Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Recession and "Amateur" Talent

After my last post, "Tod Machover and Musical Innovation," Mike at Radio Nowhere posted a comment about having been initially confused by my focus on the democraticization of music. Since I can't hyperlink just to my response, I'll reproduce it here, and then go on to give some of the examples of changing nature of creativity and fandom that I have run across recently.
The focus of a lot of future of the music business discussions in the past year have been about "direct-to-fan" sales and 1000 fans. In other words, people are assuming the business model will still involve artists playing for and selling to fans.

I'm trying to shake things up a bit and suggest that the music business may not unfold this way and, at the very least, the "artists-with-their fans" model is definitely not very revolutionary or forward-thinking enough.

There are a variety of reasons why I think the trend may be headed this way:

1. Live shows often seem to be a way for fans to highlight themselves (via sending text messages about the concert to their friends, taking photos and emailing them to friends or posting them online, videotaping to upload on YouTube, etc.). So I see live music being as much or more about the fans wanting to be the center of attention than it is about listening to the music.

2. Economic trends. If people are becoming permanently more frugal, they may not spend a lot on music-related items. If they can get some satisfaction by hanging out with friends at backyard jams, they may go for it.

3. Technology is allowing more people to play with the musical process. YouTube, music video games, music iPhone applications. These are all ways for people to get involved, often with little or no skill. As technology gets better, it can do even more to produce music for people. It isn't so much that they will create great music. It will be enough that they feel they have done something worth sharing.

4. Crowdsourcing. The Internet is allowing more people to collaborate. Therefore they are learning about participatory culture. I think the idea of being passive fans is going to be less appealing to them.

5. Music consumption changes. Compare classical music audiences to rock concert audiences. As times change, people change how they listen to music.

In summation, just as MP3s were a disruptive technology for the music business of the 2000s, I think technologies that allow everyone to be a music creator/producer/promoter will be disruptive technologies in the future.

We have gone from major labels selling millions of copies, to independent artists selling or giving away thousands of copies, to perhaps millions of people sharing music with 10 to 100 of their closest friends.

If some of my visions of the future are correct, then the music business has to change some more. More people making money; less money, on average, going to each artist.
Now on to some examples of "amateur" creativity. Here's Newsweek's take on non-professionals moving into the arts.
In September 2008 English singer Billy Bragg performed at something called the Big Busk. After posting the chords of the songs he would play on the Internet, he invited all comers to bring their guitars. Some 3,000 did, strumming while a crew behind Bragg hoisted signs showing which chord to play. ...

The global recession hasn't crippled the entertainment industry, as some feared, but it has hastened its embrace of the do-it-yourself movement. From neighborhood theater troupes to bookstore readings, amateur performers are taking their place onstage. It's less a new development than a return to an old way of life. "The whole idea of the professional artist belongs to the 20th century," says Shan Maclennan, Southbank's creative director of learning and participation. "Before that, amateurs were everywhere." When the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was founded in 1840, she says, half its members had day jobs. "In professionalizing art, [spontaneity and fun] have been lost. What we're doing feels like the way forward."

... Robin Simpson, head of the U.K.'s Voluntary Arts Network ... noticed attitudes shifting even before the world economy went south. "The false divide between professionals and amateurs was already breaking down," he says. ...

How good can any of this stuff be? That's missing the point, says Robert Lynch, president of the nonprofit arts promoter Americans for the Arts: "The word 'amateur' comes from the Latin root for love." Where the arts are concerned, love is definitely in the air. "Amateurs Making Art in Growing Numbers," Newsweek, 12/30/09.
The National Endowment for the Arts also reports increased participation in the arts, based on a recent survey.
... said Joan Shigekawa, NEA's senior deputy chairman. "... there is something about this technology that emboldens people to express themselves."...

The NEA survey -- which polled 18,000 adults -- also revealed that more people appear to be creating their own art. The numbers of enthusiasts engaging in photography, videography and filmmaking increased to 15 percent last year, a climb from 12 percent in 1992. The availability of digital media, said NEA researchers, accounted for that increase. "National Endowment for the Arts survey shows growth in online arts audience," Washington Post, 12/9/09.
In the Washington DC area, some of the most expensive chorus groups have closed. But others, using volunteer performers, are springing up.
... the secret of choral success appears to lie on a more grass-roots level: in the fact that choruses allow people to make music, rather than merely listen to it.

"If we don't allow audiences to become involved every once in a while," says Ann Stahmer, executive director of the City Choir of Washington, "we're not doing everything we can to promote choral music. There's something about the 'Hallelujah' Chorus that is universal. It makes people feel they are a classical musician for 3.5 magic moments." "New groups like National Master Chorale signal key change in D.C. choral scene," Washington Post, 12/18/09.
An interesting variation is the complaint choir.
Recently a group of about 100 Tokyo residents put their complaints into a pile and a composer, Okuchi Shunsuke, turned them into a song. About 80 of the complainers (accompanied by an accordion, a bass cello and a tambourine) then performed the composition at various sites around the city, becoming the latest example of what has become known as a complaints choir. ...

... others have formed choirs in other cities ... more than 60 performances have occurred worldwide — from Melbourne to Singapore to Philadelphia to Florence. People of differing ages and backgrounds are encouraged to participate. Singing experience is not required.

“If you demand a certain amount of singing skills it would exclude a lot of people,” [Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, founder of the concept] said. “Anyone who has a complaint should be able to take part.” ...

