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21 September 2010

Some quick thoughts on the death of the record as object

I hope my last post did not strike you as too morbid. But it’s true, sometimes I worry the songbird is dying…

As some of you may know, I founded and run a record label. As of about six months ago I was running another one as well. And about two months before that I was still lending a hand on a third label. I’ve slowly but surely sloughed off some of these responsibilities in the last year, taking on new ones working in artist management. Because I’m no idiot. I can attest to the fact that it’s rough out there for recorded music. I’d like to be able to pay my rent a year from now — and artist management seems to be the way to do it. (Not to mention the fact that getting to manage artists gives me access to a level of talented people far more advanced in their respective careers, and their respective art, than I was ever able to draw to any of the small, relatively underresourced labels I helped steer.)

But what is lost as record labels go the way of the choo-choo train and the typewriter?

As the death of the record seems ever more evident, more & more important figures are starting to realize what will be missed — the latest, it seems, being Sufjan Stevens‘ record label Asthmatic Kitty and a member of the band Radiohead. First a word from Asthmatic Kitty that went out to those who purchased Sufjan’s recent All Delighted People EP at Bandcamp.

    “So. We have it on good authority that Amazon will be selling The Age of Adz for a very low price on release date, not unlike they did with Arcade Fire’s recent (and really terrific) The Suburbs. We’re not 100% sure Amazon will do this, but mostly sure.

    “We have mixed feelings about discounted pricing. Like we said, we love getting good music into the hands of good people, and when a price is low, more people buy. A low price will introduce a lot of people to Sufjan’s music and to this wonderful album. For that, we’re grateful.

    “But we also feel like the work that our artists produce is worth more than a cost of a latte. We value the skill, love, and time they’ve put into making their records. And we feel that our work too, in promotion and distribution, is also valuable and worthwhile.

    “That’s why we personally feel that physical products like EPs should sell for around $7 and full-length CDs for around $10-12 We think digital EPs should sell for around $5 and full-length digital albums for something like $8.

    “So you might wonder why we’d ‘allow’ Amazon to sell it for lower than that. [Editorial note: I have participated in some of these Amazon “deals” with Brassland — and believe me, at times you “allowed” to participate in the same way that a mob enforcer might “allow” you to pay them protection money.]

    “There are several reasons why, but mostly it’s because we believe in you. We trust you and in your ability to make your own choice.”

The fine folks at Asthmatic Kitty went on to offer a range of options to direct order the record, pre-order it at a neighborhood independent record store, et. al. Radiohead’s bassist Colin Greenwood got closer to the heart of the matter with a piece he wrote for Index on Censorship. I’d never heard of the publication but it seems to be a kind of British equivalent to the ACLU, with less focus on freedom of speech and more focus on freedom of expression. (Yes, it would probably take a constitutional lawyer to really parse the difference.)

Take it away Colin, who describes the band’s thought process a few years after releasing the pay-as-you-will breakthrough In Rainbows:

    “Three years later, we have just finished another group of songs, and have begun to wonder about how to release them in a digital landscape that has changed again. It seems to have become harder to own music in the traditional way, on a physical object like a CD, and instead music appears the poor cousin of software, streamed or locked into a portable device like a phone or iPod. I buy hardly any CDs now and get my music from many different sources: Spotify, iTunes, blog playlists, podcasts, online streaming – reviewing this makes me realise that my appetite for music now is just as strong as when I was 13, and how dependent I am upon digital delivery. At the same time, I find a lot of the technology very frustrating and counter-intuitive. I spend a lot of time using music production software, but iTunes feels clunky. I wish it was as simple and elegant as Apple’s hardware. I understand that we have become our own broadcasters and distributors, but I miss the editorialisation of music, the curatorial influences of people like John Peel or a good record label. I liked being on a record label that had us on it, along with Blur, the Beastie Boys and the Beatles.

    “I’m unconvinced that the internet has replaced the club or the concert hall as a forum for people to share ideas and passions about music.”

Well put. For once in my life, I’m speechless.

(Image via the New York Times.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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