“Fans engage in unpaid labor for social reasons rather than economic ones.”
In the wake of the recording industry's crash, a cottage industry has sprung up around rethinking the commercial future of music. Amid snake-oil salesmen and pundits for hire, media scholar Nancy Baym, associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, has gained a refreshingly grounded perspective by actually talking to working musicians. Baym will discuss some of the novel approaches she's come across with executives, lawyers, and entrepreneurs at the Rethink Music conference, April 25-27 at Hynes Convention Center. But for those who can't attend, I connected with her via email in order to get some free advice for all.
According to the title of a recent paper you wrote, your current research deals with "Rethinking the Music Industry," a project that's clearly at the heart of the Rethink Music event. Which players in the music industry have the most rethinking to do?
All of them! But most especially those who have relied on controlling distribution as their funding mechanism — which means the labels, publishers and distributors.
The panel you're speaking on bears an alluring title: "DIY and ancillary revenue streams — creating a middle class of artists." Does this imply that there are upper- and underclasses too? Is there a class war underway? Should there be?
Certainly there are upper and underclasses. The upper are the rare stars, and the unders are busking, living hand to mouth, and just scraping by. There are certainly conflicts between what benefits the established wealthy musicians and what benefits the lesser known and lesser heard, as studies of the impact of file sharing have shown — it hurts if you're U2, it helps if you're less known. I never advocate any kind of war, but I would like to see the stars be less influential and the everyday musicians having more of a voice in policy regarding intellectual property, sharing, and all these other contentious issues.
How do we define something like "success" in today's music industry? As far as artists and audiences are concerned, does the trend toward disintermediation — removing the middlemen — offer a better path to success?
Well that's a huge issue, and success has often been defined monetarily. The musicians I talk to think of success as being able to earn a living making music — again this gets us back to the issue of a "middle class." Success isn't about having a huge hit and getting rich or becoming a rock star, it's about building a sustainable career that allows musicians to focus on their music and have a nice home and support children and have health care and live a comfortable if not indulgent life committed to music.
Removing the middlemen may offer a pathway in that it allows for closer bonds between musicians and audience, as well as potentially amongst members of the audience. More than ever, musicians need communities of fans that are committed to identifying as fans and to being connected with other fans, that's where the income is going to be after the one song that gets on the radio is old news.