Like Somali fishermen xeroxing short stories to share with passing ships, music bloggers aren’t pirates. In fact, when we first convened this roundtable five years ago, we envisioned a new frontier in music where fans could share songs they loved. The music industry has subsequently fallen on its ass, and mp3 blogs have been hunted by PR companies, record labels, and the copyright police with equal ferocity. Most of our original panel are still blogging, and most of them have made their passion pay. We brought our roundtable back together, added the godfather of the medium, Matthew Perpetua, and asked them to tell us what’s happened these past five years, and what comes next.
David Gutowski publishes Largehearted Boy from deep in the American South. An indie evangelist in his spare time, his interests include music, literature, and cheese.
Sean Michaels founded Said the Gramophone in 2003. He lives in Montreal, where he works as a fiction writer and journalist.
Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog.org didn’t start the first mp3 blog, but he usually gets credit for it. Now he is a full-time writer who makes part-time money.
John Seroff (The Tofuhut) took the Horatio Alger path from blogger to music industry type. He now does publicity and marketing for performance venues in New York City, including B.B. King Blues Club, The Highline Ballroom, and Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater.
Oliver Wang of Soul Sides is an assistant professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach, journalist/writer, and vinyl junkie.
Five years ago, people bought 636 million CDs and 25 million digital tracks; in 2008, it was 360 million CDs, 1 billion digital tracks. What will the music business look like in 2014?
Matthew Perpetua: It will still be around. I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid, and that industry has been in steep decline since I was around 13. But you can still buy comics. In fact, even though comics sell far less than in the old days, you can find them in most mainstream bookstores and they have a lot less cultural stigma, so there is a trade-off. Anyway, people are going to keep making records. That’s not going to stop. Some money will be exchanged, I’m sure. I don’t see this ending, so much as dwindling down to niches like everything else.
Andrew Noz: I don’t know if comic books are the best point of comparison because there hasn’t been a viable digital distribution model. I sincerely doubt we will be able to buy physical music at non-boutique stores by the end of my life. I assume most of us live in major cities where that won’t be a problem, but trust that CDs will be all but unattainable to towns with only one Wal-Mart. And that’s depressing.
It’s hard to find a really great rap blog that isn’t 1) parroting the “junk mail box” or 2) stuck in the 1990s. I wonder if this is more a commentary on the state of hip-hop than the state of blogging about it.
David Gutowski: The trend toward more digital sales will continue, but I think that more companies will offer all-inclusive music streaming services for one set price, as some consumers will slowly buy into that model.
Sean Michaels: Come 2014, labels will still sell at least a hundred million CDs, vinyl records and high-fidelity downloads each year. But the vast majority of music consumption will be through subscription services offering downloads and streams. Some of these will be funded by advertising, though most will just be rolled into our internet/phone plans (and seem free).
David Gutowski: I have been saying this for years, that eventually, our iPods will actually be rolled into our phones, and the telecoms will be offering music subscriptions and sales, and eventually this will become a major revenue generator for them, if it isn’t already.
John Seroff: I think there will continue to be some ongoing deterioration in “real world” sales but there’s a bottom ahead. Plenty of people simply like having physical items that represent the music, and plenty more don’t have access to the technology. I believe pretty strongly that the next frontier lies in monetizing live performance. My hope is that we’ll be subscribing to artist’s output directly in five years; something along the lines of $20 for an album, four live shows, and access to ongoing projects all for the download. More likely outcome: We subscribe to Live Channel services to watch daily shows on our integrated skull phones.
Andrew Noz: I’d like to think that people will stop paying for zeroes and ones. Probably the labels will push for something more along the lines of a subscription service or charging licensing fees to the sites like Rapidshare. It would be nice to have physical products continue to exist in deluxe/limited/collectors editions (especially on vinyl) but I don’t know how realistic of an expectation that is.
