Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

A new model for the musician-to-listener relationship

Posted on 28 November 2012 7 comments

Article illustration for A new model for the musician-to-listener relationship

This post was originally published on Medium. I’ll be writing about my experience of publishing on this new platform soon.

The other week, I wrote about my interests in personal music collections in the era of the cloud; a subject I approach from the perspective of hobbyist musician, former major record label employee, and web person with a vested interest in the changing face of publishing. Today, I’d like to gather some further thoughts on music, but this time exclusively from the viewpoint of the musician.

Perhaps this is because I’ve seen so much recently about how little artists are getting paid by the likes of Spotify and Rdio; perhaps it’s because I’ve just read Rolling Stone’s ‘Survival of the Fittest in the New Music Industry’; perhaps it’s simply (selfishly?) because I’m trying to take off most of December to work on some new music of my own.

Whatever the reason, I think we — that is, creators and publishers with a niche audience — are in a unique and fortunate position to experiment with new models. I discovered this when I started publishing 8 Faces magazine, I refined it a little when we published Insites: The Book (with its physical and digital formats), and now I want to rock the boat with music.

So, this is a manifesto of sorts; a framework for an experiment I’m going to start in the new year.

Release small and often

In his recent (and downright excellent) essay ‘Subcompact Publishing’, Craig Mod writes:

It’s much more difficult for someone to intuit the breadth of a digital magazine containing twenty articles than a digital magazine containing, for example, five.

~ Craig Mod

Craig is talking about magazines here, but actually I think this can be extended to all forms of digital publishing, and it sparked off a very specific thought in my mind: that the enjoyment of consuming digital media is increased when we only have a small amount to consume. I’m not referring to the ease of digesting messages in 140 characters; I’m describing the pleasure that comes with being able to savour something. A magazine with fifty articles is far more daunting to me than a magazine with just ten articles. I can consume ten. I get digest that small amount. But faced with a greater number — regardless of the quality of each piece of content — I’m far less likely to enjoy and appreciate each one.

And this is absolutely the case with music. Once again, I’m going to quote Rob Weychert:

Subscribing to Rdio is a different kind of investment. Rather than investing in one album, I’ve invested in all the albums, which is the same as investing in none of them.

~ Rob Weychert

So, musicians, I suggest this: release small and often. Put out a track — or small collections of tracks like EPs — on a regular basis. Seed them directly to your fans. Release sketches and demos and rough mixes and experiments. We no longer need to toil away for months or years at a time crafting a ‘finished’ album, because digital media — by its very nature — has destroyed the hitherto-held understanding of what ‘finished’ really is. We don’t need glass masters. We don’t need to go to press. The music industry is in such dire straits because of the same ‘skeuomorphic business models’ that Craig Mod blames for the magazine industry’s decline:

Skeuomorphism is traditionally attached to design decisions. We bring the mechanical camera shutter sound to digital cameras because it feels good. We render paper page flips in our digital reading applications because it’s familiar. But skeuomorphism also cuts into business models. Business skeuomorphism happens when we take business decisions explicitly tied to one medium, and bring them to another medium — no questions asked.

~ Craig Mod

As a maker and publisher of any form of content that can be consumed — but most importantly distributed — digitally, freeing oneself of the business models inherited (by default) from the physical world is perhaps the most liberating step one might take.

Of course, this is nothing new. It’s been several years now since Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails (and many more acts in their wake) began to distribute music directly to fans, and allowed each buyer to decide how much they’d like to pay — including an option, for at least some versions, to pay nothing at all. I even experimented with this model myself, allowing customers to pay what they wanted for my last EP, with a minimum price of £1. I was astounded by the results: well over half of my customers chose to pay more than £1, with about 25% opting for £5 or £10.

However, despite its success, this model is still tied to the concept of ‘the big release’. What if listeners, rather than buying individual albums or EPs or singles, could instead subscribe to an artist’s entire musical output for a fixed period of time?

Release via subscription

This is not my idea. My old friends Francis and Dan of Idea Junction are working on just this: a service called Fanatomy that directly connects the musician and listener by allowing the fan to subscribe to the artist. This, I feel, could radically change the music industry for the better, providing the listener with real value and genuine connectivity, and the artist with funds to do what they do best. Much like backing a project on Kickstarter provides the maker with the financial means to success and sends a philanthropic message from the supporter — ‘hey, I believe in what you’re doing and want to help you get it in my hands’ — the subscription model proposed by Fanatomy offers huge benefits for both parties.

