Can A Musician Sell Their Music Online?

I recently started working on ideas for a blogging platform specifically for musicians (and maybe other artists). Most musicians I know want to have an independent web site for their works, but have no idea how to go about it. The few that do understand what it takes to make a website know next to nothing about online promotion and getting their message out. Many times musicians rely on MySpace as their web site, since just about every other musician is there. A few use twitter to keep in touch with fans. Yet, despite all that, I haven’t really found an easy piece of technology that provides musicians with specifically what they need.

As I started looking at what I’d need on a site, and hacking up some software to do it, I came to the real question every musician would ask:

How do I sell my music on my site?

I’m nowhere near ready to sell any music to anyone. I’m probably not going to “sell” anything I make and just let people take my stuff and go with it. But at the school where I study guitar there’s plenty of great musicians. Musicians who’ve won a grammy or two. Musicians who gig regularly and run multiple bands while teaching. These are guys and gals who you’d actually want to listen to if you could get to their music and pay for it.

Amazon And Friends

At first I thought, “You just go to amazon, sign up as a artist and upload your stuff.” Right? That’s how it should be at least. The truth is, amazon does not let individual musicians sell their music online unless they are signed to a label of 250 or more people. That information I even had to find out poking around and asking questions. For all I know you have to be one of the 4 big labels or approved by them. Probably not that bad, but I got no idea because there’s not much information on Amazon’s site about how you sell music through them.

With a bit more research I found out the ugly truth: The only way a musician can sell their music on Amazon is if they go through a label or pay for CDs that CD Baby holds for them. Once the musician sends a idiotic piece of plastic to CD Baby then their music can be sold on Amazon. Another option was Tune Core which did basically the same thing. You give them your music, they then act as a “label” and sell your music on Amazon, and collect a fee.

This is absolutely fucking retarded. We are in the age of the internet where I can communicate directly with someone who likes my work, and yet I’m still paying some middle man to do nothing other than move some bits around on a piece of plastic. When you think of all the piracy cases the labels are fighting, it all makes sense. They really don’t care about Joe The Plumber sharing music with his buddies. That’s free promotion, and they do plenty of that on their own. What the labels care about is if musicians start selling directly to Joe The Plumber. The major labels are deathly afraid that a company like Amazon will simply open up it’s selling system to anyone, cutting the labels out of their skim off the top.

In the past musicians needed labels to do their promotion and production because the cost was too high. Musicians needed to pay for studio time, production, CD printing, touring, radio promotion, travel expenses, etc. Today a musician doesn’t need a label at all. She can sit at home with most likely a better home studio, a laptop, and the internet and completely replace Sony. With social networks and advanced communication tools, a musician can talk directly to fans and do their own promotion. In a city like New York you can be a fully employed touring musician playing gigs every night and never leave the city.

This scares the shit out of the labels, which is why they’re suing guys like Ryan Sit for simply making a bit of software that “combined Seeqpod, Last.fm, and Pandora to create Favtape.” Software that helps fans find new music outside of the label’s control means that you don’t need the labels anymore.

You don’t need a PR firm pushing chunks of plastic if the search engines are good enough to find music you might like.

Competitors Don’t Get It

Are there alternatives? Yes, but none of them really get it right. I can upload my content to any of these web sites:

And that’s just a few sites I found after asking around for about an hour. I’m sure there’s tons more, but even on these sites I couldn’t find where you can actually charge a listener for music. You can upload, share, remix, collaborate, and search but you can’t charge.

Why is charging for music important in the age of Mr. Lessig and the end of Copyright? Because many musicians won’t bother putting any music online if they can’t make money off some of it. Face it, many musicians get into the business to get signed, get laid, and/or get paid. All that talk about “you just need 1000 fans” doesn’t mean anything if they can’t take their works and actually charge those 1000 fans.

The stupid part is that all of the above sites could potentially become the place where musicians sell their music online, but none of them have their shit together to pull it off. They want to be “remix sites” or “social networks”, but none of them want to fill the badly needed niche of “sell music to fans without a label”. And no, Tune Core doesn’t do this because they are basically a label acting as a middle man again.

The point of a site that helps musicians sell music is the site shouldn’t have to call itself a “label” or act as a middle man to another company. This is the key difference between a site like etsy.com or ebay.com since they sell from one consumer to the next, and simply charge a little on top. They don’t give a shit what you sell, or who you sell it to, or how you promote it (within reason of course). They don’t require you to send a plastic CD to them before they’ll sell your goods. They don’t ask you to prove you’re the author or that you’re “signed”. All they care about is that you offer to sell something and someone else offers to buy it.

Amazon To Blame?

