qualities of the internet that traditional modes of communication lack. The internet allows for full duplex communication, that is to say it allows for two parties to communicate back and forth in the same session. This allows for artists to rapidly communicate with their fans and vice versa. Furthermore, the internet allows for content to be hosted relatively cheaply. The internet also allows ordinary activities to be turned into social ones.
Consider this: You could go to an ordinary record store or you could go to a totally radical record store, where you could leave notes for the artists and get feedback, filter through a list of the customers at the store by interest, interact with customers with similar interests to you, bring in albums and share them with folks at the store, you could even bring in an album you recorded and get people to listen to it.
In order for this awesome record store to exist in reality it would need a ton of resources put into it and even at that, it would have a finite volume and only be able to service a certain number of customers at a time. Now if this record store existed in a virtual space and was able to host an unlimited number of customers, how radical would that be?
This is an analogy for the awesome environments springing up on the internet. Naturally, there are groups upset with the kind of freedom the internet provides to the public. It used to be that if someone wanted to purchase an album, their only option was to buy a physical copy of the album. Most artists couldn’t manufacture their own albums or marketing materials on their own any more than they could hand-deliver the albums to music stores, so they needed publishers and distributors. These days are over though, as artists can now publish directly to the internet and allow their users to download songs directly. Of course without publishers and record-labels, it’s no small task to get songs on the radio or other mainstream places but that’s not to say that it’s impossible.
An interesting point about this is that the system of free, peer to peer distribution is the key to a successful independent artist gaining fame. This is the same peer to peer system that record labels and the RIAA are constantly persecuting users of. Artist Jonathan Coulton, when asked about all the free music on his website, has this to say:
I give away music because I want to make music, and I can’t make music unless I make money, and I won’t make any money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music… we all need to adjust our thinking about the relationship between artists and fans – the RIAA thinks that music listeners are criminals and that music should be locked up and protected. I disagree. I think there are times when free music and file sharing can greatly benefit an artist. Believe me, I spent many years making music and not sharing it with anyone, and that didn’t get me anywhere.
Jonathan Coulton has been an unsigned (indy) artist since 2005 when he quit his job as a software writer. He’s been extremely successful in his quest to become a musician and attributes much of his success to the generosity of his fans and the fact that he was willing to share music for free in the beginning of his career. He also allows for the use of his music in accordance with a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license, meaning that anyone can use his music for anything as long as they give him credit and don’t turn a profit on it. Whether or not the RIAA attacks such a system because it undermines their business model or just because it signals a shift in their field that they are unwilling to adjust to remains unclear. The only thing one can be sure of is that this new practice could render record labels and groups like the RIAA outdated, as consumers can be in direct contact with artists without them.
Another exciting entity which was previously unable to exist due to many constraints is a crowd-sourcing or crowd-funding organization. One such group is Kickstarter, a platform on which entrepreneurs can pitch an idea and receive funding from individuals just willing to lend a hand. Below are some of the statistics from Kickstarter pertaining to 2012. Projects that get funding come from a variety of backgrounds including the arts, products, games and more.
This can be seen not only disrupting the old model of music production, but also the old model of having to find funding for projects from distribution partners or wealthy investors. Rather than giving away significant stakes in the project to high bidders, Kickstarter rewards backers with a variety of perks depending on how much they pledge. While the system already delivers serious funding to projects, it’s also growing:
Whether or not these systems will survive into the next decade, they mark an important shift away from the older system of content production and distribution. This shift puts more power into the hands of the artist, but the real winners in these are the consumers. No longer will consumers have to enjoy what a label markets as being popular, but they’ll get to choose what they want to see on the market because of their increased involvement in the artist’s funding.