New Musical Models

by Gordon Mohr

Tim O'Reilly: Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution

Robert X. Cringely: Curtain Call: Finally, a Business Model for Music in the Internet Age, and Why the Music Industry Probably Won't Go for It

O'Reilly's observations, together with Cringely's suggestions for a scrappy, long-haul new model for musical artists, make me wonder: why aren't individual bands yet offering subscription services to their entire artistic output?

A yearly subscription might be just $30 and include:

  • unlimited access to downloadable back-catalog

  • unlimited access to downloadable new releases

  • online newsletter

  • access to special online events

  • priority access to concert tickets

  • a once-yearly collectible trinket confirming membership

  • automatic annual rebilling until cancelled

After all, fans identify with artists rather than labels or
the nascent aggregation services. Such per-artist subscriptions
would give fans the exact guaranteed-quality music they want,
plus the warm fuzzy feeling that they're doing the right thing,
and in such a way that less money goes to middlemen.

Possible objections:

  • Bands lack the expertise to set up such a system and
    back-end billing. But a service company could easily
    offer a turnkey solution. PayPal offers a
    super-easy system for recurring billing.

  • Serving costs would exceed revenues. But a P2P
    distribution scheme could allow the service site
    to merely serve as the fallback source iof rich media
    tracks -- with 99% of transfers going direct between fan

  • Some people will just sign up, grab everything, and
    not renew. I'm not sure this is even a bad thing.
    Some of these people would renew each time new material
    becomes available. Tweaking the renewal pricing and
    trickling out new releases year-round could discourage
    such ins-and-outs.

I suppose Prince's NPG music club was (is?) a little like this.
Kelli Richards points out that David Bowie,
Elton John, and Todd Rundgren
all offer paid fan services of various forms. However, I find that each of these artist websites are crippled by atrocious,
awkward, loud, flash-drenched user interfaces -- and so I can't tell if any of them actually offer the artist's oeuvre in any
practical form.

(My tip to any acts that want to try a individualized subscription service: drop the garish designs, pop-ups, flash,
tiny type, and sluggish captioning. Just say in big clear letters, "For $X a year you get access to all my music and
additional benefits A, B, C. Click here to sign up. Thanks!")

Would you subscribe on an annual basis to the output of your favorite musical acts? At what price?


2002-12-13 04:39:08
does music require marketing?
I appreciate Gordon's simple model; however, under that model, how would new artists break into the industry?

Currently, the labels act as venture capitalists, taking artists and helping them get their career started and established. Also, the labels act as underwriters and expert logistics consultants on more expensive ventures (eg, tours), that the individual artists would be hard pressed to do themselves.

Of course, these two problems present opportunities for others: it's easy to see how a group (co-op? consortium?) might be formed which specializes in managing musical concerts, underwriting them, and then takes in a percentage of proceeds.

2002-12-13 07:12:03
They don't own their own music
The main reason established bands can't do that with their material is because they own neither the sound copyrights nor the publishing rights. Both of those are signed away to the record label when the artist signs the contract. Its "standard industry practice", and its a form of slavery as Prince pointed out. The notable exception is King Crimson, only because Robert Fripp has been fighting (in courts at times) with his former label EG, and with BMG and Virgin (who acquired the back catalog in a sale from EG that was ethically and legally unsound), since 1991. Marillion also now own their own for their latest album, since they pre-sold it in advance of actually making it, and got over 12000 presales, more than enough to hit the studio and go...but again, that's an established artist taking control of their future, not a new artist trying to build up a fan base.

The artist pays for the work, since the "advance" is taken out of the future royalties of sales of the record, yet the record label owns the work, even after the artist has paid off the advance.

Don Henley of the Eagles has been in front of Congress, along with Courtney Love (who, mind you, gave up her fight for her copyrights in favor of one hell of a cash settlement; she's still fighting for her share of her late husbands copyrights, but not so much for her own work), in trying to get Congress to take note of this unethical practice and pass laws against it...however the RIAA just has too much money and too many lawyers and lobbyists...

If anything happens, it has to come from the record label or the RIAA as a whole. Nobody else owns their own work except independent artists.


2002-12-14 04:26:03
After reading this and the associated comments, I was thinking about what types of bands this type of site would be useful for.

Certainly, for bands where they are already well known this would work perfectly. We (the music fans) would be able to get all the music that we care about, without having to go buy every single, EP, LP, Soundtrack, Compilation, Video, etc. Yes, there are people who do that. I'm lucky enough to actually work in a music store where I get a discount, where if I didn't get that discount I would most definitely not have been able to afford to be such a complete-ist. The Music Fans would be able to say... Oh, I hear that such-n-such have a new album coming out and go buy the album. 2 months later when they release the "Special Edition" that comes with a couple of extra tracks, We'd be able to simply go and download them from the site.

Lesser known bands wouldn't have it as easy. They could set up a site like this, but they would need exposure to actually draw people to the site. The original idea behind was actually a pretty damn good idea in this respect. You could go to a central place to check out individual bands music and then follow a link to the artist web site. Obviously that was too good of a model for the music industry to deal with, so they tried shutting them down and eventually bought them up. Now it's just a place where mainstream artists are able to whore themselves.

What is needed for your new system to work is to set up a website similar to the old Take mp3's given to you from the bands. Set up a reviewing system, where bands are categorized according to what they sound like (acid jazz, funk, street rap, waltz), who they are similar to (Medeski Martin and Wood, Sonic Youth, Jessica Simpson, John Williams), and other useful things like where they are from geographically. That would definitely help get them exposure. Then someone would be able to say "I like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Tell me if there are any cool bands that sound like them from the Midwest." Then the person would listen to some of their songs for free (as in no cost whatsoever) and decide whether they like the music. Should they like the music, send them to the pay section of the Artist's Web Site. Simple.

Now, as for how the site would recoup the costs of the hardware, connection, people... that could be solved by getting a referral charge, or by setting up and hosting the pay site for the band. This is still a centralized place where there is a middleman, but it's a lot more artist friendly. They get the exposure. The people get the music. Everyone is happy, except the entrenched ones in the industry, but the dinosaurs deserve to die.

2002-12-17 10:13:16
co-op is the way to go
I've given a lot of thought to the issue and have come to the conclusion that genre/community based co-ops are the way to go. Groups that share musical interests pool resources and create either a server based or p2p community or some combo of the two that can be accessed by fans...Marketing is still an issue but because the site draws on the existing constituencies for each of the group or individual members there should be enough of a core to create momentum.

We're in the midst of developing such a thing with some support from Creative Capital. The address is
There's also a development blog - we'd love feedback as this is a model in progress.