A musician’s perspective on music piracy

The old music industry model of A&R musos hanging out at gigs and spotting upcoming talent, signing them up for lucrative (for the record company) record deals, screwing the acts for studio time and wrapping them up in legal red tape lingers on. But, music “piracy” has given young and aspiring artists yet another headache by turning the music industry on its head and denying many of them who lack the business nous a future in music.

Social networking for musicians

Many acts, such as Madonna, have jumped off the recording-touring turntable and are opting to get their music to their fans anyway they can and performing live to cover costs, although even that approach isn’t necessarily working with worldwide tickets sales down for many acts. This is, of course, much more feasible for a legacy act as their fans generally buy tickets and those demographics still like to go to shows. New, younger, and indie artists have a much harder time because the younger people don’t necessarily want to go to a show, especially if it is of someone who is not ‘famous’. For many solo indie pop acts, all costs have to be fronted by the act and there is then the hurdle of actually booking a venue.

Canadian power trio RushCanadian power trio Rush have taken a half-way stance on this by releasing two tracks off their next album ahead of their current tour of the Americas. Presumably, the rest of their album will follow once they tot up their ticket receipts, but it makes you wonder. Others like Radiohead are finding ever more creative ways to get their recorded music to their fans and to make a few beer vouchers along the way.

But, for artists with a lower profile than big name acts it is inevitable that they are going to be lost in the mass of media unless they can make the most of modern technology, such as social networking tools and crowd sourcing.

One such idealist is soulful Canadian singer-songwriter Natalie Brown. Natalie connected with me on Twitter a couple of years ago and we’ve chatted on and off about the world of social networking, music, and more over that time. She’s now hoping to subsidise her next recording project and a live DVD by persuading her fans to dig deep, well not so deep. She is utilising social fund-raising, Facebook and any other tool at her disposal to help her put out a Limited Edition Autographed CD (The Relationship Odyssey) & Live Show DVD.

Social fund raising

It’s an interesting idea, but Natalie still has some way to go before she reaches her target. One of the problems she tells me is that there’s lots of encouragement but the recession means that financial support has been slow in coming despite her best efforts in social media.

“Even using modern technology, you face overcrowding where the loudest wins, not necessary the most talented,” Natalie told me. “I know scores of fabulously talented people who are not into self-promotion or who are too shy or just not marketing savvy… what will happen to them? Imagine if Bob Dylan were up and coming now? There is NO WAY he would ever be heard.”

“I’m doing everything ‘right’ according to how they say to promote the project, so I am thinking that it’s the economy,” she says. “It’s either that or there just isn’t that much interest in actually financially supporting what I do. There’s plenty of interest to watch and stream though. People bug me if I don’t upload a weekly vlog, but they don’t seem to understand that there is a time and cost to everything that is done and one has to weigh up the outcome of that time/cost is in the grand scheme of things.”

Nevertheless, she has been growing her fan base for many years, so you’d think there would be interest. Perhaps there’s more to it though and Natalie has a pet theory about how the music industry, and the fan perspective has changed over the last few years, especially since the advent of illicit and illegal file sharing.

“What I’ve seen since getting online in 1996 is a decline in true fans online, there are more fans… but the fan mentality now is that ‘liking’ or ‘listening’ makes them a fan. Buying a product or going to a gig is what makes you a true fan, but fans these days don’t seem to think that way.”

Natalie laments the fact that the whole P2P post-Napster state of the music industry and perhaps even the RIAA legal activity has shifted things irreversibly. “Somehow online behavior has shifted and people think they are fans if they stream your music for free, or share it etc,” she adds. ” But we both know that a fan should be measured by how they support the act financially. I’m assuming that back in the day you would never have said you were a fan of The Beatles without owning a record, t-shirt, or concert ticket stub.”

Sticking it

“Fans say they are ‘sticking it to the man’ but at the end of the day, the reality is that in the major label system ‘the man’ will get his pay check,” adds Natalie, “but the artist is the one who ultimately suffers by not recouping what was invested in the recording and marketing and they never see a dime from their hard work and ultimately get dropped by the record label.” She points out that it’s worse for independent artists because they usually fund their own recording, manufacturing, marketing, touring etc. “So it’s like taking money right out of our pockets when you steal music or are content to stream for free (on our dime, because we pay for bandwidth costs),” she adds. “What people don’t realize is they are not sticking it to anyone except the artists. It’s time to rethink what it means to be a fan of music or any art that can be easily digitized and made freely available on the web or via mobile and other devices. What is a fan in 2010?”

Digital artists

“Couple that new mindset with the current crappy state of the economy and it’s a real shame because those of us who create art that can be digitized really suffer as a result,” Natalie says. The problem is perhaps one of value. “Sadly, digitization of all this stuff has created a glut of it, so it’s not precious any more. The value of anything goes down when there’s so much of it available for free given freely or pirated.”

The same problems are there for indie and major acts, Natalie suggests. Things are changing very rapidly, she says, “Our traditional sources of income are fading away, which ultimately means we cannot afford to create and perform unless we find other methods of creating income with the music we produce.” The A-listers can turn to celebrity endorsements but lesser known artists must turn to their creativity, which is exactly what Natalie is doing. “Where there is a will there is a way,” she says. “Nevertheless, it’s fascinating though, creating a music career in this time in our world. Everything shifts, changes and you must adapt!”

Natalie BrownNatalie has been fortunate enough from her ventures into music licensing to build a recording studio and to make a living placing music. “I want to keep making and releasing music as long as I am able,” she says. “But I do have to sit back every so often and analyze if there is a return on certain efforts.” Natalie is in the fortunate position of having a core base of really great fans who she appreciates immensely and she is looking forward to releasing music for them in the future.

She is intrigued to see where all of these shifts in music consumption go. “Will music ultimately have to be free and we find other ways to make a living?” she asks. Regardless of the path music takes, Natalie knows that she will be there for the ride and hopefully always on the forefront of trying new things and educating fellow artists by sharing her experiences online.

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.