Bloggers vs floggers
RICHARD BROPHYon what record labels really think of blogs
IN THE 1980s, record labels used to claim that “home taping is killing music” and that anyone who had the temerity to make a cassette copy of a band’s album was contributing to the industry’s demise.
Of course, the labels were wrong: while music sales continue to fall – for a more complex set of reasons – artists are still releasing music and touring, labels are still signing new acts, fans are still sharing music and the industry is still up in arms about piracy.
The main difference now is that sharing music has become a more sophisticated pursuit than swapping a humble C-90 cassette – and technology makes the relationship between the artist, label and consumer ambiguous.
The recent Eircom court settlement – whereby the internet service providers agreed to cut the broadband connections of persistent illegal downloaders – paves the way for the Irish music industry to target file-sharers who use peer-2-peer (P2P) networks – but what about the slow yet steady rise in popularity of MP3 blogs?
While all the “big four” record labels companies – Warners, Sony BMG, EMI and Universal – declined to comment for this article, one source from a major label said: “The majors have an understandable fear of blogs and the internet. The net is responsible for cutting sales and profits, but they have been slow to engage with new technology.”
Once again, the music label’s fears are misplaced – maybe it’s because they see some parallels between MP3 blogs and home taping.
“WHERE CAN AN UPCOMING IRISH BAND GO FOR PUBLICITY? THE INTERNET IS THE ONLY PLACE”
MP3 blogs are, in essence, fan sites that share music with a relatively small group of like-minded fans – most blogs’ audiences number hundreds or thousands – and they have become important filters in the search for new music.
However, while the motivation to share music is similar to home taping, reputable MP3 blogs provide music downloads only with the artist or label’s consent. They are also becoming an alternative voice to the print music media: a recommendation from a well-known blog can provide an important boost, especially to a new act.
Niall Byrne set up the Nialler9 blog – www.nialler9.com – in 2005 to post MP3s of “sometimes overlooked but always brilliant” music. Focusing on indie, hip-hop and electronica, Byrne says “music blogs chart the alternative to the mainstream, what you hear on the radio or the TV. These blogs exist because there is no outlet elsewhere in the media. Look at the Irish market. Where can an upcoming Irish band go for publicity and support? The internet is the only place left.”
I also set up a blog a few years ago, Test – www.testindustries.com – to highlight music I felt would not receive attention in the mainstream media. While I limit the number of MP3s I post on the blog because I wanted to concentrate on writing about music, my experience is similar to Byrne’s, with independent labels and artists constantly offering free downloads.
“I get so many e-mails from promotion companies and independents that I can’t look at them all,” he says. “What many people fail to grasp is that a lot of music blogs are given permission to post tracks, so there is nothing illegal about them. Sometimes you can post tracks on your own initiative and if it is an independent label, someone will benefit from the exposure,” he says.
The relationship between independent labels and artists and blogs has developed to such an extent that Colin, who runs the Cubik Musik blog – www.cubikmusik.com – feels that “MP3 blogs have become part of the music machine – unless you are Madonna or Mariah Carey”, while Richard Carnes, who runs the Tape blog – www.tape-club.com – points out that most music PR companies employ someone who deals specifically with blogs.
“We tried to keep the sound quality low so people would buy the music if they liked it,” he explains. “Some labels were really cool with it, but one label did e-mail us to say we were damaging their sales and sent us a ‘cease and desist’ letter. Legally, they were in the right and we took the music down, but it’s all available in high-quality format on the P2Ps anyway.”
“MAJOR LABELS SCOUR BLOGS TO DISCOVER NEW ARTISTS”
Meanwhile, some indie labels have adopted the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach and are involved with Rcrd Lbl
– www.rcrdlbl.com – where well-known imprints such as Warp, Modular, Ghostly International and Kompakt, provide free downloads to registered users.
While MySpace is still seen as the online medium where new bands can gain recognition, the major labels, though loath to admit it, also spend time scouring blogs to discover new artists (whenever their legal teams aren’t trying to clamp down on illicit blogs).
The major-label source says: “It depends on what you are looking for, but some blogs are more effective than MySpace, because someone else filters the music for you. MP3 blogs have replaced the independent record store experience – you develop a relationship with them and trust certain sources for recommending music.”
So what does all this free music do to labels’ sales? With CD sales in freefall, surely free downloads don’t encourage fans to buy music – or do they?
When Carnes started Tape, he used to cap each track he uploaded at a maximum of 100 downloads, but as the site’s popularity grew, tracks were downloaded 500 times a day. He claims that one in every 10 downloads from an MP3 blog results in a sale, but Niall Byrne disputes this figure, saying one in 100 is more accurate.
“BLOGS HELP AS MUCH AS HAVING A TRACK PLAYED ON RADIO”
However, Byrne, whose site clocks up an average of 2,000 downloads per song, believes independent labels don’t count a free download as a lost sale. “Some people may ultimately buy something from the band, another might go to see them live and buy a T-shirt at the gig, so it has positive effects, even if they are not immediately obvious,” he explains.
