With the weakened world economy, content in general faces plenty of gloom and doom. Advertising models are severely weakened. But, oddly, in the world of music, there are some positive signs that the shift to decentralized, online distribution might actually be going well — and maybe economic pressures are simply ensuring the parties involved find some way to make the adjustment.

And music distribution is becoming wonderfully weird and diverse – maybe far more so than in recording’s so-called golden age, an era in the past dominated by racial division, predatory labels, and a few dominant big businesses. (Money is tough as always, but it does make you wonder why we complain so.)

One sign of the shifting landscape: online streaming site Pandora is now actually calling for more performance fees — for terrestrial (AM/FM) radio, anyway. Ars Technica has been doing a great job of following the issue:

Pandora now pushing radio to pay for music, too

It seems Pandora – along with other webcasters – was able to cut a deal on webcasting rates, in a battle that put music listeners and makers at the center of a legislative struggle. Legislators had been the ones to intervene and save webcasting, under pressure from listener constituents and even musicians. Pandora founder Tim Westergren told CDM how dire a failure on these rates could be.

Pandora’s CD-ripping facility. Photo (CC) Thomas Hawk; blog post.

What the deal means is that we can return to the rosier vision of how online streaming could help promote indie musicians, something Westergren put eloquently in a 2007 interview with CDM. But looking back at Tim’s arguments from two years ago, a central tenant was fairness — meaning big, corporate radio broadcasters really ought to face a level playing field and start paying musical rights owners. (Public radio in the US, by contrast, is likely to benefit from the online deal, as public stations increasingly rely upon wider online distribution and even pledges from loyal online listeners. Moved from Omaha to Montreal? You can still listen to your favorite station.)

There are signs that not only have online music pirates moved to download stores like iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon, but to streaming solutions, as well. In one of a number of recent studies, for instance, the UK is showing online file sharing down markedly as legal streaming grows. To me, the most interesting thing about this is that it disproves a long-held industry assumption that habits, once set, wouldn’t change. For better or worse, the online world doesn’t seem to work that way.

Meanwhile, the lines between “indie” and “major” are blurring quickly. Again, Ars Technica:

Universal/TuneCore deal opens major doors for indie artists

The surprise there is that it’s not so much about distributing Universal artists exclusively – online artist services firm TuneCore is now opening its membership base to Universal and visa versa, so that Universal can discover new artists and artists get licensing and mastering services from UMG without the need for exclusive contracts with the major label. In fact, if there’s one word that sums up the future of music deals, “non-exclusivity” seems to be it.

(clarification) As kj notes in comments, I think saying this opens “major doors” is a bit of a stretch. It opens a small door at a major. But on the other hand, the idea of a label becoming an open service shop for artists – for offering, say, mastering for a fee as part of their revenue – is new and, provided it actually works, interesting. And it’s clearly part of a larger trend.


Just in time for a new global recession – it’s music distributed via soup cans!

But I think the best news is the spread of unusual means of musical distribution. Eliot Van Buskirk writes a round-up of favorites for Wired Magazine. (And yes, while top ten lists are overused, they’re brilliantly appropriate when you actually have ten really awesome things.)

10 Weird Ways to Distribute Music

From soup cans to music boxes to iPhone apps, there are a few underlying trends in there. One is experimentation in the delivery mechanism itself (including 8-tracks and cassettes, really). The other is in what you can do with the media, as with the interactive remixable iTunes album, or even art books that extend what an album actually is.

As these spread, though, I have to optimistically think that this is more than desperation or brief novelty. Distribution media haven’t just shifted from one popular form to another; they’ve imploded. We’re rapidly approaching a “minority majority” situation in which no one format dominates the others. We haven’t gone from the compact cassette to the CD to the MP3. We’ve gone from the CD to MP3s, MP4s, lossless files for aficionados and lossy streams for kids who love on-demand, vintage formats, physical media and art books and software. Instead of being strange anomalies, these other formats may actually be the new normal. I think in a way the business model doesn’t matter, because, let’s face it, a lot of art making is about losing money. What drives artists is loving sharing the thing they’re making, and finding someone who wants to love it, too. Some people will make a great business model around that, while others won’t.

