Sunday, July 4, 2010

State of Independence

For a considerable time now, I have aired my grievances regularly about downloadable music and the inherent laziness and general disrespect attached to it. Whilst this may well partly stem from my own love of physical formats (especially vinyl), a number of other factors remain rooted behind my argument that go way beyond the subjective parameters of one’s tastes and interests.

Firstly, as somebody directly involved with music myself via both my labels and the duo I’m in, Theme, I have felt the pinches afforded by the virtual medium in at least two respects. Because I prefer to release music on vinyl and CD, certain other people take it upon themselves to make it freely available elsewhere on their own websites, blogs or whatever without having had the prior permission to do so. This then affects the sales of my releases in the first instance and, in turn, means that I barely recover the costs of each one, never mind try and make that little extra to be divided equally between the artist and, indeed, label itself to go towards the next release. Subsequently, each release is the result of a combination of funds raised elsewhere (in my case, having a job, begging, borrowing and simply seeing whatever coins I can find on the streets), determination, sweat, frustration, enthusiasm and almost thankless hard work.

What’s especially frustrating about this is that I’ve, like so many others, now been pushed into a position whereby the struggle to squeeze a new release out is greater than ever. Which is a huge shame considering just how much music there is around that deserves to be documented on a format that’s neither disposable or plays directly into the hands of a culture sinking deeper and deeper into complacency. Perhaps the latter remark appears somewhat rash, but I firmly subscribe to the notion that our being glued to our computers justifies it perfectly. Downloads, for all of the merits that can be afforded them (such as their convenience and the fact they’ve helped make so much obscure or inaccessible material available), are ultimately symptomatic of this. They have just as much rendered people lazy and, beyond this, have fed the idea that we should expect everything not only without making a lot of effort but also without dipping into our bank accounts. We live in a world where everybody now expects music for free. And it is precisely this that is taking its toll on musicians, labels and, I would contend, those of us who operate at the truly independent end of the scenario and don’t have the capital or concomitant power to do anything about it. What was always already a real struggle has, during the past few years, become increasingly so simply because of the advent of the free download.

As with the fears of home taping from the radio once evinced by the music industry during the beginning of the ‘80s as a reaction to increased blank cassette sales over those of records, I do not believe everybody who downloads is somehow guilty of ‘killing’ the struggling artist or label. For every argument against those who download, there are plenty that support this opportunity to check things out before then buying records or whatever. But these people, the real ‘fans’ if you like, are in the minority and it is precisely because most people who surf the ‘net stuff their players with all manner of tunes obtained for nothing without caring that by doing so they are fanning the flames of a very real problem that we are now in this mess. Labels such as mine, Lumberton Trading Comppany and Fourth Dimension, are being suffocated by this pandemic. Which is a huge shame, as I would very much like to continue supporting and promoting music by artists whose work, I feel, deserves more attention. And on formats that allow for all of them to express themselves through their choice of artwork and packaging as best as possible, too. Formats that, equally (and in keeping with a point already made), encourage effort and, indeed, the sheer pleasure that can be gained from either hunting through racks of CDs or vinyl or even receiving a package in the post. Furthermore, and more importantly, these formats support the artists and the labels behind them directly.

Like so many similar labels, mine are driven by the same fundamental passion for music I’ve had since music first hit me during Punk’s aftermath. I do not overcharge for the releases and my main concern has always amounted to primarily recouping the costs for them. It is a simple premise that has worked until more recent times.

Because the dynamics are changing, however, I am forced into rethinking matters. Besides noticing that cassette labels have been springing up all over the place during the past two or three years once again (running adjacent to those dedicated to limited run CDRs that have long existed), I have observed that an increasing number of new artists are committed to self-releasing their music, too. Just one cursory glance at any so-called ‘noise’, ‘electronica’, ‘neu-folk’ artist on Discogs, for instance, can lead to all manner of new corridors presenting themselves. There are literally hundreds of relatively new small labels dedicated to CDRs, cassettes and low-run lathecut records; a reaction, if you will, to the burgeoning world of the free download and its close relationship to what I prefer to call the ‘quick fix’ culture. Not a huge reaction, of course, but one that is significant enough regardless.

Where all this leaves my own endeavours, I don’t yet know exactly. I was never massively into cassette releases or CDRs either, but I can now appreciate firmly what advantages these formats have over downloads (despite the laudable quality of cassettes and, indeed, not forgetting the fact that FD itself started with plenty of cassettes and even a couple of flexidisc releases). One solution is to collaborate all the way through with new artists, right down to the sharing of costs, or to devise schemes where new releases can be pre-paid and partly subsidised by those who are seriously interested in owning them (which, let’s face it, is exactly what certain artists with ‘cult’ appeal already do).

Another one is to simply hope that a few more people will acknowledge these sentiments and buy directly from the labels (mine and others) before they are forced to resign. Of course, I cannot speak for all small labels here, but I can honestly declare that even just 30 direct orders would make a difference enough to at least keep the wheels turning. Right now, I’m lucky if I reach double-figures. As a reflection of the music I’m championing, this is fucking dire.

Small labels need support. By doing this, they can continue to help spread the work of interesting new artists.

Unauthorised free downloads are stifling such possiblities.

And this, quite literally, is the bottom line.