As the big record companies sink ever deeper into corporate tarpits of their own creation, musicians and entrepreneurs and fans are creating the music industry of the future. There won't be as many limos and wrecked hotel suites as in days past, but artists like Tori Amos, Radiohead and Amanda Palmer are finding new ways to fund their careers and connect with fans. And now Boston is the birthplace of one attempt to update the infrastructure that connects fans to the music.
Charlie McEnerney (left) used to play guitar and sing in indie rock bands. Since then he's been a marketer for everyone from HBO to (most recently) ArtsBoston, specializing in web and social media projects. And he's the host and producer of the Well Rounded Radio podcast, started in 2002 and featuring interviews with music's best and brightest. Now he and friends from all over have started Musicians for Music 2.0, trying to inspire artists who made a bundle under the old system to help fund the new one.
McEnerney said that for all the effect iTunes has had on the music business, its interaction with the consumer is still focused on tops acts and the bottom line: "They're (promoting) the same stuff that Tower Records had on the end displays, that's on the cover of the music magazines. ... They just care about selling iPods." He and his cohorts want to establish a small venture fund to put money into music discovery sites, mp3 blogs, podcasts and other tastemaker new-media ventures yet to be invented. The idea is to turn labors of love like Well Rounded Radio into real businesses that can help the next generation of fans discover the next generation of artists.
To that end, McEnerney has recuited seven "co-conspirators" for the Facebook page, from Dan Nash, who runs music sites in the UK, to Andrea Kremer, a veteran on the Boston music scene now working for Rounder. They're hosting Musicians for Music 2.0 meetups for interested parties. September's gathering at the Middle East drew a dozen people, including musicians Rick Berlin and Michael Tarbox, and the conversation covered everything from micro-finance and donor models for musicians to the different expectations of fans in their 20s and 30s as opposed to those in their 40s and 50s. The next get-together is next Tuesday (10/20) at P.A.'s Lounge in Somerville, and all the details are here. The real challenge, though, will be finding "that first, brave 'guardian angel' band/musician to step up and commit their support for really changing how the music industry works."
Jamaica Plain resident McEnerney said Well Rounded Radio came out of a combination of the great rock radio interviews he listened to growing up in New York - and finding nothing like them on the air today. "I started looking at producing a demo for, in my high-and-mighty mind, NPR. I know audio production, and I know music, so I started putting it together and started doing a couple of episodes, (but) I learned that NPR is more competitive than commercial radio because nobody wants to be on commercial radio half the time. And then broadband happened. And then podcasting happened. And all these things happened. And I was like, I don't really need NPR, I'll just plow forward with it. It was really kind of a mix of feeling there was something missing from the (radio) landscape, and just the idea of getting to do it was fun. The idea of sitting down with musicians and talking about music was, like, a no-brainer, and shockingly, eight years later I'm still doing it."
Well Rounded Radio's DIY ethic is more than doable in the era of one-to-many Internet broadcasting. "I was just at this future of music conference, and there was one panel about music journalism and there was a panel full of 12 people all sort of irking and complaining about the state of things. And someone said, 'What's the future? How does this progress? And under my breath I'm like, I'm the future!" With monthly listeners in the low five-figures, Well Rounded Radio is doing pretty well for a podcast, but it's not exactly making McEnerney rich.
Over time, he found plenty of other folks plying their trade online. He started interviewing non-musician figures too, like September's podcast with author Scott Kirsner, "whose new book Fans, Friends, & Followers looks at how some pioneers are using the internet to connect with their audience, grow that fan base, and turn it into something profitable without the traditional infrastructure ..." This summer, McEnerney began thinking of what turned into Musicians For Music 2.0.
"It kind of came from this idea that there is no funding sources for ideas (like Well Rounded Radio), but I've also met a lot of people now who are in the music space but are trying to advance some ideas that are not Amazon or iTunes or MySpace." The last straw was reading an article about how Radiohead's manager had trouble getting venture capital to invest in a project called Polyphonic. "How in the world are people going to find money if these guys can't get funding?"
"The truth of it is, since I started (Well Rounded Radio) there has been a whole evolution ... these mp3 blogs didn't exist when I started, and there's dozens of them now, some really powerful. iPhones have only been around for three years but there's 12-15 music discovery apps already. And what I discovered is that there's no real outlet for people to go to, to say, 'I want to shift this from my passion to my job and have a different impact on the music ecosystem.'" Traditional investors aren't interested unless they see a scalable oepration with a big back-end profit, he said, and most foundations are "still stuck in 1995," offline.
"This idea started evolving: Go to musicians who've made a successful living (under the old system). Asking for $50,000-$100,000 is not going to kill them." Two months in, he's still talking about nonprofit vs. foundation vs. incubator vs. ad network. What he and the other have decided is that they hope to create a pool of money and a board to decide which funding applications to accept. Now he's going to conferences and prepping a pitch to their first big potential backers.
What worries him is the power shift underway, instead of democratizing things as Internet idealists hoped, is just transferring the clout from big record labels and chains to iTunes and Amazon and a handful of online biggies like Stereogum and Pitchfork. The Facebook page lists dozens of other worthwhile sites from accidenthash.com to youaintpicasso.com. McEnerney hopes Musicians For Music 2.0 will look at helping everything from "pure editorial plays" to recommendation engines to mp3 blogs to iPhone apps to Twitter-based alert systems and more that has not been dreamed up.
With the wrenching changes in the music industry, "It seems inevitable that the relationship is going to be directly between the musicians and the fan," he said. "But I think for anyone to ever find (the artist), there needs to be that level of discovery and tastemaking. There should be 1,000 different ways that you'd come across an artist. ...
"I wish I was 20 years younger and still making music," McEnerney said. "The idea you can have the direct relationship and make money directly and cut out the middle man is terrific. But..it's going to be really hard to break through the clutter and get on people's radar."#