In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: DJ, I don’t expect you to know this offhand, but tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of Radiohead releasing In Rainbows. Though I liked the album (I’ll admit, it’s probably even a little higher on my Radiohead album rankings than most others would put it), the record’s release isn’t nearly as import as how it was released. In Rainbows was one of the first mainstream albums, and certainly the largest scale release of its time, to be made available in the “pay-what-you-want” format.
Now, I’m no spring chicken, but the decade since In Rainbows accounts for roughly one third of my life, as well as almost the entirety of my adult existence. However, I can also vividly recall midnight sales at my local Exclusive Company, Lars Ulrich’s campaign to combat music piracy (has he ended that yet?), and happily shelling out $15 for a new CD I had no way of hearing unless it was one of the select few albums at one of those Media Play listening station thingys. Those memories are just blips, though, and I now struggle to recall a time in the not-so-distant past wherein streaming mediums like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Spotify, and shit, even YouTube weren’t around to let listeners try an album on for size before they make the decision to buy it…or to continue listening for free until they grew tired of it and moved on.
As a listener, I love the idea of having an endless supply of free music at my disposal. Yet as someone who considers himself to be a champion of local music, I also see how its an imperfect model that devalues music for acts of all sizes. When one of the biggest bands of all time told consumers they could pay what they wanted, that noble gesture from millionaires many times over spread the expectation that everyone’s music should be free. Sure, the recent vinyl resurgence has worked against that slightly, but it’s tough to dispute that the PWYW movement has absolutely flipped the business model of whatever remains of the music industry as we knew it.
As a passionate music fan, a local musician, and (sorry) a person 10 years my senior, I’m sure you have an opinion on all this, DJ. Before I get too much deeper into my thoughts and my habits as a consumer, I wanted to gauge your early feelings about pay-what-you-want, how you view the practice now, and how it’s changed and/or impacted your approach as a musician.
DJ Hostettler: Well, Tyler, as a music lover, I also selfishly was impressed with the chutzpah of releasing a PWYW album when Radiohead made their announcement, but as an unknown local musician, I certainly didn’t consider it some sort of game-changer for a band’s ability to market their music, as so many in the music press seemed to proclaim at the time. That said, in retrospect, it certainly paved the way for our current drift away from physical media. When I mentioned the premise of this piece to my wife Dixie (for whom Radiohead was a formative band), she reminisced about how disappointed she was to pay, well, something for In Rainbows and not get any sort of physical artifact for her money. Even now, in 2017, if I’m merely storing a set of mp3s on my laptop, that doesn’t feel like I own the corresponding album. And I honestly couldn’t tell you if the “Kids These Days” care about the idea of music “ownership” when a Spotify account can pull up nearly any album one could think of on demand. Is the concept of music “ownership” fading? It’s hard to tell. People in my peer group still collect vinyl from new bands (and CDs, if that’s the only available format for a specific release), but I have a feeling we’re outliers. Heck, I know not many people are buying my band’s records outside of our friends (har har)! The shelves in my basement don’t lie.
“But DJ, vinyl sales are up again in 2017!” Sure, but as of July, the top 10 selling vinyl albums of the year include such hot new releases as Sgt. Pepper, Purple Rain, and for fuck’s sake, Dark Side of the Moon is still charting. Meanwhile, overall album sales are still dropping, including a 20 percent drop in digital download sales. Thanks, Spotify! Did the pay-what-you-want model help facilitate this rapid devaluation of new music? It’s hard to argue against that theory. Sure, a band like Radiohead could roll the dice and assume that enough fans would still pay $10-$15 out of a sense of obligation in order to still pocket some cash from the release, but can the same be said for your average local band, lacking the benefit of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone spotlights on their new $0 minimum full-length? Yeah, no.
Still, all is not lost if you’re a musician seeking to monetize your art. With no one buying new music, the band merch game is more diverse and innovative than ever. On Wednesday night, I took in a set by Chicago’s delightful North By North, who had no fewer than nine shirt designs on sale (collect ’em all!) and have been surviving somehow on tour for the last nine months. Pals in long-running Bloomington/Louisville country/indie rockers Murder By Death have developed a minor cottage industry with their merch. Shirts! Bandanas! Silkscreened prints! Art books! Quadruple gatefold vinyl! Murder By Death: The Flame Thrower! Moichandising! Moichandising! Moichandising! If people aren’t buying just any old record, make that record collectible! Bottom line: it may be more of a hustle now than ever in order for a non-major label band to monetize what they do, but if a band’s music is marketable enough to find its audience, that audience will find ways to give those bands their money. (And hell, if you throw a download code on that t-shirt’s tag, maybe someone will still actually hear the album!) That being said, not all of us musicians have the time and resources to develop a minor merch empire. Stupid day jobs.