Oliver Wang: There will still be physical product in five years—there’s still a healthy, albeit niche, market for what Noz is talking about. What I’ll be curious is to see is when and if a major recording artist releases an album digitally but not physically. I don’t mean some special, side project. I’m talking about Toby Keith or Beyonce deciding, “You know what? I’m just going to sell this digitally.” Personally, I don’t see the CD being abandoned in five years (10—maybe).
I am a terrible prognosticator but I think it’s safe to assume we’re going to see a precipitous decline in CDs sales and a considerable increase in digital tracks. As to what that ratio might look like in five years, though? I wouldn’t even hazard a guess given how quickly things are changing in terms of patterns of media consumption and distribution models.
After more than five years of self-publishing music reviews multiple times each week, how do you avoid burnout?
Andrew Noz: I don’t. I usually burn out at least once a year and disappear for an extended period of time. I guess I am blessed that some of my readers care enough to come back after a month or two of a dead feed.
John Seroff: I ended up working at the chocolate factory and that curbed my appetite for making sweets at home. My last few posts were all wrapped up in some projects my father was putting together. I miss my blog with the love one reserves for an old friend. I met my (five-year-strong) girlfriend and got my first PR job on the back of The Tofu Hut. It really changed my life…but it changed my life in such a way that I no longer felt the need to do it. Mysterious ways, I guess.
David Gutowski: I have been posting daily for almost seven years. Burnout is inevitable if I maintain the status quo, so I am always looking to add new series to the site. Also, I only blog during the day, and get away from my computer in the evenings. Largehearted Boy has also become ingrained into my daily ritual. Every time I pop in an amazing CD from a band I have never heard definitely invigorates me and recharges my batteries.
Oliver Wang: It always surprises me how many blogs that seemed so vibrant a year or two ago are now defunct. In my case, it certain helps that I’ve recruited contributors or engaged in content-swapping with other blogs to help alleviate the load. I have also made good use of RSS readers to see what other people are posting about and then re-posting content (custom mixes especially) I see elsewhere. If all else fails—there’s always a YouTube video!
John Seroff: Oliver, I envy your energy and diligence. I set myself up with the silly and difficult task of doing far too much background and linkage for everything I post and I’ve managed to trip myself up in my own complexity. Maybe I should go back to bare bones?
Sean Michaels: For me it’s important to write new things, or to find new ways to write about things. Those are posts that are easy and even joyful. It can be very hard to write 200 words describing an indie rock song, when they’re the same sort of words I’ve used a dozen times before. (Sometimes the trick is to write about something old and very dear.)
David Gutowski: The variety of music genres covered at Said the Gramophone always impresses me, and I am always discovering new artists through StG.
Matthew Perpetua: The site is a daily routine, going on seven years now. Sometimes I’m not up for it, but I mostly just do it anyway. It’s a writing exercise. Sometimes I push myself, and get really good results. Other times, I push myself to get something that is just passable, and I move on with my day. I imagine that aside from the writing practice and having the enjoyment of entertaining an audience, I get the same thing out of the site that the readers do: I get to find new songs that I like. It’s a mechanism in my life ensuring that I always have something new to hear, so that’s nice for me. On the creative side, I get to play with formal tricks here and there while working within an established format. Sometimes I get to write about very personal things through analyzing the songs, which is helpful and therapeutic. I’m not very willing to share too many details about my life in public, but I think people can glean certain things from what I write.
Andrew Noz: This is a good approach. Of the few wordy or thoughtful music blogs left, many of them focus too much about the blogger’s life experience rather than the music itself. I usually try to leave myself out of the discussion entirely.
Sean Michaels: This point of Matthew’s, that “I get to find new songs,” and blogging as “a mechanism in my life ensuring that I always have something new to hear,” is really right-on.
There’s been a lot of co-option in your world by the music industry and its PR representatives. Are music blogs still special and/or different from the rest of the music press?
Sean Michaels: No.
