Why haven’t we saved music yet?
This is the kind of overly dramatic question people ask in blog posts about media. When I was a journalist, I read “Why haven’t we saved journalism yet?” every day.
Hands have been wringing about “saving” various media since the Internet Age began, but no “savior” has come. Bands, shows, and publications have failed, companies have gone under, jobs have been lost. My Job! My Job! Why have you forsaken me?
(Okay, I forsook my job, but I wouldn’t have forsaken it if I thought I could’ve “saved” it.)
But at the same time, new bands, shows, and publications have started, companies have launched, and jobs have been created.
It’s almost like media are industries subject to economic cycles, just like other industries.
Gosh, maybe solutions to media cash flow problems will come incrementally instead of magically and all at once.
Oh, geez. I’m sorry for the snarky tone. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way to communicate with media people (besides earnest messianism). I learned the ropes on Twitter, which is a website for media people to talk about themselves and each other in terse, snarky messages.
Anyway, my first point is that media people need to chill out. Tech makes media easier to produce and easier for more people to consume. There is no way that can be bad. The only thing that can be bad for media is if people don’t want to read, watch, or listen to them anymore. They still do, though. Other problems are just details, and it’s our job to figure those out.
So, let me restate the opening question. Why haven’t we stopped worrying about music yet?
I’m asking about music because that’s what I’m working on right now, but I suspect I’m going to find some answers to that question that apply to other troubled media, too.
What’s the problem?
I’m at the XOXO conference right now, and we’ve heard from tons of independent musicians who are making a living thanks to the Internet. They haven’t Saved Music™ yet, but they’ve saved themselves. It’s possible. You just have to know what problem you’re solving, so you can work hard to solve it.
I’ve identified four bottlenecks (so far) in the way music is made and sold. Three of them are clearly tech problems.
Two are hardware problems constraining music quality:
- expensive mobile bandwidth
One is a software problem inhibiting music sharing and discovery:
- URL clarity for music sharing
Companies, not musicians, will presumably solve the first three. But the last bottleneck is a social problem, and all the Internet-savvy indie success stories have solved it:
- artists’ time with fans
Before the Internet, this was impossible at the scale of successful musicians. A band can’t hang out in person with thousands of people and still have time to do its job. But it didn’t matter as much before the Internet Age. Music was scarce, and shows and records were enough of a relationship with musicians to satisfy fans.
Now music is abundant and easy to get, and so are tons of other things on which to spend time and attention, as well as the people who make them. Social Media™ make it possible for creators and fans to have a relationship. The key to building a loyal following on the Internet is to be available to the people who love what you do. If they can get to know you, they’ll better appreciate what you do. If you show them love, they love you, too. All you need is love. Isn’t that great?
The problem with music is that it takes tons of time and focus to make. You can’t tweet while you play piano, and — if you’re big-time — you have to run around touring and doing media appearances all the time. If you can manage to be available to your fans while racing around the world between studios and shows, you can still be humongous rockstars, even in 2013.
Instagram is easy to use, not very time-consuming, and it offers a neat little window into people’s real lives. That’s why it’s so beloved. But I think there’s a better medium musicians could use to establish relationships with fans.
Listen to musicians
The scary story about the music industry is that people no longer value the experience of listening to music enough to pay. They’ve come to expect music to be piped into their ears for free. How do we make people care more about what’s coming into their ears?
They already love music. That’s why they’re listening to it. But if they loved the musicians, they’d care about them, hopefully enough to pay them. So musicians have to let their listeners get to know them alongside their music. They can do that by letting people listen to them talk.
Yes, I’m talking about podcasting. Hooray for podcasts! They make everything boring better: driving, washing dishes, cleaning the house, sitting on a plane or a tour bus, and so on. Anytime there’s dead air, you can use podcasts to fill it with interesting and/or funny people. And as any podcast listener knows, you grow to love those people for making your life less boring.
Musicians are natural podcasters. It is already their job to make interesting sounds. They don’t have to pay anyone to make their intro music. Some of them have really great voices. It’s a match made in heaven.
Imagine if your favorite band recorded a half-hour conversation once a week on the tour bus about how they chose the playlist for the drive. They’d talk about why they love the music they love, and they’d inevitably talk about the tour, they’d tell cool backstage stories, and they’d talk about what they’re working on next. What fan wouldn’t love listening to that?
Sometimes they could have their friends in other bands on the show, and suddenly each band would double its fan base, at least for one episode. That show becomes an opportunity to grow the pie permanently.
Best of all, a podcast is a chance to share new or rare music, and it’s packaged up inside a whole show, making it a pain to edit out and pirate. It’s a special treat for the biggest fans.
All this adds up to an intimate, regular opportunity to ask fans to support the music, and thereby the people behind it, with money.
Enter The Portal
I’m testing these ideas with two of my best friends and musical collaborators. We just launched The Portal, a podcast for music lovers. We talk about loving, making, and listening to music, and we’re going to have all kinds of indie music people join us as guests. Maybe we’ll figure out lawyers someday, so we can have musical guests who are signed to old-school labels. And yes, we’ll make all the intro music.
We’ve published Episode 0. It’s called In The Living Room, and it explains what we’re up to. (Rebecca and I each play a song at the end!) Episode 1 will be out very soon, and then we’ll publish once a week.
Why did I switch to music? Because I love it the most. Because everybody loves it the most. Because I was tired of having to write when I had nothing to say. Personal reasons. Whatever. I think music is cooler, okay?
I’m trying to help people be creative all the time, whether they write, play guitar, make apps for the iPhone, or dance burlesque. After years writing in all caps about telephones, I’ve simply decided to move my general media experiment into my favorite medium. But think about my findings in your own terms and see if it helps.
(This post was originally published on Medium, but I don't quite trust that site yet.)