11 January 2008

Defending Against The Barbarian Invasion

In the part of my life when I'm not Amber, I hang a lot with other writers. They talk a lot about the problem of getting published. You can't get an agent unless you have an offer. You can't get an MS taken seriously if you don't have an agent. There are so many companies that pretend to be publishers and agents that are really scammers set up to take advantage of people who are desperate to be Published and have no idea how the industry works. And the time to get a response (almost always a rejection) is measured in years.

On the other hand, the publishers talk about the mountains of slush (unsolicited MSs) that they have to deal with. Slush that is so bad it is painful to read. Slush that is not even intelligible. I mean, unimaginably bad. You have to take my word for this--I was the fiction editor at a small literary magazine--as bad as you can imagine, and then raise it to the whole next circle of Badness Hell.

And every single one of those really dreadful submissions was sent by someone whose friends and family tell him how great his work is, who has labored for years on the piece, who has a great emotional investment in it, who wants to be taken seriously. A surprising number of whom will send an "I reject your rejection!" note back. (Yeah, that will make the editors move your next MS to the top of the stack.) These people believe that the publishers are just bad obstacles blocking the recognition they deserve, that they need so much.

The exact hoops are different for music, but they are there. The big obstacle there is the record company, who seems to exist just to keep the same old crap streaming out while blocking your music from getting to the people. And when they do sign you, they make you take contracts that confiscate all your money! Rip off!

Yeah, right. Okay, now I know musicians as well as writers. I feel your pain. But ...

The new world of music distribution has given us a chance to see what happens when the record label is removed as intermediary. Online track sales from indy outlets like CDBaby and PayPlay has made the music industry's slush available to the public. And that has also prompted the record labels to let established artists go when their contracts are up.

Now we can see for ourselves what record labels are good for.

What do they bring the artist? Well, capital for a start. Making a well-produced record can be expensive: studio time, producer, side men, snacks, everything. It adds up. Touring is killah expensive, too. Video production can bankrupt small countries. That money all has to be spent before you have any income. You could finance it yourself, but who has the big bank account already? And how do you get lined up for the good producers and good tour venues? You can do it yourself with effort that makes your eyes bleed, but who has the magic Rolodex that makes it easy? Think about it: Natalie Merchant has no contract and so not enough money to tour outside of the immediate NYC area or to publish an album, according to a recent NYTimes article. (Please note, I'm not saying that record companies are not evil. That is another question.) On top of that, they have people who know how to promote albums well: artwork, press releases, photo ops, everything.

And what do the record companies bring to me, the consumer? First of all, they relieve me of the burden of screening the slush for myself if I don't want to. I spend a lot of time combing through PayPlay.fm, and I can tell you that there is some truly, deeply, horrible stuff there. Bad songs, performed badly, recorded badly, with promotional blurbs that keep tempting me to put together a "mock them with me" blog entry. Cranked up to 11 bad. Second of all, they distribute the music into outlets that are easy to use, like Amazon/Target and iTunes. I know that if I hear a band's name, I will probably be able to get their music from iTunes. It makes getting music easy and predictable and relatively stress-free.

I know I would give up a lot of possible great material by sticking with Name Brand Label product. Any feasible filter against the vast flowing stream of crap is going to be throwing out a lot of false negatives. The taste of the record labels could not match up with mine exactly. The price of music includes a markup to cover their services. I personally choose to don waders and jump in for myself, into an assortment of polluted streams. But PayPlay.com has 1,731,000 tracks today--who has the time and stomach to go through all of it?

I have no big conclusions here. I just want people to think about this. Middlemen persist because they do add some value to the product as delivered. More music is getting out where it could be heard, but is it completely a victory? Is it working? Or will the market bring a return to some kind of mediation? Because I'm me, I also wonder what the social effects of new ways of screening and distributing music will be.

Meanwhile, I am standing next to one of the many new holes in the old wall against the music horde, trying to decide who gets to come in and who gets the pointy end of my pike.

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