The Universe Does Not Owe You Free Music

Here’s how the last three days have gone down in the world of musical discourse:

  1. Emily White writes on the NPR All Songs Considered Blog that she has over 11,000 tracks in her music library, of which possibly 200 were acquired by paying any money whatsoever to anybody. Summary: I love, love, love music and refuse to pay for it because my generation thinks that’s lame.
  2. David Lowery turned in the most thoughtful and insightful piece on acquiring music illegally and the effect it has on artists that maybe anybody has written to date. Summary: Please stop stealing (yes, stealing) our music; you are literally killing us.
  3. An indie label owner (also) named Emily White wrote a defense of EW2, as she referred to the previously identified intern. Summary: Emily, you seem nice, don’t let the internet wishing you a horrible fate get you down. 

In between each of these were hundreds and hundreds of reader comments, rebuttals, new blog posts, etc. But David Lowery’s post is the top of the mountain, here. I don’t know how he managed to take such a stunningly high road and stick to it, but he did (my initial, internal monologue response to Emily’s post had way more swear-words), so just read his post. It’s long, but just read it. I’ll wait…

Here’s what I’d like to talk about, which I hope is a little different. There are two lines from Emily’s initial post that leap out at me:

“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.”

and

“All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it.”

To these stunning expressions of entitlement I say: Enough. Enough now. The universe does not owe you this. Please let’s not act like it does. As a matter of fact, the universe doesn’t owe you anything.

See, everything has a cost. Somebody’s going to absorb it. We are not entitled to the work of other people’s hands simply because it exists in the world and we also exist in the world. I’m not trying to be flippant, this doesn’t just apply to music, or piracy, or any specific thing, this is a universal truth that we are increasingly trying to ignore as a way to justify our own poor decisions from runaway obesity to the eroding political discourse.

Me, I made a record. Yay for me! But I’m not entitled to listeners. I sent my CD to NPR (maybe Emily opened it…in which case, Emily, you really *do* seem nice…), but they don’t owe it to me to listen to it. If I want potential fans to know my name, I have to introduce myself. They will not come to me, and introducing myself takes time and, often, money. That’s just part of it. It’s my choice to play this game, and I understand that I don’t get to make the rules.

Every choice is a decision point where we have to weigh a cost against a benefit. In the case of pirated music, it’s a lot like Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiments, where it’s relatively easy to deliver an electric shock to somebody if you can’t see them, but harder when you can. In this case, people who profess to love you or your music are shocking you from their comfort of their bedrooms. It kinda sucks.

All I wanted to say, really, was that there’s a larger point here that’s also part of the discussion. Let’s please be a little more honest about the decisions we make, because they have consequences. And from Rush Limbaugh assassinating the character of a college student with an opinion he doesn’t share, to people calling for a 21-year-old girl at NPR this summer to lose her job or worse, to seemingly every single person who’s ever posted a comment on YouTube, let’s try to remember there’s another human being at the other end of that transaction.

(Suffice to say that, as an independent musician, I would really prefer you buy all of your music. And if you want to explore and preview new stuff to find out if you like it, go with Spotify (for all its ills) or Pandora, don’t just download the thing from the Pirate Bay or wherever. We all know you’re not going to circle back and buy it legitimately if you fall in love with it. Let’s be honest.)

God, I feel so grumpy now…Sorry, everybody.

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How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.

Cutting a Swath Through the Self-Releasing Jungle

Years ago, people started sounding the death knell for traditional music distribution models, and now much of the doomsday scenarios have played out exactly as feared (or hoped, depending on your particular relationship to the mainstream). Unfortunate casualties have been the record store, many independent radio stations, livable advances for musicians signed to labels, and – divorced of a physical product (CDs, etc.) – the erosion of public sentiment that musicians should be paid. We have lost much, but before us, as always, is the horizon. For independent artists, these changes have resulted in the barriers to entry crumbling and an unprecedented opportunity for connecting directly with fans.

But that also means that independent artists – like me – who self-release an album have so many options for seemingly every single decision-point in the process that it can be crippling. What I decided to do, then, was just walk through the vendors that I used for our release of The Ghost of John Henry and …and surrender my body to the flames before it. I don’t know that anyone else has aggregated the entire process start-to-finish, so hopefully this will be valuable, or at least open up discussion in the comments section below for alternative approaches. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a guy who’s been through it a couple times.

Off we go!

Recording & Mastering: For The Ghost of John Henry, we hired the wildly talented Jaron Luksa (www.jaronsound.com) in Burbank, California, to handle the recording stuff, and we tracked to Pro Tools HD, which Jaron also used for mixing and mastering. If you’re in LA, you should use him, too. I performed and recorded …and surrender my body to the flames on my own using Adobe Audition for tracking, mixing, and mastering. For the drums, I recorded all of my own samples using my kit and loaded them into Reason. Then I used a Midi drum kit for the actual performance, because micing a drum kit would’ve been way to expensive and difficult on my own. Micing one drum at a time though, I could handle. You can hear the finished results of each at our website. Update: We recorded album #3 with Tim Moore at York Recording, and you should use him, too. 

"The Ghost of John Henry" Cover Artwork

“The Ghost of John Henry” Cover Artwork

Physical CDs: The first time I released a CD was many years ago, and I had to pull together several vendors for the CD replication, the jewel cases, the printing, etc. Discmakers does all of that, and they also publish a number of free DIY guides each year on topics like getting your music to blogs, how to get college radio play, and mastering tips. I never really considered any other alternatives, and used Discmakers for both albums. Couldn’t be happier with the finished products.

