- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

This column is about how MySpace.com will let your garage band sell its music internationally and become rich and famous, though probably not. But really it’s about how digital technology is taking control of the arts away from big companies.

Not long ago, advancement in the arts depended on access to lots of money. Printing your own book or stamping your own vinyl LP cost a fortune. National distribution required fleets of trucks and contracts with chain stores. Publicity was exorbitantly expensive.

This meant that you had to go through a big publishing house or record company, which are chiefly interested in making money. This typically means publishing imitations of last year’s blockbuster. For practical purposes these companies are virtually inaccessible to most people. The big outfits have their stars and don’t look much beyond them.

The fact is, however, that there is far more talent across the country, and often better talent, which has not been picked up by the big companies. My favorite example around Washington is Honky Tonk Confidential, a first-rate country band with a Washington twist. Columbia Records presumably has never heard of them. It probably never will. A lot of truly fine musicians appear at Cowboy Cafe South, the Zoo Bar and clubs along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

But now digital technology has dropped the price of access to the public, allowing artists to bypass New York. Digital can’t give you talent, but it can sure make it easier to distribute it.

For example, with outfits like IUniverse.com or BookSurge.com and roughly $500, you can get your book in print as a good-quality trade paperback and listed for sale with Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble; all you do is cash the checks if people buy it.

Cheap but excellent digital printers, cameras and editing software, such as Photoshop, make photography of professional quality possible to anyone with the talent. The Web allows people who have the talent to become journalists with real influence. The libertarian site LewRockwell.com is an example.

Now, about MySpace. It is a social-networking site that, among other things, allows you to put your band’s music online so that people can listen to it.

But how do you make money? Soon, MySpace will allow you to sell your music online in MP3 format. The band will set the price of each track. MySpace (and Snocap, of San Francisco, which is providing the technology) will take a cut.

According to an Associated Press article, “The initiative, which is still in a test phase, has the potential to turn millions of computer users, many of them independent or aspiring artists already using the site to build a fan following, into online music retailers.”

This means that if you are doing something musically really good, you will be able to sell downloads to the entire country.

Note that MySpace-Snocap completely bypasses the record companies.

The trend toward democratization (or at least de-monopolization) runs through the music business.

Today’s digital audio-editing software eliminates the need for expensive studios.

Burning CDs is cheap and easy.

The MP3 format allows online distribution, and now you will be able to sell the music and receive the money.

If I were a record company, I would be worried.

So what are the record companies for? Well, they still have predominant access to the big music stores and to chains of radio stations. And they have means of providing publicity. The weak link in self-publishing, whether of books or music, is advertising. People can’t buy what they don’t know about. But stores eventually will stock whatever sells.

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