Last week, I participated in The Bandwidth Conference, an industry-oriented two-day conference held here in San Francisco at the Regency Hotel that focused on the relationship between music and technology. I moderated a panel titled Out Of Control -- a discussion about whether a band, their label or their manager can effectively control their image in an era of technological plenitude.
With blogs, sites such as Myspace, Flickr, Buzznet, camera-phones and video phones, forums and online chat, bands at every level of success are negotiating their images with fans. Some bands are trying to create word of mouth interest using these technological tools while others struggle to police what they feel might be threatening or damaging to their band.
Going beyond image, the likelihood of fans distributing music online before it's released -- or even non-commercial live performances or outtakes -- means that bands have less of a say in what interested parties can listen to unless they're willing to obsessively scan the internet searching for unauthorized music. Legal issues aside, is the ability to access music that an artist didn't intend to be released a good or bad thing?
The success of the Itunes Music Store, Rhapsody, Emusic and all of the digital music services proves the point that it's possible and feasible to distribute music online legitimately, i.e. where bands and labels make money. But do we have a right to listen to a band's alternative takes, studio mistakes, or a live show from Pensacola, Florida in 2001?
Bootlegs came into being in the late 1960s largely as a result of Bob Dylan's decision to abandon an album's worth of new music, much of which had been circulated on vinyl acetates to DJs in the US and England by his label, Columbia Records. Those promotional albums became the basis of numerous illegal fan pressings when Dylan's next album included none of the tracks that fans had been introduced to on the radio. There was an unmet demand for this music that was not addressed by Dylan or his label. Initially, bootlegs were risky labors of love, easily exploitable by unscrupulous profiteers looking to make quick money from big name artists.
The bootleg business flourished throughout the '70s and '80s, spawning an aesthetic style that was adopted by the early punk movement with bands designing their albums and singles to look like bootlegs (a whole topic unto itself). Interestingly, the arrival of digital music, peer-to-peer networks, and increasingly tougher international copyright infringement laws has all but destroyed the bootleg business. In its place has sprung up the web-savvy music trader who, out of pure appreciation for a band, distributes obscure, unreleased or live music to other fans. Not motivated by money, these are the same people who buy that band's albums, t-shirts, and show tickets.
Maybe it can all be boiled down to the same tug of war between artist and fan that's been going on as long as the notion of popular music has been with us. An artist struggles to create and carefully maintain an idea of who they are; and fans are so personally moved they seek to obliterate all obstacles between themselves and the person responsible for the art they love. The difference is the internet and the increasing access it affords us all.
One of the panelists, Wayne Greene, managing partner of Everloving Records a label responsible for releasing Michael Andrews' haunting cover of "Mad World" from the Donnie Darko soundtrack and Jack Johnson's first album, advises his artists to conduct all business as if there's absolute transparency -- fans will sooner or later hear, see and basically know everything there is to be discovered.
As music has an increasingly intimate relationship with technology, it's important to find ways to balance the benefits and drawbacks of technological plenitude. Technology won't establish the rules of conduct, it's only a means to play by them... or not. So who gets to set the rules, the artist or the fan? Our panel illuminated many issues and ideas but fell short of a solution. As an intermittent obsessive music fan and occasional music industry professional, I am hoping that a solution will arise where both sides win.