Does The New Business Of Music Change The Way Music Sounds?

Police at Staples
photo by Zeetz Jones on Flickr

I was on a panel at Bandwith Conference last week and the “Who is going to play The Staples Center in five years?” question came up again. I answered (again), “Who the fuck wants to see a show at The Staples Center?” Do we judge the health of the music business by how many people are pulling half a mill in a single show at a terrible venue? I don’t. Let me be clear, unless your sole source of music discovery is network television and Radio Disney, I hope you never have to see your favorite band at The Staples Center. I saw Bob Dylan there once. It’s a bummer, only fun for the people counting the money.

Admittedly a) I’m one of those movie and TV-hating music fanatics who over-zealously thinks music is the answer to the world’s problems, b) I’m an optimist, c) my professional success is tied to the success of the new music business. So it’s not at all surprising and obviously self-serving I would naively believe these technology changes would have a positive impact on the music landscape, but I do. My friend Jay Babcock (LA will miss you, Jay, NY beware) and I used to argue regularly about the effect of technology on culture, Jay of the general opinion that technology has compromised our quality of life since the dawn of man and me believing basically the opposite.

Not only do I marvel at the notion that a kid from my hometown (Goshen, Indiana, where I used to have my mom drive me an hour to buy a copy of Maximum Rock N Roll so she could then write me checks so I could wait weeks to hear the music I paid for) has the same access to music as I do here in LA (that’s a lot of change in 20 years), but I think the rise of the new music business is actually going to change the way music sounds — the kind of albums that are made five years from now will certainly be different than the ones that were made fifteen years ago.

In 1991 a band called On A Friday was signed to EMI/Parlophone and changed their name to Radiohead at the label’s request. They were told what every band was told: “There’s just a few targets out there and they’re called radio formats — Modern Rock, Top 40, Country, Urban… AIM AT ONE OF THE TARGETS, BOYS.” Radio and MTV were the marketing channels. So Radiohead made “Creep”, a song that both gave them their career and haunted them for the rest of it. Thankfully Radiohead navigated the waters and found their way to become a band who can afford creative freedom. But how many bands have tried for the hit at the insistence of their investor only to alienate their would-be fans, too? Would the Dandy Warhols records on Capitol have sounded different if Capitol wasn’t hoping for hits and videos directed by David LaChapelle? Hard to say for sure (Perry WR, what do you think?) but I think it’s easier to answer the question: If an artist and producer is making an album for their fans is it going to sound different than if they’re making it for a hit in the limited radio marketing channel? In most cases, yes.

I had a conversation with a Nashville-based artist two weeks ago about how he’s changing the way he makes records. In the days past, when he was shooting for hits (he had five #1s on one record in the late 80s), he would hire the best band in town and pay them 2x union scale. Problem is, when you’re doing more than one session a day with the best players in town it gets pretty expensive pretty quick, so you try to do the recording in a few days as possible. Now you’re a great songwriter and the musicians are top-notch so this isn’t the end of the world, you can make a few (soul-less, homogeneous) hit songs this way. But he sees a different way of making records in the future, one that appeals more to music fans than country radio. He sees getting great musicians that are his friends together for a month or more and saying, “We’re going to eat well and have a roof over our heads but we aren’t going to get paid union rates. We’re all going to take an ownership stake in this record.” I don’t know about you, but I can hear the difference between the record that was made in five days by the “best musicians in town” and the one made in a house by a group of friends over a couple of months, and personally I’d definitely prefer the latter. It’s the difference between “Blondes Have More Fun…Or Do They?”, Rod Stewart looking for (and finding) a disco hit, and “Every Picture Tells A Story”, a bunch of rejects making the music they loved (and an enduring hit to boot).

While I typed this, for example, I listened to Paul Westerberg’s best album since The Replacements (IMHO), his (now unavailable) 49:00. Then I bought (ironically, 2x the price of 5:05) and enjoyed 5:05. This is definitely not the product of someone backed by a label looking for a hit at college radio, even, and I’d argue it’s better as a result.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I’m sure a few people are feeling the same thing, no?


