Monday, May 31, 2010

The Rise of the "Creative Thing"

The Devaluation of Music

A number of people have embraced the idea that since it costs nothing, or nearly nothing, to make unlimited digital copies of your music, you should freely give it away for the exposure and then sell limited objects and experiences to those who want more and are willing to pay for it.

What recorded music becomes, then, is the promotional or marketing vehicle for something else. Increasingly it can't be sold as a standalone product because people expect it to be free. Our perceptions of recorded music have changed.

For example, consider these two scenarios:

1. Buy the CD and get the T-shirt for free.
2. Buy the T-shirt and get the CD for free.

If getting music for free has conditioned people to think it has no monetary value, then whatever monetary value they assign to the bundle will be for the T-shirt.

(In contrast to how music is being presented these days, the infomercial trick is to assign a value to the bundle by telling people that all the items in the bundle have a value.
For $20 you get a $15 CD AND $15 T-shirt. A $30 value!!
A smart infomercial person would never say, "Hey, we're not losing any money if you download our music for free, so please do.")

Once we come to accept that recorded music isn't much of a standalone product, we start looking for what we can couple it with to enhance its value. Even Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, says as much.
... he was willing to admit that, “music has to become a multimedia business.” The product is no longer the music in and of itself. The product is the musician’s story and the experience of being a part of it. "TechCrunch Disrupt - Day 3," SoundCtrl, 5/27/10.
One of the most obvious shifts in music presentation has been the move from just recording a song to including it in a video. That's increasingly how we consume music.
[Comparing the same one-week period] the ten most-played music videos on YouTube racked 57.3 million views, while the top ten on MySpace Music generated 7.5 million. "YouTube v. MySpace Music: What a Difference Two Years Makes..." Digital Music News, 5/12/10.
Another example to illustrate that the video can be more important than the music is OK Go.
Their new video for This Too Shall Pass is another viral smash (8m views and counting), but their record sales have been nothing short of a disaster. It hasn't even sold 25,000 copies in the US. ...

[This Too Shall Pass is] endlessly watchable, using a panoply of junk to create a colourful, impossibly complex Rube Goldberg machine. [The video is] certainly popular, but might be just as viral if it contained no sound at all. "OK Go find more viral success – but not real success," The Guardian, 3/18/10.
Thus, combining music with video appears to be good for exposure, but you still need to find something to sell. That leads us to a point where musicians are looking for even more stuff to tack onto the music.
Speaking at Twitter's first-ever developers' conference, Black Eyed Peas frontman, Will.i.am outlined a vision of the music industry of the future where developers will be just as important to a band as the musicians that play on the record. He claimed:

"A band's going to be a singer, a guitar player, a bass player, a code writer, a guy who makes applications, a guy who does computer animation; that is a group. It's going to be self-contained content providers and digital distributers." "Why musicians need digital creatives," StrategyEye, 5/27/10.
Explaining the "Creative Thing"

I'll take it a step further than Will.i.am. I envision a day in the near future where music will be so intertwined with additional forms of media and experiences that it may become nearly meaningless to speak of it as a distinct entity. It will become an inseparable part of a bigger concept, which I will call a "creative thing." There won't be a discernible line between the music and what it is bundled with, which will mean the music business as such will no longer exist. There will be people who continue to specialize in creating music, but since the packaging of music (in whatever form: sound, performance, products) will involve more than just music, music becomes an adjunct of a bigger whole.

You can find good examples of "creative things" on Kickstarter. Artists are trying to raise money for all manner of creative projects. To entice people to contribute money, the project creators offer a variety of premiums. Often neither the projects nor the premiums fall into any sort of neatly defined box. (Examples: A musician offered home-cooked meals. A performance artist offered lip prints. A magazine publisher offered handmade quilts.) The creativity of the project, the offerings, and the presentation/communication of it all blur into a gestalt. Every aspect of each Kickstarter "creative thing" is connected to and reinforces the concept as a whole.

The publisher who offered quilts on Kickstarter is Lee Tusman. One of his music-related activities is serving as a traveling art/music show host.
For Lee, “Running with the Night” is only moonlighting: his day job is curator of the Riverside Art Museum, but his list of artistic extracurriculars is extensive. He created the quilts (or “quiltz” as he likes to call them) that spill out of the Vanagon, as well as many others; he runs a micro-record label called Jewish Noise, which combines abstract electronica/noise with traditional chanting and singing; he sews one-armed cloth dolls; he operates an occasional pizza delivery service out of the Vanagon—people call him, and he makes a gourmet pie from scratch, puts it into a hand-painted pizza box and drives it to the door; he curates the Vanagallery, a mobile art space that’s housed a carousel of artistic works; and most recently, he’s producing a magazine called JANKY. "Behind the Zine," Inland Empire Weekly, 3/11/10.
Not associated with Kickstarter, but one of the best examples of someone in music thinking three-dimensionally is Amanda Palmer.
The wonderful thing about rock is that it's a truly multimedia forum. There's the album artwork, the posters, the live shows, the stage design, the costumes, the videos....it's perfect for a gesamtkunstwerk hound like myself. "Art Space Talk: Amanda Palmer," myartspace> blog, 1/6/09.
In the above interview she also talks about her experience as a performance artist, living in a building housing artists from a variety of media, and having painters creating art during some of her shows.

