Has the digital revolution really changed the music industry?

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“It’s entirely possible to create a cottage business around your music and stay in control”, says Laura Kidd, an independent (indie) artist who records as She Makes War.

She argues that increasingly sophisticated technology allows artists to record music, build websites, crowd-fund, upload music videos, create and sell a variety of merchandise and, most importantly, release and promote their music online.

“Bandcamp was the game-changer for me” says Kidd. “I started using it in 2009 to release my first EP and continue to use it for the majority of my digital sales and for all my online physical sales, gig tickets and merch.”

Bandcamp is an online marketplace where artists can connect with fans, stream their music and sell digital and physical wares. The site allows artists to set their own prices, with the pay-what-you-want model being a popular option.

“Before Bandcamp it was possible to sell direct to fans with Paypal buttons on your website but it’s so much nicer to use their service, and the browsing functionality is really the only successful attempt to build on the best feature MySpace ever had. The ethos is lovely too – artists can recommend other music they like to fans who buy their stuff. It’s a friendly community and I feel proud to be part of it.”


“Jessie J’s home-made YouTube videos bagged her a major label record deal.”


Birthplace of stars

MySpace may have fallen out of favour in recent years, but during its prime, the site was a revolutionary force in the music industry, setting a new precedent for social media and creating a platform that spawned online sensations-turned big pop acts such as Lily Allen.

Other sites have followed this star-making trend: Jessie J’s home-made YouTube videos bagged her a major label record deal, while Mike Posner used a loophole in iTunes U – a free-to-upload channel designed for educational audio content ­– to launch his career.

Famed indie rapper Macklemore met his collaborator Ryan Lewis through MySpace in the mid-noughties. The phenomenal success of their Grammy-winning 2012 album, The Heist, has been hailed by some as proof that indie artists operating in the digital age can now reach global audiences without the clout of majors.

Years of touring and web-based promotion laid the necessary foundations, and staying indie (Macklmeore released The Heist and the albums that preceded it through his own indie label, Macklemore LLC) meant retaining the publishing rights artists normally relinquish to labels, and forgoing the percentage cuts that majors impose on their artists.

But the idea that Macklemore made it alone is misleading. The duo’s success owes much to the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), the independent arm of major label Warner Music Group. For a flat monthly fee, ADA used its acumen and contacts to promote, plug and distribute The Heist, pushing Macklemore into the highest echelons of the mainstream.

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Digital distribution

As Kristin Thomson, social researcher and co-director of the Artist Revenue Streams Project points out, even talented, commercially viable artists need experienced partners to achieve that level of impact.

“Independent is often synonymous with ‘Do It Yourself’, but they need to be thought of as separate objectives,” she says. “Thanks to the surge in new [digital] methods to discover, access, listen to, share and purchase music, there are dozens of ways that an independent musician can reach very large audiences. But even with these new platforms and channels, it takes a ton of work and strategic thinking.”

Very few indie artists can access the services of big-league distributors such as ADA, who prefer artists to have had demonstrable success with radio airplay and online sales. But the proliferation of digital distributors has helped indie artists ply their trade online.

“I can get my music everywhere online through AWAL,” says Kidd. “They don’t charge upload and storage fees. It’s quick and easy to upload new releases for distribution to iTunes and all the other online music stores.”

Beatport does similar, and is a trusted source for the electronic dance music scene while Naxos is a favourite for classical musicians.

CD Baby.com, which started in the late 90s as an online mail-order service, allows unsigned musicians around the globe to make their music available online in the same stores and streaming services used by major and indie labels alike.

“CD Baby was one of the first aggregators to forge a partnership with iTunes,” explains Thomson. The fact that CD Baby sends 91% of the net proceeds from sales back to its artist clients has made it a firm favourite among indie artists.

Other renowned aggregators include TuneCore, ReverbNation and Ditto Music. Each of these digital aggregators represents a massive disruption of the former label-distributor-retailer chain, says Thomson, allowing artists to be paid quickly and transparently.

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A radical shift

This is a radical shift from yesteryear, says Thomson – and she should know. In the 90s, together with Jenny Toomey, Thomson founded the much-loved, now-defunct indie label Simple Machines.

