Apparently, popular musicians are finally coming around to the realization that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. While Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails may be regarded as the pioneers of Music Industry 2.0 with direct distribution and ‘pay what you want’ models, they’re still so far up their own asses with their expectation of success – or even understanding the true size of their audience.
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor very aggressively tried to find alternatives to the label-dominated methods of selling and distributing music in 2007 after he dumped his record company. In 2008, Reznor financed a similar song giveaway as Radiohead’s for rapper Saul Williams. After the results were in, Reznor said he was “disheartened” that only 18 percent of the more than 150,000 people who downloaded Williams’ songs chose to pay for them.
Welcome to reality, buddy. Truthfully, 18% isn’t all too bad. New age “freemium” businesses like Evernote and Dropbox are valued in the high nine-figures with conversion rates a tenth of this. The fact that Reznor isn’t aware of the release’s true success in this landscape shows his inexperience at best, or at worst, a sharp sense of entitlement you can cut with a knife. How dare all these people deem this obvious brilliance not worthy of payment?
These former major label superstars, many who had platinum-selling albums in the 90′s, seem to think they can replicate success going “indie” in the same fashion they were accustomed to inside the corporate music machine. Just put out a great album and people will buy it, right? As any digital publisher of the past decade could attest, “build it and they will come” couldn’t be further from the truth. But this is really all these artists have ever known.
Besides making the music and performing live, they barely had to touch any of the infrastructure that truly fueled their popularity. The millions pumped into the billboards, MTV videos, radio spots and other traditional marketing initiatives. The managers, agents, lawyers, bookers, planners and support staff all looking to capitalize on every opportunity. While the artist’s music itself definitely allowed the “machine” to be effective, the cream rarely rises to the top on its own. Yet it’s because of this disconnect, distance and admitted disdain musicians had working with their corporate overlords that gives them the skewed perspective shown by Reznor in the above quoted piece.
These artists actually think their success was solely due to their own genius. Now that their hit single isn’t being played on the radio every hour, MTV isn’t even airing videos at all, Billboard readership is halved and the public has access to a thousand times the amount of content as before, reality has hit them square in the face. They’re not special anymore. Maybe to true fans, but not to a mass audience. Very few are.
Yet they continue to operate their careers as if the “masses” still exist. That a million albums sold is normal. That packed out arenas are commonplace. That everyone who has ever synced their hit song to an iPod is a fan. These notions exist because the corporate music industry were absolute experts in optimally monetizing weak-tie relationships between artists and consumers. The person who picked up a CD as an impulse buy at Wal-Mart paid the same price as the dedicated fan who camped out in front of Tower Records on release day.
Combined with the public’s limited bandwidth for music exposure and the inherent scarcity of physical media, the industry had no incentive to treat one consumer different from another. Soundscan reports it all the same. Why take the effort and expense to cultivate deeper, long-term, sustainable connections with people when you can pump out an album (usually with only one or two good songs), blitzkrieg the marketplace and suck $20 a pop out of anyone who even slightly fancies the artist? Hey, I can’t really blame them. It’s good business.
But it’s the only business that musicians know. That’s why it’s no surprise they’ve retreated back to major labels. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead chose to think outside the box and experiment with a new distribution model, yet their career mindset is still as rigid as the “suits” grasping for dear life hoping for the good ol’ days to return. While the digital elite can trot them out as poster-child case studies, it’s apparent that they still yearn for a middle man to crank the engine. They still yearn for someone else to take care of the marketing as if getting more reach is the issue. They still yearn for access to the masses they once thought they had, and still expect. Alongside the industry itself, they still yearn for all consumers far and wide to be homogeneous.
In October, during an event to promote a book by rocker David Byrne, Reznor explained the decision for releasing An Omen with a major label. Reznor told the audience that How to Destroy Angels retains creative control, but when it came to marketing the band members believed they could use some help.
“No one else can write the songs I can write,” Reznor told the audience, “But there’s other people that can do some of that (marketing) stuff.
He’s absolutely correct that no one can write the songs he writes. But everyone else can easily get on my radar now. Putting out the most amazing album in the world won’t change that. It’s this attention economy he can’t seem to grasp, hence the dismay and confusion at how so few percentage of the public are actual swear-to-god true fans willing to pay. These are the only folks actively seeking the music even throughout all the noise. These are the only folks buying $50 concert tickets every time an act comes through town. These are the only folks who will spread good word of mouth to others ambitiously on an artist’s behalf.
The choice now is whether to embrace these true believers, super-serve their needs and nurture a continued value exchange – or go back to futile attempts of enticing casual bystanders to plunk down a buck at a carnival of infinite booths. Trent, you’re not special anymore. You never were. The industry, by design, made you believe the masses loved your music, but it was a lie. The majority of people never really gave a shit. They bought an album in a time when media was scarce, choices were limited and exposure was expensive to attain.
The direct-to-fan distribution model isn’t what’s broken. The perception of the number of actual fans you have is. But still, a hundred thousand of them not good enough for you? Go fuck yourself.