So I was reading this interview with the lovely and talented Miss Amanda Palmer, and some of what she says made me think of the commentary on the music industry I wrote for Mperia, back in the day — specifically, my little manifesto, “Burning Down The House”. Since Mperia is long gone and the original text isn’t extant on the web, I thought I’d post it here.

I got some of this wrong, but I got most of it right, and it’s gratifying to see how much I got right so far ahead of everyone else’s curve. (Hey, I may sound like a self-congratulatory asshole, but you know what? We failed. My consolation is that I was right, even if I failed. So nyah-nyah-nyah.)

“Burning Down The House”

I. What The Deal Is

So here’s the deal, folks: it’s a new millenium. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, going into this shiny new epoch, it is this: the medium is not the message. “Music” does not equal “compact disc”. Music is data. It doesn’t matter whether you burn it to a CD or rip it to an iPod or a Memory Stick or store it on your hard drive. It’s still music.

Take a minute to internalize this concept.

Once you get past the notion that music has to come in the form of a shiny little Frisbee that retails for $16.99 at your local MegaSuperMusicPavilion, certain other truths that once seemed self-evident begin to unravel — such as the idea that the only way to become a successful musician is by signing a recording contract with a giant corporation.

We don’t think giant corporations are evil by default. But we do think that they’re not very good at feeling the groove. They’re not intuitive. They’re not funky or majestic or numinous. No corporation in the history of civilization has ever stumbled home from a club at the crack of dawn, put the first Velvet Underground album on and kicked back to watch the sun rise. They don’t — can’t — know that feeling.

So why are they the ones who get to make the decisions about who gets to rock and roll?

Which brings us to Mperia.

Mperia allows artists to sell their work directly to their audience — the audience they already have, and the global audience behind every Net-connected browser and PDA and keitai on the planet.

It allows that audience to find the music they already love, and the music they haven’t heard yet — the music that has yet to become part of the soundtrack of their lives.

And maybe most importantly, for the first time in history it allows artists to earn their fortunes based upon their own merits — not the decisions of a marketing department or an accounting department or the fickle whims of the marketplace.

Do we guarantee you instant riches and fame? No. But we can guarantee you the one thing that the record industry has denied you for almost fifty years: a level playing field.

II. The Myth Of The Rock Star

I’d like to tell you a short story. You’ve probably heard it (or a variation of it) a thousand times, but bear with me. See if I get any of the details wrong.

It’s the story of an idealistic kid (or kids) from out in the sticks (or the ghetto, or the trailer park, or the suburbs). The Kid’s got the magic: he sings like an angel. He plays guitar like the very devil. His lyrics are deep and meaningful and poetic.

So the Kid’s playing a gig one day, right? Maybe at some roadhouse, or some smoky nightclub. And Mr. Big, the head of a major record label, just happens to be hanging out in this roadhouse or this nightclub, maybe on his way to and from one of his posh mansions or something. He hears the Kid. And he recognizes true genius.

After the Kid’s done, Mr. Big comes up to him. “Kid, you got heart,” he says. “How about you come out to Los Angeles and make some records for me.”

So the Kid comes out, with nothing but his dreams and his guitar, and records a record. It sells a million copies. Everybody hears the Kid’s music and is touched by it. He starts dating a beautiful-but-sensitive supermodel. He wins a Grammy. He makes a few more albums, and finally retires out of the public eye with Mrs. Kid (neĆ© Supermodel) and the little Kids — either to an old converted manorhouse in England or a ultramodern home in Laurel Canyon — to live in bliss happily ever after.

The end.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The story of the rock star, the hometown kid done good, is one of the pervasive myths of our time — think of the Beatles in Hamburg, or Kurt Cobain in his trailer in Olympia, or Snoop Dogg on the streets of Long Beach.

Like many myths, it contains a grain of truth. But like all myths, it’s about 99% bullshit.

The myth of the rock star is perpetuated by the recording industry to draw in fresh artists. Without these artists, the recording industry — which, like the Minotaur in another myth, lives solely on the blood of the young and beautiful — would dry up and wither away.

But the reality is much less romantic. It’s difficult to get accurate figures, but one recent estimate I’ve heard suggests that 97% of all musicians with a recording contract make less than $600 a month. That’s musicians with a recording contract; we’re not even counting the hundreds of thousands of musicians slogging away in the bars and the clubs every night who haven’t even caught the eye of a record label — all those Kids with all those dreams.

You’re probably shaking your head right now. Uh uh, man, I watch Cribs. These people are making it big time — they’ve got the big houses, big cars, big clothes, big lifestyle.

Actually, that’s half true. Rock stars do get decked out in big cars and big houses. But they don’t actually own any of it.

Most artists, when they sign a record contract, get an advance — or rather, to call it by its’ full name, an “advance against royalties”. In other words, the record company gives them a fat check up front .But that’s not a payment. It’s a loan, to be paid off by the artist via their album royalties.

Figure that the average recording contract provides the artist with around 12% of the profit from album sales…minus the cost of promotional copies, and copies that arrive at the store broken, and occasionally percentage points awarded to the producer of the album…. When you start doing the math on a CD that sells for $15 retail, you start realizing that the artist has to sell a lot of copies to even begin paying back their advance, much less making any actual money themselves.

And if they don’t sell enough to pay back that advance? The big cars, the big houses, the bling-bling…all of it goes bye-bye. The label repossesses it. The artist is out on the street.

So why don’t you hear about this more often? The answer is quite simple. Most artists don’t figure this out until it’s too late — until their sales start going down. And by that time, you’re not the hot Kid anymore. Nobody’s booking you to go on late night talk shows. Your fifteen minutes are up, and you’re left without a media voice.

