Challenging Media Distribution and Music Distribution Challenges - Part One

Tim Anderson's picture

Let me begin that when it comes to pop music a lot that I listen to these days is old. I get excited when I find some new ukulele offerings on emusic, a new Richard “Groove” Holmes LP that has been ripped or an an odd musician/composer from the 60s or 70s that I somehow missed (this month it’s Piero Umiliani). I try to keep up, but for every Erykah Badu or Gogol Brodello that I love, there’s a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) that I admire industrially, but musically I just cannot get that excited about. Still, I respect them and am rooting for them as is rest of the music industry. CYHSY is a group I have mentioned before in earlier writings because they are precisely what I should love: they are independent, draw from source material I love (namely the Talking Heads), and have leveraged a new means of distribution by using MP3 blogs and other Internet-driven tools to achieve a significant amount of national and international re-known and sales.

And CYHSY’s success is both impressive and well known throughout the music world. Releasing their first record in 2005, the CD quickly moved 100,000 units without a label and by 2008 the same CD could claim 300,000 units. Let’s put that in little 1990s “height-of-indie-rock” perspective. Fugazi, the gold standard of American DIY music for the last 20 years, has by some estimates sold a combined 2 million units in their eight album career. Ian MacKaye, the most famous player of the band and co-owner of one of the band’s label, Dischord Records noted as late of 2007 that his take on is one of bewilderment. I don’t know what it is. (Laughs). I’ve talked to several people over the phone who were like ‘man, you must not be under 20, because MySpace is where everyone is now.’ I’m still not sure what it is”. It would be easy to chalk this up to some form of ludditism, a mistake that would shortschrift how important Dischord and its bands have been to the DIY movements of the last 20 years. Yet it is clear that a band such as CYHSY has achieved part of its success by both working the Internet and employing some established “best practices” of promotion. As the blog, Jezebel Music notes,

In late 2005, when I first heard about the CYHSY explosion, I cynically asked myself: “Is there a music industry person operating behind the scenes”? There were two, both friends of the band from Connecticut College. Dave Godowsky was in the publicity department at Rounder Records, and then Nick Stern was Director of Publicity for Atlantic Records. Some big label industry experience was behind the rise of a band touted as the poster child of the “independent” and DIY music business.

Indie bands typically don’t have these kinds of connections, nor do they have this kind of savvy. One example of the band’s combination of Web 2.0 strategy and older industrial forms of of promotion is in the decision to premiere a song on a late night network and giving away the same demo online. The result of this kind of thinking meant the band’s second CD would debut at 47 on Billboard’s 200 chart in February of 2007. While Billboard noted they “scanned” 19,000 units in their first week, what my seem like a relatively “micro” movement of CDs becomes amplified when you realize that the artists return is close to $6 a unit as opposed to the typical $1 a unit that an artist signed to a label receives. Put simply, they have found a way to move thousands of units and keep the margins wide without the institutional connections and capitalization advantages of a label.

As important as the connections to the music industry are, what is most interesting is the manner in which the issues of distribution, issues that were once the territory that only a label could effectively control and influence are now beginning to be incorporated into smaller and smaller economic units. Take a moment to read the following set of statements from a 2007 CBS piece about CYHSY

When asked why, Sean Greenhalgh, the band’s drummer, told CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason, “The question that we asked record companies was essentially, ‘What can you do for us that we can’t do for ourselves?’”

Billboard magazine made the band the poster boys of a “do-it-yourself revolution.” Even million-selling artists like Jewel are considering going it alone. Garth Brooks did; so will The Eagles with their next album.

One big reason: The Internet is now doing much of the promotion & distribution work, as fans themselves spread the word and the music.

“Now you have blogs, other places where people go — that’s how the publicity happens now,” said Greenhalgh.

Jeff Tweedy is lead singer of the Grammy-winning band Wilco, whose new album, “Sky Blue Sky,” comes next week on the Nonesuch label. But he wonders how long labels will be important.

“Technology has evened the playing field. If the artist can gain more power over the situation — over the economics of the situation — why wouldn’t they take it?”

A number of issues are prominent in this conversations and others like it, however the only ones that seem to be noted are typical invocations about the Internet and its power as a scalable channel. No doubt this is true and the power of scalability is profound. However, what is given less attention is the manner in which the band has incorporated the distribution aspects of the industry (i.e., the delivery and promotion of goods) into its sense of self and everyday activities. This is a fascinating development and one that, as I will talk about later with the example of Corey Smith, is slowly becoming more and more mainstream. To me this is as industrially important as Dylan, The Beatles and the Beach Boys mainstreaming the practice of the singer-songwriter. The musical genius of these three acts legitimated the across-the-board practice of performers composing and playing their own work, a collapsing of the singer and songwriter divisions, divisions that had held firm throughout the majority of the popular music history. I don’t want to equate CYHSY with the above three musical and recording giants of the 1960s. That said, it’s a facet that I feel is important to recognize as a sort of industrial rearticulation of capital resources that demands how media producers incorporate the responsibilities of distribution. It’s not only a challenge to the distribution of music but also to the mindset of how musicians will continue to be trained by their peers. For me, the real challenge as intellectuals is to understand the tremendous importance of this psychic shift as it continues to alter the possibilities of media industries to come.