A New Release Model for Music

Oct 14, 2014 · Unlisted

As an electronic music producer, I’ve managed to release some acclaimed works I’m quite proud of via the traditional way of the trade. Then I came across this picture:

Sillerman’s SFX bought Beatport, the leading digital store for electronic dance music in 2013. What followed were brutal layoffs and a sizable community backlash. He was quoted saying “I know nothing about EDM, I really don’t.”

In that moment, something has irreversibly changed. I can’t quite explain it but it seemed like one of those barely audible comments that hit you five seconds late, yet manage to trigger a chain reaction. Here I am spending thousands of hours on my craft, then diluting all that down by being at mercy of a distribution model that puts both me and my work last, benefiting mostly the utterly uninvolved. It essentially leaves the artist with next to nothing while giving away all meaningful control about presentation, delivery and feedback. It systematically pulls the people who should care about it the most, the maker and the audience, apart.

I couldn't stop thinking - something is off. You can feel it in the air when attending events focusing on the so-called ‘music industry’. Feels like everybody is aboard a sinking ship, desperately looking for a spare seat on a limited number of lifeboats. There are many good souls, but they‘re all struggling. Most of us are running on fumes.

Is it possible to come up with a system that reinforces itself and somehow benefits the quality of music at every step? I looked at typical self-publishing, which is a noble pursuit. The problem is, it’s a model built on the past and one that disproportionately favors the established. At best, it leads to mediocre results. The reason for that is that the format we get and listen to music is essentially one that belongs in the last century, yet we’re trying to force it on the present. Why? Part of it is tradition, part lazy thinking, but it mostly comes down to a form of collective delusion. What exactly is the value of a digital download? And why should you put it in ‘stores’, with a release date? Do good tracks have a shelf life? Perfect music should be timeless anyway. Perhaps even updateable. Release dates come from legacy thinking, from a time when logistics dictated that stuff had to be delivered to a store, put on display and eventually replaced. Digital shops have no shelf limits and it’s trivial for them to handle the avalanche of new content. This leads us into a race-to-the-bottom situation, where novelty and trend-hopping are the only currency besides raw promotional power. Hype cycles around new genres are getting so short already that their ecosystems have no time to grow. In most cases they never reach sustainability.

Releasing music in this form doesn't seem to make much sense anymore. There has to be another. Traditional methods discounted, we have crowdfunding, which is great and for now seems to be a partial solution. It brings those that care the most about the creations together. Tapping into a sense of shared effort can be energizing for everyone involved. But again we run into the pesky timing factor and uncover other issues that cast doubt on long-term viability. Can you crowdfund always and forever? The novelty factor and excitement already seems to be wearing off. Do you just tap into existing audiences, and hope that they respond endlessly in exchange for some merch items? What if you don’t have any products of real value (aka. digital downloads) and your abstract creations cannot be presented without simultaneously delivering the core goods (musical ideas)? Then what if there are other, meaningful transactions that do not involve money?

Like almost everyone I know, I never paid for an overwhelming majority of the music or art that inspired me. And that’s okay. For a variety of reasons, the largest part of any given audience might not be ready to support the creators financially at the desired time. But they can still provide tremendous value. Just like the picture that started my train of thought, the butterfly effect is real. When performing and producing, I always think that there might just be a single person at a show, or one online listener, that will be changed by the experience forever. I know because I was that person many times already. Often there was no money involved.

What if there’s a way to harness this force as part of the solution? Empower people to collectively support a common cause (great music) by letting them talk about it. Great idea — social networks have been already exploiting this. They’re capturing the action for themselves, only to sell the ability to reach your audience back to you. As they’re beginning to wear out their welcome, a new reality emerges, proving that neither the creators or the network have control over where the audience will be. They will try, but in the end this game will be decided by the collective of users. Not you as an artist, and not some platform exploiting ties between people. In this case, you should try to side with the natural winners and let them choose where they want to be. Track as many possible transactions and interactions as you can and make it part of the system.

With all this in mind, I now had a rough idea about the components I wished for to make a more promising release model possible. I needed a way to ensure I can deliver exclusive content directly, without middlemen, without stores. I needed to enable people who might like it, while making their efforts count towards a common goal as broadly as possible — be it direct donations, but also their effort put into sharing the project on social media and increasing publicly visible markers of attention. Lastly, I needed to let go and find a way to let the level of demand control the final delivery time so that could I get something in return.

I’m presenting my Everybody EP to you in the best new form I could stitch together. It’s rough experiment around a labor of love that tries to patch the old and new. I think it’s a better step ahead than all the other options I had. At least, it feels better than walking in circles, or downright backwards.




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