The New Music Economy: Opportunities For Musicians & Entrepreneurs

25 Apr

I’m watching Austin-based duo Zorch play at SXSW 2014, I was their roadie that year. The group is comprised of my dear friends Sam Chown and Zac Traeger, we attended Berklee College of Music together.

This is a cross post from the blog of a new initiative at Ryerson called The Music Den which I’m involved with. This post draws on my Masters Thesis, Music Is Open Source, which was supervised by Professor Steven Ehrlick, Director of the Music Den.

The New Music Economy

Everyone on the planet has a personal relationship with music. Music has always been an inherent and essential part of culture and this has been true throughout time. Musicians need to earn a living, gain an audience, and yearn to have an impact on culture, so as a result there has always been an inherent music industry.

We know how the 20th century recorded music business was disrupted. During the 20th century recording costs were high, control of distribution was highly centralized and controlled, formats were dictated by the industry, and consumers were given very few price options.

The 21st century saw high quality low cost digital recording capabilities become available to the general public. Distribution became decentralized and hundreds of thousands of songs became available for consumers to download.

The philosophy surrounding digital distribution models has created questions of how to generate revenue while providing the best experience for musicians, businesses and music lovers. There is much opportunity for experiential and entrepreneurial endeavours to create new business that capitalize on the current cultural environments both digital and physical.

As futurist William Gibson describes;

“if you had a yardstick that represented the total lifetime of the human species, the amount of time you could hear a dead man sing is thinner than the finest hair. It is very recent in human experience,” barely one hundred years.

The models of distribution and consumption of recorded music have relatively no precedent and continue to evolve. The opportunities provided by digital technologies to enhance and augment physical experiences, such as live concerts have even less precedent. New ways of doing things will emerge and this provides opportunities for musicians, entrepreneurs, and music lovers.

More Artists & More Businesses

The nature of expensive recording meant that the industry was predominately controlled by the record companies and those who financed them. They had tight control over the means of production and distribution and would do much to develop and invest in certain artists that they believed could create big hits, have the popular appeal, and generate large financial returns.

The modern era means music distributors are forced to compete based on the quality and ease of use of their products and services. Musicians have more access than ever to recording technology, music lovers have more access than ever to recorded works. There is now a place within the recorded music business for artists who are not record company affiliated.

This means there is more music easily available than ever before and this means a continued place for record companies to invest in artist development, to mass market artists, create widespread awareness, and function as taste makers. This is also one of the reasons for the continued relevance of FM radio programming such as top 40 shows.

However, record companies no longer have a monopoly on developing artists, marketing artists, and taste making. In the digital age nothing necessitates that record companies must serve these functions and this has created an enormous opportunity for businesses such as artist service companies, marketing firms, and taste making journalism.

Risks & Rewards

There are constants to professional musicianship that have existed for hundreds of years. Musicians must make a living, find gigs, organize their schedules, market themselves, hire a team, join a band, all while improving their craft. Musicians must balance art and commerce and figure out ways to diversify their opportunities for growth.

There is something to call new and unprecedented in every generation and although we use the newest technology, there are certain things that remain constant. We often believe that we are at the thin edge of the unexplored and we are certainly at the early stages of many technological changes, but it is important to acknowledge that the concept of technology effecting industry is anything but new.

In today’s music business musicians must be entrepreneurial, but there is inherent risk to the entrepreneurial artist. Musicians have to perform more roles than ever outside of the creative process alone. This creates opportunities for music businesses to provide products and services that can aid musicians with the realities of the modern industry and make it simpler for them to focus on their art. In this developing marketplace that we call the music business – great risks and rewards await the current generation of entrepreneurs and musicians.