Right now there’s no subject closer to the heart of the music industry than that of money. It’s a well known fact that a rise in illegal downloads has led to a decline in major label profits, but what does that actually mean for the musicians? As Boyzone (ok Billy Ocean) once declared: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going’, and nowadays artists themselves are coming up with creative schemes to make sure they can still afford their rock ‘n roll lifestyles.
There is a wealth of opportunities for the money-savvy musician. Those familiar with Patrick Wolf’s venture in 2008 to sell shares in his album The Bachelor will be aware of its vehicle, Bandstocks (www.bandstocks.com). Having split from his label, Wolf decided to raise a sum of money from fans as investors, giving them a chance to contribute directly to the album’s creation and promotion, in return for exclusive copies, investor-only events and general thrills from having direct contact with their favourite artist. His account with Bandstocks closed successfully, having raised its £100,000 target, but the website is not particularly vibrant at the moment (or even wholly functional) which suggests alternative ways of funding might need to be sought…
Cutting out the middle-man altogether was a solution for Radiohead, who famously made their seventh album In Rainbows available online to consumers who could pay as little as they wanted for the album, or up to £99.99. Tellingly, about one third of the people who downloaded it paid nothing and the average price paid was £4, but by ignoring distribution costs, and not paying the guy who makes the tea at EMI, Radiohead had made more money on In Rainbows through its online release than their 2003 album Hail to the Thief made overall. Frontman Thom Yorke told Time Magazine, ‘I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.’ Which puts the whole thing rather aptly.
This is all slightly harsh on record labels though, and it’s still not impossible to make a little cash on the side by trying new things within the comfort of the old system. Something which bands like Bloc Party and Los Campesinos have latched onto is the power of bonus material. Fans can pay a premium price to join exclusive clubs only available to other paying members (as a Bloc Party fan this would make you a ‘Pioneer’ as opposed to a cheapo ‘Marshall’) and therefore have access to live footage, bonus tracks and even an actual publication – see Los Campesino’s ‘Heatrash’ magazine, at £25 a year. Laura Marling also used the preference of an actual object over an illegal download to her advantage by releasing a limited number of ‘Songboxes’ which contained first album Alas I Cannot Swim alongside games and trinkets. These are now going for around £80 on Amazon so would’ve been a sound £15 investment back in 2008.
‘Selling out’ is a dirty phrase in the music industry, but when large-scale advertisers are involved so are large-scale pay cheques, meaning it’s no surprise that certain artists are tempted to become sponsors of events and products. Groove Armada and Bacardi struck up a mutually beneficial friendship promoting events together, Prince controversially released his album Planet Earth as a free gift in the Daily Mail, and The Charlatans gave their album You Cross My Path away for free in conjunction with Xfm. Kanye West also makes millions from advertisers online, just by blogging occasionally.
More than ever before the struggling musician is relying on the good old fashioned gig to keep him afloat. The experience of seeing a live concert can never be replaced by the internet, and the opportunity for T Shirt sales can’t hurt. When talking about the spread of illegal downloads, however, it is extremely difficult to compete with free. Howie Singer from Warner Music sums up the awkward position of the music industry by explaining, ‘It’s interesting to be in a business where there’s no issue about creating demand for your product. The issue is finding a way to get paid for it.’ There clearly are some ingenious ways to get people to pay money for music worth listening to; they just need to be exploited.