Right now Fanatomy is in private alpha and there’s not really much else I can reveal about it at this stage, except to say that I strongly believe in what they’re doing and that it’s influenced me to experiment with…

… my own take on the subscription model

I mentioned Kickstarter and the philanthropic power it gives buyers, elevating them from customers to investors. What if, like Kickstarter, you could reward early supporters, but use a subscription-based model? This is what I’m attempting to do with my forthcoming new music; this is the new model I’m proposing:

  • At the beginning of the year, the listener gets the option to ‘subscribe’ to a year’s worth of musical output for a very low price.
  • Approximately every two months, they get new music (probably three- or four-track EPs) delivered to their inbox.
  • At the end of the year, the best tracks are remixed, professionally mastered, and released as an album on vinyl.
  • During that year, new listeners can subscribe at any point and get access to all the EPs and the final album, but the price increases every month.

What this means is that everyone gets the same product — and that product is actually a series of regular digital releases and one physical release — but the earliest supporters get the reward of having to pay very little.

I’ve created a diagram to illustrate this model, which, if you can’t see it above, I’ve archived on Flickr.

Does this make business sense? Possibly not, if the price increases scare off potential new supporters. But if I can get enough low-paying supporters to fund the bulk of the work, it shouldn’t matter. Plus, even the higher-tier prices would never be prohibitive. I haven’t decided on them yet, but the absolute highest price (i.e: the cost of the subscription if the customer joins at the end of the year) will certainly be no more than the standard cost of a vinyl-plus-download package.

Putting my money where my mouth is

I’m not saying that my proposed model for this new musician-to-listener relationship will work. In fact, it could fail quite spectacularly! Also, I doubt it could even scale beyond small-time musicians like myself. But operating as a lone agent does at least afford me the freedom to experiment, and experiment I will. Blogging about it also means that I’m open to input, so if you see a flaw in the plan or have some ideas on how to improve it, please leave a comment — seriously, I’m all ears.

Watch this space. If you’re interested, you’ll be able to subscribe — using a refined version of the model outlined above — in January.

7 comments

  1. Steve

    Steve

    29 November 2012 @ 01:49AM #

    Elliot your diverse skills never stop amazing me. Funny you should write about this subject as I’m also thinking of a platform or subscription model for the curation of a particular genre as I find that there is a great deal of music but not a great deal of filter. I like your model my question is do you plan to do any live music performances? If so it will be hard to deliver the music as you have it scheduled. But if you have a nice size group of supporters it should work…I mean I pay $9 per month for MOG and I still buy physical copies of some artist who I really love. I plan to keep an eye on your progress..should be interesting.

  2. Giles Talbot

    Giles Talbot

    29 November 2012 @ 03:21AM #

    Business skeuomorphism is an interesting concept. I recently moved over to the cloud, I’ve been demoing Spotify, Rdio, Google Music, Soundcloud, Mix Cloud etc. Coming from iTunes it’s forced me to change the way I consume music. Cloud music is about discovery and sharing.

    Soundcloud is great. I like following artists, tracks feel hot off the press when I receive Soundcloud notifications. I’d pay for a that service if I could bolt on a library and make playlists. Subscribing to artists feels right. It feels like sponsorship, encouraging them to produce more work. But I’m not sure how it would scale, maybe cap the subscription fee. Not sure I agree with the price rising. Maybe dropping, the longer between releases? It’s tricky.

    Subscribing to eg. Spotify isn’t paying the artist enough. Failing to solve music piracy… just a clever business model? We need to improve the subscription model that’s already there.

    I plan to release some tracks in 2013, been keeping a close eye on the industry since I left music college. I’d love to see an end to the digital nightmare the music business has been suffering for the past 10 years. On the bright side I think we’re at the beginning of the end. I like the idea of artists distributing their own music. I also like subscription based services. WW.

    Fanatomy sounds interesting. I remember @colly was involved in something similar as well, but I haven’t heard anything for a while. I’m also keen to see what MySpace have come up with in their new product.

    For now I’m sticking with Spotify, purely for the last.fm and sharing integration. But I’m eagerly anticipating the next gen of Cloud music apps, and how they will effect the business not only for the big names but the bedroom producers as well.

  3. aicf.co.in

    aicf.co.in

    29 November 2012 @ 07:29AM #

    us Alou is in the on-deck circus." by Jerry Coleman.|“Fight fire with fire, and all you’ll end up with is ashes.” by Abigail Van Buren.|“For with slight efforts how should we obtain great results It is foolish even to desire it.” by Euripides.|“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” by Mahatma Gandhi.|“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” by Jim Ryun.|"For most folks, no ne

  4. sifred

    sifred

    29 November 2012 @ 07:29AM #

    on is the extreme form of censorship." by George Bernard Shaw.|“Without music life would be a mistake.” by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.|“Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. Don’t sell out.” by Christopher Reeve.|“Know, first, who you are and then adorn yourself accordingly.” by Epictetus.|“Critics I love every bone in their heads.” by Eugene O’Neill.|“Whoever cultivates the golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a palace.” by Horace.|“I love tranquil solitude And such society As is quiet, wise, and good.” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.|"Friendship is like money, easier made than kept

  5. Tom Offringa

    Tom Offringa

    30 November 2012 @ 11:28AM #

    Nice thoughts on your Business Model for music but what I understand of it now is that you, as user can pay artists up front for a year of their music. Meaning you’d probably pay a decent price for an average of 2-3 albums per year.