What’s happened here is the labels have used the one power they still have to keep the business organized in their favor. All the major labels still have massive legal powerhouses and lobbying firms at their disposal. They also know exactly how the business is played right now. Combine the two and they can use their lawyers and lobbyists to keep the business the way they like it: Competitors need to print CDs, have studios, and spend the same money Sony does to exist.

For whatever reason, Amazon caved to the labels, and in order to get the right to sell fucking Britney Spears songs, Amazon probably agreed to cut out any potential competitors to the current business model. Last time I checked, Amazon was a company that liked to make money, so why they would agree to this deal for just a few million songs is baffling. I shows that Amazon didn’t really understand its power in the situation, because the labels all want one particular thing:

Keep their current business model, but lower costs with online distribution.

You see, even the labels probably hate CD printing. If Sony could get all the exact same prices for music, reach a larger audience, and not have to print a single CD they’d be happier than Stevie Wonder when Valtrex came out. The labels need a company like Amazon to sell their stuff, and instead of Amazon putting the screws to them, Amazon caved and agreed to cut out independent musicians.

Now this is all speculation on my part, but the proof is very simple: An individual cannot sell their music through Amazon without going through a “label” first.

My Proposed Solution

After thinking about this topic for a while, I realized that maybe the solution is to just cut Amazon out of the picture too. The problem isn’t really Amazon, Tune Core, or Sony. The problem is gatekeepers in general. Even if these companies open things up for musicians to sell their music, you’d still be stuck at having to sell through another company that doesn’t really add value.

What’s needed is a mechanism for a musician (or any artist) to put their music on their site, and then let a fan click a button to buy it. Wow, revolutionary right? A widget that plays some music, and then has a link to where you can buy the music. Gee, that sounds kinda hard, I wonder if I could do it.

The “play music then buy it” feature actually isn’t that hard. On my site you’ll find that I have it working already. There’s various ways in this little XSPF player to route a listener to a web page and I spent maybe 30 minutes setting it up. From that page you could have a paypal purchase button and then they’d get to download the songs. Easy (assuming paypal doesn’t fuck it up too).

The hard part of removing the gatekeepers like Amazon is getting fans to go to a site and listen to music. If you look at MySpace or any of the other music publishing social network sites, there’s very little in the way of a good search or even just a way to easily play music from random musicians. Last.fm probably comes closest, but they look to be going the direction of catering to the label’s whims. However, blogs don’t need a site like MySpace or Last.fm to exist and become famous. We have the entire damn internet, and sites like Hacker News that act as resonators to help people find sites they’d be interested in. A social network is completely unnecessary with the right “browser”.

What you need is something like RSS and an RSS reader for music. This combination for music could cut out the labels the same way that those two technologies are cutting out pure news sites. People would be able to find musicians and then subscribe to the musician’s “music feed”. If it were good enough it might even kill off the concept of an album completely, leaving behind just music streamed from a site with updates when new material is available.

As an example, let’s take the XSPF format as our “music RSS” and then we’re about 1/2 done. To finish the idea off, we’d need a player that worked like an RSS reader or a podcast system. The key though is that listeners can click a link on any site with a feed icon and the musician’s music instantly shows up in their reader/player, as well as future publishings on the site. Exactly like RSS. XSPF is simple enough and flexible enough to do this that you wouldn’t need the fairly idiotic and complex “podcast” format.

With that you can start aggregating the XSPF files together to create larger feeds for people to find. You can also link directly back to the publisher on their site, so if there’s any copyright infringement the copyright holder can just go directly to the source and sue.

In conclusion, here’s my dream scenario: A musician goes to a simple musician focused blog site and signs up in 10 seconds. It could be any web platform, doesn’t have to be tailored to them. They then start writing and publishing music they’ve written. Maybe they also write blogs about their lives and the music. Ideally their music would be collected and placed into a consistently located XSPF feed for their fans. Maybe the music is down sampled so fans have an incentive to pay for the better quality versions. Either way, the fans use their “XSPF feed player” desktop application to play music from musicians they find. They subscribe to a musician by clicking the music feed icon. If the fan has ran out of music to listen to, they can use an music feed site that aggregates a bunch of musician’s feeds. Finally, if a fan likes what they hear, they go check out where the musician is playing, or just buy the stuff with a few clicks. The feed player doesn’t even need to do the actually payment part, just bounce them to whatever paypal or payment system the musician is using.

Of course, the devil is in the details on this, but so far I’ve managed to cobble together a 164 line script that does a good portion of the work. It’s not a fully working solution, but it is a really good start at a legal way of wiping out the labels and companies like Amazon that support their antique business models.

Please shoot me your thoughts on the idea, positive or negative.