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  1. eclecticism » Blog Archive » Links for August 20th through August 22nd on 22 Aug 2008 at 1:00 pm

    […] Does The New Business Of Music Change The Way Music Sounds?: If an artist and producer is making an album for their fans is it going to sound different than if they’re making it for a hit in the limited radio marketing channel? In most cases, yes. […]


  1. Ty White wrote:

    Interesting thoughts, and on a whole I definitely agree. What I’m interested in, however, is beyond IF the business will change the sound toward HOW the sound will change. The tail has been extended ad infinitum by bands with the advent of ProTools, but does this mean their content is going to be better? With all due respect to the software itself, it’s not going to make you a great musician. Looking to the head of the curve, what’s going to change there? Anything? Are bands with that much to lose going to self-produce in their living rooms? Not bloody likely (more power to them if they do and pull it off). And the middle-class bands? Well, that’s where it gets interesting…
    There is always going to be a “lowest common denominator” sound–there will always be a market for “radio-friendly” songs. There’s less incentive for bands to shoot for that sound, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still the easiest way to make a lot of money. More established middle-class bands should know and be comfortable with their audience and sound, but that’s still no guarantee. And what if the records that got them to where they are were recorded with huge budgets fronted by major labels? Will they be able to maintain a good enough sound to keep their fans happy?
    Ultimately, knowledge is power–know your audience, know what risks you can take, know what corners you can and can’t cut. Those are the basics–when mastered over many years, they allow an artist to survive in their niche.
    Then comes the skill to create something special–the extra sweetener that wins new fans. THAT is what has the real opportunity to come through in the new music market. It can’t be faked with bogus marketing campaigns like in the old days. The music IS the marketing campaign. If it’s special, people will talk. Even if the sound of music as a whole doesn’t change greatly, the sound of what becomes popular undoubtedly will.

  2. Maths wrote:

    Excellent observations and so true. Friends in bands used to fantasize on getting that one sellout hit song and making it big…even though the song itself might not be what they truly liked but by what is dictated by the market. However, with the splintered markets as constantly reiterated by Lefsetz, the urgency and guarantee of riches by that low common-denominator song has diminished and other forms of music can thrive better in seeing the light of day without label dictation.

    But outside of the US, in mobile music dominated markets like China however, the downside of an all-powerful centralized mobile music platform controlled by carrier monopolists like China Mobile is that everyone is trying to now make low common denominator fare which will sell shit loads. The official Olympic song “You and Me” for example just hit in excess of 7 million caller ringtones and ringback tones this week, that is US$ 2mil in revenues! This has become the new strait-jacket hit radio/MTV scourge in this part of the world with artists also monetizing via appearance fees and advertisement endorsements but earning nothing on full-track downloads. Simple songs that work in the mobile realm thrive, so the new way of the music business in markets like China in its current form is actually detrimental to the development of other forms of music – metal, punk, electronica, hip-hop, new age, classical etc have limited monetization potential as there are few other revenue streams for them to tap.

    But it is also a call to arms for artists not suited for the mass-market mobile platform to develop other channels, be it online or offline and use online tools to seek out and cultivate their core audience as highlighted by Seth Gdin. So the new business of music is certainly changing the way the music sounds – it can either exacerbate the flood of low-common denominator fare on some new media platforms or pioneering types can harness it to build their own independent channels. One can either sell out, develop a niche or give up….

  3. Freddie B. wrote:

    My impression is that music already sounds dramatically different in a lot of quarters – ie. produced purely for the mp3 market, with no interest whatsoever in the kind of sound you can get from vinyl.

    I say this because most of the new music I buy I hear first on mp3 before committing to vinyl, expecting the latter to provide a superior listening experience. It isn’t always so, in fact, no doubt because some contemporary producers simply aren’t thinking in those terms.

    Interestingly enough, the recent record that I find is transformed most completely between formats is ‘In Rainbows’. And guess what? Listening to the vinyl version, it really really sounds like an album that was recorded in a big old country house studio by a group of people with time enough to explore, and innovate, and craft something of real beauty – the way some early Pink Floyd albums sound.

    The other band which might provide a useful point of reference for your argument is Fleet Foxes. Their music certainly sounds like it was created without the interference of jabbering label managers, and without a thought of producing a hit single, and is all the more coherent and compelling for it.

