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Independent Music Isn’t Dead. It’s the Only Thing Left.

Independent Music Isn’t Dead. It’s the Only Thing Left.

If you haven’t been reading the trades for the last couple of years, you might be saddened to know that the music industry–at least, the music industry as it has been molded over the last 40 years–is crumbling.

The cause of death is a pretty simple one: You and I and everyone we know have been stealing records for almost ten years now, remorselessly and relentlessly. As much as we all hate to listen to Lars Ulrich cry into Bob Rock’s silk ascot, it’s true. It’s illegal, and we’ve been doing it because we assume that we are justified because our jobs aren’t as much fun as emptying Hetfield’s dishwasher and flipping mansions for profit. We rationalize our theft by telling ourselves that it’s ludicrous that someone should make millions (MILLIONS!) for creating art while we have to roll up our sleeves and wake up for our jobs every day.

We’re not exactly right about that, though. The reason Lars, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Kelly Clarkson and all of those goobers are justified in making millions off their art is the same reason why LeBron James is worth millions for playing a game: If they weren’t making millions off of it, their promoters would be making many more millions off of it while the artists lived on Ramen. In short, if Dave Grohl writes a song that a million people want to hear, that fact by itself doesn’t justify a million dollar paycheck. But SOMEONE is going to make a million dollars selling that record. It might as well be Dave. If LeBron James averages 74 points a game for a whole season, that’s going to lead directly to someone selling a billion hideous Cavs jerseys. Shouldn’t LeBron get a piece of that? Shouldn’t LeBron get a BIG piece of that?

But obviously, everyone’s not satisfied with that explanation. If we were, we wouldn’t be burning the hell out of everything we even sort of liked and filesharing all day. The result is that millions and millions of dollars are failing to make their way into the music industry.

It’s only bad news for a few people. Your favorite millionaire activists will still be able to sell records. Kanye and Tom Morello and Gwen S. aren’t going anywhere. As long as there’s an Us Weekly, they will still sell records and fill the Staples Center, and that’s pretty good news for communists and fourth-graders everywhere. Fountains of Wayne are going to have to start sleeping at Days Inn, but they’ll still be OK. Their bosses, though, the ones who had a different diamond-encrusted grill for each Wu-Tang album release, who insisted on feting Frances Bean’s eighth grade graduation on a hovercraft in the Aegean (I’m making this up; I wasn’t invited), who had millions and millions of dollars at their disposal for promotion and production and street teams and advertising and risk-taking, THOSE guys are dying off like the dodo. What that’s going to do is polarize music in a pretty serious way. On one side, there will be a tiny nucleus of megabosses at the labels. Their stables -once full of hundreds of acts that had good songs but no following or who had been working their way up for years- will be cut down to only the very biggest sellers. That part of the industry will always be there. On the other side will be everyone else. They call this “leveling the playing field.”

So while you won’t ever get that bazillion-dollar record deal that would set you up for life, pretty much no one else will either. Which will mean that everyone will have a much better chance of being appreciated for their work and merit rather than their valuable connections and/or label support.

Now, I want you to take a deep breath and say this out loud: “I am not in this for the money.”

If that statement made you cringe, if you gagged a little bit at the thought that you were never going to live on the expensive side of Mullholland Drive, then I strongly urge you to go back to school and get an MBA and possibly your Series 7. There are a lot of great ways to make money, and music isn’t one of them (it never really was anyway).

If it was easy for you to admit this, then the death of the music industry just made your life a lot easier. Now that files are shareable and the internet is wide open, you will have an easier time being heard than anyone who ever came before you.

Now that there is no way to protect data, the only way to real financial success in music will be live shows, the experience of which can’t be replicated in e-file. In order to get those live shows happening, you’ve gotta get people listening to your stuff. In order to get people to listen to your stuff…you’re gonna have to give it away for free.

Save up your money. Make a demo. Recording software is cheaper than ever. Then, by god, burn it onto CDs, post it free on the internet (Harvey Danger staged a relatively huge comeback doing this very thing), and ask every person you know to listen to it and pass it on. If you are worried about making $10 off your CD, then you’re looking at things too narrowly (or you should be the president of TVT). If you’re working at having a legacy and possibly getting booked at the big venues, then you need listeners. These days, when you book a show, promoters rarely ask for your website anymore. Instead, they want your MySpace address. The reason for this is simple: MySpace shows the number of fans, listeners, and daily traffic you have. That’s critical information for someone to have when they feast or starve based on the number of people who come through the door. The more people you can get to listen to your music–and again, it’s never been easier– the better shot you have at leaving a mark on the music world and maybe making enough of a buck to quit Jiffy Lube.

The playing field has changed. In the next decade, the live venue will be the scoreboard that determines success, and the major money maker for musicians everywhere. The major label deal is trundling out like a Studebaker. Record sales are only for people whose fanbases can’t operate Limewire (my parents, for instance, just love Josh Groban, and he makes a killing at Sam Goody). With less money for labels to cram music down people’s throats, the internet is wide open for you to shout your message to everyone. It’s all up to you. Put your music out for free. Get listeners. Get a buzz. Book the shows. Draw the followers. This is the new success, and it is within your reach.