Jeff Owens, AR manager at Ghostly International, a US-based label that releases electronica, techno and indie music, agrees with Byrne’s sentiments. “If fans really love the music, they will make a purchase of some form related to that artist. This may mean less sales, but adaptation is what keeps us alive ... Records are still being sold, just not at the rate they once were,” he adds.
“I see blogs as a way to open the door for the smaller labels and artists to a more varied audience. You have to think of a blog as a listening station online. You lose some control, but you gain some fans. Blogs help as much as putting a track on a magazine compilation or having it played on a radio or on a podcast.”
Marsel van der Wielen, who runs Dutch electronic music label Delsin, claims that appearing on blogs has helped to boost sales. “I just see it as promotion – our MP3 sales are still growing, so we’re lucky that people want to pay for music,” he says. “It’s a thing you can’t stop – when I was 14 or 15, we copied everything to tape and it’s still the same culture.”
“IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK, YOU CAN GET EVERYTHING IN HIGH-QUALITY AUDIO”
However, there is a murkier side to the blogosphere. For every reputable site, there are numerous MP3 blogs that simply contain page upon page of download links to free music in unlimited volumes. These blogs do not work with artists or labels, they post music in high-quality digital formats and they appear to be solely motivated by earning advertising revenue.
For music fans like Brian McCoy (29) from Co Tipperary however, they provide an irresistible, seemingly infinite catalogue of free music. “These blogs are more like aggregators – they just put up page after page of links,” he says. “When it comes to looking for older music, especially full-length albums, these are the places you go to.”
“When my friends see my hard drive full of music, they are genuinely shocked,” he says. “Maybe only a small amount of people use MP3 blogs, but if you know where to look, you can get everything – some labels’ whole back catalogues in high-quality audio.”
While McCoy says many well-known artists succeed in shutting download links, new ones appear quickly for subscribers to upload/ download services such as Rapidshare and Megaupload to avail of.
“This is definitely hurting labels,” says McCoy. “I take some responsibility: if I find a brilliant record on a small label, I will buy a copy, but someone who is 17 and who has never been to a record store and doesn’t know that culture won’t be bothered.”
“THE INDUSTRY USES THIRD-PARTY SERVICES TO TRAWL BLOGS FOR ILLEGAL CONTENT”
While illicit blogs can be shut down, it only takes a few minutes to set up a new one for free. The industry already contracts third-party services, for example Websheriff, to trawl blogs for illegal content and to contact blog-hosting companies such as Blogger to deal with persistent offenders, but they are only scratching at the surface.
Colin from Cubik Musik believes it is only a matter of time before the major labels start to pursue services such as Rapidshare. “I’m surprised that they aren’t already going after them,” he says.
Irrespective of how the major labels deal with these services, expect MP3 blogs to become an increasingly visible part of the music landscape. As Niall Byrne says: “Blogs about an artist are an indication of the popularity or knowledge of that artist. If I was a label, I’d be worried if my artist wasn’t being blogged about.”
Are blogs bad for music?
Web 2.0allows any one with an opinion and an internet connection the chance to become a critic or commentator. In the music sphere, the downside to the self-publishing phenomenon is that the quality of the subject matter can vary, with bloggers becoming unofficial mouthpieces for tone-deaf amateurs.
While MySpace has also done its fair share to promote sub-standard music to the masses, the fact that blogs are run by fans or critics and that they editorialise about the music that they post means that they are now viewed as a port of call in the search for the “next big thing”.
Blogs have made the the music industry and media’s jobs more complicated. The sheer number of outlets – Hype Machine, the blogosphere’s answer to Google, lists thousands of MP3 sites – coupled with the fact that there really is no accounting for taste means the blogosphere often showcases music that should not have been allowed to leave the studio.
While bloggers make much about the fact that they work with small labels, quite often PR firms give free tracks to blogs to gauge reactions, so blogs are providing a free and effective focus group service for questionable music.
Even more worrying is the blogosphere’s ability to break certain bands. “ Blog house” describes that particularly nauseating convergence of screeching guitars and derivative house rhythms that is Justice and Digitalism’s stock in trade.
However, it would be unfair to lay the blame for uninspired music entirely with bloggers, the vast majority of whom run their websites out of passion. Technology has irrevocably changed music production, giving aspiring artists the opportunity to record albums using little more than a laptop and release it themselves.
This explains the large volume of sub-standard music on a specialist legal download site such as Beatportor on MySpace – whose artist pages aren’t vetted before inclusion, unlike Hype Machine entries.
Colin from Cubik Musikdisagrees that blogs serve to showcase sub-standard bands. “Do blogs lead to bands getting undeserved hype? For the most part, I’d say no ... With blogs, there is an alternative method outside of traditional routes to get heard by a wider audience,” he says.