    Love your blog by the way. Not surprised at all to see Byrne and Eno picked you. Nice work.

  4. Dan Foley wrote:

    I think pretty much everything has an impact on how music sounds – intent, marketplace, equipment, sobriety, peers… and the ‘new business’ will certainly affect the sound of many artists, as will the availability of new production tools. Even writing can be changed by the means used to write – a book written by an author might be subtly (or even substantially) different if she used a pen and paper or a word processor.

    However, there will always be people who make the music they want to make with the tools available to them, without any regard to whether what they produce has commercial potential.

    I think it’s great for music that these tools are now so powerful that pretty much anyone can (in theory) produce a record that sounds great, without requiring a commercial investment first… and those looking for financial gain will always follow the tastes of the masses anyway…

  5. sean coon wrote:


  6. Daniel Holter wrote:

    Great observations all around, Ian.

    I like the idea of the participants having a vested interest in the music they create. We recently had to navigate some murky waters when we placed a song in the Sex And The City movie – would have been easier in some ways if the players involved had seen the investment potential at the beginning of the project (instead, they got paid under a work-for-hire, then wanted more when they realized the song was making money). Oh well, such is life.

    Also, you make a GREAT point about Radiohead and the freedom/curse that a hit song like Creep brings a band or artist.

    I still say that without Head Like a Hole (a great pop song) Trent Reznor wouldn’t have had the financial success he’s seen.

    Without Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana is playing in a totally different league instead of taking over and changing the game.

    Indie artists who make claims about art without taking into consideration the commerce that is (probably, generally) needed to afford them the luxury of making music annoy the crap out of me.

    There’s a difference between making smart business decisions and ‘selling out.’

    And, of course, it’s easy to say you’ll never sell out when no one’s making any offers!

  7. John Bixby wrote:

    Really insightful observations here. I actually think the “new music industry” started changing the way music sounds back in the late 1990’s with the rise of and the pattern of releasing tracks in more of a DJ-style one-off pattern where the quality of every track mattered, as opposed to album releases where maybe 3 songs are good and the other 9 are filler.

    What we’re seeing here is just another example of the internet enabling the rise of the long tail. As the importance of traditional music outlets (radio, mtv) and distribution (major labels) is diminished and more and more tools are available to artists to get their music out to the world, I think you’re going to see this “smoothing” of musical genres/styles as you alluded to, where instead of 10-15 mainstream genre pillars that artists try to write songs for, you’re going to see much more of a musical continuum.

    The problem then becomes, and AFAIK no one has solved it yet, is how do you sort through this sea of infinite choice to find the music you might like? So far I haven’t found any applications out there that do a really killer job at music discovery.

  8. william philpott wrote:

    There is somewhat of a historic model for moving away from the loansharking of production that leads to banal music. Willie Nelson left Nashville for Texas citing those very reasons, so he could make good music with his friends and not have to do the bidding of the record executives.
    More then most pre-net tools Maximum RnR prepared the kids (now over 40s) for navigating the volume and mediocrity of todays music. Anyone who had to parse the ad’s and decide what to spend your money on site unheard is at ease with todays instant music world of downloads. the general public just needs filters to do the work (majors, MTV etc) because marketing defines every aspect of a majority of the publics life choices from politics to music.
    I think the democratization of the recording process will alow alot of muscians to mature at a much slower rate. so when they are ready and choose to go wide, well they will be less likely to do one record and flame out.

  9. Donn wrote:

    How funny/odd that the very technology that is ripping the music industry apart is also enabling musicians to create and distribute music on their own terms.

    For a relatively small investment in gear an artist can create a perfectly acceptable recording and the Internet provides a conduit to potential buyers.

    Of course this technology comes with a price.

    1.) Thanks to P2P and a completely clueless industry, we’ve created a generation of people who seem to think that music should be free.

    2.) Since a vast majority of our music delivery systems consist of MP3 player and earbuds, the demand for high-quality sonics is nil. Most new mainstream releases are almost unlistenable which, in return, means those basement Garageband style recordings are more and more the norm.