“Prior to 2000, if you wanted to sell recorded music on a semi-wide scale, you needed to manufacture discs or vinyl (and probably needed a record label to do that),” she explains. “Then you needed to make a deal with a distributor, which would then act as a middleman between you as the artist/label and the retail record shop. Payments for sales were often slow, and unsold stock could be returned. Clearly, the development of digital music sales via stores like iTunes and Amazon has been revolutionary on its own.”

Thomson says watching the shift into digital distribution has been fascinating. “As someone who used to fill out the UPS log book and take crates of mail-order packages to the post office, digital distribution means no more shipping physical inventory around, no more worrying about what is in stock. Everything is always in print!

“But that’s the downside too; everything is always in print. For a music fan this is great, but for any new label/musician that wants to attract fans to their music, they are no longer just competing for attention with the week’s new releases – they are also competing with just about everything else that was recorded and released in the past 40 years.”


“The Artist Revenue Streams project has identified more than 42 revenue streams for indie musicians.”


Beyond online sales

Artists may be able to sell both digital and physical releases directly from their websites but getting physical stock into shops is still vital for emerging artists says Rich Walker, general manager at respected indie label 4AD.

Finding online distributors such as AWAL may be easy, but convincing reputable distributors your physical releases are profitable is getting harder for indie artists. “You have to see it from a distributor’s point of view: if artists have low demand then the risk is too great,” he explains. “What they do isn’t easy, especially with the likes of Amazon being able to undercut prices so much.”

Focusing on sales alone isn’t an accurate way of gaging the modern indie musician’s income, which can include physical (CD and vinyl) sales, digital sales, merchandise, touring, teaching, session musician work, song-writing for others, streaming royalties (which now count towards chart positions in the UK singles chart, with every 100 streams on sites such as Spotify being treated as equivalent to one single sale) and syncs (letting a company use your music in a TV/radio advert).   

The Artist Revenue Streams research project that Thomson co-runs for the Future of Music Coalition, a US-based non-profit organisation, has identified more than 42 revenue streams. Their 2011 survey of over 5,300 US-based musicians found that 82% were drawing income from a mix of sources, with income varying significantly depending on the role and genre the artist works in.

However, the proliferation of revenue streams doesn’t automatically equal guaranteed profit, Thomson emphasises. “There are many ways that musicians can make money, but it’s certainly not guaranteed that they will.”

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The majors still rule

For all the new avenues the digital age has opened up, there are pitfalls – and indie artists are at the mercy of these potholes.

YouTube has been a boon for indie artist, says Kidd. “You used to have to pay to submit videos for MTV and cross your fingers. Now we can upload massive file sizes for nothing and have people stumble across our music.”

Worryingly, this democracy looks set to change. The Worldwide Independent Network, an international consortium that represents indie music labels, claims that Google-owned YouTube is coercing indie labels into signing away their copyright ahead of the site’s upcoming music streaming subscription service, or risk being removed.

In some ways, the digital age – which was meant to democratise – is further entrenching traditional power structures. Hierarchies still exist, says Walker. “Just look at the charts – the majors dominate them as much as ever.”


“Taking out a label still leaves artists to work in a pretty traditional way.”


Label or no label

As Thomson points out, this is because majors own or control licensing for a huge swathe of recorded music history, giving them enormous leverage in the music-technology licensing world.

They have long-established ties with commercial radio, which, in the US, is still the leading way that young music fans discover new music. They also have the contacts, expertise and capital to mount ambitious marketing campaigns, while indie artists and labels operate on much tighter budgets.

But there is room for both majors and indies, believes Thomson. “There are only so many hours in the day,” she says. “Musicians need to be selective about what they can do, and identify where they need help.”

Walker believes labels are necessary and valuable. “Taking out a label still leaves artists to work in a pretty traditional way – employing managers, agents, promo staff, distributors, lawyers, accountants. I don’t know of any act that has truly broken out of that cycle.”

Even Kidd, who is staunchly indie, isn’t anti-label, she says – “just opposed to bad, money-wasting, creativity-dampening labels! There are some great ones out there gathering excellent artists under their umbrellas: Jagjagwar, Secretly Canadian, Cherry Red, Howling Owl, Alcopop. The benefit to artists is the extra energy, strategic skills and contacts that a good label can bring. I think there will always be a place for those things.”


Featured image and inline image 1 courtesy of Avis De Miranda / Shutterstock.com.


Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.