Who Does the Creating?

To function in this world of "creative things," musicians will need at least one of three approaches:

  • Personally be able to create more than just music.
  • Hire people or work with a team who can supplement what they don't/can't do.
  • Collaborate with artists in other media so that together they create multi-dimensional packages/experiences.

  • There are a variety of economic and creative ramifications to each arrangement (e.g., Who is going to generate the creative vision? Is everyone going to be paid for their efforts and if so, how?).

    The Multidimensional Musician

    When the musicians can do everything by themselves, it keeps the economics simple. Whether the music leads to an art sale or the art leads to a music sale, it's all going to the same creator.

    Jeffrey Hoover creates works that include both music and visual art.
    People sometimes wonder whether the music or the art comes first. It can be either way, and sometimes the work develops simultaneously. In the case of Peacock Blue and An American Toccata the music was written first, then the paintings were created. I wrestled with the idea of how to best represent the music. Would a graphic score be appropriate, or some type of freely conceived representation? I resolved this dilemma by the majority of the painting being an intuitive representation of the music, inserting a graphic score/sonic representation as an entablature on the bottom of the painting. "new work for the eye and ear," Composer NewsUpdate, Vol. 3, No. 1, January, 1999.
    Brian Eno has always done art and music together.
    Neither my visual nor my musical directions would have taken the shape they did without each other. I make no distinction between the development of my visual and musical output as the two have been growing together, feeding and informing the other. "Brian Eno: The life of Brian," The Independent, 7/25/06.
    Another example: A Denver-based band, Lil' Slugger, is putting out a series of comic books they have created themselves.
    [Band members] Martin and Couch wrote the books, and Martin’s girlfriend, Beth Link, drew all the pictures, which Martin himself then manipulated in Photoshop. “All credit goes to her,” he says, “and all blame goes to me. It was a totally nightmarish process and no one should ever do it.” "Lil' Slugger's art rock and comic books," The Denver Post, 5/21/10.
    Using Specialists to Fill in the Blanks

    More typical is the musician/band/label paying creative contractors to do the non-music art. Generally this is a work-for-hire arrangement where the contractor is paid a fee and whoever commissions the art owns it outright and can do whatever he/she/they want with it. A work-for-hire arrangement usually costs more money upfront, but if the musician/band/label think they can sell a lot of copies, it's probably a better deal in the long run because they don't have to share any revenues with the contractor.
    Do you ever approach bands you would like to design for?

    Sometimes, but mostly they approach me... I prefer working on assignment. ... I need a frame for my work. ... there is a message to be sent to the audience. By looking at my poster, people should be able to see what to expect from a band or gig. An interview with graphics designer Wytse, FuryRocks, 10/4/08.
    However, as music is declining as a standalone product, I anticipate we'll see more visual artists realizing what they create is what actually sells. Therefore they may not relinquish their rights so quickly.
    The self-supporting graphic-art scene that's flowering now has its own back-story. It was the music business that first really allowed graphic artists off the creative leash; from Milton Glaser's kaleidoscope-haired Bob Dylan poster for CBS in 1966 through to Peter Saville's emotive imagery for Factory Records in the early 1980s, by way of some far-out Pink Floyd gatefolds. As King notes, "Even at the end of the 1980s people went into graphic design because they wanted to produce record sleeves, and that link sadly faded away when vinyl disappeared."

    With this avenue of free expression shut down, graphic artists moved over into the rag trade. During the 1990s, the likes of James Jarvis and Fergus Purcell helped create a new trend for limited-run printed T-shirts. At the same time, bookshops such as Magma had started selling monographed design products, and a new breed of graphic-design nerds and collectors was soon multiplying. Once the internet arrived, there was no stopping them. "Warning: graphic content - how a new wave of illustrators is blowing the art world apart," The Independent, 5/16/10.
    If designers anticipate more income down the road rather than upfront, they might start asking for a percentage of each sale (often in the form of a licensing fee) rather than a one-time payment. Or, for that matter, leverage might shift entirely. We may find designers commissioning music to go with the art and paying the musicians a fixed, work-for-hire fee. (It's less likely that we'd see the designer creating the art, finding music to go with it, and then giving the musician a percentage of each sale because music has already established itself as the marketing vehicle, not the product itself.)

