The New York Times Magazine had an interesting piece over the weekend on how musicians are building new distribution networks and fan bases via the Internet.
The piece kicks off by profiling Jonathan Coulton, a former computer programmer and unsigned Brooklyn indie artist who is making a “reasonable middle class living” by selling CDs and music downloads via his web site, iTunes, and CD Baby. Coulton built a fan base by recording a song a week for all of 2006 and then posting them on his blog. They ranged from odes to Tom Cruise (“Tom Cruise Crazy”) to pieces about the dead-end life of a programmer (“Code Monkey”).
Coulton managed to get 3,000 people a day visiting his web site and as many as 500,000 downloads of some of his songs. Not only has the Internet changed the music business model, it has changed the way artists interact with fans. Coulton spends hours each day e-mailing with fans and blogging.
This is not a trend that affects A-list stars. The most famous corporate acts — Justin Timberlake, Fergie, Beyoncé— are still creatures of mass marketing, carpet-bombed into popularity by expensive ad campaigns and radio airplay. They do not need the online world to find listeners, and indeed, their audiences are too vast for any artist to even pretend intimacy with. No, this is a trend that is catalyzing the B-list, the new, under-the-radar acts that have always built their success fan by fan. Across the country, the CD business is in a spectacular free fall; sales are down 20 percent this year alone. People are increasingly getting their music online (whether or not they‘re paying for it), and it seems likely that the artists who forge direct access to their fans have the best chance of figuring out what the new economics of the music business will be.
But the B-list increasingly includes a newer and more curious life-form: performers like Coulton, who construct their entire business model online. Without the Internet, their musical careers might not exist at all. Coulton has forgone a record-label contract; instead, he uses a growing array of online tools to sell music directly to fans. He contracts with a virtual fulfillment house called CD Baby, which warehouses his CDs, processes the credit-card payment for each sale and ships it out, while pocketing only $4 of the album’s price, a much smaller cut than a traditional label would take. CD Baby also places his music on the major digital-music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster. Most lucratively, Coulton sells MP3s from his own personal Web sites, where there‘s no middleman at all.
The writer, Clive Thompson, assigns these artists, like Coulton, the rather moth-eaten title of Artist 2.0. (Can we finally retire 2.0 as a way of describing something or someone exploiting new technology?!?) Despite the hackneyed terminology, Thompson rightly recognizes how the Internet has revolutionized the music industry and really opened up a whole new set of opportunities for the indie artist. There’s some great ideas in this piece for people looking to promote their music online.