Earlier this week, I underwent a traumatic experience: I self-released my own album. Now, this isn’t new to me in any way. I’ve been pumping out dozens of songs in various bedrooms across the Northeastern United States for years now. This new album marks my 5th “LP” and 8th overall release since I began releasing music under my moniker, Duckspeak (To the computer savvy completionists among you, there’s a whole hard drive of early “demos,” consisting of entirely improvised hip-hop/pop/emo/jazz/folk abominations recorded with the least effective of computer microphones, waiting to be cracked). Yet in many ways, the new album, entitled Haunts, feels like my first proper release. It’s a much tighter album, recorded with actual microphones (as opposed to the old school method of performing into an Macbook pro’s internal mic) and with significantly cleaner production. This is the first album that I truly feel that someone could actually like.
And that makes this release all the more terrifying. Before, I’d simply drop these albums off into the abyss with little thought. Through my college years, recording music became a form of psychotherapy, helping me express the inexpressible. Throwing them up for others to hear felt like more of a mandatory part of the recording process. If you make a piece of art, you need to share it, right? In actuality, these were little more than undeveloped journal sketches, not meant for ears outside of my own head. Haunts, on the other hand, was given a great deal of care and attention, raising the 9 songs into a full grown LP.
Now, here I am, setting my baby into the wild. But sadly, I no longer find myself simply satisfied with Haunts being finished. Last year, I switched over from dropping files off on Mediafire to loading them on to a Duckspeak Bandcamp page. With that change has come all of the anxiety that full-time musicians face daily. I was now really self distributing my music. Bandcamp allows me to judge my own album a monetary value and set a price accordingly.
So… what is the value of music?
That’s been the subject of an ongoing debate ever since Napster shocked the music world. At the time, people were happily shelling out money for CD’s. This was back when MTV was a thriving success, with shows like Total Request Live acting as full blown advertisements for new music. Back then, everyone truly believed that a new album was worth about $9.99 (maybe a few dollars more if it was some form of “deluxe edition”). After all, the only way to listen to a song you wanted on demand was to buy a CD; a shiny disc that contained the miracle of sound.
Things have obviously changed. Digital media has stripped away most of music’s mystical quality. Songs are no longer tied to physical objects; they’re files that sit on your computer, like a Word document (or Pages, for you Macbook users [Me, as it were]). The sad truth seems to be that many were willing to buy the object that contained music, rather than the music itself. So of course, once people realized that CDs weren’t the only way to get tunes on to your Zune (that’s a joke, nobody owns a Zune, statistically [the thyme was unintentional though]), they became less willing to pay for it.
Let’s skip the piracy debate. Yes, downloading music is wrong. It’s stealing from hard working artists. Every point that Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery or Metallica’s Lars Ulrich has made over the last decade is completely sound.
But here’s the reality of it. Music is a product. Like everything else, it’s a matter of supply and demand. Many no longer want music enough to pay for it. Why spend the money on a CD if you’re just going to rip all of the songs onto your computer and throw the disc under your bed? Why not just download the files without having to pay for its arbitrary plastic case? The simple answer is ‘because the music itself is valuable.’ But you can’t just make everyone believe that. Each passing year brings a new group of kids who will grow up perceiving that music should be free. Even if you stop piracy, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to start buying a product they don’t want. Technology has changed the way people see music, for better or worse. Now, we can say ‘Let’s stop the march of technology’ and try to tame the Internet, but that’s frankly absurd at this point.
The more constructive conversation is ‘How does the industry evolve with it instead of against it?’ The most recent development in the discussion is streaming services like Spotify or Rdio. In theory, they’re utopian; artists gets paid every time somebody streams one of their songs. Brilliant. Of course, Spotify has run into all sorts of walls. For one, they’re bleeding money. Secondly, artists really aren’t making much from it. Spotify’s business model is frankly unsustainable. But it’s a stellar idea, one which artists who rail against Spotify would do good to one up.
Perhaps the best course of action is to find a way to make music physical once again. The resurgence of vinyl ran with this idea with moderate success. Records felt like something worth owning, even if for arbitrary reasons such as ‘having a shelf of vinyl looks cool.’ Part of the appeal is also the idea of making music an experience. One doesn’t simply pause a record in the way that iTunes files are so easy to stop and skip through. Listening to a record involves setting time and attention aside, much like seeing a movie in a theater as opposed to your living room. Whatever the reason, vinyl’s comeback was a great stop gap in the continued fight against the digital world. Now it’s time to push it farther.
I don’t have the answers, obviously, though I have plenty of ideas. For example, one could sell albums with a Kickstarter mentality, giving buyers more interesting perks for paying more beyond a simple CD or vinyl. Or bands could put more focus on getting fans out to live shows and selling merch there. After all, that’s where the real money is. A return to the days of bicycling ones own content might not be as profitable as signing a massive major label deal, but it may be the only way to reasonably stay afloat in the current of changing media.
This all comes back to my original dilemma, as I stare at my Bandcamp, prompting me to set a price for Haunts. What is the value of these 9 songs that I’ve worked so hard over? Eventually, I take the Radiohead route allowing users to pay whatever they’d like, even $0, because who am I to decide how much my own music is worth? Obviously I think it’s valuable; I made it. So I leave myself to the mercy of the public, allowing them to judge my work accordingly and apply some form of monetary value to it, as if an album’s quality is solely determined by how much money it makes. Perhaps that’s why artists get so heated about the issue; money isn’t simply about making a living, but about validating their heart’s work.