    On to Collaborations

    Since this blog post has grown rather long, I'll discuss collaborations in my next post, Collaborating on "Creative Things."

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE 8/3/10
    We used to give many of these tchotchke items away for free in an effort to entice people to pay for the music, but we're considering flipping our strategy so that people pay for the toy and receive the music for free. Just a thought. "Sub Pop's Considering Selling Band Merch and Giving the Music Away For Free," Seattle Weekly, 7/30/10.
    UPDATE 10/23/10
    I knew Liz Clark awhile back when she was still living in Denver. Now she spends part of her time in NYC, part in Ireland (where her bandmate/partner is from), and part of the time on the road. According to their bio:
    Liz and Tessa’s philosophy of simplicity manifests itself by spending part of their year as homeless troubadours, touring the USA and sharing their love of music. The rest of the year is spent in Ireland, working a 10 acre organic garden and running an award-winning cafe on the Emerald Island’s West Coast.
    They have developed this idea which is a nice variation on the usual house concert.
    ... we are starting a new concert series to raise money for the album and we are calling it "Beat Roots". It is going to be a food and music series. ... So the idea is that we, L & the M, will come to your house and cook a 3 course gourmet meal for you and your friends, using the finest produce from your locality and while you are eating your dessert we will treat you to an acousic house concert of our L & the M songs. There is a price of course and for the works (which includes a glass of wine or 2) it is $50 a head but we are flexible. Maybe you just want appetizers and wine and we could probably do that for about $30. "Beat Roots," Lonely and the Moose, 10/23/10.

    6 comments:

    1. for music it is all on the way to how it was in village times, bards, minstrels, troubadors ... when distribution was the soundwaves on the wind ...

      art in general, that is not categorized by any medium in particular, will have value further and further removed from product ...

      in art the millions are for the concept and for the opinion of others, very ephemeral and not easily owned

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    3. I think the *Market* Devaluation of Music is what you are talking about, right?

      Music doesn't gain or lose it's *value* solely on the performance of the music industry. Would you say that people enjoy music less than they did 15 years ago? If not, there's no *value* lost. Just sales. I'm not trying to negate what you are talking about, but it's an important distinction.

      I'd be careful with this:
      " I envision a day in the near future where music will be so intertwined with additional forms of media..."

      Wagner wasn't the first (nor the last) to say something similar with his Gesamtkunstwerk.


      First of all, music has always been intertwined with additional forms of media. It grew out of the church in the west. It was a carrier of oral history and protest in the black south and appalachia. It was intertwined with all sorts of social activities in the 60's.

      And.... have you been to the ballet or opera, lately? I would say those count as additional media.

      What you're talking about is CD tracks, That THOSE will be integrated in the future. Well, that's fine, but I think the point that is sorely missing here is that CD Tracks were always an ABSTRACTION of what music is ( a live performance art ), and therefore, a return to integration would be most welcome, and in fact, natural.

      Nobody ever talks about this: you can't pirate a live performance.

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    4. I'll be getting into live performance in the next post. This post grew so long that I decided to break it into two sections.

      Music combined with theater has an extremely long history and I discuss it in part two of the "rise of the creative thing."

      I don't know if you have been following my blog, but much of it is in response to advice currently being give to musicians.

      I think we will see a return to music as it once was -- something many people participated in and relatively few did as a career. For most, music was what they did with each other within their communities.

      You are saying more or less what I am saying, that the music business as such is something of a modern construct.

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    5. I just caught up on this series of posts, really great stuff, and the links/citations are extremely helpful to see who else is thinking about this idea of transmedia (new term for me).

      I was a singer/songwriting several years ago, but now I'm a software engineer/web developer, and would love to start collaborating with original musicians. I think there is a synergy that can be achieved when creative-minded people with different skills are able to get together and produce something. For me this is becoming even more apparent with the way the web/mobile app world is going, it's getting easier and easier to create really immersive multimedia experiences that can be instantly distributed to the masses.

      And the attention of the masses is so consumed with noise that it will take a truly unique, exciting experience to catch people's eyes. Otherwise you're just 1 of the n million bands on myspace or 1 of the n trillion videos on youtube. Collaborative, "creative things" are an effective differentiator and they will get people's attention.

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    6. Thanks Brian. I think musicians as a group have often been slow to adopt new ways of thinking, marketing, and presentation. And I understand where many of them are coming from. They got into music to make music, not to do other things.

      There are a few musicians who think in terms of multi-media, but many do not. So coming up with collaborations is one way to expand what they do without forcing them to venture into creative fields where they don't feel comfortable or don't have the skills themselves.

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