We live in a time of some amazing cultural changes. When the head of marketing at my former label Immergent Records called me in to tell me about this new thing called “Facebook” and that he had set up my own page, and that I needed to spend some time every day updating it, my first reaction was not a positive one. I was already working night and day to keep up with my schedule, and now I had to spend time helping him to market the Big Phat Band? Or course then he says, “Oh yeah, we also set up a Twitter account for you. And you should start posting stuff on YouTube too.” What? You gotta be kidding. Shouldn’t I be spending my time writing and producing music? Isn’t selling this music your job? Of course few of us had an idea of how ubiquitous those platforms would come to be. Nowadays I find myself spending at least 30 -60 minutes everyday on those sites, and on the days that I miss, I start to feel like I am not doing everything I can to stay in the game.
As these platforms have evolved as a way to market your music (or whatever product you may be hawking) I have started to ask some questions about some of the way this whole thing is working.
My manager recently suggested we consider something that more and more artists are doing, which is to pull their videos from YouTube. The feeling is that if people can hear your music on Youtube for free, they are less likely to purchase your records of pay to see the band live. It seems like a pretty radical suggestion to me, but as I thought about it, I realized that there were a number of examples I could site in my own experience to support the idea.
Example #1. When I was in college I took some arranging lessons from Alf Clausen (composer for “The Simpsons”). At the time he was charging $50/hour, which was way more than I could afford at the time. I asked Alf if he could give me a break on the price and he said “I wish I could, but I can’t afford to give up my time for less than that. And frankly, the information you will get is worth that much, or more.” It was hard to argue with, so I scraped up the money and took some lessons. And I found that by paying for the lessons myself I was super attentive, soaking up every word, every nuance. It wasn’t like my parents were writing the check and I was sitting in class, enduring it until I could get out and play the saxophone again. I was on the hook, and therefore assigned real value to the experience.
Example #2 About ten years ago my doctor told me I needed to stop doing my daily run on the streets where I live. He said that it was trashing my knees and that I should run on a track or at the gym on a treadmill. I told him that I might want to just buy a treadmill to have at my house, and he said “Fine, but don’t get a cheap one – don’t buy an $800 treadmill that will break down in a year and you will just hate running on it because it’s so wobbly. Spend a little more.” So I ended up spending around $3000 for this treadmill! And that thing is still in great shape – but the main point is, since I spent so much money on the damn thing, I was determined to get my money’s worth! So I would go up there every day and run for an hour.
Example #3 When I am pounding away on that aforementioned treadmill, I like to watch TV or something, and lately I’ve been watching Netflix on my iPad. Just the other day, I started watching a show at the beginning of my workout, but after about 5 minutes I decided it wasn’t digging it, so I made another choice. I watched that one for about 10 minutes before deciding I didn’t like it either. My 3rd choice was better and I watched it to the end. But it occurred to me that had I went out and rented the first two programs, I would have probably stuck with them and watched them all the way through. I appreciate the affordable price that Netflix charges, and yet it seems to devalue the product they feature to some extent.
Example #4 I believe that we have progressively devalued music throughout the years, and that it dates back to the invention of the phonograph. Once you could package it and sell it, music became a commodity. Consider living in the year 1700. If you wanted to hear music, you had to either learn to play it yourself – which many people did – or get in your horse and buggy and ride down to the town square and listen to a string quartet or brass band. Of course nowadays music is everywhere. We hear it so often that half the time we tune it out as background noise. But can you imagine how music sounded to those people that only rarely got to experience it? It must have sounded like magic to those people! But as technology advances, getting to experience music became easier and easier, with less and less of a personal investment required. To the point where we can currently carry our entire personal music library with us at all times. You don’t even have to manually select the track you want, all you have to do is say: “Siri, play the Big Phat Band” and bam, you are there. Which in that case, may be a good thing (!) but that’s not my point. My point is to ask how much better would it be if you had to earn the privilege of enjoying music? That probably sounds pretty nuts to some of you, but please read on.
Example #5 I don’t have an example #5.
After my manager made the suggestion regarding the Big Phat Band YouTube videos, I thought it would be interesting to test the waters and see what people thought about the issue. So I posted this status on Facebook:
Somebody recently suggested that we pull all the Big Phat Band videos off of Youtube on the grounds that it devalues the product if people can go there and listen for free any time they wish. What do you think? Do you have more appreciation for things you have to pay for?
This post elicited nearly 100 comments in the next 24 hours, with a clear majority saying I should by all means leave them up. The most common opinion was that it was “good exposure” and that people would definitely purchase the music after sampling it on YouTube.
Like this post:
That is absolutely false. People who truly appreciate your music love the free listens on YouTube, and it makes us more motivated to pay to see you in person, hoping you bring the recorded music that we are familiar with to a whole other level.
Or this one:
My two cents. I always thought of it as “free advertising, and in my opinion it has helped to maintain an audience when people are less willing to spend money on things that are for selfless joy.
Some were quite flattering:
Personally, anything I put out there is because I STILL, 13 years later, am pissed because I feel you guys haven’t gotten your proper artistic due as an ensemble. It’s not nearly noticed enough considering the level of musicianship on the band – which is superior to that of any on this planet. I won’t stop posting. EVER. On my Youtube channel, my website, or Facebook – until you have won several more Grammys and you’ve won for best large jazz ensemble. Period.
