Freitag, 26. Oktober 2012

Dance Music in the Era of Copyright Controversy

By Angus Thomas Paterson

Life after the Digital Disruption

Matt Thomas, better known to the dance music community for the past decade as King Unique, is getting stuck into a normal day’s work that is as far removed from the flights, hotels and nightclubs of a touring DJ’s lifestyle that you can get. He’s in what he describes as the “remote location” of a “dilapidated old coal mining village out in Wales”, which happens to be where his studio is located. Thomas says part of the appeal of coming out here to lay down his tracks is that he can make as much noise as he wants, and nobody complains. Surprisingly though, even though all the wider industry seems to be talking about is how you can’t make a living solely as a producer anymore, Thomas is finding himself more and more in this small Welsh town.

“The whole economic thing has hit the amount of gigs going around for everybody, so I’ve been back in the studio a lot more,” he says. “The non-stop DJ thing during 2007 and 2008 just wasn’t quite as much fun as really bedding into the studio. It feels like it’s 2001 again when we weren’t really doing any gigs, because the money in the studio was so incredible. We used to sit here and make records back to back, and doing that again, I’ve had a fantastic time.” 

Like many others in the current climate, Thomas had been frantically chasing gigs in an effort to ensure his full-time existence in dance music would remain sustainable. “Funnily enough though, relaxing here and making records… if you’re on the right label, with the right releases and the right remixes, you can actually keep the body and the soul of it together in the studio.” 

The positive story that Thomas tells is in stark contrast to the very loud message of wanton chaos we’ve been hearing from the major players in the music industry, including the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the major labels it represents, since the early days of what’s referred to as the ‘digital disruption’. It was a revolution, for better or worse, which began with the explosion in popularity of Napster’s pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing service in late 1999, popularising the notion of “sharing” MP3 files in a way that completely undermined traditional copyright laws, with no royalties paid to artists, labels or anyone else for that matter. 

There’s little doubt the industry was utterly changed in the years that followed, but the digital distribution of music was finally legitimized on a major scale when Apple’s iTunes service established a cheap and easy way for the industry to sell music to consumers. However, the debate rages on over how to tackle ongoing challenges in the era of copyright controversy, with a canyon opening between the big industry players who want to restore a copyright-protected world, and those preaching the virtues of a more open internet. 

The tension reached a boiling point in January when ACTA, the US-backed international treaty aiming for global consensus on copyright protection, was greeted with howls of derision from citizens, internet libertarians and parliaments alike. One of the main areas of contention was that ISPs would be held responsible for cracking down on piracy, potentially cutting off users who illegally share music. Protesters marched in several European capitals including London, Berlin, Helsinki, Paris and Vienna, before the bill eventually stalled in the European commission. 

Not surprisingly, the RIAA was far from happy with how things played out, with chief executive Cary Sherman throwing a blistering tantrum in the New York Times. “Policy makers had recognized that music sales in the United States are less than half of what they were in 1999, when the file-sharing site Napster emerged, and that direct employment in the industry had fallen by more than half since then, to less than 10,000.” 

Organizations like RIAA have repeatedly shown they are willing to exaggerate the economic costs and threat to jobs of piracy; but while they continue to bellow about the dark days ahead, the activity in the dance music sector tells a distinctly different story, and is much closer to the more positive account given by Thomas. 

While it took several years for the dust to settle, with many long-established labels unable to adapt to the digital era, in the years that followed, a huge range of robust independent labels demonstrated they were able to adopt new business models, plug into new distribution pipelines, taken advantage of new promotional opportunities, and otherwise leverage opportunities never available to them before; largely due to the new possibilities of the digital era.

Protecting the Future of Music 

One of the key organizations in the US working to tackle copyright issues in a different fashion is the Future of Music Coalition (FMC), a nonprofit organization with a mission statement of cultivating an industry where artists flourish, are compensated for their work, and can connect easily with fans. Casey Rae is the deputy director of the FMC, as well as a musician, sound engineer and, academic who speaks extensively on new business models for artists, and he says there is plenty that the wider industry could learn from dance music’s independents. 

“Their approach is actually very close to our own vision of what the world could be like after the digital disruption,” he says. “There would naturally be new business models that would arise, and artists and labels that can pivot quickly in this new marketplace would find success, because there’s no longer the bottlenecks and gatekeepers so common to the original industry.” 

Rae says the powerful thing about the independent sector is its ability to curate catalogs. “People can buy by brand, particularly within genre subsets. There’s a trust there that exists, and major labels are naturally going to have trouble with this in the new environment, because nobody buys something because it is on Universal. In fact, the majors actually earned themselves a negative reputation among consumers and fans, based on how they reacted to the shift, and the breakdown of their control over the traditional music distribution pipeline.” 

The FMC preaches open consultation across the industry, though it’s also critical of the RIAA and the major labels’ reactionary approach. “Historically, they’ve been resistant to changes that would make the digital marketplace run more smoothly, and allow more consumers to participate in legitimate access to music. I don’t think there has been any particularly avant-garde thinking coming from the major labels. It’s like the last season of The Sopranos, you have a bunch of aging wise guys and the turf is getting smaller and smaller. It’s just sad.” 

