Something occurred to me while picking up a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being at my local Barnes and Noble Booksellers yesterday: Metalica are a bunch of whiney old rockers who’ve totally missed the boat when it comes to the changing face of the music industry. Don’t look at me with that face — this was a major breakthrough for me. Let me explain.
A few months ago JT turned me on to Andrew Dubber and his incredible blog New Music Strategies, where among all sorts of other wisdom, Dubber derides the 30-second promotional clip and instead encourages artists to give whole entire songs, hell, why not whole catalogues, away for free. The model by which musicians do business, he explains, is changing, as it has many times before. Bach worked under a patronage model, Beethoven the live performance model, Brahms the print sales model, and the Beatles the record model. What, with the entrance of the internet in to the marked, we’ve been experiencing in the past decade or so has been the transition to the relationship model, wherein artists no longer sell recordings, but instead relationships and connections. The dawn of Web 2.0 — social networking sites like Facebook, blogs like this one, YouTube, del.icio.us, Wikipedia, and other hyperlinked, user-content populated internet real estate — has confirmed this change, as the web has morphed from something like a digital library and shopping mall in to an environment where people come to interact and exchange information. To cut it in this environment, Dubber says, artists need to make personal connections with their fans and help their fans forge personal relationships with one another. The way we musicians do this, obviously, is through our music. By giving it away.
Now, I admit, I used to despise file sharing. As much as I thought Lars and the Metalica gang were shooting themselves in the foot with all their complaining, I was glad someone was doing it. Lots of work – by the artists, the engineers, the producers, the art people, the ad people, etc – goes in to making an album, and those people deserve remuneration for that work, damnit. Even after reading Dubber and buying in to his explanation of how the business model is changing due to the web, I couldn’t make sense of how this relationship-building nonsense made anyone any money. You don’t sell anything, you don’t make any money.
Then yesterday I walked in to Barnes and Noble. At our local Barnes and Noble they’ve got big, plush armchairs — lots of them. These chairs are often arranged in groups. Sometimes around tables. People like to sit in these chairs and look at (maybe even read) books, which they sometimes buy but more often put back on the shelves. Sometimes they do this in groups, or just strike up a conversation with whatever other bibliophile happens to sit down next to them. It always seemed to me an awful lot more like a library than any place wanting to sell books should be. Yesterday, though, I got it. Barnes and Noble’s chief concern isn’t selling books, it’s selling relationships — between reader and a particular body of literature as well as between reader and other readers — that will lead to selling books. Have you ever noticed how many damn books someone who’s a bona-fide expert on a subject, say a professor, owns? That’s because that person has an intense and intimate relationship with that topic, and has a need – no, a desire – to own books taking on that subject from all sorts of angles. Since Barnes and Noble provides its customers the time and space (free!) to become something of an aficionado of whatever might intrigue them, to establish a relationship with the literature, they can turn the merely curious in to mini-experts like our professor above, and thus sell more books. Once that happens and our cadre of experts start running in to each other at the conveniently situated Barnes and Noble Cafe, or around the armchairs, recommendations will start flying like shot on the first day of open season. And that means, you guessed it, more book sales. Ca-ching!
Clearly, then, selling relationships works. It worked to the tune of $5.4 billion in sales for Barnes and Noble last year. But in the end I’m still skeptical. Booksellers are still slinging a material product. We’re selling vibrating air. And if we go with Dubber’s plan, that vibrating air will be available in any home with an internet connection for free. At least if a consumer wants to take a book home she has to pay for it. Does this mean that we have to depend on upping our relationships with our audience to the point that they’ll want to shell out bucks to see us live? Where else do we have an opportunity to get paid for what we do? I’m starting to see the light on this, but those lingering questions really make me nervous. What do you think?