Music Publishing and the Web: Back to Basics

At my job we build websites for people. I originally got into website design not to pay the bills, but because I really felt passionate about what websites could do for musicians (including myself). I envisioned that an artist would put up their website and immediately have the tools to publish audio, video, images, news, email lists, flyers, communicate and sell directly with their fans and visitors.

Somewhere along the way I think the hype got to me. Sites like MySpace.com, YouTube.com, Imeem.com, and catalog sites like Rhapsody and iTunes made me rethink this scenario. I began to think that a centralized service site for artist tools was the answer - a site that would provide the capabilities in the first paragraph but one which would be free and ad-driven. The site owner would make tons of money off ads to run the site, the artists would get lots of eyeballs and ears and as a result would sell more music, with maybe a percentage cut given back to the host site for handling the sale. There are already many retail services attempting to do this: Snocap/MySpace, CD Baby, and iTunes come to mind. But the problem with these centralized services is that they essentially own the content you produce or have potentially sticky licensing contracts once you use the service. I started to realize that in order for a centralized site like this to work, it would essentially have to exploit its very users to stay afloat. (This site explains this concept in more detail, although I disagree with the conclusive predictions the author makes.)

Recently I've been involved in some discussions that have made me rethink things and go back to my original concepts about how music could work on the web.

Going back to the most basic questions:

a) How do musicians publish their work and support themselves?
b) How do listeners find new music?

To answer the first, I would argue that any semi-professional musician that wishes to build a career off their work should establish their own unique website. It is more work but the benefits are tremendous - the artist maintains complete control over their work and can determine exactly how their work is published, distributed, licensed, and sold (even setting up their own storefront). The idea should be that this site is the *exclusive* method for updates, downloads, and sales of music. Why? Because having one strong website identity will mean the artist will maintain more control over their work. Online retail stores and social networking sites are a waste of time and should be avoided as much as possible unless they are able to ultimately drive more traffic to the artist's core site. Put the minimum amount of effort into these third party sites, and maximize the effort into making the core site kick ass. The web is a giant time sink and people make money off of this fact...your time is literally making people money. It's something to keep in mind when browsing the web.

The cost of building a website is becoming less and less as hosting gets cheaper, and the technology keeps getting better and better. This means that it is now possible for an artist to setup their own website with the capability for direct online sales, downloads, blogs, forums, email lists, tour schedules and much more. Instead of using Blogger for blog posts, you can run your own blogging software. Instead of uploading music to MySpace, upload as many tracks as you want to your own site. Instead of depending on these third party companies which can change their policies, you can do it yourself and have more control over everything.

To answer the second question, I think people will discover music the same way they always have - friends, music blogs, email threads, shows, music aggregators, radio, search engines, magazines, and review sites. I doubt that any automated system can really compete with a trusted friend recommending their favorite band, or a good DJ playing their favorite music. What the web *can* do is streamline these sorts of organic interactions. It can also organize the immense amount of music that is out there. It's amazing to me how many new sites pop up which try to build centralized music catalogs. The web *itself* is an enormous decentralized music catalog, it just needs to be indexed and organized. Search engines work this way - there is no reason internet radio, or Last.fm can't work this way too. One of my favorite sites that treats the web itself as an endless catalog of music is the Hype Machine. This site essentially scrapes quality music blogs for any MP3s and then lets you immediately listen to a stream of new music. You can narrow down by artist or song name. Simple, trustworthy, decentralized, scalable and powerful. Another site that supports this concept is Del.icio.us, where you can bookmark MP3 files you like and other people can listen to your "radio station". A link to an MP3 file should be all it takes to publish your work to the world - it's the job of these sites to find, index, and organize them.

Here is the point - if an artist has the capability to publish their work directly, then other music sites can literally just link to the original artist when talking about them. Music blogs and review sites will be more inclined to trust and link directly to an artist because the quality of content is higher and more trustworthy. The result is increased traffic to the artist's core site where they can build a fan base, get people on their email list, get a street team going, or sell music CDs or downloads. Contrast this with a music review site linking to an artist's MySpace site, where there are a limited number of things that can occur. Aside from adding somebody as a friend and previewing some tracks, there isn't a whole lot else that can happen. As an artist you want to provide an honest and enveloping experience for potential fans, and with sites like MySpace you just hit a brick wall.

It may sound like I'm putting down social networking sites, but I'm not. They work very well for their intended purpose - connecting people. When it comes to music publishing however, I don't think these sites work very well because ownership, licensing, sales, and distribution of the work gets complicated. Plus, it is just hard to maintain content across five different social networking sites.

By publishing directly on their own site, an artist can specify the license of their work explicitly. Probably the best approach would be to give published works very loose distribution licenses so that the music can spread freely across the net and other music sites can pick up and distribute it.

I don't think I'm making any sort of astounding discoveries - I'm just trying to take a step back and think about things. Just think about it next time you buy a song on iTunes. Why are so many middlemen involved in that transaction? How much is the artist really getting and who decides how it is licensed? Or the next time you visit a MySpace page, think about who really benefits more from you visiting the page. That band you are checking out, or Ruport Murdoch?

It just seems so much simpler for an artist to publish and sell direct and sidestep all of the bullsh*t while simultaneously earning more money and decreasing the amount of time spent managing their website(s). Less time dealing with this crap means artists have more time to focus on what they do best: make music!