    3.) The availability of digital recording gear and plug-ins have further homogenized new recordings and performances. It’s possible to “create” and perfect a performance inside the machine (ask Ashlee Simpson) but at least we haven’t been able to digitize talent, discretion and taste. Yet.

    While I love the accessibility of new music via the Internet, I’m more and more frustrated by the amazing amount of dreck I have to dig through in order to get to the gems.

    The tools are in place. We simply need a workable revenue stream that works for the consumer, the provider and the artist and some sort of centralized or standardized search/sort method so fans can find their preferred music easier.

    Steve Jobs came oh-so-close to a workable digital music model but his focus is too Apple-centric and borderline elitist.

    We’re close folks. . . really close.

  10. Glenn wrote:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. The rise of music blogs has not given us a wider range of music in the rock underground. Indie rock is more generic than ever. One year bands want to be like Death Cab for Cutie. The next they want to be like Arcade Fire. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sent everybody on a mission to sing like David Byrne and Tom Verlaine. The truly original stuff doesn’t attract enough attention to gather much buzz.

    The point is that bands might not be shooting for a mainstream Top 10 sound as much as they used to, but they’re still crowding around the same water coolers.

    The large payoffs for the most popular acts will be a constant impulse for an artist to appeal to the very middle of the bell curve. The fringes will exist. The fringes will become even more crowded. Technologies will allow the fringes to find fans and sell products across the world. It’s a great time for those types of artists, so many tools available. But the winner-takes-all payoff for the most popular acts will continue to shape how music sounds.

    As for the Dandy Warhols, their album released yesterday is on the band’s own label and was, from the sound of it, not made with radio in mind. I’m sure their most devoted fans will like the album, but it’s probably not going to find much of an audience. The band was better when Capital helped shape the songs. Aiming for radio made their songs better, made their albums better. (Anton Newcombe can do DIY very well. The Dandies aren’t as good at it.) If the Dandies are comfortable catering to a fixed number of existing fans, they should go on making more records like this one.

    I’m always surprised that so many people think radio hits are lesser songs. (Maybe you didn’t mean that, but that’s how I interpreted what you wrote.) That an album has radio hits doesn’t mean it’s a lesser album, only that one or more of the songs is relatively short, to the point and probably pretty catchy. Plenty of great albums had radio hits. Prince’s 1999 (which stands the test of time a lot better than the albums Prince released on his own NPG label). Paul Simon’s Graceland. GNR’s Appetite for Destruction. Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Peter Gabriel’s So. Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Green Day gets a lot of radio, and I think their albums are great. The Replacements’ Don’t Tell A Soul was meant to be very radio friendly, and even though it didn’t live up to expectations I think it’s great…and better than all but a couple of Westerberg’s solo albums.

    Today’s radio is tomorrow’s (or maybe today’s) jingle. Or song played to a love scene in a TV drama. Or ringtone with an instantly recognizable hook. The commercial need for a cookie-cutter song with instant gratification will exist forever.

    And, of course, there are plenty of great albums released every year that have no intention of being buoyed by a hit single. They’ve always been out there, at least in my lifetime. Those are the ones I tend to buy. Just a personal choice, nothing against radio fodder.

  11. David Peris wrote:

    I remember listening to an interview with Alan Moore where he said something to the effect that almost all of the time, he will be more impressed with a magic trick which costs $5 rather than some $100 million CGI screen bonanza.

    I think the same logic applies to music… “Wish You Were Here” as conceived on an acoustic guitar in the 70s didn’t require Protools to be recorded, but ironically enough, the entire album on which it lives probably sounds sonically better than 99% of the albums today… can someone explain that?

    But who cares if a song is listened to in 7.1 surround or ice cream truck quality… it’s a question of the listener having some sort of emotional connection to the song.

    While we don’t want to think about it or admit it, in many cases behind every hit song/album/artist, there is a web of marketers who spend all day trying to find an audience for this art. Some have famously used cocaine and hookers to secure a song’s place in the collective, but at the end of the day, many of our most beloved artists were pushed to us through incessant wheeling and dealing by sketchy guys with shady means.