Regardless of the complaint and where it is sung, being able to sing it while standing alongside others is apparently often cathartic. "Complaint Choirs Make Whining an Art Form," New York Times, 12/9/09.
Talent shows, open mics, and the like have had varying degrees of success. I wanted to feature two of them. In both cases, the community element, where people come as much to drink and hang out with people, is as important or more so than who is performing.

  • For nearly 10 years (over 100 shows), the Freak Train has been going on. It was originally conceived as a way to do something with an empty theater on Monday nights.
    Monday night is when the freaks come out. In droves.

    Old freaks, young freaks, gay freaks, straight freaks. Freaks in drag and freaks with cancer. They flock to the Bug Theatre, an old nickelodeon house in northwest Denver.

    They pay $5 for admission and a plastic, bottomless cup the freaks of proper age can fill with not-so-freaky Breckenridge microbrews.

    Some come to the monthly event, called "Freak Train," to perform — anything they want, from songs to stand-up comedy, poems to performance art, anything, uncensored. Most come to be entertained.

    The distinction between the two groups, though, is minimal, as self-described freaks watch their fellow freaks from the seats, then head to the stage themselves. ...

    The comics aren't necessarily funny. The singers can go off-key. Things can be fascinating or painfully tedious. It's all part of the show — a very popular show, usually packed with a crowd of hipsters and half-wits, weirdos, wunderkinds and wannabes.

    "Freak Train is where the lines blur between virtuosity, sincerity and amateurism," says bubbly emcee GerRee Hinshaw. "I wouldn't call it a forgiving audience. The audience never promises to love what you're going to do. But the exchange is always there. We're going through something together. And, really, every audience member is hoping the person on stage is about to blow them away." "Are these people freaks?" The Denver Post, 8/29/09.
  • Ignite is a concept spreading around the country where people get to make five-minute presentations on topics of their choosing using 20 slides that change every 15 seconds. It's PowerPoint combined with standup comedy. In Boulder this has become hugely successful, with each show growing bigger and selling out. The last show attracted 700 people and the next is expected to draw 850.
    Despite being a pretty low-tech endeavor, the idea came from the tech community, and it's an event the exemplifies geek culture. The potential topics are unlimited and determined by the speakers' passions and by attendees' votes (with the odd intervention by the organizers). ...

    The format is tight and keeps things from ever getting boring: If a speaker isn't doing it for you, you grab a drink, and by the time you're tipping the bartender, the next person is up. The crowd is raucous and engaged, encouraging with hearty yells and interjecting the occasional laugh with a well-timed retort. The results are impressive, even to those thinking the whole thing sounds like a colossal bore. "Ignite Boulder lit my fire," Westword, 12/11/09.
  • Finally, I wanted to mention a highly successful website, LOOKBOOK.nu, where people post the looks they have created. They aren't passive consumers.
    ... the idea all along was to see if a global community of creative and talented people could pull off a virtual “LOOKBOOK” that was just as visually compelling as that of any one magazine editor or fashion industry “insider.” That’s why we originally called LB a “social experiment in style.” ... to our astonishment it has now stretched to over 80 countries around the world.

    ... By now, practically everyone recognizes the immense appeal that street fashion has over more traditional fashion media outlets — it’s just so much more real, you know? I think it’s no wonder street style blogs and party photo sites have seen such runaway popularity over the past year, simply because on the streets is where real fashion comes to life. What gives LOOKBOOK.nu its edge in the realm of online fashion is that our content is 100% produced as well as democratically sorted by the community members themselves. "What Are You Wearing Today? A Discussion With Yuri Lee, Founder of LOOKBOOK.nu," Allentrepreneur, 3/9/09.
    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 1/14/10
    The trailer for this documentary says that the ukulele is popular again because it's easy to play and everyone can get involved.
    MIGHTY UKE: A documentary about the global revival of the ukulele in the 21st Century

    UPDATE, 1/20/10
    At the end of the 19th century, an amateur meant someone who was motivated by the sheer love of doing something; professional was a rare, pejorative term for grubby money-making. Now, amateurism is a byword for sloppiness, disorganisation and ineptitude, while professionalism–as Humphrys suggested–is the default description of excellence. Ours is the age of professionalism; it is a concept in perpetual boom. But all bubbles, as we have painfully learned about finance, must eventually burst. Is it time we let some of the hot air out of professionalism? "Are We Too Professional?" More Intelligent Life, Winter 2009.
    UPDATE 8/7/10
    This article (and the comments) list examples of non-professional musicians participating in classical music activities.
    DIY music

    1 comment:

    1. Excellent overview of emerging music "business" models, Suzanne. I put business in quotes because so much money is thrown at creating digital versions of past paradigms (direct-to-fan start-ups replacing labels, mog aggregators replacing Rolling Stone, cloud storage replacing physical collections, music apps replacing radio, etc)... and yet very few are thinking about the larger picture of how digital is empowering fans to become participants. Some of the concepts you discuss above are the logical iterations of Garageband, Guitar Hero, et al.

      As a musician, I worry that putting tools in the hands of the many will lower the bar somehow. And yet, as you point out, there have been numerous examples of how democratizing creativity has increased not only audience size but moved culture itself down the playing field.

      The best and brightest in the entertainment, technology and investment communities need to worry less about whether subscription or ad-supported is the wave of the future -- this is really just window dressing. Instead, focus on how emerging behaviors will improve society's enjoyment of, and PARTICIPATION IN, the arts at large.

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