Friday, May 24, 2013

Music must be marketable to matter

In preparation for my new startup, I've been reading books on various subjects related to business, such as negotiation, accounting, and so forth. One subject that keeps popping up again and again is marketing. Now, in pretty much every music scene out there, marketing is just a synonym for promotion. When you look at the word itself, though, there's much more to it than that. A market is where sellers compete to offer goods and services to buyers. So being marketable means staying competitive in the marketplace, and marketing is really about asserting a constant presence within it.

In every other industry, all of this just goes without saying. Ask a pizzeria owner how he stays in business, and he'll speak in terms acknowledging that his customers might just as easily go to his competitors. But he maintains their loyalty by using only the freshest ingredients, offering fast and friendly service, sponsoring community events, and so on. How a pizzeria gets paid is directly related to how it competes in the marketplace. It would never occur to the owner to think any other way.

Ask the loudest people in today's music industry how an artist is to get paid these days, however, and they'll chatter on about new distribution channels, online tools for booking shows, and so on. Almost none will speak in terms acknowledging that each listener's time and spending money are limited, and that a gazillion other bands out there are hoping to claim their share of it.

The worst offenders are those established artists who gained exposure under a previous model, yet are now trumpeting some new model as the road to salvation for each one of the gazillion unknown bands out there. These artists get invited to give TED Talks on "The Future of Music." Any first-year business major, however, can easily out them as snake oil peddlers. Until you've acknowledged the competitive reality of the marketplace, your proposed solution belongs in the fantasy fiction section, alongside hobbits and vampires.

I do get it, though. Rock music has finally reached the point that classical music was at half a century ago, where the most pioneering artists are now the least likely to achieve mainstream popularity in their own time. Given this reality, competition naturally loses any meaning as an arbiter of artistic worth and thus gets left by the wayside. I get that.

But when aspiring pioneers stop competing for financial success, they lose a valuable tool for self-appraisal used by everyone else, including artists from the past, to improve what they have to offer. This makes it easier to neglect their marketability in areas that definitely should matter, such as social relevance and intellectual interest. And then they're left woefully unprepared to compete in the only market that can possibly redeem all their efforts: the marketplace of history.

Consider two frontrunners in today's indie rock and contemporary classical scenes, respectively. Bon Iver might beat Jack Johnson hands down, sure, but he still has to compete against the Beatles. Thomas Adès might have the edge over Eric Whitacre, but there's still Beethoven to contend with. (On a side note, it just occurred to me that Adès and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon share a resemblance, although maybe it's just the beards.)

While both are highly accomplished, neither Adès nor Vernon has invented a new musical language or idiom, which doesn't bode well for their chances at posterity. Sure, it's easy to think of history as an awards show, where one only has to beat the other nominees in one's respective category for any given year. But even if this were a fitting analogy, let's not forget that when we pore over lists of winners past, plenty will fail to stick out as names we recognise, much less care about. Their years are now placeholder years to us; there's no rule saying we must treat them otherwise.

And there's no rule saying that music history can't have its own placeholder years, or even decades. So how does one stay competitive in the marketplace of historical relevance, when the passage of time is forever compounding the artistic worth of those who came first? Where do new musical languages and idioms come from? Looking at past composers and bands who've managed to hold their own against Beethoven and the Beatles, I'd say they come from some weird combination of blissful naivety, relentless ambition, and heightened awareness of history's crushing weight. That's just my guess, though.

But finding a definitive answer isn't my concern here. I'm just pointing out that any artist who remains blithely unconcerned about competing in a marketplace will probably get trampled by history, because history itself is a marketplace. And until this reality is acknowledged, music won't be following us into the 21st century. We need to shout this from the rooftops again, and again, and again.

Music must be marketable to matter. Every other solution being peddled out there is just so much snake oil.

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