Bum notes from a broken record

Jon Fine makes a good point about the music industry in his most recent BusinessWeek column, but then tries to dig a bit deeper and ends up tumbling into something not quite right. In talking about the increasing need for bands to sell in the millions in order to make money at the top level (either for themselves or for their labels), he rightly cites the fact that there are fewer guaranteed multi-platinum sellers these days. But he goes on to say that the structure that once led to such second-tier hitmakers as Grand Funk Railroad and Foghat is no more.

"This type of band no longer exists and neither do the conditions that fostered their ascent," he writes. He goes on to lament the demise of rock radio, the splintering of genres and the spiraling cost of arena rock shows. And then... well, he doesn't really make a point or end on one. But, by supplying oneself that which is not there, it's clear his ode to days gone by is meant to suggest that things are worse today.

In fact, that's far from the truth. Thanks to the very fragmentation he laments, and rapid advances in technology, there is more and better music than ever before. Artists on the tier just below superstars today are just as popular and successful as Grand Funk was in its day, and there surely are conditions in place today that make that possible. The mainstream airwaves? They're gone, commodified in a marketplace that has long favored style over substance. Get over it. Mom and pop record stores are nearly gone, too, and as a digression, that's one never-ending eulogy I'm tired of hearing. A discussion that has arisen recently over independent labels somewhat naively signing off on a Best Buy promotion that found the big box retailer selling CDs for less than what the small independent stores paid wholesale makes this point clear: Small stores essentially need a subsidy if they hope to survive under the status quo. Offer better service or die, because you can't compete on price. Keep employing wannabe punk rockers who look on in disdain when I ask in vain for something other than the trip-funk-ambi-slowcore disc blaring through the speakers, and I'll gladly give my money to an online retailer. You haven't had a captive audience for about a decade now: deal with it.

In the place of radio, good record stores and cheap concerts is the Internet and its various modes of distribution. There is plenty of great music being made out there, and the access to it is so easy that it makes the choices dizzying. By overlooking the obvious, Fine is clearly missing out on some good music. While they don't offer the reheated boogie rock of Grand Funk, bands like the Killers or Death Cab For Cutie or the Gorillaz are certainly platinum sellers that aren't necessarily top-tier. Just a level below are even more (and I'd argue, better) bands. Once you get past the glitz of iTunes, which has become a slightly hip online Sam Goody/AOR radio station, you find outlets like eMusic, which posts about 2,000 new albums each month, none from major labels. The company's CEO, David Pakman, talks about the major-indie split in a recent interview on MP3.com: "When the digital music space first took off, the conventional wisdom was that it would grow the overall music market because you'll have more access, convenience, and unlimited shelf space. But that's not a foregone conclusion anymore, principally because the mainstream digital music services like iTunes are doing their very best to re-create the same things that happened in physical music retail. They're basically selling and marketing the hits. And there's nothing wrong with that. You can sell a lot of music that way because that's what most people want to buy."

If Jon Fine looks only at iTunes, he'll be disappointed to see that things do seem to be worse than ever before. In the push for profits, labels promote some hideously bad music and you seem to see and hear the same sad thing over and over again. But while he's busy lamenting that, there are plenty of people promoting and enjoying a wider variety of choices than ever before.


On the 'Bubble'

The Chicago Sun Times has an interesting article about Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble." As the film's Jan. 27 release nears, the mainstream media is starting to wake up to this odd little film and its interesting release plans. As Creativille readers know, "Bubble" is Soderbergh's first film for HDNet Films, a venture that seeks to collapse the release window for movies by offering them in theaters, on DVD and on television at the same time. Soderbergh signed a six-picture deal with HDNet (owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner) to make films like this to be distributed in this flattened fashion.

The film will come out on TV and theaters on Jan. 27, and the DVD release will follow on Jan. 31 (the difference being between traditional Friday openings in theaters and Tuesday availabilities for DVDs). According to the Sun-Times article, "The goal is to put the film on as many screens as possible, including home TVs, to capitalize on viewers who do not or cannot go to theaters. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the U.S. population consistently attends movies."

As a new parent who isn't going to make it to a theater for several months (and who doesn't lament that fact given the dirty, noisy and downright annoying experience moviegoing has become), I welcome the move. It will mean changes for theaters, just as any technological advance means changes for the affected industry. But those changes will help, not hurt the industry. People already are staying away because they can see a film in 4 to 6 months at home. This only speeds up the process. Theater owners need to make theirs the desirable choice be enhancing the experience. A big screen with surround sound isn't all that special any more. Good service, clean amenities and an offering of things one can't get at home (food, beverages, live entertainment, shorts before the film, etc.) would set the theater-going experience apart and make it a worthy alternative again. Once again, choice is the answer.

More about the film can be found at its website, which offers interviews with Soderbergh about the film and its distribution schedule.

UPDATE: Boing Boing points to a response to all this from Mark Cuban's blog, where he responds to comments from John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners: "Guess what John, I can whip up a mean steak, but I still like to go to restaurants. Because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting out of the house with family, friends, who ever."


