In the old days, the forerunners of stand up comedians had an act that they did on Vaudeville (meaning those little theatres, all around a country, where such variety acts could do their ten minutes and be paid for doing so). The best acts probably consisted of ten finely-crafted comedy minutes, polished in response to audience reaction, over a career. There was little, if any, new material, from performance to performance. The performer developed his schtick and stuck to it.
What did for Vaudeville was television. Suddenly, the Vaudeville act was seen by millions in a single performance. What that meant was that nobody much came to see the act again, or booked them for a second television appearance. Why? Was it because they were no good? No, they were often sensationally good. The problem was that they had no more new material. The audience had seen the act, appreciated it and now wanted something new. The Vaudeville method of coming up with new material was just too slow and painstaking to satisfy the demand.
I think a similar thing is happening in music, today. In the past, a solo artist or band could write their twelve or sixteen songs for their CD, record them in a couple of weeks or months and spend the next year or so touring those songs. And so they still can. The problem is that it takes a very long time to create a catalogue of even ten albums. It literally takes a decade. How do you keep an audience with unprecedented access to your output interested for a whole decade or more?
What did for the music industry was the Internet. Now, millions of people can listen to your music, seconds after its release. They can listen again, but how many times do you think they will listen again, when there is so much choice to listen to? During those first moments after release, what were you able to sell to your audience? Could they buy a download of more material, or even an old fashioned CD, or will they have to wait for that to be available? How will you get that transient audience that listened to your stuff to come back? How will you stop them rampantly sharing what you’ve already released, if you make it hard or impossible for them to buy more from you right now? Won’t they be listening to something else; by the time you’re ready to do media commerce with them?
Sure, you need to drip feed your art to your audience to maintain the buzz, but if you leave it too long between albums or releases, people forget about you and buy something else, from someone else. If a fan can buy your entire oeuvre in a single PayPal transaction, what are you going to offer them next time? What if they don’t live anywhere near where you are touring your just-released material, for the next year? You’ll be effectively invisible and absent, to those fans.
I think the Vaudevillian approach to music making is anachronistic and no longer commercially viable, especially because of the increased demand for novelty, because of the fact that you can have your music found and consumed, on-demand, globally, instantly and because, frankly, making new recorded music isn’t as expensive as it used to be. I think musicians have to be in the business of cranking out new material on a much more frequent basis, just like the stand up comedians have to.
The work has just become that little bit harder and touring isn’t as worthwhile as it used to be. How can playing to a few hundred people in every town you travel to hope to compete with the potential global audience waiting for your new music on the Internet? Why are you spending the whole day selling to the few people minded to purchase, that came to your concert in Poughkeepsie, New York, when there are literally millions of people starving for your next works, waiting for you to show up on-line? It’s rude to turn your back on the audience when you play, you know. Spend less time on stage and more time on YouTube.
That’s not to say musicians should write, produce and release junk. It still has to meet the quality bar, but the old game of writing a bunch of cracking tunes and touring the hits for the rest of your career is becoming harder to sustain, commercially. If you like touring the old stuff as a “greatest hits” show, great, but if what you are about is writing, recording and releasing relevant and vibrant music, you have to do much more of that, these days. The audience is both more voracious for novelty and more fickle in its loyalties.
The days of the studio musician that produced a single magnum opus work, every decade or so, are drawing to a close. Audiences want something new and amazing, more often. No, you shouldn’t over saturate an audience or bury them in infinite remixes of the same old tunes. Yes, you should be producing more than a dozen new songs every year. If you are going to produce extensive, large-scale works (and I would really hate to see these disappear entirely), you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you, because you’re going to have to produce a lot of them and quickly.
Song writing time, recording, production, remixing and mastering time and the time available to get your music out there and promote it are all getting compressed. The bulk of your sales will happen within a few weeks, days or even hours of release, but you will need to keep a long tail back catalogue too, so that those late to the party have an opportunity of discovering you and getting into you.
How will you respond?