Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Artist awareness, Web 2.0 and the amateur music industry

"What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new." - Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music


In the world of music, there are six types of Artists, each characterized by the particular music community they are a part of: Amateur, Aspiring, DIY, Independent, Professional and Star.

Every Artist starts as an amateur. The dictionary definition of an amateur is “a person who engages in an art… as a pastime rather than as a profession.” At this stage, an Artist is learning her instrument, and in the process, learning the songs of other artists. She may even begin writing originals. When performing, her audience consists of mainly family and friends. An Amateur rarely records her music, and if so, it is usually a low-fidelity recording for personal use.

At some magic point -- and most musicians will know what I'm talking about -- the Artist makes a serious commitment to playing music. She starts looking for an audience that wants to listen. Not yet a full-fledged DIY Artist, she takes some but not all of the steps towards establishing her identity as an Aspiring musician. For instance, she may have a demo but no gigs or vice versa. She may have a modest but undeveloped catalog of original material. In any case, she is musically active but not yet a member of a musical community beyond her close associates.

Those who see their passion through will usually arrive in the DIY Artist community. At this level, the Artist has finally developed some sort of audience and found a niche to fill in the local music scene. She has established a musical identity by networking with other local musicians and music fans. All efforts to record, perform and promote her music are her responsibility and hers alone.

This is where the ride ends for most musicians, and sometimes Artists will remain DIY until the day they die. But if the Artist's local music scene catches on in the broader regional or national music scene, they have a shot at becoming Independent. Though this transition is usually characterized by being signed to an independent record label, many Independent musicians are still DIY, just on a larger scale. With a support network and audience that reaches beyond her local scene, the Independent Artist can go on longer tours, put out more high-fidelity recordings and occasionally even make a buck or two.

When a DIY or Independent Artist possesses enough skill, talent and experience, they may make the ascension to the Professional level. Earlier in her career, the musician had to supplement her music-related income to make ends meet or otherwise adjust her lifestyle as per the success (or failure) of her music. As a Professional, she makes a sustainable amount of money from the music industry so that little or no supplementation is required. These Artists work directly with the music industry. Many literally work for the music industry. Professionals are eager to make both music and money.

Finally, the Professional musician gets her big break, or perhaps some major label executive 'discovers' her when she's still DIY or Independent. All of the sudden, she's making a healthy living and people know her name. She's on tour, her album is in stores and her song is on the radio. She's a Star.


When your average music listener thinks of the terms ‘Artist’ or ‘musician’, the image conjured is usually that of a Star or Professional – a successful performer with albums, tour dates, merchandise, groupies, etc. – when, in fact, these Artists are the minority elite. Most Artists are Amateurs or Aspiring musicians. Those in the DIY and Independent communities comprise a smaller slice of the pie. Very few Artists will ever get signed to a record label, let alone go on a tour or even sell a T-shirt.

While these distinctions may seem obvious, the true nature of the Artist community at large has been virtually ignored by most literature geared towards musicians. Numerous books, magazines and websites cater to the Amateur and Aspiring musician with information regarding how to establish oneself as a Professional or Star. Fewer publications help guide musicians in the DIY and Independent music communities.

Yet almost no one acknowledges Amateur and Aspiring musicians in the context of their own music community. It’s always “How to Be a Rock Star” and never “How to Be Yourself.” Most media geared toward musicians stokes their desire to make money and be popular, ignoring the fact that these goals are secondary to the real reason people become Artists in the first place; the goal of every Artist is simply to create music, period.

Of course, no one can prevent the Artist from picking up a guitar and strumming a tune, but this is far from a complete definition of ‘creating music’. For many Artists, creating music also includes recording, performing, merchandise, etc., but those outside of the Professional and Star communities are prohibited by the maxim of today’s music industry: get rich or die trying.

We must first recognize that the majority of Artists (Amateur and Aspiring) do not necessarily have career goals within the music industry; that is, most Artists are in it for the music, not the money or the popularity. Despite their dedication, these Artists are ignored by the music industry and thus inaccessible to listeners.

But for DIY and Independent Artists, there is a drive to establish a sustainable career with music as their primary (or only) job. They are talented, some of them are experienced, and all of them are part of active and supporting music communities. Yet to Professionals and Stars, these scenes are mere hunting grounds for new musical fads. The music industry likewise only seeks to exploit these communities. Meanwhile, these Artists sustain themselves as best they can through an "underground" music industry that shadows the mainstream.

Thus, the vast majority of Artists -- Amateurs, Aspiring, DIY and Independent -- are ill served by the current structure of the music industry. This is why we as Artists must move beyond the rock star mentality and acknowledge the particular needs of each music community. I don't mean to suggest that musicians should not act like a rock stars, only that they think before you act. Once a musician has made the tradition from Amateur to Aspiring, she ought to know what she’s really aspiring to do.


The metaphor goes like this: At the top of the music industry iceberg are the Stars, the few celebrity Artists that have popularity and money in excess. Below that are the Professionals who sustain themselves with a job in the music industry. The more popular Pros are visible above the water, the less popular are submerged. Further underwater we find the Independent and DIY communities. The vast bottom of the iceberg is anchored by Aspiring and Amateur musicians. Around the iceberg floats a vast sea of listeners.

The listening community mainly sees (or hears) the top of the iceberg, which explains why the term ‘Artist’ elicits the image of a Star or Professional. Listeners must dive deeper to reach the Independent music community, deeper still for DIY, and so on. Amateur musicians are usually too near the bottom to ever reach listeners.

But under the ambitious principles of Web 2.0 and The Long Tail, Internet technology like blogs, podcasts and social networks are beginning to allow listeners easier access to the bottom of the iceberg. Some Web zealots would say technology is “tipping the iceberg”, rendering the mainstream Star system obsolete and returning power to the smaller music communities. At present, a Herculean task such as shifting the massive weight of the established music industry is unfeasible, especially when said music industry is already using its considerable financial and political resources to take back the reigns on Web technology. The Long Tail is powerful, but it doesn’t have enough leverage to lift this entire iceberg out of the water.

What is technologically possible, and possibly preferable, is a “melting” of the iceberg. In this scenario, the various Artist communities of the iceberg melt into the surrounding sea of listeners. How could this happen? If the line between Artist and listener were blurred, perhaps eradicated, then the music industry would melt into the very audience it serves. After all, every Artist on the iceberg is already a music listener, just as ice is just water, albeit in a more solidly structured state.

This scenario has already been painstakingly analyzed by French author/politician Jacques Attali, quoted earlier from the book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. In particular, check out this transcript of the speech Attali gave at a digital music conference in 2001. After putting the music industry in meticulous historical context, Attali offers a vision of this "melting of the iceberg”:

"The future is no longer to listen to music, but to play it... composition would be done first and foremost for ourselves, for each of us, for the simple pleasure of making music. This is significant not only because you do it outside of the economy, for your own personal enjoyment, but because the only person listening to the piece is the same person playing it... the real pleasure of composition would exist outside of the market economy... For when I create something, and I then give it to you, I may have a chance of living in your memory forever."

By removing the prime impetus of today’s music industry (money) and replacing it with a more positive goal (communication), the industry can be democratized. Thanks to Web 2.0, the Amateur music industry is at hand, and it's teeming with non-profit sole proprietors. All that is missing is community awareness among Artists. Once musicians recognize that the power to build the new music industry is in their hands, once listeners realize music is theirs not just to hear but to remix and compose, the heat will be on. The iceberg will melt, allowing safe passage for all sailors of sound.