Kick(start) Out the Jams

Kickstarter is in the news lately for its place in the art community as an agent of empowerment, ownership and control. Zach Braff is using Kickstarter to help finance a movie because a studio is too shortsighted to let him have final cut. Amanda Palmer advocates Morrissey using KickStarter to make millions for a new record.

Meanwhile, in the past year I’ve talked to a lot of artists who are friends, some of them new and some older who all lament over the same thing: this shit is hard, and those that used to make it easier aren’t participating very well.

It used to be an artist made a record, did interviews, played live and then went back to recording. They controlled their public presentation in a highly tuned way. Their manager and their label handled the rest. Accounting, new innovations, alternative distribution, sponsorships, etc. Labels did an admirable job at that.

That was easier when the potential ceiling was so high because the breadth of outlets was so narrow. As new outlets got added, the ceiling lowered, but the relative amount of work increased. Low potential with a lot of required work doesn’t work financially for the most part, especially spread upon an entire roster.

Kickstarter, Pledgemusic and the like have offered a way for artists to avoid having to depend on the label to front money for those outlets, and instead let fans participate in raising money in exchange for the work produced plus some extras. It falls into the “Best” category in the “Good, Better, Best” marketing strategy that emerged with Direct to Consumer e-commerce at the labels.

I wonder though, is this the best way?

What would be better for us as a fan: funding Morrissey’s next record in exchange for a t-shirt, or funding Morrissey to buy back his master catalog from his label? Which is better for him?

A label has to bet that product will find an audience for any money to be made. They front a lot of money to make that happen, and expect to get it back. When they do, everyone is happy. When they don’t, they at least retain ownership of the masters to exploit as a part of catalog marketing. When the record is successful, that retention of master rights is critical as there are infinite amount of ways to re-exploit something that was successful, i.e. 25th anniversary reissues with bonus tracks, new packaging, video EPK’s. The extras cost nothing, but the revenue is all incremental and welcome. As well, catalog actually benefits from the breadth of outlets since the initial costs are already accounted for. It’s all upside.

In short: the three majors could fire all their A&R and staff focused on “new”, sit on their catalogs and mint money year over year by just exploiting things they already own.

Unless they don’t own them.

Metallica made some waves recently by buying back their masters, or allowing them to revert back to them. They then cut their own distribution deals with iTunes and a physical distributor. But their catalog is theirs to do with what they will. No Greatest Hits unless they want it.

Other bands have masters reverting soon as well, or the money to buy them back. Pearl Jam, U2, etc. Some of the biggest records ever are reverting.

It’s known in the music circles that even private equity money is sniffing around at this. Could venture capital be applied to help artists buy back catalog for their own use? Sort of like estate asset control before death.

If we are to find any silver lining in the next few years in music, my hope is that it resides in artists being able to own the music they made wholesale and finance this in creative ways. At that point, all of the “artist service” companies that are in the market start to make sense. Empowering Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M. or Metallica to be true direct-to-consumer bands is meaningful money in the music/tech ecosystem and upsets the leverage the labels have held (in a good way).

So to Morrissey, Gang of Four, Grant Lee Buffalo and everyone else who still has a major label or distributer in the “Label” field on Amazon, don’t raise money in Kickstarter to release a new record.

Raise money to change all of those to “Label: Me, mother fucker (LLC)”

Let’s make these musicians’ third act the removal of the unnecessary actors from the stage.


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