    That would on the other hand mean I’d pay in front of 3 albums, which I maybe won’t like at all. I know a lot of artists who have great albums released, where there later work is a lot less good. Of course I’d like the artists I love, for them to have the opportunity to release more. But when they release an album that is a lot less good than previous work, and I am not planning on listening it any more, I still payed for it.

    May be I just interpretate the entire model wrong but just my cents.

  6. Vincent

    Vincent

    30 November 2012 @ 11:40PM #

    I love your thoughts about a new music model. But I think that this model wouldn’t work, because many people only like a few tracks from some musicians.

    Especially in electronic music. Some listeners will do that, but not the other half. But the idea, to release more EPs then publish albums is very smart and is being implemented by some electronic producers yet.

  7. Steve D

    Steve D

    02 December 2012 @ 11:00AM #

    Interesting thoughts Elliot, as a musician myself I can try and chime in a little.

    Some bands have tried interesting experiments, such as the ones you mentioned such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, although they are the more successful exponents of digital releases, and sell large amounts of records so they can afford to experiment. Ash tried something specifically like your idea of releasing little and often, for a small subscription on the A-Z series. The problem with this, even for a medium sized artist like Ash, is the disparity of those releases from mainstream media meant they actually went off the map almost completely. Thus the engagement level for the average fan wasn’t really enough. Despite the ambitiousness of the idea, they still returned to traditional style releases and indeed released CD compilations of the tracks. Smashing Pumpkins also tried a similar approach with EP’s and returned to traditional album releases.

    It should also be noted that many younger bands, full of radical release ideas, still stick to the traditional album format even today. The medium has changed, however I do think in many cases the 8-14 song release is still king, so I’m not sure the “little and often” idea works all that well to be honest. It may work for publishing but there is no evidence it works for music, certainly at the top level.

    Rob Weychert makes some interesting points too but I’d say that as someone who is a bona-fide music lover, you can enjoy repeat listens of music via a digital medium, it just takes some getting used to and in a few years he will think nothing of repeat listening to an album on a streaming service. I had a hard drive failure recently and I found myself naturally gravitating towards Spotify Premium to fill the time between my main computers. I have some in purely downloaded format which has received the same love and attention that a physical release might. I believe attitudes are such that this is simply now down to personal preference, digital vs physical. Some who listen to digital downloads do so with the same care and attention that they did with a physical release, some still listen to vinyl. Different strokes and all that.

    I do, as a musician, understand the issues that face artists around the world to actually get paid for their work. The problem any content creator faces today, is that generally speaking people do not wish to pay for that content. The internet has helped remove value from much of it, and until there is a fundamental shift in this attitude, we need a stopgap. At the moment, many bands release a “bundle” style release of their album to re-add some value to it. This often comes with a second disc of exclusive extras, a Tshirt, and a signed poster/photo or something along those lines. Some have opted to add a gig ticket or something related to the record to bind it all together. The general idea here is that the hardcore fans will appreciate a more expanded release, and those that are casual fans will probably steal it. I think if you want to appeal to people who enjoy your music as a genuine fan, then just releasing EP’s digitally might not work.

    At the moment, fans do sign up to help pay for a band to make a new album (Idlewild is the example that springs to mind for me) but in fact that is the reverse of your idea, where early listeners pay less. This is because generally speaking the true fans of a band will pay decent money for musicians they believe in, and will give more at the start of a project in the same way the Kickstarter campaigns work.

    I think streaming and access services are indeed the future. But the key difference to those we have today is the ability to make a collection properly as the traditional music listener would. None of the current services, good as they are, have ever cracked this lack of a sense of ownership. If someone does, I think they will have a killer product.

    So I think what you need to add to your campaign idea, is the sense that someone is gaining access to something special rather than just accessing a bunch of files. In fact given your talents as a publisher, I would try something to do with design to go along with this. Remember fanzines? Low budget but content full of passion for music. Why not try and add something like that to the purchase for real fans? I’d combine that subscription idea you have with some sort of print campaign, perhaps posting out a self made zine or something along those lines, maybe poster art or similar. Artwork based on the album etc etc. It would tie the campaign together in that passionate way, adds value, adds something different too. I think you would find that is the kind of glue you need to add to your music to get people interested in your music, and who knows, you might bring something different to the table that again shifts what we expect from the added value releases artists are creating these days.

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