Or this one:
Hey, Gordon, What you don’t want to forget is that the students and fans of the PHAT BAND LOVE to watch these videos and they totally BOND with the players by seeing them VISUALLY. They know each musician by name, and the chance to meet Eric, Bernie, Andy, Sal, Andrew…any of those guys is an amazing experience for some of these kids! By seeing them play on these videos they feel like they KNOW them and it inspires them in so many ways. It’s a visual world where all these kids are living on their computers and they don’t have the patience to LISTEN , but you grab their attention when they can SEE their favorite guys playing something amazing. That will encourage them to listen to even more music, come hear them play live if that’s possible… download or buy a cd, and they will want to meet their favorite players in person at one of the concerts!
A few were kinda snarky:
I think it’s a free world. If you don’t want to “devalue” your stuff, don’t post it.
Are you comfortable with you life? Do you make “enough” money? In my opinion art is an expression of the human experience. If you are not willing to share your story with others then you should take them down. But if you have a message, then you should try to reach as many people as you can no matter what.
As I consider all these comments, it seems to me that many people may not be very well informed about the economic stresses that many artists have to deal with today. Backing up for a minute, let me say that one of the most gratifying things in my life is hearing young musicians get inspiration from our efforts. I just judged a jazz festival and remarked to a particular band that I still had not gotten used to seeing my charts in a set along side Thad Jones and Sammy Nestico, it’s still quite a thrill for me. I think that music education is so very, very important for people to support and I will continue to do whatever I can to enable it. But, sadly, there is an economic side to the argument. The recordings that we do are not cheap. Believe me, as the guy who writes the checks, I wish they were, but the reality is that we NEVER make our money back on those records. And we are not unique, most jazz musicians are in the same boat. But many of those guys don’t have 18 guys to pay. And, as it turns out, I have 18 high priced guys to pay. Even if the musicians elected to donate their services – and many of them have, or might choose to– the musicians union does not permit them to do it. There is no way the union will go there, and I assure you, I have asked! It is one of our biggest issues – we cannot control how much we spend on our records, and yet we are operating in a marketplace where those records sell for less and less. Believe you me – for every big band record you see for sale on Amazon.com, somebody is in the red on it. The economic equation just does not balance. Most of the time the reason these records exists at all is because of a benefactor. Sometimes it’s the bandleader, sometimes it’s the guys in the band risking a fine by going around the union and donating their time. Sometimes it’s a record label.
And sometimes it’s the musicians’ families. I know this from my own career trajectory. The more time I spend on the BPB, the more popular it got, the less income I brought in. The less time I spent writing commercial music, the less resources I had to spend on making Big Phat Band records. And when your income drops (throw in a recession on top of it all) and it’s time for the family vacation, or time to pay your kid’s college tuition, well, things get complicated. However much I love this music and however much I think it great that it might be helping kids in their jazz studies, the people that hold my mortgage don’t seem to care much about that and they just want to get paid. So this is why artists are starting to look at the current paradigm in a critical way.
The argument that YouTube provides good exposure tends to ring hollow after you’ve been around the block a time or two. How many musicians have heard that over the years? “Play in my club on Friday – I can’t pay you, but it will be good exposure.” Please. But here’s the thing – there is some truth in that –it IS good exposure sometimes. But all too often, that exposure does not lead to monetizing your services, and you get caught in a loop of constantly donating, or getting underpaid for your work. At some point, you need to demand that people respect your efforts and compensate you properly.
But I admit that the current model is quite seductive. I LOVE going on YouTube and being able to see and hear almost anything I want to. Doing research for a style of music I have to compose has never been easier. Want to hear the theme song from an old TV show? Most of them are just a few clicks away. Once again, I LOVE being able to poke around and discover stuff on YouTube. But the question stands – should I really get this service for free? The argument stated in many of the comments to my post said that people discovered the band and only bought the CDs after hearing the music for free on YouTube. That is probably true for many, but when you look at the numbers, it’s not that impressive. One of our tracks on YouTube has 250,000 views – not great compared to a big pop star, but not too shabby for a big band. And yet, I can tell you that we have not come close to selling 250,000 records, or even 125,000 records. So you must question the percentage of viewers that are motivated to buy something that they can get for free anytime they want. If only one third of those 250,000 listeners brought the record, we’re talking about 82,500 records, and I can tell, you have to add up the sales of a few of our records to hit that number. And the argument that the audio quality on the internet is so poor that people will want to upgrade…not sure about this one either, especially when you are talking about younger kids that have grown up listening to MPs and never even heard vinyl or any of the higher end audio formats. These kids have grown up thinking that information and intellectual property should be free, dude. THAT is the battle we are fighting, and many think that Elvis has left the building, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle -pick your analogy.
Regarding the Big Phat Band YouTube videos, I am not sure what we will decide to do about them, but whatever our decision, it is essentially motivated by our wish to continue to play and record this music. If we can figure out a way to not go broke in the process, all the better!
Postscript: Today, I turned on my ESPN app on my phone and it told me I had to upgrade and pay a one time $4.95 fee to continue to use the app. I had been listening to sports talk radio on this app for a year or more, and all of a sudden they want five bucks? What the hell?! Then I realized my position was hypocritical, and that I got at least $5 worth of enjoyment out of their product, so I took my own advice and bought the app. But the fact I had that reaction myself may be illustrative of the degree of the problem we are dealing with.
Postscript #2 How about .25 per view? Would you pay a quarter to hear/view a music video on YouTube? If 250,000 people paid .25 to view one of our videos a single time, that money alone would almost pay for the cost of an entire Big Phat Band record! And if that was the case, our fans would not have to wait 2-3 years between Phat Band releases. Worth thinking about?