But if you’re a music lover, we could be facing a new golden age. And if you missed compact cassettes, good news – they’re back.

  • kj

    i think you may be being a *bit* naive on the universal/tunecore deal. what it seems to really be about is opening up universal "services" to a whole bunch of amateurs and such to buy from universal like mastering from their studios, PR packages, etc.. in other words, a money maker for universal, first and foremost.

  • @kj: No, that's fair. On the other hand, that's still a shift in model — to the label as services company. And I think artists ARE looking for non-exclusivity. So, this is a blip, but it is part of what seems to be a larger trend.

  • graham

    i've been digging the idea of cassettes with mp3 card inside for a while. alongside bandcamp it would probably be a killer.

  • bobfrank

    kj – agreed. that is the real intent.

    id hate to be doom and gloom, and i hope im not! digital music has done wonders for me and my peers.

    however, how decentralized is everything? seems more of a shifting rather than a transformation. there is still only a core of online music distribution that "matters," primarily iTunes and to a much lesser extent, Amazon. and the majors still have a MAJOR stronghold on these retail outlets.

    sure, anyone can get their album on iTunes/Amazon/Napster through TuneCore, but it still doesnt get prime placement in any of the propper "areas" of the store. it was just as easy 10 years ago to get some CDs or vinyl made, and get it into Tower Records.

  • bobfrank

    graham, there are manufacturers that make those, and they look great!

  • Well, full disclosure: I had started just writing up a couple of links and wound up waxing poetic.

    I agree with y'all. These are signs of some subtle changes that to me suggest tectonic shifts about to happen in the larger landscape.

    But I'm ignoring the elephant in the room: how does online distribution actually work?

    And iTunes is clearly at the center of that battle. On the one hand, centralization has some benefits. It has unquestionably helped people form the habit of buying music. The problem is, a lot of artists — entire genres, in fact — haven't benefited much from that centralization, monetarily or otherwise. And the pseudo-monopoly Apple holds — which they defend vigorously on their devices, the subject for a separate article — has some dangers, too. I'd be naive to call that black and white one way or the other as it requires looking into the future.

    Then you get niche-specific consolidation, as on Beatport. But this is interesting, as well — it's really a niche store, it isn't in any way connected to iTunes. And its vertical consolidation is actually profitable for many artists (both in terms of $$ and buzz).

    At the same time, none of this is really helping direct-to-fan relationships, which seem to want true decentralization.

    So, yes, lots of questions here.

  • bobfrank

    great article nonetheless peter. more of these types of articles the better, as they are a great way to stir up meaningful discussion!

  • Most people don't realize that cassettes have the potential to be 2nd best as a medium in terms of audio quality after reel2reel tape. A real time recorded tape made on a high end deck, played back on a quality deck can sound astonishing.

    Tapes can be made directly by the artist. They are Art Objects. You can hold them in your hand. You can leave them places for people to find. Lovely.

  • William

    I think in a way the business model doesn’t matter, because, let’s face it, a lot of art making is about losing money. What drives artists is loving sharing the thing they’re making, and finding someone who wants to love it, too.

    Peter, while this may be true for amateurs and hobbyists, there are a lot of people who support themselves and their families off of the creation of art. Consumers demand the production of art and DO in fact pay for it even when using a service such as The Pirate Bay… They pay their ISP every month, don't they? Sure, there will always be an incredibly large and loud majority of amatuers who will never make profitable art who argue for 'free music', and there will be a large amount of noise coming from non-mucisian business men who profit more from 'free music', but you will not find many blue collar workers and mucisians who back this concept of 'free music'.

