People have been fretfully holding a stethoscope to the chest of the Australian music industry ever since its birth. But the prognosis has been fundamentally altered in recent years, as technology-led changes to the consumption of music on the internet have ripped the heart out of the CD market and opened up many different paths to hearing music.
One provisional — or should that be provincial? — result of this is that Australian artists can navigate the music industry more easily: DIY production has been supplanted by online tools. Another immediate result is that local musicians are less isolated. While Australian artists have long sought exposure overseas, they used to attain this by relocating: to London, to Berlin, to New York. The ease of travel which characterised late-20th century globalisation has been succeeded by online technologies which forge long distance relationships more and more easily. Highly fertile cultural relationships are enabled by the autonomous development of communities based on shared interests. "Online" becomes not only a space for fan downloads and communities but for artist contacts, distribution and collaboration.
The attitude of Melbourne artist Faux Pas (aka Tim Shiel), typifies how some artists see these changes — the way possibilities have been cracked open, the way previous certainties have been unsettled. "Record labels as we know them only came into existence 50 to 60 years ago," he says. Their project was "to capitalise on this idea of ‘selling recordings’ which never previously existed on an industrial scale".
This is the "recording industry", a thing different to the sheet music trade of the past. "In the mid-20th century," says Shiel, "record labels and publishers essentially became custodians for music as cultural practice, they became the funnel through which music poured, they became dominant and central to the production of music, but it was a temporary deal and now the whole culture is moving on".
For Australian artists, the new grid brings greater autonomy and freedom — the chance to distribute music quickly and almost entirely on their own terms. A strong current trend, for example, is free, streamed music of decent audio quality. This is a mutation of the idea that we download files to computer for repeated use — here, listeners quickly get to hear music, without downloading files or installing a standalone player. It’s more like an old-style radio than an accumulative, library-building or collector’s model. In Australia, this trend will gather speed as better broadband and lower bandwidth costs make it easier still.
Even before it becomes thoroughly mainstream, though, some artists are already capitalising on this idea. Melbourne four-piece Khancoban, recorded and released their debut LP this year, Limbs May Fall, and have offered it in full for streaming via website Last.fm.
And the band’s singer and guitarist André Hooke reckons it’s been a success for them. "People in Australia, Europe, America and Asia have listened to the album," he says. "I’m not sure that they would have had such access to the music had it not been available the way it was. By offering the full album as a stream we are ensuring that people are able to hear the album in the way we intended it to be heard. If they like it and want a better quality version they are welcome to buy it."
Shiel, for his part, has gone even further. He has taken the question of buying music out of the equation completely, offering a new four-track EP for free download from his website. He’s not even releasing a disc.
"Like most independent musicians and labels," Shiel says, "I’m just trying to stay afloat so I can keep making music. I’m not trying to make any money out of it."
Perhaps more than that, though, it’s an experiment. "A big factor as to why I put out this digital free EP," Shiel says, "is because I want to ask some questions, see what happens, and be involved in something more exciting than the traditional way of releasing music which never felt right to me, and is increasingly irrelevant to people’s actual experience of music".
He wonders, too, if this free-release model might be viable in the future: "my dream would be to release all of my music for free, and hope that I can sustain its production through indirect means of income, like donations or grants and other things like licensing and royalties." This, in a sense, would bring musicians back to the patronage system, known to artists before the recording industry got involved.
Australian artists, generally being on the smaller end of a scale that runs from Beyoncé to self-published CD-R releases, have the most to gain from these sorts of changes. While major labels can still work up their over-the-top websites and advertising campaigns — thick with flash animations and slick promo photos — many smaller artists, like Khancoban, command attention by simply posting music.
As well, many Australian bands have found important networks established through sites like MySpace — attracting audiences and, just as importantly, communicating with likeminded bands from Australia and overseas.
We’re not living in a musical meritocracy yet. These new methods of distribution don’t mean an "equal footing", even though that fantasy is regularly presented as a fait accompli. But it’s undeniable that the availability of streaming music to anyone with a mid-range broadband connection has opened average independent bands up to a much wider potential audience than before. As you might expect, this possibility has started a new set of service industries. If acts still want to sell their music online, for example, centralised digital music aggregator services like Musicadium, IODA and Tunecore are helping independent artists get their music onto iTunes and other online stores.
It’s worth pointing out, as Shiel does, that people using these technologies are causing shifts primarily within the industry — that collection of non-musical others who have been falsely synonymous with "music" for so long. Actual musicians are still doing more or less what they have always done. These changes touch most heavily the part of the music world — EMI, Sony etc — dedicated to churning out products rather than pieces.
But the uncertainty all this creates is felt by musicians as much as by the music companies. "It’s not really a good time to have any concrete ideas about the future," Shiel cautions. "I think that’s obvious to anyone who is even remotely involved with music. Even kids know that the music industry is in total disarray. But nonetheless I’m starting to believe pretty strongly in this idea that we are heading to a time where recorded music loses its value altogether.
"And it sounds like a bad thing, but really it’s not, it’s just a resetting of the balance, in my romantic view of things. I think soon enough all music past and present will be available ‘in the cloud’. And it will all be free to access/download/stream, and this won’t seem weird, or taboo, or illegal, but will just be common social practice. That will become ‘normal’ for music.
