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Will you miss record labels?

April 7, 2010

When middlemen get cut out of a transaction, they tend to howl in protest regardless of the merits of the complaint.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the music publishing industry going after venues who book cover bands, using selective lawsuits to scare small business owners into paying royalties.  The recording industry deployed the same bullying tactics against file sharers for years, although the RIAA’s strategy has changed in light of bad PR and the rise of more legitimate online vendors like iTunes and CDBaby.

What the RIAA failed to understand for too long was that consumers don’t want to steal from musicians so much as we’d rather buy our recordings online.  The selection is better.  It’s easier to browse and get recommendations.  And without the high overhead of a brick-and-mortar retailer, prices are lower.  Transitioning to this new distribution channel was hard enough for the RIAA.  The rise of the DIY musician hit them from another angle.  A low-cost home studio can now produce professional-quality recordings, and the internet affords musicians greater direct access to their markets.  For musicians willing to put the hours in, there’s never been a better time to take the reigns of your own brand.

Another talented performer bolted a label this week in the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer.  Palmer had been trying to get out of her contract with Roadrunner for years, and she celebrated the split with a free track you can download from her website.  She blogs that it’s the first time she can legally give away a track since being signed.  Like many bands under contract, Palmer’s duo had been netting about a dollar for every album they sold.  The band was realistic about this arrangement from the outset and willing to trade the lion’s share of album revenue in exchange for the publicity Roadrunner could offer.  But publicity alone doesn’t always translate to revenue.  In 2007, an NPR story on the Dresden Dolls revealed they lost money in order to gain exposure touring with Nine Inch Nails.

Palmer owes most of her later financial success to her efforts as a self-promoter, and she recounts some of her more creative tactics in a 26-minute interview last year with web marketing guru David Meerman Scott, including a time she made $11,000 in two hours selling t-shirts on Twitter and another time where she made $6,000 auctioning off “weird random stuff” from around her apartment.  The best part for Palmer going independent is that she will now own her creative product, a feat even the Beatles couldn’t pull off under the old rules.  It’s worth reading Palmer’s blog post through to her candid open letter to Roadrunner.

btw, the RIAA won’t care if you share the mp3’s of my old band Shed’s album (dirt cheap at Amazon and iTunes).

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