David Gutowski: Music blogs still offer unique individual perspectives that go far beyond music journalism. However, the mainstream press has integrated blogging into its reporting, with almost every indie weekly and newspaper adding music blogs, so the line is definitely blurring.
John Seroff: Sean’s blunt and brief response here speaks volumes.
Andrew Noz: Speaking primarily of other hip-hop blogs, it is shocking how little thought or discovery goes into the most successful sites. These blogs have become nothing more than press outposts for major labels and the handful of indie artists with strong enough publicity behind them. Their feeds are nearly identical to my junk mail box.
I thought this would be a real intellectual and critical movement. It seems to have settled instead into hipsters copy-and-pasting press releases.
Oliver Wang: I think part of what’s relevant to talk about here is what constitutes “successful.” If you mean “page hits” then what you’re describing makes sense—the sites are capitalizing on interest in the latest/greatest, which, conveniently enough, often coincides with whatever marketing dollars are being spent on. That said, I feel what Noz is saying here; it’s hard to find a really great rap blog that isn’t 1) parroting the “junk mail box” or 2) stuck in the 1990s. I wonder if this is more a commentary on the state of hip-hop than the state of blogging about it, though.
John Seroff: So much of what an “mp3 blog” became is just so much file sharing devoid of independent intellectual content or context. Some people (including the other folks taking part in this discussion) still do make an effort to impress some personality and perspective on the music they’re sharing, but it sure has become the exception and not the rule. I’m a little bitter about it; I thought this would be a real billion-points-of-light intellectual and critical movement and it seems to have settled instead into a gazillion people putting up Michael Jackson albums on MegaShare or hipsters copy-and-pasting press releases, URL and all. Makes an ol’ feller wanna wave his cane at these whippersnappers. “In my day, they’d slap a cease-and-desist on ya, guldurnit.”
Andrew Noz: Yeah, I know the feeling. I had so much hope for the blogs as an alternative media- and idea-distribution model, and now I’m so frustrated that I rarely even read them. I do feel old before my time because of this. Who would have thought so much could change in just five years?
Oliver Wang: I don’t know—every six to 12 months, I update my blogroll and take a look at what’s out there and if you’re talking about sheer quantity, OK, sure, there’s a lot of sites that don’t do anything but post albums. But I feel like that’s missing the forest for the trees. There are many, many exceptional blogs out there in terms of insight, history, and raw passion. Far more than I can read without setting aside a couple of hours a week just to go through.
Matthew Perpetua: I stopped caring much about other music blogs a while ago. I’m mostly just concerned about what I do, and the sites I read for my own pleasure usually are, at most, only tangentially related to music. The only major thing that has changed about the way I do my site is that in the past few years I’ve tried not to be a dick about things, and respect labels’ release dates as much I can. I don’t feel very influenced by PR people. I am glad to get records sent to me because sometimes I get something I really enjoy, but I don’t like a vast majority of what I receive. I work for the regular press too, and aside from my experience with New York Magazine and Pitchfork, the difference seems to be that no one really cares about what I write for money, but they are sometimes very invested in what I do for free.
Sean Michaels: I had John’s same hopes for music blogs—Finnish hip-hop fans, explaining how their favorite music makes them feel; Havana jazz blogs, describing their Friday night out; Japanese avant-gardists, writing about new noises. That really, really, really hasn’t materialized. Instead it’s hundreds of bloggers writing the same sort of things about the same sort of songs.
Oliver Wang: A lot of it comes back to exclusivity—what can you post that other people are not? That’s not just a question of obscurity from the past; the other model is to create relationships that will allow you to have exclusive, new content.
Matthew Perpetua: It seems like a lot of the audience just wants “First!”—to get new songs as early as possible, but ultimately I think what makes a site last and matter is that the “exclusive” content is really just the perspective of a particular person or set of people. You can’t fake having a personality or a genuine point of view.
What’s your stance on the “free culture” movement? Do you think that art, music in particular, should be treated “freely” as information?
