It’s Mostly All About Documentation

roadcases

Two thirds of the live recordings of Wilco, available at their online store.

When the three volumes of Russell Sanjek’s American Popular Music and Its Business appeared in 1988, I waited for the interlibrary loan came through–I was in Vermont at the time–and then I was set for the task. I skimmed huge chunks of it and bore down on the last two volume, covering the modern music business.

When done, a single reflection dominated by sense of their history: it was almost a complete history but, strangely, their account so underplayed the development of the modern distribution system that it fell down just because of that single deficit. The major label distribution system allowed the labels to sell hundreds of thousands of units on Tuesday release days. It allowed for a deep integration with the ordering systems of large retailers. That system had its heyday from around 1970-2005, and it paralleled the rise of the chain record store. (My last stint in the music business was spent as a manager for a chain between 1995-2000.) By the end of the 2011, with the implosion of Borders Books and Music, the multi-outlet music specialist had instantly become a memory.

Because the giant pipelines and the attending policies of the major label system so favored chain outlets, also by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, most of the independent record stores in the U.S. had gone out of business.

The age of distribution lasted thirty-five years. In 1988, when Sanjek’s epic three volume history was published, the biggest issue in the music business was consolidation, retail price wars, MTV, and, the extraordinary costs involved in rolling the dice in hopes of positioning an artist to sell big numbers and make a profit. The business at the time was also a plantation and anybody who paid close attention to the predicament of music artists understood that the rise of the modern distribution system went hand in hand with all the dishonorable tactics record labels used to manage risk by hiding sales, cooking books, and shifting revenues from the artist’s side of the ledge to their own.

Here in Cleveland, the music departments at Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, are laughable ghosts of the old chain departments with their 15,000-50,000+ titles. Incidentally, Cleveland is home to roughly a dozen independent record stores, and two very small chains. The latter specialize in used entertainment media. 

I buy my music as digital downloads from iTunes, Amazon and eMusic. Every now and then, less than ten times a year, I buy a compact disc. And, I’m resourceful about checking out streams and downloads for the purpose of auditioning music. The internet cleary constitutes the biggest free record store ever, and this was not a revolution Russell Sanjek could have anticipated.

What accounts for the volume of new music that grows every year? Think about this awesome and awesomely weird fact.

Wilco

Wilco recording music in the comfort of their living room.

The Age of Documentation 2005 – ongoing

Because of the internet, distribution has been democratized. The incentive to primarily invest in pushing a single release every year has collapsed outside what’s left of the major label record business. The situation of independent labels (I would assume) is mostly precarious; stuck as they are between the challenging business and risk models of the big labels and the minimalist experiments of the do-it-yourself market space.

But, I’m guessing, really. The one feature of the 21st century music business I’m sure about is that the age of distribution has morphed into the Age of Documentation. Because the costs involved in being prolific have shrunk so rapidly and the barriers to meeting low demand are so low at the low end (!) it makes sense that, for example, Wilco would release thirty live records over the several years.

Last year, among the musical artists I am committed to, and trying to track, and acquire,
saxophonist Ken Vandermaark released at least five records, jazz icon Anthony Braxton released over the last two years six records, punk popsters The Flaming Lips released at least six records, ambient soundscaper Steve Roach released at least nine records, experimental guitarist and dronemeister Aidan Baker released at least six records.

What could be the business model underlying artists just pushing, usually on their own, all this music into the market space? I have no idea. Except, I can do the kind of math that suggest that ten records selling 500 units is equal to one record selling 5,000 units. 

Over the next month or so I will be reviewing my own favorite recordings of 2013. Wilco is a great American band. What I’ve heard of their Roadcase Series of concert recordings is stellar. There are 29 Roadcases to date! Hurray for documentation. 

Wilco – Roadcase #23 (Austin, TX) – 2013-10-11  is super fine. [Get it: Here] Wilco’s web site implements most of the modern “post-bricks-and-mortar” merchandising angles. This observer is reminded of the important and groundbreaking part The Grateful Dead played in all this. Defunct for over twenty years, The Grateful Dead released something like half a dozen archival records last year!


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