Media hybrids

The Washington Post's Magazine Reader column has a review of the new DVD magazine Wholphin from the folks at McSweeneys and The Believer. This inaugural issue came free with the latest issues of both journals, as and a subscriber to both, I've had two copies sitting on top of the TV for the past couple of weeks. It seems like an appealing idea, this blend of media, but knowing the source, I haven't been able to convince myself to pop it in the DVD player just yet. The review isn't going to spur me to action, confirming my suspicions with passages like this:

"The idea of a DVD magazine full of odd little films still sounds great. But maybe it's the kind of idea that should be executed by somebody other than the editors of self-consciously weird literary magazines."

I'm all for cross-platform innovation, and applaud this effort. But just as the forthcoming Steven Soderbergh film "Bubble" isn't going to convince the mainstream that flattened release of movies is the way to go, neither will a knowingly clever DVD magazine from McSweeneys be the thing to show the masses that such a format is valuable. In such cases, the medium and the message are equally important, and it will take something a bit more mainstream to truly kickstart things. The avant garde always leads the way, however (hence the name), so if either experiment actually works, expect the rank and file to follow


A new distribution model

I have found mp3 blogs and music blogs in general to be a great place to learn about new music I might like. I don't expect to add to my playlist when reading economics blogs, but a post at The Big Picture late last year led me to check out the latest music from Harvey Danger. The band isn't new, nor new to me. But I was never too high on its big late-90s hit, "Flagpole Sitta," so when I read that they were making a return, it didn't interest me much.

But as I read about the band and the way it planned to release this new music, my interest was piqued. Stung by major label whims that found it dropped after its sophomore disc failed to recapture the novelty kitsch appeal of its debut, the band decided to release its new disc, Little by Little on its own. More than that, however, it was making the disc available for free download, both as straight mp3s and a bitTorrent file complete with cover art. In an essay on its web site, the band explains the decision: "This is by no means a manifesto. We don't pretend to be the first band to spin a variation of the shareware distribution model... We're not a bunch of fake Marxists. We're just trying to be smart capitalists so we can sustain our lives as musicians."

That's a key; Harvey Danger has been kicked around a bit, and it knows that while this move might be politically savvy in these times of anti-major label sentiment, it's even more business savvy. There's no way a band on the far side of its popularity curve like this could make back an advance from a major label or sell enough to justify giving up the kind of control over their own art that such a move would require. Instead, they can get word out about their disc thanks to this unique distribution model, let people sample their music without limits and try to sell a few to those who really like it. Paying for recording and manufacture of the physical disc, plus the bandwidth to host the files is more than recoupable by the sale of a few thousand discs. To make sales more appealing when the music is available for free, the band is offering a "deluxe package" with a 30-minute bonus disc, all for $11.99.

According to a Wall Street Journal article from late November, the band spent $50,000 on the project, including recording, manufacture, promotion and distribution. Assuming a profit of even $5 per disc (which is probably modest), the band need only sell 10,000 copies to break even. That's not unrealistic. More than 90,000 people had downloaded the disc by that point, according to the article, while 600 people have donated something to the cause through PayPal and 3,000 copies of the disc had been sold.

And the music? It's not bad. Those who liked "Flagpole Sitta" and who have moved on and seen their tastes evolve will likely find much to like. Like fellow one-hit-wonders Nada Surf (whose own MTV staple "Popular" did more harm than good to its career) the band seems to have matured and put its industry woes to good use as fuel to create more sophisticated music that is a bit more organic and less jokey. I was about to use the cliche that the great song "Cream and Bastards Rise" is worth the price alone, but that isn't saying much. Maybe I'll put my money where my mouth is and go give them a couple of bucks as thanks for the song.

Meanwhile, other artists -- not just musicians -- would be wise to check out the band's site and distribution model. As band guitarist Jeff Lin tells the Journal, "I don't think a model like this works for everybody. It would be very difficult for a band that doesn't have any previous recognition at all." As quick as pop culture chews up and spits out hot new things, however, there are plenty of artists across many disciplines who do have that previous recognition. This may be a way to mover careers into the next phase once that recognition begins to fade.


Slight return

My holiday break turned into an extended hiatus thanks to the arrival of our new son over Christmas. As he gets settled in, and I get used to the lack of sleep, I'll ease back into posting.

In the meantime, just a quick note pointing to some interesting pieces about the Mark Cuban-Stephen Soderbergh film partnership that led to the forthcoming HD film "Bubble." I've written a lot about this, and I'm not alone. The Fast Company blog has an interesting look at recent coverage of Cuban and his digital revolution in theaters and beyond, with particular note given to Cuban's feisty way of responding to the media, in this case the New York Times. Meanwhile, UK paper The Independent asks if "Bubble" will change the way Hollywood does business: "Is it the beginning of the end of the movies as we know them - or does it mark an exciting new departure into an almost unlimited future of digital entertainment?" Those need not be mutually exclusive, of course, and I think that the answer to both ultimately will be "yes." We'll see the latter much, much sooner than the former, but it will happen.