John Seroff: That’s the gazillion- or zero-dollar-question, ain’t it? My stance is that art IS information; information fully realized, but information nonetheless. Internet culture is information exchange culture. I’ll cop to saying that there’s an excellent argument to be made about whether or not the kind of lax permeability of ideas that the web enables is fair to an artist, but them’s the facts on the ground. Both businesses and artists need to adjust to the new realities that the technology has thrust on us, whether we like ‘em or not.
Sean Michaels: I think that should be the decision of the artist. Some poems are meant to be sold, others given away, or hidden in a lover’s pockets.
I think the artist should have the final say over how their work is presented to the world, instead of the consumer.
Matthew Perpetua: While I often benefit from getting things for free on the internet, I am very opposed to the notion that artists of any kind should consider all their work to be information that ought to be given away for free on principle. Yes, by all means, sample things, get a taste, but if you care about this stuff, you should do whatever you possibly can to support these people.
As a writer, I am dealing with a world that considers what I do to be increasingly devoid of value. I want to be able to make a living from my craft, and it’s pretty much the same position any musician is in at the moment, albeit with a bit less glamour. It’s hard not to resent people—and it always seems to be rich kids and well-paid people in the tech industries—who have this insatiable appetite for content but seem to think everyone making it should go poor for their endless pleasure.
John Seroff: Not go poor necessarily, Matt, but maybe not make money in a suddenly outmoded way. Love him or hate him, Perez Hilton’s figured out a way to write and get paid for it and he did it more or less on his own in his own way. If your priority is stacking paper, there are options available. They may not jibe with your professional/creative goals, but thus has it ever been.
I figure anything I write or make that ever hits the internet is gone and I don’t resent people doing what they want with it. Money where my mouth is: I spent a ridiculous amount of time back in ‘05 amassing a list of everybody I could find online who had created music sharing/exploration blogs and then posted it online, organized by genre. I saw variants on this work pop up all over the web for years afterward and I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that a few of the better-known aggregators on the web started out with this list. And that’s okay by me. It wasn’t intended to be lifted and reprinted, often without acknowledgement. But that’s the internet and that’s how it works.
David Gutowski: I think the artist should have the final say over how their work is presented to the world, instead of the consumer.
John Seroff: You know David, that sounds right, but I don’t know if I buy it. Let me play devil’s advocate here: historically, when has that ever been the case?
Those who are unable to perform well can always get tacky shoe endorsements. Also, U.P.S. is hiring.
Andrew Noz: I don’t think it necessarily should be free, but music was mostly free for a couple thousand years before people figured out how to put it to tape. I think too many people have a financial investment in it to ever allow it to be officially free. Realistically those people have already failed, in light of torrents and rapidshares.
John Seroff: Noz and I are on the same tip here: This question has become so academic that it only obscures more important ones. If music is water, can you find a way to sell bottled water? If we can listen to ANYTHING now, why do so many people still only focus on pop 40? If I can do everything a record label does on my own with a Macbook and a Gmail account, what’s my new dream? If all samples don’t need to be cleared, why not make an album of nothing but samples? To paraphrase Heavy D, now that information is free, what are we gonna do with it?
Thus far, the industry and the artists are still baby-stepping into the Brave New World with a few pioneering artists like Jill Sobule, Radiohead, and NIN dropping free albums. But this is a seismic shift that’ll likely take decades to reintegrate from; it’s not strange to me that everyone is sitting on their hands out of fear of losing it all. Can’t help feeling that our children are going to find this sort of question really, really silly, though: “You used to play music on discs? And you paid for them?”
How can musicians best earn a living today?
John Seroff: Play! Tour! Keep listening to new things! Keep making music! Be self-motivated and self-contained! Get rudimentary promotion and finances under your belt ASAP! Love what you do! Be very, very, very, very pretty! Win a reality show!
Andrew Noz: Performances. Or those who are unable to perform well can always get tacky shoe endorsements and such. Also, U.P.S. is hiring.