Rae asserts that in many ways, everybody is on more or less the same playing field now. “Even the biggest major label has to essentially work the same tools to some extent as an independent label, or even a non-affiliated artist. We’ve seen this tremendous flattening, in terms of access to audiences, and that is a very empowering thing for a lot of artists and independent labels.”

The Power of Independents

In the fragmented and sonically diverse world of club music, there are independent labels serving a widespread range of subcultures, each of them often connecting to a completely different and authentic audience.  That said, across the board, one of its big independent success stories is Anjunabeats, the label owned and A&R’ed by London DJ trio Above & Beyond, who were ranked last year in the top 5 of the world’s most successful club performer’s in DJ Mag’s influential ‘Top 100’ poll. 

Anjunabeats specializes in cutting-edge music for the trance community, a sound characterized by its euphoric melodies and driving, room-filling energy. In 2005 Anjunadeep was born into a sub-label that runs concurrent with Anjunabeats, which itself developed into a hugely respected vehicle for the deeper, more groove-focused sounds of progressive and underground house. 

Anjunabeats finds itself in an intriguing position, as it was established in early 2000, when physical distribution was the norm. The label was there to witness all the changes, and not only survived to tell the tale, but also thrived. Label manager Allan McGrath is responsible for coordinating and promoting its weekly releases, from a combined roster of more than 50 artists across the two labels, and he says there’s a positive story to tell. 

Responding to Thomas’s tales of making a living largely from recorded income, McGrath says there are several artists across the Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep labels who have also chosen to focus their energies mostly on studio work. “They’re definitely in a much better place to do that if they’re with an established brand who can push the release in a certain way, and ensure that if the quality of the music is strong, then it will reach its full potential, rather than being lost on a smaller label, not being promoted properly or finding the audience that it deserves.” 

However, it’s still far from the norm, and McGrath says most artists interested in a long term career would have to strongly consider the opportunities offered by live performances. “I would say definitely the model has undoubtedly, inevitably and probably irredeemably changed, to the point where live income needs to be the end game for 80 percent of artists in electronic music.” 

Does he see it as a negative development? “Not personally, and not necessarily,” he says. However, there’s room to lament how quickly the business model has been shaken down. “You could argue that for a very long time, the value placed on music was unfeasible and excessive, especially in certain parts of the market,” he says. “But it’s a shame things have moved with such swiftness, and often without any kind of safety net or precautions, towards a model where music has lost its value. I do think it’s a shame music is viewed as ‘free’ by a lot of people.” 

In the face of a decline in the value that consumers attach to music, Anjunabeats have adapted in a number of ways. McGrath says the market for physical products hasn’t completely vanished, though it has changed significantly. “It needs a lot of care and attention, so it looks like something you’d want to have on your mantelpiece or in your record collection. But there’s still a lot of people making high-quality, beautifully designed physical products.” 

Looking to the digital realm, Apple’s iTunes platform remains the platform of choice for the industry’s major labels, and McGrath confirms it’s also a crucial tool for taking Anjunabeats to a wider audience, with the independents often showcased alongside the major label heavies. “It’s got a very editorial based storefront, and you can often find yourself on the homepage alongside artists like Adele, or whichever other commercial artist is being played heavily that week.” 

There’s been concerns expressed over Apple gaining a chokehold on the industry; but dance music’s independents have leapfrogged this threat via several specialist digital platforms, the most important of which is Beatport, a site so ubiquitous its sales charts have become the de factoBillboard Hot 100 for dance music. It’s a quick, easy and cheap way for fans to purchase new music, and allows the labels plenty of flexibility in areas like price points and sound quality. 

“For a label often putting out one or two releases a week, that’s predominantly club music and in a DJ environment, Beatport is of massive importance to us,” McGrath says. “Seeing as DJ sets are where our music tends to live, whether in a club or on the radio.”
Otherwise, McGrath says their own online shopfront is a hugely important vehicle for selling music to their fans. “It’s an amazing way of building a very close and lasting connection with our most loyal and dedicated. You can offer them the product first, they’re getting it from the heart of the label, and that’s what they’ve pledged their support to.”

Cultivating Cultural Capital 

Maintaining the connection between artists and their fans is of crucial importance to Ajunabeats, and it’s the focus of a number of ongoing marketing activities. The weekly Trance Around the World radio show represents the starting point for much of this; the radio show/podcast can be an effective tactic for many independent artists and labels, allowing them to speak directly with fans and showcase their music, though Trance Around the World would have to be one of the most successful. Currently, the show is syndicated across 237 FM radio stations worldwide, with an estimated listenership of 30 million. 

Hosted by rotating members of the Above & Beyond trio every week, it often represents the first time the label’s music is unveiled to fans. Several years ago, Anjunabeats took the step of giving away the show as a free download via the podcast format in iTunes. Currently it’s ranked in the top 5 of the most popular music podcasts across the USA, Australia, and much of Europe. 