    Now, would Jimmy Page have maintained a blog on the 1977 US tour? Would the upcoming re-release of “Under a Blood Red Sky” be cooler with Adam Clayton’s behind-the-scenes Quicktime videos embedded on the disc? Nah… all of this is so utterly secondary to the songs, the live performance, the mystique, mystery and might of our favorite artists… the ones not only that people wait in stupidly long lines for so they can touch the stage, but the Bad Brains fan who kills for that stupidly rare 7″.

    In so many ways, I feel that bands are weak and lazy these days… Saul William’s website and all the surrounding hype of the last release did not make a friend wanna pay $5 for the album online… but when he accompanied me to the live show, he was happy to pay $10 for an older album whose songs blew his mind live.

    Putting up a MySpace page and waiting to be Radiohead II and never building word of mouth through sweaty, life-changing live performance is a world of diminishing returns. MTV is dead, long live performing live.

    I think an artist, writer, filmmaker, poet who says they do not want the biggest audience possible may be lying to you. The guy strumming in the subway, I think, wouldn’t mind so much playing MSG or the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve seen Dylan at both relatively small Irving Plaza and MSG and while there’s nothing like a small venue, big shows don’t have to be all bad… and let’s face it, half the trouble with big shows is the high douchebag ratio… the backwards baseball capped folk aren’t always on top of getting into the intimate venues. A bad crowd can taint any show experience… I saw NIN last weekend. Half the audience was blogging, snapping crappy cell phone pics or updating their Facebook status during the show. Head Like A Twatter.

    So, will music sound different in 5 years… does it matter? I can only hope it sounds as good as what George Martin pulled off with a couple tincans in the 60s, coupled with the SONGS.

  12. Eric wrote:

    Nice example is another English band: Marillion ( Once a famous band, but in this day and age not what you’d call fashionable.

    For the third time in a decade or so they managed to persuade 10.000+ fans to pay for an album way in advance. Once the album is ready, they’ll search for distribution deals. The fans that paid in advance receive a limited edition album. This way they have complete control of music, artwork, promotion and distribution.

  13. Bob wrote:

    Good stuff IR. Submitted this to reddit just now.

  14. Kiko Jones wrote:

    Good points, Glenn.

    The question isn’t “Who is going to play The Staples Center in five years?” but which current acts will still matter and be around then? We’re living in a time when artists are going from buzz bands and hipster darlings to residing atop the Where Are They Now? garbage heap at an alarming rate/speed. Like it or not, all the artists Rogers uses as examples are former beneficiaries of doing time in the big machine and utilizing that name recognition to their own benefit. (Radiohead acknowledged as much during the In Rainbows hoopla.)

    As popular music becomes increasingly more disposable–regardless of the artists’ creative merits/street cred or lack thereof–that number will steadily decrease. I think that’s why we’re seeing artists past their prime but with a solid following (Madonna, U2, Jay-Z, etc) being courted by the likes of Live Nation, instead of say, Kings of Leon. Right or wrong, the backlash suffered by bands like Clap Your Hands, Tapes n Tapes, Vampire Weekend (it’s around the corner) etc just bolsters their stance.

  15. Patrick Woodward wrote:

    From a recording engineer’s perspective a lot will change it terms of sound. The way records are made from start to finish has changed rapidly in the past eight years.

    I wrote about the future of sound engineering. The post might shed some light on how in fact the sound of records might change.

  16. Patrick Woodward wrote:

  17. doc holliday wrote:

    I agree with you Kiko..

  18. Austin wrote:

    I’m an artist just cracking into this Goliath that is the music industry. It’s great to read about the opportunities that await in the modern era of mp3 and itunes, but at the same time as a couple of you mentioned the p2p programs really destroy a more cut in stone ability to actually make profit. I, as an artist, believe that really “selling out” is just a term that people have stapled to change. Sure there are sometimes underlying reasons for such changes, but overall, or at least in my amateur experiences, I tend to let my music flow as it sees fit. Like someone commented, There is no digital way to reproduce talent or taste and therefore anyone creating music that is tasteful and well made is still developing on their version of the art. Music is about change and feeling, it differs from day to day, emotion to emotion.

    If any of you are interested in seeing what truly original and not yet “sold out” music is sounding like, feel free to check out my band’s website! Comments are appreciated as we are just starting and don’t intent to stop.

    Lead Vocalist (MetaPilot)


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