Charles Basenga Kiyanda

Unsprung Artists and

I was strolling around the tube, reading the different blogs I like to read when I came across this posting by an internet company, SONGboost. What are they saying?

If you are an unsprung artist (unsigned, unknown, undiscovered, emerging) and your wondering how to make money from music, you should not plan your future around selling CDs or digital downloads. In fact, holding out for your portion of a $.99 cent download may be hurting your career.

They go on to show, with some back of the enveloppe math, that at a profit margin of .69$ a song, breaking even on an album which cost 100k$ (50k$ in production costs and 50k$ in advertising) would require 142 000 downloads. According to their estimate, this would require your band to be in the top 2000 artists in the english speaking world.

More back of the enveloppe calculation takes home the point that there’s a simpler alternative.

Because nobody completely appeals to 100% of the population, your music needs to be in 200,000 to 300,000 iPods now, to convince and convert 5,000 fans (2 to 2.5% conversion rate) to pay to attend your show, to buy a shirt, buy a hat and/or visit your website numerous times over the next year.

Omitted but implied is that this alternative is much closer to reach than the former. Their final conclusion is interesting. Basically, you should treat digital music as a publicity (I would imagine this to lower to marketing costs, so your initial investment is then more in the line of 50k$) and get it out there to make fans and get them to your shows.

I believe you should put your music on every site/system, legal and not, in the world. You should turn on the download option and deploy download buttons everywhere you can. You need spins to get to the point where you can sell shit that has a higher margin than .69 cents. The CD is dead, digital music is here to stay, illegal file sharing will live on, and the sun will shine tomorrow. Go for exposure and get to a point where you can make money; if you hold out for digital music download revenue, that business may not be around in three years.

Is this correct? I don’t know. Is it an interesting point of view? Absolutely. Thinking about this issue recently I came to the (uninformed) conclusion that this shift is happening right now, though. My understanding is that, traditionally, the music labels would take most of the profits from music sales and that artists would take more profits (I don’t know if it’s most) from shows and other stuff they sell (shirts, hats, etc). So as far as the artists are concerned, the model hasn’t changed. Your income is still from shows and what not. The problem is for the music labels, whose business model is basically dead. We’re now able to distribute music in far more countries at once, in far more convenient form, at much faster speeds and for much lower cost then they could by pressing little plastic coasters and packaging them in 3 layers of plastic

How does that relate to the distribution of knowledge in the scientific world? Good question. I don’t think the analogy is very easy to make, mostly for two reasons:

  1. There isn’t a direct monetary gain for scientists from their knowledge. Basically, we don’t sell papers. Well, we kind of do. We sell reports and teaching time, the idea being that if the papers we’ve written before were good, we’re likely to produce more good ones in the future. Still, we don’t perform our papers, really, in the same sense as artists do.
  2. The distribution system has been intimately intertwined with the appreciation system. And that’s not fun. So, depending on how your stuff gets out there sort of influences how good people think you are. We know it’s not right. Just because nature publishes your stuff doesn’t actually make it right. It just makes it published in nature. We assume that nature has more stringent rules and that nothing gets passed them (or at least less does). It may well be so. I’ll have to look around and see if someone has a compilation of # of retractions per journal or something similar compared with the impact factor of the journals. (The current “good” method of assessing whether you’re writing crap or not. Well, really, it’s a way of saying whether people are reading the crap you write, not really how good it is, but anyway. It’s a proxy for how good we are and we don’t really challenge it these days.)

In any case, I’ll have to dwell on this analogy for a little and write more later on.

2 comments to Unsprung Artists and
  • The analogy to science doesn’t apply at all. Business chases profit, scientists chase prestige. Profit means you hoard as much as possible, releasing carefully controlled product to people for as much money as possible, build barriers for competitors, etc. Prestige means you try to distribute as widely as possible, collaborate with the best people possible, have the best and coolest ideas possible, etc. They lead to totally opposite outcomes.

    As well, I think music profits will be made from advertising (on radio stations for example) and all the financial outsomes from shows. I’m with you that selling CDs is dead. The record labels should get on board.

  • Alex,
    I agree with you regarding some fundamental differences between the two fields. Still, I think there are similarities that warrant further examination.

    In both cases, you have a content producer (the artist or the scientists) and a content distributor (the music label or the scientific journal). The relationship between the two appears, to me, rather similar. Content producers profit (in one case in direct cash revenue and in the other in indirect cash revenue through an increased “social” standing or reputation amongst his peers) from maximizing the distribution (but not necessarily from maximizing the revenues from distribution) while content distributors profit from maximizing the revenues from distribution (but not necessarily from maximizing the amount of distribution).

    I’m not saying the analogy is perfect and I’m not advocating trying to replicate exactly what will happen in the music industry. I do believe, though, that by examining what’s happening in the music world and trying to draw links to the world of science distribution, we’ll be able to learn valuable lessons.

    Thanks for the comment though, you’ve forced me to articulate what I thought sonner rather than later. 🙂

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