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David Rowley (not verified) says:

While you make a lot of good points about the plight of the Indie artist, I wanted to clarify one thing. SNOCAP, one of the services you mention, does not "essentially own the content you produce". Nothing could be further from the truth. SNOCAP allows you to register and sell your content. We identify uploaded music using acoustic fingerprinting and compare that fingerprint to our database of > 4MM registered sound recordings. This is really important. It's easy to host a bunch of audio files and distribute them on the web, but keeping track of ownership and making sure the owners rights are maintained is critical if you want to run a service that caters to the masses. Indie artists deserve the same protection as major labels. So my point is that the artist, not SNOCAP, owns and controls the content that they register. Artists can then use our service to make it easier to sell that content where ever they want on the Web.

zirafa says:

Yes, I should clarify: while services like SNOCAP, CD Baby and Artist's First don't necessarily OWN the recorded content, the artist IS granting them a worldwide non-exclusive (sometimes exclusive) right to license their works. They partially own the right to distribute the content. My point is that an artist should really think about and research what this licensing service means and if it makes sense to invest the effort into it.

Music is gradually shifting towards less of a recording based industry and more towards a licensing and performance industry. Examining and exposing the pitfalls and benefits of licensing services is critical. If a licensing service is simply providing another storefront for sales then I would argue an artist could setup their own storefront and cut out the middleman who is taking a percent profit on each transaction. The effort for a buyer to make an online transaction through iTunes or SNOCAP or the artist's own site is relatively equal, so I don't see why a middleman is even necessary.

Perhaps these services claim that their sites will grant more exposure for the artist. Maybe, but the exposure is less targeted, and the artist sits flatly in the catalog. A better tactic would probably be to try and get trusted sites like music blogs and review sites to listen to an artist's work so that the exposure can build momentum and mean something. Through traffic is less useful than targeted traffic.

"Indie artists deserve the same protection as major labels."

I'm not sure what protection indie artist's need, or what protection major labels provide. Why or what needs to be protected?

xbeethovenx (not verified) says:

It was cool to hear from that SNOCAP guy (if he indeed is related to them or not).

I think he was saying that the distribution rights/copyright/licensing rights deserve to be protected no matter how large or small the person/company. I don't think he was saying a major label provides protection, I think he was saying that a major label has rights and the independent artist should have the same rights.

I remember in my day, back in the 1800s, we had hand crank music box MB3 (MusicBox3-note box format) players and box trading was legal. Major Music Box labels kept saying, "Thank goodness they can't capture these songs in some fashion! That will kill the music industry! Ye Gods!"

zirafa says:

David Rowley is the CTO and VP of engineering at SNOCAP.

I agree that everyone should have the same rights and they should be protected. But what rights are we talking about specifically? If it is the right to sell and license your work online, the only threat I can see is signing an unfavorable or sticky licensing contract. If we are talking about protecting your work from illegal copying or file trading, there is no reliable method of protection aside from aggressive DRM tactics.

The right to choose how a work is licensed and sold should be up to the individual artist. By agreeing to a licensing contract for a work, an artist gives up this right or grants others the right. That's fine if both the licensing service and the artist agree on the contract. But my guess is that artists are quickly signing up for these services without reading the contract closely, and without realizing there are alternative options out there.

zirafa says:

Check out how the beastie boys reduce their myspace page to a link to www.beastieboys.com. The only myspace thing they leave up is an "add to friends" at the bottom. On their website they they have free acappella's for download, blog, updates, remixes..etc. If you build it, they will come...

http://www.myspace.com/beastieboys

djlimbs (not verified) says:

word yo, good read.i need to start learning how to make websites

Mike Love (not verified) says:

funny, I came here to drop a link about publishing music online to see you've written a tome about it. i will come back to read but I noticed that Gonze of Webjay is trying to streamline the process:

here
and
here

ChristopherSkauss (not verified) says:

Music bands have total control of their music when they concentrate their efforts on their own website, but it's the solitude of these websites that gets me thinking. The overwhelming acceptance of social networks in our era undeniably denotes that in the near future this may be one of the major de facto standards for people looking for new music in the internet, if it isn't yet. The need to be keeping your social network profiles constantly updated is inevitable if you're trying to be part of the game.

I am in complete agreement that music bands should have their own website, but it has yet to come a social network of such a thin layer that bands consider their profile in it as their own website.

zirafa says:

Hey Chris,

Good points...

One of the things I really like about Facebook is that they let you import your own website's RSS feed as notes. That way I can continue to post to my own website and it updates my Facebook profile via RSS. I would only hope that social networks realize that by opening their gates, they can provide for a richer and connected experience. In this way an artist's website can be the headquarters for information that gets seeded into these other social networks. At the moment, updating the various profiles on multiple networks is a real pain to do manually.

lost in the parking lot (not verified) says:

Good article. Y'all should check out Zude.com. They've got some cool independent artists on there, like Andy Mac, and my favorite, Melody Gardot. Anna Nalick is coming onboard, too. They let musicians and artists design their own page just by dragging-and-dropping. Gotten lots of good press, and it's a good place for indpendednt musicians who don't know a thing about website design to spend an hour or so and they've got a page, complete with music player and everything.

NoFunSally says:

This comment is wayward for this post -- But I am happy to see that Zirafa's "Let's get this thing going" is now available for streaming in the player.

Michael Borges (not verified) says:

Zirafa,
I agree that artists should first establish and promote their own website. This is what I encourage all our Music PAL (Publishing And Licensing) group members to do. We currently have over 1,050 members which music industry people can join for free on our LinkedIN group from this link:
http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/93977/1DC6A82BD309
Songwriters, bands, composers, producers, record labels, publishers, music supervisors and licensing buyers are welcome to join! Membership is free and we also host a forum which allow members to post their Business Opportunites, Professional Services and their Publisher Listings.

Please consider joining us if you would like to learn, discuss and network with many like-minded professionals in today's music industry.

Best regards,
Michael Borges - Music PAL group owner/manager