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A new model for the musician-to-listener relationship

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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.

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