Matthew Perpetua: Some acts can make money on the road, but really, that’s not an option for a lot of artists, and a great many artists actually tour at a loss. I think that’s dubious advice. Touring is a great way to build an audience, though.
No one really cares about what I write for money, but they are sometimes very invested in what I do for free.
Sean Michaels: Write wonderful songs. Play wonderful concerts, wherever you can— wonderful concerts are often easier to organize, at first, with friends or in people’s homes. Make sure people can listen to your music online. Keep writing wonderful songs, keep playing wonderful concerts. Sell (don’t give away) neat merch. And persist for as long as you still care (and no longer).
John Seroff: Sean’s right about cultivating a merch market. At one of the venues I do press for, The Highline Ballroom in N.Y.C., we regularly see artists coming in who make more money at the merch table than they do on ticket sales. Getting a good logo design and printing up a bunch of pins and shirts and hoodies and signed CDs is a necessity.
David Gutowski: Musicians like Amanda Palmer and Jonathan Coulton are making a living these days by interacting with their fans directly through their websites and social media. Fostering a genuine relationship with fans leads to increased merchandise and music sales, and the artist keeps a much higher percentage when they sell items directly to fans without a middleman.
John Seroff: Coulton and Palmer are great examples of next-wave artists; they stay on the cusp of the zeitgeist and are constantly active and exploring new ways to get their music out to the public. I get excited about groups and musicians who have decided to more or less live and die on the web; it’s idealistic and quixotic but really heartening to me when you get somebody at the top of their game who opts for the freedom of ce-web-rity over the industry game. A few of my favorite “albums” of the year come from this category: Kutiman’s Thru You suite and the Auto-Tune The News collection.
Oliver Wang: I think culture should be allowed to circulate with few constraints, but that’s not the same thing as saying it should do so without making profit for its creators. The challenge here is that culture is going to circulate regardless—what will be the changing business models that still allow artists to make a living?
Matthew Perpetua: Well, there’s still some money in licensing. That’s a good source of revenue if you’re willing to say yes more often than no. I understand that sometimes you can still make a modest profit of actually selling records or touring. It mainly seems to be an issue of luck, and sometimes reasonable business sense. That said, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to be giving anyone advice on how to make money these days.
Andrew Noz: Licensing is a nice goal for safe indie rockers or whatever but the more street-oriented rap artists that I cover aren’t exactly Lexus-commercial-ready. I imagine other less Mom-friendly genre niches, say, speed metal or Japanese noise, will suffer as well if licensing becomes the primary source of income for musicians.
Answer the following questions in five words or less. First, how have music blogs changed over the past five years?
John Seroff: Sold out, didn’t get paid
Sean Michaels: Less talk, more schlock.
David Gutowski: Aggregators make getting traffic easy.
Matthew Perpetua: Lot more. Pretty normalized too.
Andrew Noz: They have gotten boring.
What can people can do with the mp3-blog format that hasn’t been done, or has not been done often enough?
Sean Michaels: Writing more about less.
David Gutowski: Break common formats, be interesting.
Matthew Perpetua: More imagination, please!
Andrew Noz: Research-driven and feature journalism.
John Seroff: Build a lasting, interactive community.
What change would you most like to see in mp3-blog indexing services like Hype Machine, Elbo.ws, or Google?
David Gutowski: Less English-centric blog coverage.
John Seroff: They seem OK to me.
Andrew Noz: I would like them to end.
Do you read music blogs?
Sean Michaels: My RSS reader does.
David Gutowski: Fewer every day.
John Seroff: Honestly, no.
Matthew Perpetua: Not really.
What are you listening to at the moment?
David Gutowski: Everything sent my way.
John Seroff: Quik and Kurupt, McCoy Tyner, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, Lajkó Félix.
Sean Michaels: Still, Tune-Yards, Sharon van Etten.
Andrew Noz: Gucci Mane, Lil B, DJ Quik & Kurupt.