Issue #20 June 2006

Making yourself heard in Music City

by Jonathan Opp

The official Summit staff shirt.

It's no mystery why they call it Music City. Step off the plane in Nashville and you'll hear country star Charlie Daniels on the airport public address. The guy who sang about fiddle-playing competitions with the devil in Georgia is now reminding you not to leave your luggage unattended. Nice.

Nashville is best known for classic country sung by people named Hank and Patsy, and the newer stuff on Country Music Television sung by people whose pants are too tight. While I'm not the biggest pop country music fan, I confess that in Nashville I found it tough to resist the sugary hooks and homespun story songs on CMT. When in Rome... At least now I know what "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" means.

It's fitting then that in a city known for its music, two Summit keynote presenters, Cory Doctorow and Eben Moglen, spoke about copyright protection, digital rights management, and what it means to your music. If you haven't yet seen the videos of their keynotes, take a few minutes and watch. And if you want the full story on Doctorow, don't miss the two-part interview Bascha Harris did with Doctorow for Red Hat Magazine beginning this past January.

Cory Doctorow

Once again technology is changing the music business. And not all of the changes are good.

We're moving from buying compact discs that have barely lowered in price despite falling production costs--to music delivered digitally: copy protected, lower quality, and leaving open the potential for monopolistic practices down the road. Not sure about you, but I don't like the idea that someone could take my music away from me.

Somehow the combination of "music" and "business" has never quite come together like Lennon and McCartney. (Does that make money the Yoko in this scenario?) Each time a new technology is introduced, industry power-brokers settle into protectionism. Doctorow and Moglen are quick to point to numerous examples. Doctorow quotes American composer John Phillip Sousa--famous for "Stars and Stripes Forever"--which is famous for having been butchered by middle-school marching bands ever since-- who went in front of congress in 1908 at the advent of the phonograph. Doctorow quotes Sousa as saying, "'If these infernal talking machines are allowed to continue, America will lose its voiceboxes as we lost our tails when we came down out of the trees.'" At that time phonographs were piracy.

Those who control the state of the music industry consistently fail to see the lucrative markets and creativity that new technologies bring. They resist radio, recordable cassettes, VCRs, the list goes on. So rather than seeing opportunity, they see a challenge to their business.

Eben Moglen

Each time a new music format is widely adopted--vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD--it's typically because of some added value like sound quality or convenience. So we buy the new format and sell our cassette players in the yard sale. I have a friend who's bought the same Bob Dylan album four times.

Yes, buying your music through digital download is instant, convenient, and portable. But when you add hidden protections to it, or it starts to necessitate closed proprietary software or hardware to play it, that's when we need to start watching closely. Recently Apple's iTunes has come under criticism in Europe because you can't play music purchased on iTunes on other music devices.

But there are signs that the music business is having to change. Last year I read a review on Pitchfork Media for a new album by an unfortunately named band called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Pitchfork is one of those sites I tend to agree with more often than not, so when they gave the album an uncharacteristically enthusiastic review, I went to my local record store and bought it. For me, Pitchfork had it right. Easily one of my top three favorites last year. And I wasn't the only one finding the album. It even reached the Billboard charts, and the band has since played to two sold-out local shows.

But what makes the Clap Your Hands story interesting is that they rose to prominence without having signed to a record label. In fact they're the first band to reach the Billboard charts without one. Positive reviews, MySpace, friends telling friends on the Internet... The album was great, the fans did the rest. To the tune of around 200,000 albums sold so far.

Not to suggest labels are unnecessary. Independent record labels work especially hard to promote and develop their bands. When bands sign to a Merge Records or a SubPop Records, it can help like-minded listeners find them, and help the band stay focused on the music. Clap Your Hands has recently signed with UK label Wichita Recordings, also the home of Bloc Party, Bright Eyes, and My Morning Jacket. Apparently mailing CDs to distributors by hand was starting to drag on them. But the rise of Clap Your Hands is just another example where artists are no longer dependent on a system run by an industry that acts as gatekeepers, treating music as any other commodity product.

Before the Summit keynote sessions started each morning, we played local music that was introduced to us through the Nashville Feed and released through Creative Commons licenses. The music has really grown on us over the last few weeks. We encourage you to take a closer look at artists who are using Creative Commons licensing to fight for a chance at your ears.

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In reality, the music business has always been about gaining exposure. About putting the right sound in front of the right audience at the right time. The Internet has changed this industry as it has for all others, and today the distance between artist and music fan has never been shorter. The cream is rising to the top. In the past it took a record executive or radio DJ to make it happen. Now all you have to be is good.

About the author

Jonathan Opp oversees content in the Brand Communications + Design group at Red Hat. Right now all of his free time is spent watching the World Cup.