In Rainbows was released in October 2007 and it was a watershed moment in the history of music and the way music was sold. Radiohead released the album on their own website for an interesting price–whatever you thought it was worth. I remember buying it and I think I paid $1. I paid this paltry amount not because I think a new Radiohead album is worth $1, but I wasn’t sure I believed the offer. I had never paid for anything what I thought it was worth.
We might not have realized this, but the world of music marketing hasn’t been the same since. Artists from all over the globe have taken control over their own music to levels never before seen–and there appears to be no end in sight.
Case in point: Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman). The former member of the Fleet Foxes and creator of the fantastic debut album Fear Fun in 2012, Tillman released his follow up album I Love You, Honeybear earlier this year. To mark the occasion, he released his new album to the world for free…with a catch. A catch that actually caught me off guard.
On his website, Tillman released his album in a format called SAP. Here is how he described the new “technology”: “SAP, a new signal-to-audio process by which popular albums are ‘sapped’ of their performances, original vocal, atmosphere and other distracting affectations so the consumer can decide quickly and efficiently whether they like a musical composition, based strictly on its formal attributes, enough to spend money on it.”
I remember thinking, “Oh, another streaming technology launched by an artist, ala Neil Young.” I had to hear the album, however, and quickly streamed the new version on his website. A bit of background info: because I listen to a lot of my music at work, it ends up being background music. Therefore, I didn’t get that he had completely removed all the vocals from all of the tracks. The instrumental album sounded great! Until I realized the joke was on me. He had “sapped” the music, indeed. And left me both laughing…and wanting more. That quest led to me the page to download the album for money (note: the album was released through Sub Pop, a noted and progressive music label).
Tillman was facing a reality that is hard to run from. If you read further on his site, he references that most fans don’t pay for music anymore when he says, “However, thanks to amazing technological innovations like streaming music we no longer have to pay for music we might not like.” This is tongue-and-cheek of course, as he is making the point in order to sell more records. But he isn’t languishing in the loss of times-gone-by, either. He is accepting the new landscape, but turning it on its head.
David Meerman Scott, a noted marketing evangelist, wrote an interesting book that the Grateful Dead were progressive marketers and ahead of the curve in inbound marketing. That might have been an accident, or part of the culture from which they were born, but artists are back in the drivers seat by controlling their own content and the distribution of that content. Sufjan Stevens just released bonus tracks to his new album weeks after it was put out. I only wish the Beatles would have done the same after the White Album or Guns N’ Roses after Appetite for Destruction.
Not all ventures into self-publishing and self-promotion work, however. When do they fail? When you take control for the wrong reasons. While Father John Misty needs to scratch out every record sale and hit the road consistently to sell-out small venues across the US, others have taken a different tact. Jay Z and his merry band of pranksters like Madonna, Nelly, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce and others took the world into their own hands and created a new streaming service called “Tidal.” The results have been less than impressive. The reason, I believe, is simple: the technology wasn’t compelling enough and the notion that consumers should enrich Jay Z is laughable. These artists are the last bastions of blown out record contracts and now seem pissed that fairy tale world is gone.
So what is the moral of this changing music distribution landscape? I think it is the same moral as seen in other great artistic movements. Picasso was able to peddle his own paintings without working through a distributor. Independent movies with less input from major studios are increasingly popular (and winning awards) and musicians are taking control of their own destiny. But it doesn’t mean they are removed from what really counts–make good content, connect with your customers, and make things interesting. And accept that changes are among you and they can lead to great things–if you care enough to try.