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David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: business, opinion, technology, distribution, @musings info

Golden Age, or beginning of the end?

Any guitar player who's been in the game for at least a couple of decades will probably agree: this is the Golden Age of guitar gear. It's strange then, that there are so few guitar heroes in the public eye. And yet MI sales in general, and guitar sales in particular, are higher than they've been at any point in history...

Which raises several interesting (possibly annoying, depending upon your viewpoint) questions: Who's buying all this stuff? Is it mostly "old-timers" like us who remember or care about the golden age of the guitar hero? And if so, what are all those young kids doing in Guitar Center on Saturday afternoon?

Will we ever see a resurgence of virtuoso guitar playing as public spectacle? Personally, I don't think so. There's nothing that any guitarist is doing today that hasn't already been done to death. I believe that the guitar-as-cultural-icon has reached (or is very close to reaching) saturation. Anyone who can scrape together $500 or so can find a serviceable, if not decent, guitar and amp. Educational resources are easy to find as well. A committed student nowadays can get further in six months than some of us could in several years as we tried to figure out the instrument pretty much in isolation. And with the ever-popular (among guitarists, anyway) public jam sessions, all of which have fixed formats; and with club owners hiring bands because they're cheaper than jukeboxes, there's actually a disincentive to attempt to break new ground. The "audience" wants to hear something familiar, not some difficult, uncomfortable experimental crap... So you end up with a hundred thousand guitarists who can trot out their big bag of cliches to echo the likes of Page, Hendrix, SRV and Clapton, and ten million listeners who say "ya, baby, that's the right stuff!". It's a cycle, and cycles don't go anywhere but in circles...

To put a more positive spin on all this, we are fortunate to live in a time when we can find an audience for our music far beyond the reaches of family and the immediate community. Before the advent of sound recording, most musicians performed for family and village gatherings. A few played for hire. Even fewer toured; the modern transportation infrastructure is about as old as sound recording. Much of the modern music business - including its questionable accounting practices, exploitation of artists, and suppression of talented performers in favor of the demographics of larger audiences - took root in the early 1900s. That business model has not only survived, but prospered, over the past hundred years or so. But that's changing...

The convergence of low-cost digital recording, the internet, and a boom in the number of musicians (both professional and amateur) has led to a situation where virtually any starry-eyed teen can self-publish his or her "early" work using the computer that mom and dad supplied "for homework assignments". A musician with a decent day job and a minimum of motivation can pretty easily afford to build a home studio, record a full-length CD, print 1,000 copies complete with four-color artwork and bar-code, and sell that CD through local and online stores. Someone who's been working as a musician long enough to have made a name for him/her self can sell a lot of CDs; Johnny A sold 9,000 on his own before getting picked up by Favored Nations.

And with the change in technology, the economic balance of power is shifting away from the music business per se and toward the musician. A musician no longer has to settle for a miniscule "trickle-down" percentage of CD sales after recoupment. The musician who manages to sell all 1,000 of those self-produced CDs probably ends up with a larger net income than 99% of the artists who sign their work to a label. Find a way to move 5,000 or so CDs and you can quit your day job for a year. I'm not saying that everyone who grabs for the brass ring will reach it. Far from it... there's way more that goes into that kind of success. But it's appealing - and I say this with only a slight twinge of residual bitterness after having been "spit out" by the early-80s videogame business in part because that industry's equivalent of an A&R guy didn't like my work - to have only yourself to rely upon for your ultimate success or failure as an artist.

But that's not what has the music business running scared. The market for music is splintering into increasingly small fragments. There are still a few "big" genres either left over from rock's "golden age" or fueled by teens. The rest of the markets are comparatively small; small enough to be handled by DIY (in the sense I discussed above) or independent producers and distributors. That's not a huge chunk of the market, granted, but it's growing and the majors don't know how to control it. They can't play in these fringe markets because the numbers aren't there. But as the fringe markets multiply, they push an increasing volume of product through channels that the majors don't control.

That's why file-sharing is such a big deal. It's not about loss of current sales; if anything, file-sharing is free advertising. Remember how the major software producers moaned about piracy in the `80s? Remember the "drop a dime" campaigns and the high-profile raids? Remember the flurry of "look `n feel" litigation? And how about the (still ongoing) push to build "war chests" of software patents? It's the same thing all over again with file sharing, but the strategies are different. The first mumurs of opposition predated P2P sharing, although the latter has given the music industry a boogeyman. The argument is that P2P is inherently decentralized and therefore not able to be controlled by a central authority. Never mind that so is the entire WWW... But give the music industry (and other content providers) a foot in the door, and they'll exploit DRM as much as they can. Will they ever be able to lock the little guy out of distributing his own content "for free"? It's technologically unlikely, even infeasible. But it wasn't so long ago that it was illegal to plug a device into the telephone network unless it was manufactured by the the telephone company. We already have the DMCA which makes it a criminal offense to attempt to circumvent (or even to understand the workings of) DRM schemes. All it would take is one or two more pieces of legislation to limit our rights to produce and distribute our own digital content.

Hmmm, I think I'm starting to understand those guys at the EFF...

August 21 2005 23:50:52 GMT