Although they have pretty much been superseded by CD-Rs and mp3s, cassette-only releases were once the only lasting documents of obscure scenes and artists who might otherwise have slipped under the radar entirely. At the time, of course, their circulation beyond a small group of fans was fairly limited (hence their enduring obscurity)... Now, however, some of those fans have dug up the old tapes and made them available to an almost limitless audience, via the web.
One of them is Krucoff, who has posted Lest We Forget, a compilation of 80's Berkeley punk bands, on his website (via Boing Boing). Another is Dutch net label WM Recordings, who have released a selection of mp3s from Bob Chaos, an 80's cassette-only label devoted to strange music from Muncie, Indiana.
In traditional music industry business models, the primary focus is on churning out hits – mass appeal songs performed by marketable artists that can be heavily promoted and thus earn the company squillions. Such a paradigm is based on scarcity – because of space constraints, a record store can only stock so many CDs, so you want to make sure that the CDs which are stocked, are the ones that are most likely to sell.
But, this paradigm starts to break down when you move online. A web store is not limited by space so can potentially stock any recording ever made (if its Amazon-sized, of course). Faced with such a dizzying array of choices, consumers start to explore, and their appetite for the traditionally non-commercial (fuelled by those “If you like this, check out this” lists) expands… As a result, everything that becomes available online eventually finds a buying public. Sure, in many cases, it may only consist of one or two punters, but when you consider that there are hundreds of thousands of these little niche sellers, then what you are talking about is a market whose unit-shifting potential rivals that for the small handful of stars at the top of the charts…
In the business, this is known as the Long Tail, and just what it means for the future of the entertainment industry, is explored at length by Chris Anderson in this very, very interesting article from Wired magazine.
Back in April, I featured a web-only-release mp3 album called London Booted on the show. The album, which consisted of mash-up remixes of songs from London Calling by The Clash, and was notable because it encouraged anyone who wished to download it to first donate money to one of selection of charities (once you did this you could download the album for no additional cost.) The nominated charities included such worthy enterprises as War Child, which aids children who have become victims of war, UK Cancer Research, and Future Forests, a reforestation programme that gives you the chance to invest in a Joe Strummer memorial forest on the Isle of Skye. (More recently, a mash-up of Blur’s album Park Life called Parkspliced has been released online with the same donate-before-downloading approach to distribution.)
And what’s really great about this commendable use of the medium is that it isn’t limited to one-offs… The Global Music Project, which was set up by net label pioneer Peter Fosso (NetMusic.com), provides an ongoing supply of mp3s which artists furnish free of charge - so long as you donate to a recommended charity... Go there now, donate and download the songs, and - if you like what you hear - make sure you buy any future releases by the bands concerned.
Because it costs next to nothing to digitize and upload old records, online music distribution offers the promise of easy access to the dusty corners of label back catalogues, that were previously only available on long-deleted vinyl.
Unfortunately though, the current batch of online music stores tend to reissue old vinyl in a format that neglects to pass on information like release dates of the original recordings (using those of their most recent CD reissues instead), full lists of those who performed on it, and original liner notes.
All of which may seem like fusty ephemera in the on-demand, pay-per-track world of top-end net labels, but it serves an important role in marking out the history of those old vinyl-based genres, and helping people navigate their way through it… For more information (with specific reference to its impact on jazz) and links to where you can have your say about this glaring oversight by the i-Tunes of this world, check out this article by Wayne Bremser.
Anyone whose a musician (and not a member of Jet) may find the following depressingly familiar…
A couple of years ago, John Buckman’s wife signed to a indie label, recorded a CD and released it into the marketplace. Ultimately, 1000 copies of the CD were sold, but all she received in royalties was a paltry $137 (1% of the price of the CDs)… And this was from an artist-friendly label who gave her a 70/30 split of all profits!
So where did all the money go? Well… “The label got screwed at every turn: distributors refused to carry their CDs unless they spent thousands on useless print ads, record stores demanded graft in order to stock the albums, and in general, all forces colluded to prevent this small, progressive label from succeeding.”
This disheartening experience spurred John to set up Magnatune, an online mp3 label dedicated to ensuring that artists actually get a fair share of the money that comes from music sales… 50% of it to be exact, and the artists keep the rights to their music. In addition, Magnatune have adopted a novel approach to pricing; giving you the option of paying anywhere between US$5 and US$12 for an album ($8 is recommended but generosity is encouraged for the artists’ sake.)
The music itself spans a wide variety of genres; anything from Renaissance and Indian classical, to electronica, punk and metal. And its all available under an “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” Creative Commons license. This means you're welcome to use it in any non-commercial works of your own.
All things considered, its hard not to concur with Mr Buckman when he declares, “We’re a record label. But we’re not evil.”
(FOOTNOTE: Compare this with the activities of the big record companies, who were recently ordered by a New York court to pay $50 million worth of royalties which they had been keeping from many of their artists. The companies’ excuse for not handing over this money was that the artists were too difficult to find… Some of these difficult to find artists included Sean “P Diddy” Combs, Gloria Estefan and Dolly Parton…)
Around these parts, Otis Fodder is a much-admired individual... This Seattle-based DJ was the genius behind 365 Days, an online project which delivered one mp3 of interesting, obscure (and often out-of-print) music per day for the whole of 2003. (Some of the highlights of this project have been posted on this site already. Others will be featured in future postings.)
With 2003 over and the 365 Days Project retired to P2P land, Otis Fodder has joined that growing band of altruistic music producers who are setting up free online labels. Every recording that comes out on Otis' Comfort Stand label is released only as a set of mp3s (192k+ encoding). These are posted on the label's site along with professional jewel-box formatted artwork and liner notes - and it can all be downloaded for free. (Provided, of course, that its used for "private and personal" purposes. If you intend to use any works commercially, its expected that you'll do the right thing and get a licence from the artists.)
Comfort Stand debuted at the end of last year with an excellent "double CD" of contemporary exotica called Two Zombies Later. Since then its churned out another 30 albums & singles which have included such diverse fare as found home recordings, the work of a music-sharing remix community, Argentinian psychedelia, reknowned SF busker The Space Lady, an imaginary metal band, and a compilation of "space music".
(If you applaud this approach to music distribution, but none of the afforementioned is your cup of tea, don't worry... There are another 80 plus free online labels out there for you to explore. You can find them on The Netlabel Catalogue.)