Music for the Masses

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Music for the Masses

Apr 13, 2007

Terrance Heath

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I almost bought it. A moment of nostalgia almost made me long for "the good old days" when you had to go to a record store and rifle through the bins if you wanted to buy music. I really should have expected it, after hearing the news that iPod sales have topped 100 million

But I think I can be forgiven a momentary lapse. After all, I had my first "dream job" working at a record store (just using the term "record store" is dating myself, for sure), and went to college in a town that was known as the "Liverpool" of its time. 

Yes, I too remember Wuxtry records in Athens, Georgia.

On a recent trip to Georgia, I spent about an hour in the record shop where Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in 1979, beginning a friendship that led to the creation of R.E.M.

That's the kind of name drop that 15 or 20 years ago might have triggered a response along the lines of: "You were at Wuxtry Records in Athens?!"

Today, the more likely reaction would be: "They still have record stores somewhere?!"

… Sharing music nowadays consists of sending a download link via e-mail. Or handing over your iPod. Or, worst of all, cranking up the volume of your ringtone.
Does anyone in 2007 wrap up a hard day thinking: "Man, I'm ready to hear some Stevie Wonder 'Innervisions.' What'd I do with my cell phone?"

Assuming someone wants to actually pay for music, kids are more likely to log onto iTunes than they are to drive to an actual store. Shops like Wuxtry, mentioned at the beginning of this column, are few and far between – mostly relegated to college towns and big cities.

Downloads and cell phones are convenient, I suppose. But I can't for the life of me figure out how a guy with no money gets dates anymore.

I also remember the summer of 1987 (now I'm definitely dating myself), which I spent working at a record store that was part of a corporate chain that no longer exists anymore. That was the summer when REM's Document came out the same time as Michael Jackson's Bad.

They might even have come out on the same day. It's burned into my memory because I was working that day, and all we played in the store all day was those two albums. First Bad, then Document, then Bad again, etc., etc. Then I went off to college in Athens, where "The One I Love" was pouring out of every car, dorm, and fraternity house window.

One other thing I remember is that Wuxtry was worlds different from the corporate record store where I'd worked that summer. Wuxtry had music from local artists, as well as obscure artists I'd never have seen in my record store, because they they mostly stocked what was topping (or had topped) the charts. Everything else was special order. Wuxtry was all special order, but unless you were in Athens you couldn't shop there.

That's what I think the author of the column above is missing, when he laments the rise of online music stores like iTunes. Now everybody can shop at their own personal Wuxtry, and find artists they'd never find in their local store. The good old days weren't always good for everybody, especially if their music or taste in music strayed from the mainstream.

Like, I can read about an artist like Colin Waterson on Queerty, and immediately go to iTunes and buy the album after listening to snippets of it. I get to hear an artist I wouldn't have otherwise, and Waterson gets a listener (and a record sale) he wouldn't have otherwise. Everybody wins. Music lovers can find a lot more of what they want and independent artists can reach much larger audiences.

The very mainstream iTunes store has created a venue where even the most obscure artists can exist—and even thrive—independent of major labels. For instance, in most record stores, “you have to pay to get the placement, the listening stations, and posters, whereas with iTunes, the promotions are [staff] determined,” says Chris Jacobs of Sub Pop Records.

More importantly, 70 of the 99 cents of the download fee goes directly to the artist. With this more favorable exchange, and freed from the burdens of a major label’s enormous cash advance, the independent artists benefit most. Apple’s dominance of online retail—last year, they had more than $1 billion in annual sales—has created a check on major labels. This was evident in 2005, when Apple refused the majors’ requests to raise downloading fees. If this benevolent giant’s behavior is in any way indicative for the future of online retail, indie rock may have one less thing to be cynical about.

 Ã¢â‚¬Â¦And though indie bands have always built audiences without the Top 40, the advent of Web 2.0 and resulting proliferation of niche markets make traditional means of promotion look inefficient. Stereogum, which averages about 13,000 hits a week, is one of many online communities that features user-generated reviews, features, and videos of indie bands while unabashedly keeping the public up on the latest Britney headline. The Hype Machine, an aggregator of such blogs, updates hourly with dozens of new songs and their links to Amazon and iTunes. These user-generated sites not only empower listeners to decide what will be popular, but have the ability to do something a copy of Rolling Stone never could—play music. Hype Machine’s Web site puts it this way: “We do this to let people discover new artists, fall in love, buy their CDs and go to their shows.”

I can imagine that more money going to artists hasn't escaped the attention of the record industry. That's probably why they're revising royalty codes in a way that would shut down sites like Pandora, where I've found tons of new music that I've ended up buying online.

Since I'm morphing into something of a "Long Tail evangelist" these days, I'll defer to Chris Anderson to explain the rest.

Traditional retail economics dictate that stores only stock the likely hits, because shelf space is expensive. But online retailers (from Amazon to iTunes) can stock virtually everything, and the number of available niche products outnumber the hits by several orders of magnitude. Those millions of niches are the Long Tail, which had been largely neglected until recently in favor of the Short Head of hits.

When consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed. And it turns out to be less hit-centric than we thought. People gravitate towards niches because they satisfy narrow interests better, and in one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest (whether we think of it that way or not).

And now music fans are organizing events like Bum Rush the Charts to drive independent artists up the charts on iTunes, and labels like TuneCorner are getting the attention of the Wall Street Journal.

Things aren't what they used to be, and I'm glad of it. (And so area lot of independent artists, I think.) Don't get me wrong. I totally get the romance of a store like Wuxtry, and I'll stop by there next time I'm in Athens. But if I want to buy what they're selling between now and then, I'll probably find it online, and the artist will see more money than they would if some of it went to pay for bricks and mortar.

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