    Note: my brother was visiting from New Zealand recently. He's a record producer and sound engineer and knows first hand the costs that go in to producing a good sounding recording… What I got from a few conversations with him was that this idealistic digital mediascape founded on the concept of completely free information has a lot of faults in it, most importantly, that people are indeed paying for this content, only the artists aren't seeing any of the profit, only telecoms are. Swindle of the century, he called it.

    I've been a musician for most of my life, having gone on tours, mainly with bands from New Zealand. Do you know the costs that go in to getting an entire band from NZ to the US? 'The live show' is supposed to be the savior for the full time musician, now that 'music is free'… But explain to me how that works if you're a little old country on the other side of the world…

    Just some food for thought, something to temper the 'rise of the amatuers'… For some slick business man who owns the means of distribution (ie, the teleco

    s), how great would it be to just cut out those pesky content producers from all the wonderful profits?

  • matthew

    I remember when Duran Duran released the first downloadable single for their song, "Electric Barbarella" – the music industry was in shock! Stores refused to carry the single or the new (at the time) album. Think this was back in '97 or so…

    Now, look how things have changed. And they'll keep changing – that's a constant.

  • @William: Sorry, that was a flippant comment on my part. I think it doesn't matter for an individual artist, because you may not necessarily need an industry behind you. Maybe you forge a whole marketplace around your own 8-tracks, and do quite well. Maybe there's a market that involves you and a label, or you and a genre. It's not only about hobbyists; my point is that the questions of business often center around what works for a large group of people. Assuming you have this relationship with someone else, you may choose some medium that makes it work, you know, whether the medium is primary or secondary. That doesn't necessarily make you an amateur — but, then, being on a label doesn't necessarily make you a successful professional.

  • Nice long linked post Peter. Liked it alot.

    I'll just sit back and watch you guys debate on this. Comments are great.

  • graham

    those can be manufactured really? bob frank do you know where?

    i am incredibly interested because i thought i'd have to dupe the tapes myself and insert the card myself as well.

  • Matt

    Does anyone know how you would go about hosting mp3's that require redeemable codes? How does one go about this.

    If you're interested http://www.tapeline.co.uk are pretty good for tape manufacture and duplication (if you're in the UK), i've used them myself a couple of times.

  • Will

    "That doesn’t necessarily make you an amateur — but, then, being on a label doesn’t necessarily make you a successful professional."

    Exactly my thoughts Peter. I've worked with a label and still spend 8 hours a day in a cubicle.

    What about vinyl? There's opportunity in a format like that that actually SOUNDS better.

  • The last (as of right now) comment on the Wired list of 10 article by YipYop just about trumps the original article with some great links to even more alternative formats. Glad I looked again. (a sidenote, item 8 used a photo of mine from the CDM flickr pool)

    On TuneCore/UMG. They'd been offering the Universal mastering service for a few weeks now and I'm surprised no note of that had occurred (anywhere that I'd seen anyway). I'm more surprised no one has come right and called it a farm league. Universal is very progressive in investing in digital, online and forward-looking initiatives compared to the other big 3. Look at their heavy involvement in the recent SanFran MusicTech Summit. I'd like to think that this kind of corporate paternalism is a good thing, and it's something that is lacking in so many industries. Even if it makes my DIY soul twitch a little.

  • Downpressor


    You nailed it with the farm league thing. As long as I've been in and around this nasty business of ours thats been true to some degree or another.

  • kj

    oh come on, it's not a "farm league." it's another revenue stream for a label that is looking for ANY way to make more money. now, maybe once in a blue moon, for PURELY PR purposes, they pick a band and "move" them up to universal. but it'll be window dressing, that's all.

    sorry to sound cynical but i've been in the music biz for 15+ years now and that makes ya cynical. i'd LOVE to be proven wrong however…

  • Maybe I got smth wrong but I believe that new ways of music distribution is a standard. The times are changing and the ways of business making should change also…

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