TM: You’ve hit on something I think is an important byproduct of all this. The devaluation of, as you call it, “music ownership” has ushered in an industrial reversal of sorts. Now, independent bands willingly offer prospective listeners their music in its digital format for little or no money with the hope it will entice them to come out to a show and, as an additional token of support (or a sense of belated obligation?), leave that show with a shirt, some stickers, or even some sort of physical representation of the mp3 or wav material that lured the listener there in the first place. Of course, being a society that’s come to expect free [shudders] “content” to be delivered immediately to a convenient medium of their choosing, that relationship between artist and consumer isn’t always so reciprocal. To be honest, if given the choice on Bandcamp, I pay $0…a lot. Sometimes that—or the record’s presence on Spotify—is where the road ends for me. Thanks for the free tunes, Jamaican Queens! See you never, unless you open for a band I like on a night I have shit else to do. Keep up the great work I’ve in no way supported!
However, on more than a few occasions, the risk-free nature of experiencing a band on Spotify, hearing a rapper’s mixtape on SoundCloud or even typing $0 into Bandcamp to “own” something has directly influenced me to travel out of my way to catch a show, inspired a shirt purchase or even found me circling back to obtain said material on vinyl to exist as, if nothing else, a relic of what the band grew to mean to me over time. The PWYW movement has also put an increased value on an act’s live show, as a band is no longer appeasing people who’ve already bought the music, they’re now tasked with inspiring a merch sale from someone who was led to the venue through free sources. Is it unfair to the artist? Absolutely. But Radiohead’s decade-old decision to remove the gatekeepers who dictated how and when their music was released (and how much it was to cost), suddenly allowed anyone to enter the musical landscape. With complete control comes complete responsibility.
Like television and written media—both of which have more access points than ever before—the consumer now has the duty of sifting through an unprecedented amount of shit in an effort to find something that speaks to them. In short, lowering the financial risk expedites and incentivizes that search, but in my opinion, bands are really left no better nor worse than they were pre-In Rainbows. Before, bands were vying for the fixed disposable income a listener budgeted for that trip to the record store or for that night’s show. Now, artists are competing for the limited time and attention a prospective fan has in a world with eons worth of free music at their disposal. The music industry is fractured, but wasn’t it always? At the end of the day, word of mouth still works. The reputation of a great live band somehow still spreads across state lines. Innumerable terrible bands are still rich and famous while amazing talents struggle in obscurity. Support is still there, just as it was well before October 10, 2007. It all just looks different than it used to. Whether you think Radiohead is to blame or to thank, In Rainbows and the pay-what-you-want format indelibly altered the music industry because it finally allowed consumers to get exactly what they wanted all along: everything.
DH: Hell, Tyler, I’ll do you one better. Improved home recording technology and the removal of those “gatekeepers,” as you call them, has made this one of the best possible times in history to be in a band—provided you don’t care about “making it” or turning a profit. The pay-what-you-want model makes it more likely for a random fan to take a flier on an unknown band, so long as that fan knows where to find them (and while music reviews have lessened in necessity, online pubs like Milwaukee Record still have a role in amplifying that word of mouth, fortunately!). Home recording has evolved to a point where with the right computer interface and some great mics, a band that knows their shit doesn’t need to spend much money on a “pro” studio to produce something worth downloading, although there’s no substitute for an experienced engineer and access to a huge, boom-y room. But hey, music fans, you get what you pay for.
Sure, there will always be ways for a band to monetize their art and work that hustle if they want. They can invest heavily in merch, they can tailor their music to use for ads and soundtracks, and there’s always the Patreon model of churning out product for subscribers (a model that feels gross to me), but A.) I don’t care about making money with my band, B.) I’ve always hated that Pomplamoose band and don’t want to support anything they own, but that’s just my silly anti-cover band bias. Speaking as a 40-something musician that’s never churned out anything marketable, knowing that this is the way of the world now is actually very freeing. Sure, does it suck having to pony up thousands of dollars of our own money to record in a studio and press vinyl? Of course—and there are parts of the band experience that now have a barrier with a dollar sign attached to it. But that’s always been the case. Good gear had a cost before In Rainbows, too. Now with the myth of rock stardom largely exploded as the corporation-fattening fraud it always was, the real joy of creating and sharing a piece of yourself with the world is more attainable than ever. And while that sounds like some hippie shit, to me, that’s the everything that makes being a musician worthwhile.