The Future of Rock and Roll

Great, great piece in The Sunday New York Times Magazine a few weeks back by Rob Walker writing in the “Consumed” column where he asked the question, “Can the value of music reside in a lamp (or stickers or a sculpture)?"

Walker’s piece to me begs the question should artists get rich by selling stuff just because music sells stuff?

The author asserts that the future of rock and roll is merch.

If he is correct, the record labels are in big trouble because as Pogo says, “I have seen the enemy and it is us”.

The labels are adequate at best with merch and arguably leaving a lot of money on the table because they don't understand the new consumer and their devices.

Walker makes his case by pointing out:

“The Ramones sold more T-shirts than albums (and you can buy a T-shirt that says so). And box sets for superfans have become increasingly elaborate and pricey artlike objects. But merchandise is gaining momentum, and it’s not hard to imagine a time when a fan buys a sculpture, home décor item or other tangible good and gets the music as a kind of free soundtrack accompaniment”.

That according to the vice president of Sub Pop Records, the value of shirts, caps, key chains and other items may be worth more than the recorded songs themselves.

Nine Inch Nails is a group that is king of the expensive boxed sets, rap artists are coming out with clothing lines as quickly as they can, and Walker reveals that Stones Throw Records actually sells an espresso blend in the image of rapper Madlib.

There is jewelry (DJ Irie) and sex toys (Rammstein, the German metal band).

Don’t forget magnets, buttons, stickers and remember that Lady Gaga is skilled in all areas from singing, performing and product placement.

So Rob Walker concludes:

“In other words, the aura of music has been imbued in objects (and services, cruise lines, life insurance, etc.) for years. Artists know as well as anybody that music sells stuff, so why shouldn’t they sell the stuff too?”

If the future of rock and roll is merchandise, then only a handful of artists get rich and the rest struggle or continue to starve.

But then again, that’s how it has always been in popular music – the few get the maximum reward for their talents and the rest get teased to continue seeking their dream.

If we continue to judge music by platinum “records” that do not even exist in reality and by a few cash-savvy entrepreneurs, then the music industry is indeed doomed.

I see it another way.

The value of music to the consumer is about the cost of one single text message.

I can prove it with a little help from the labels. Price all your music at 5 cents and consumers will have no downside to paying for almost everything they sample. You'll get rich on volume if you could get over the 5 cent part.

There would be no downside.

No reason for piracy to exist although peer filesharing would and must continue because free tasting is as old as marketing itself – a good thing.

The dream of many rock and roll artists that is in reality achieved by only a few is exactly what is wrong with the music industry and has been for decades (unless of course, you’re one of the few who makes it big).

In the age of the Internet, mobile access, filesharing – and even in the absence of affordable 5 cent tunes – everyone again has a chance to be judged on his, her or their talent.

If Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for merchandise opportunities or on the needle in a haystack hope that he would get wealthy beyond his dreams, then civilization would not have enjoyed his work of beauty for all the many decades it has survived.

So, don’t look to how to continue the paradigm of the music – that you wish to make it big in order to make your music.

Indeed, it’s the other way around – and the digital world we live in is finally going to help correct the inequity.

Yes, a few artists will always find a way to merchandise themselves into riches, but now the playing field is level and everyone has access to the music loving consumer.

The labels no longer dictate who gets that chance.

Radio does influence which three new artists get their chance to get airplay every week when a new playlist is drawn up. But radio is less critical than ever to popular music. Certainly not what it was just ten years ago before the digital revolution.

iPod-toting consumers are in the process of taking back popular music and to look to the old model of fat cats making artists wealthy beyond their dreams is as old as the notion that young people wait for Tuesday to hear those three new songs a hit radio station adds to their playlists.

To paraphrase the Danny and the Juniors song of the 1950’s – Rock and roll is here to stay, it will never die. It was meant to be that way – though we now know why.

The artists.

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