At least, that is, until VH-1 comes knocking at your door about ten years later to do your Behind The Music special…and by then, you’re just another rock casualty. And every single Kid who hears your tale of woe thinks “Yeah, but that would never happen to me.”

All of this, by the way, only happens if your record label decides that your music is worth investing the time and money into. I’ve personally known bands who’ve signed with major record labels, only to discover that by the time their first album is recorded and released, they’re not the flavor of the day anymore.

These artists don’t even get fifteen minutes. The label never even releases their album — and they can’t take the album to another label, or even release it themselves, because they’re still contractually obligated to the label that’s tossed them aside. I’ve even known some bands who couldn’t legally perform together as a group anymore because of contractual clauses.

But the business of music is changing. Trailblazing artists like Fugazi and Ani DiFranco have proven the point that you don’t need the vast machinery of a record label behind you to be successful. You can start your own record label. You can record your own albums, do your own promotions, make your own music videos.

Of course, all of these things require money. They used to require so much money that you needed a record label behind you to finance it all.

But time marches on. Affordable home technology improves. Over the upcoming weeks and months, we’ll be showing you how to produce your music at home, find good deals on promotion, even how to shoot your own music videos. We’ve found that what musicians may lack in funding they make up for with creativity and talent.

III. Rich And/Or Famous

Let’s take a look at some figures real quick, and maybe you’ll see why we think Mperia provides artists with a remarkable opportunity.

Let’s say that you’re signed to a label. You get the standard 12% royalty on album sales. We’re going to simplify this and not even deal with the weird little percentage markups and subtractions that the record industry usually throws into these contracts — we’ll just say that you get a straight 12%.

If your album retails for $15, that means you make $1.80 off each album sale. That means that if your album sells 100,000 copies, you stand to make $180,000. Sounds pretty good, right?

But the reality is that most albums sell less than 5,000 copies over a period of months and years. If you did even that well, you’d make $9000 in that time. Plus, if you got any sort of advance from your label, you’ve got to pay that off before you even see a dime in actual profit. So if your label gave you a $10,000 advance, you’d probably never see another penny — and you’d be liable to the label for any difference between the amount of advance you got and the actual amount sold. So you’d end up owing your label about $1000.

Now, let’s look at what you can do with Mperia.

At Mperia, you can sell your work on a song-by-song basis. Let’s say you’ve got 10 songs, priced at $1.00 each, hosted on Mperia.

We take a 30% cut of all of your sales. 15% of that goes to BitPass transaction fees, and the other 15% goes towards our costs of doing business. We think it’s pretty fair, and it’s a lot less than a record label would take.

Let’s say you sell 100 copies of your big hit song in a week. That’s $70. Not a whole lot of money.

But let’s say you sell 100 copies of each 10 song album in a week. Now you’re looking at $700. Much better. That’s enough to pay rent in most major American cities and have some beer money left over. And you’re already making more money than 97% of the signed artists out there.

If you’re entrepreneurially-minded, you might decide to put that $700 a week back into your career — buy or rent a van and go out on tour. After all, you’re making enough to subsidize the costs of touring already — and if you’re getting paid to play at venues, you’re making some decent cash. You print up flyers with your Mperia address on them and hand them out at shows. You might even bring a laptop and let fans buy your songs at the shows directly — after all, they can pay at the show and download at home whenever they want.

Boom! Suddenly you’re selling 500 copies of each song a week. That’s $3500 every week, plus your touring income. Even after touring costs, you’re making more money than 99.9% of musicians with a major record label contract, and it’s your money. You can use it to make videos to promote your music internationally, or to buy a big tour bus — or to buy some expensive recording gear and use your new-found knowledge to record other artists and make even more money. Hell, spend it on brown M&Ms and microbrew if you like.

Are you suddenly famous and hanging out with Ashton Kutcher at the Viper Room? Maybe not. But you’re on your way towards getting rich…and as the jazz singer Pearl Bailey once noted: “I been rich and I been poor, and honey, rich is better.”

Consider this: the Grateful Dead were one of the most successful musical acts in history. Their tours drew thousands of people who did nothing but follow the band around. Their album sales were incredibly respectable — especially considering that they only ever had one Top 40 single in the band’s entire 30-year history, with the song “Touch Of Gray”. And the bands that have followed their model — Phish, the String Cheese Incident, even groups like the Dave Matthews Band — regularly play to sold-out stadiums.

IV. What It All Means

The record companies have been making a lot of noise about file-sharing and peer-to-peer software. While we certainly have our own opinions about the whole p2p question, we think it’s a red herring.

The record labels are afraid of the Internet because they can’t control it. They can’t stop you from selling your work directly to your fans. You don’t need them anymore…and they know it. Peer-to-peer software isn’t a cause, it’s a symptom. The world is changing.

We’re here because we believe that success in music shouldn’t have to do with how well you’re marketed, or how pretty you are, or whether your single fits in with whatever’s trendy at the moment. We believe that the Internet is the most powerful system ever devised for bringing art directly to the people who love it — whether it be East Coast hip-hop or West Texas swing. Whatever you do, there’s going to be somebody out there who wants to add your music part to the soundtrack of their lives. And we’re here to make that happen.

In the end, I guess it all comes down to one question that you need to ask yourself: do you wanna be a pop star, or do you wanna be an artist? If all you want to do is be famous, then you’re in the wrong place.

But if you’re here to bring your music to the people and make some money doing what you love, then Mperia is the place for you. And I’d like to thank you, on behalf of the entire Mperia crew, for letting us help you to help yourself.

Now. Let’s kick some ass, shall we?

Leave a comment