Digital Distribution: I actually use two distributors, Tunecore for singles, and The Orchard for albums. I’ve been with The Orchard for over 10 years, and these guys are the real deal. They don’t have an open sign-up policy, however. If they’ll take you, I can’t recommend them highly enough. They have a flat release fee of $35, and then keep a small percentage of your sales moving forward. They release to over 40  (Update: over 240) digital channels worldwide and have a tight integration with YouTube. Tunecore offers album distribution for $50/year, and singles distribution for $10/year, both renewed annually. You can add stores beyond the initial 12 (I think) you’re offered for an additional fee. Financially, it makes sense for us to use the two different channels for the two different kinds of releases. The big drawback of Tunecore is that it takes 2 months to see sales activities. We released our single version of “House of the Rising Sun” in late March, and I’m still waiting to see any of the sales activity on it. With The Orchard, sales are usually reported after only one month, and iTunes sales are reported daily. Daily! If you cross a certain sales threshold (Sci-Fi Romance does not), The Orchard also offers physical distribution. Update: We have since moved all distribution to The Orchard, chiefly because we were paying the album rate for the “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” single.

Physical Distribution: If you’re kind of a big deal and Amoeba Music is going to be ordering your CDs to keep stocked on the shelves, you probably want to use somebody like Super D Distribution. We’re not there yet, so I content myself with the CD being available on Amazon. I set this up through the Amazon Advantage program. You can sign up as a vendor, add items, and sell them on a consignment basis, with Amazon handling all fulfillment. It’s a good system, and when they run low or out of stock, they issue a PO for more items, and you send them in. Easy. Update: I still use this, but Amazon is a harsh mistress. They once issued me a PO on a Saturday, I wasn’t able to send the CDs in the mail until Monday, so when I didn’t get the CDs to them within a 48-hour window, I got a red-mark against me and they started charging customers over $18 for Sci-Fi Romance CDs as a punishment. Buyer beware, I guess. 

UPCs, Barcodes, and ISRC Numbers: This is super-important, but it’s very hard to get good information on it. Some people will pay up to $300 for a barcode for their CD, when they could’ve gotten one for $7 from Nationwide Barcode. Yes, if you use Tunecore or The Orchard, or probably CD Baby or anybody else, they will issue you a UPC/barcode. But that is for the digital release only! If you are creating a physical CD, you need a different barcode/UPC for it. They are technically two different products. ISRC numbers are the numbers SoundScan and everybody else uses to track digital sales. Tunecore issues you a TC ID number, which is not an official ISRC, but serves the same purpose and works just as well. The Orchard issues actual ISRC numbers for your tracks. You can also apply for a block of ISRC numbers and pay a bunch of money, but don’t worry about it, even if you’re a small record label. Update: National Barcode now charges even less for physical distribution UPCs. These guys are the best. 

Embeddable Players: This question is really “Bandcamp or Soundcloud?” To be honest, they’re two entirely different things, although they have in common a feature that allows you to stream your music on other websites. At their cores, Bandcamp is a sales tool, and Soundcloud is a collaboration tool. I use each. It seems like bloggers prefer Soundcloud, and that’s probably because the widget is extremely customizable and looks pretty awesome. Here’s an example: You get up to two hours of storage free, and can make tracks downloadable. However, if you want any meaningful statistics on who’s playing your music or downloading it, you have to pay a pretty significant annual fee. So it looks cooler than Bandcamp, but Bandcamp is pretty bad-ass under the hood. While a lot of people may be more comfortable using AmazonMP3 or iTunes to download paid music, fans can buy your album through Bandcamp in whatever digital format they want, including highest-quality, uncompressed FLAC audio. Great for audiophiles. Bandcamp keeps a small percentage of sales, but the basic features of the site are at no additional cost. You get meaningful play statistics – how people found your site, how many people listened to your tracks, where they listened from (ie, embedded on other sites), and more. Plus, you can give away tracks for free on Bandcamp in exchange for a fan’s email address, which is in many ways the lifeblood of independent musicians.

Mailing List: I’m a regular person, so I don’t like spam emails, and I feel very icky about sending people emails about my band. But Jimmy Kimmel’s not calling anytime soon, so if I want anybody to know about our new releases or when we’re playing, I’ve got to suck it up and send a couple of respectful, and infrequent emails. Facebook is great, Twitter is great, but a direct email drives more traffic, downloads, and sales than anything else I do. At first I used ReverbNation because it’s free, I already had a profile set up with them, and my email list was small enough to where it didn’t really matter. But once I started having email addresses coming in from Bandcamp, the ReverbNation profile, PayPal sales, and two or three other avenues, I had to step up my game. The lovely and talented Joan Hiller of Riot Act Media recommended MailChimp to me, and I do everything Joan tells me to do. MailChimp has a free option, and then tiered paid options available above that, which offer larger lists, greater segmentation, and other features. They have a simple and powerful interface, and offer a ton of customization and options. They are a tremendous resource, and after using Constant Contact and looking at other options like Aweber, MailChimp seemed like the best option, hands-down. Very pleased to be with them.

Social Networks: People tell me I should still pay attention to MySpace, but I don’t. I was super happy to get an early invite to Google+ from a friend, and haven’t been back since its official launch. I do a Facebook page and Twitter, and if I’m missing out on sales or fans that would’ve found me through other networks, I may sleep a little restlessly, but at least I sleep. Because trying to keep up with two or three more social networks would make an already difficult task that much harder. If you can do it, God love you, I wish you the best.

I think that’s it. Did I miss something? Please let me know in the comments. Was this helpful? Please let me know that, too. If you think I’m an idiot…well, that’s what YouTube comments are for.