"I think that time is coming pretty rapidly — and honestly it’s pretty obvious to anyone under the age of 30," Shiel says.
It’s a free and unmediated approach to culture which leaves the power and the money in the hands of the people most concerned, and it’s an approach which naturally has the industry worried. But can it really be the future?
With regard to a shift in attitudes, it’s hard to argue with Shiel’s point. People now expect music to be free or cheap — and always within arm’s reach. MySpace is still the premier outlet for this free and (mostly) legal type of online listening experience. Many bands have ditched their own websites and purely spruik their MySpace site – putting up with its aesthetic entropy for the sake of its familiarity and robust streaming technology. One can (and does!) spend whole afternoons clicking from artist to artist, sampling songs and pursuing more information or recordings from those that capture attention.
But there are counter-currents to this freeing of the realm. In spite of the labours of smaller artists — and legions of open-source coders, program makers and fans — power and capital are still in the clutches of a few. Recent changes to the MySpace site signal a new phase in the tension between the corporations and artists, as business models adapt to maintain and develop ways of controlling the availability of music digitally.
In the last half of 2008, MySpace made it possible for visitors to create their own playlists of music to stream. As a visitor listens to the songs, a link to buy the track from Amazon is displayed, as are several advertisements. The new site — MySpace Music — launched in September without the involvement of even big indies like Beggars Group and Domino. So this catalogue of streamable music was largely from the major labels and these labels get the bulk of the money. This meant that even "big" artists on "minor" labels — like Franz Ferdinand, internationally, or Missy Higgins and John Butler Trio locally — were left out of the deal to get money from advertising on the site. This is unsurprising when one knows the whole thing is a joint venture between MySpace (that is, News Corp), EMI, Universal, Warner Music Group and Sony.
The push by indies for cash is no petty punch-up. Recent figures show that MySpace makes $800 million a year from advertising. As Billy Bragg recently said, "everyone’s making a shitload of money, it seems, except the ‘content providers’". If the free-music vision expressed by people like Shiel is to come true, it will probably rely largely on advertising models. And the way money flows in those models will have a big impact on the nature of that system.
Of course, many bands still have labels. But these changes also alter the traditional relationship between the two. In the case of Khancoban, their label — Half a Cow, a venerable Australian indie — did not stop them distributing their music over the internet. "We considered releasing this album completely independently and partly did as we’ve handled the digital/online side of things ourselves," André says. "It is difficult to get CDs into stores without a distributor, so Half a Cow handles that side of things for us."
The difference between indies and majors on this score is vast. The actions of many big labels have hurt their artists. Crippling files with restrictions (DRM — digital rights management — as in iTunes) and taking far too long to realise the potentials of online distribution has meant that music is spread online by other means – frequently via illegal downloads, which still far outweigh legal downloads.
The labels are in a lumbering, confused position legally. In the industry there is a loud clash of ideas about who "owns" music and who can legally publish that music. At a recent UK conference, an employee of social networking site Bebo reported that the company got cease-and-desist letters from the legal departments of companies who had uploaded music to the site themselves.
At the heart of all this, really, is an attempt to salvage old and, for labels, more profitable business models — in spite of clear customer desires. As Emmy Hennings wrote in a piece for Overland recently: "Corporate reaction to the sales downturn has been, consistently, to blame music buyers — or rather, those people who’ve stopped buying music. From a major label’s perspective, the global music market is a lawless ocean, full of pirates who’ve come to the conclusion — ingrates! — that culture should be easily accessible, perhaps even free, or, at the very least, shareable."
This is a question over the politics of culture, as well as being over plain old economics: private property, intellectual property.
Hennings rightly adds that "[record]companies are alarmed at the global slump in music sales not because they conceive of creative labour as something worth paying for in and of itself, still less because they are concerned at the diminishing income of artists. No, record companies conceive of recorded music as something they own exclusively (and the law supports them), and they are incensed by what they see as a growing disrespect, on the part of listeners, for their proprietary relationship. The reaction has been proprietary devices and a series of show trials for music ‘pirates’, designed to scare the public into paying for music downloads.
"In the conflict between music listeners and record labels lies a great philosophical difference. [This is] the difference between music as a social experience to be shared — listened to and talked about with friends or, increasingly, among strangers connected by the internet — and a more atomised understanding where individual listeners build up a private collection and speak of it to no-one."
Yet this privatised vision of music is entirely fantastic, as André Hooke of Khancoban makes clear by way of analogy:
"I see free digital downloads as the same as the taping of a cassette when I was growing up," he says. "I was exposed to a much wider world of music because of other people’s taped recommendations. It definitely nurtured something in me to keep exploring music. I couldn’t afford to buy everything I was interested in, but I definitely found heaps more music of quality than I would have had those tapes not been given to me."
Fittingly, both his band and Faux Pas have contributed their Australian voices to the global mixtape produced through the internet this year: a roll of tape unspooling and threading its way between the pages of MySpace, torrents, blogs and innumerable artist websites.
Like a lot of metaphors, this one is an anachronism, but as such it’s the type of thing that might help a disoriented music industry understand the reconfigured state of play.
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