Though the whole industry hasn’t come around to the idea of giving away music for free as a promotional tactic, though McGrath validates it as a legitimate sales driver. “Whenever your music goes out there, you hope listeners will form a certain connection with it, and come back and buy it at a later date. Fans become part of the Anjuna family, and want to own a part of it.” 

The show represents the launching point for an array of other promotional activities and revenue streams. Social networking has been widely recognized as opening up a swathe of new ways that artists can connect with their fans, and unsurprisingly, Anjunabeats makes heavy use of Facebook and Twitter. Anjunabeats has nearly 100,000 likes on its Facebook page, with Above & Beyond close to a million, and they’re maintained as a place of ongoing activity, reflective of the fact that a constant presence is necessary to hold fans’ attention. 

The label’s biggest annual campaign sees an extended 8-hour episode of Trance Around The Worldbroadcast live from an international venue, to an audience of tens of millions; the 350th episode at the Hollywood Palladium saw the associated #TATW350 Twitter hashtag become the highest trending topic on the platform, while the 400th episode in Beirut in November last year saturated saw Twitter so heavily that #TATW400 was eventually removed several hours in. 

All of this results in increased attention and sales for the label’s weekly single releases, and regular long-player albums, including Above & Beyond’s heavily promoted Group Therapy album from last year, and the annual Anjunabeats and Anjunabeats Worldwide compilations that showcase the label’s music in a mix CD format. In addition, there’s an array of branded merchandise that includes t-shirts, jumpers, posters, sweatbands and more. 

However, as a reflection of McGrath’s assertion that live income is vital in the current climate, Above & Beyond and the rest of the label’s roster are often relentlessly touring the globe. Trance Around The World means Anjunabeats’ reach knows no global boundaries; last year Above & Beyond played more 140 shows across 40 different countries, typically with several other artists from the label in tow as support acts, and many of these shows took the form of one of their own branded Group Therapy events in support of the new album. 

On top of this, Anjunabeats hosts branded Group Therapy stages at some of the world’s most successful festivals, including Tomorrowland in Belgium, Dance Valley in Holland, and Electric Zoo in New York, which sees them playing to crowds upwards of tens of thousands. Touring opportunities for the label’s other artists have also proved exhaustive, with one of the label’s star producers Mat Zo currently underway on a 30-date tour of the USA, for example. 

Though if all of this appears lucrative, McGrath is also careful to emphasize that none of these opportunities comes easy for independent labels. “Gone are the days where you could just sign an artist with a bit of talent, build his name up a bit and put out a piece of vinyl with his name on it while he’s peaking, and then watch the cash roll in.” 

Artists need to work harder to promote themselves, and this puts an otherwise talented artist, who might be less than social media savvy, at a distinct disadvantage. “Is it a good thing they’re lost or ignored because they don’t have enough Facebook followers, or they don’t want to tour, even though their music might be the best anyone has ever heard? I’m not entirely sure; but it’s kind of the way things are.” 

These are the pros and cons of a restructured industry, and it again emphasizes the important role an independent label can play. “As a label, you need to learn to play that as best you can, and I guess that is one of the reasons why people do come to us.”

Listening to the Future 

If dance music’s independents have proved adept at responding to shifting ground, all signs indicate they’ll need to continue to do so, as the industry framework continues to rapidly evolve. Producer Matt Thomas says he’s witnessed dramatic changes in just the past few years alone, when it comes to the value attached to artistic output. 

“It’s reflective of the whole Facebook culture, that steady stream of activity running past your eyes all the time,” he says. “If you have a YouTube link, there’s no need to own 90 per cent of the music you’re hearing. There used to be a paradigm where you could make a fantastic tune, and rest on the laurels of that for a while. These days though, records have their day really quickly. There’s a living to be made in the studio, but you had better be prolific.” 

Rae from FMC says the industry is still looking for a long-term solution in the digital era. His organization has championed industry-wide consultation that would see the traditionally underrepresented independent stakeholders given a louder voice, to help negotiate a policy solution to adjust business models and copyright laws to make more sense in the new environment. His central criticism of ACTA is that it was drawn up in the dark with a lack of transparency, with the likes of the RIAA allowed a disproportionate influence. 

It’s part of a overall story of the larger end of town effectively trying to hit the net really hard with a big hammer. “The traditional industry trade organizations and lobby groups will put tons of cash and capital into trying to get the law to bend their way. This can have adverse repercussions on freedom of expression as well as development of future business models.”
The FMC asserts that at the end of the day, the ultimate goal should be to ensure artists are worth investing in. “As we rise from the ashes of Music Industry 1.0, it’ll have to be more artist centric. That’s the only way it’ll be sustainable. I sometimes question the real motives of the traditional players, because I don’t think they’re necessarily aligned with the artists at this point.” 

“Again, to champion the independent sector, I feel I can paint with a broad brush and say historically they’ve been more supportive of artists, because they’re closer to the ground.”

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