Is Music Filtering a Good Thing?

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experimentA topic that’s been coming up a lot lately among the musically concerned is filtering  — i.e., the process by which music makes its way from a musician’s living room to the awareness of the wider public. For most of our contemporary history filtering has involved record labels, managers, venues, broadcasting directors, publicists, and other gatekeepers. Audiences chose from selections served up by these entities. This process remained essentially the same even as smaller indie labels like Sub Pop and Matador started to get some power.

Things changed a few years ago, however, when MySpace blew up. At that point, there were already lots of ways for musicians to make their music available online, but nothing compared to what MySpace facilitated. Non-musician MySpace users were actually open to, and even excited by, the prospect of being able to hear the bands that, as the thinking went, record labels were too safe to sign. But in the short span of a couple of years, those users learned that most unsung bands sound more or less the same (i.e., not good), and that there are seemingly millions of them (most of which were also sending demos to record labels; as a result, most labels no longer accept unsolicited demos).

Now, in the wake of the lost cause that is MySpace, audiences have become jaded about the prospect of checking out DIY musicians. Audiences once again look to filters to help them decide what music to give a chance. Podcasts and broadcasts (All Songs Considered, Morning Becomes Eclectic), streaming sites (Last.fm, Jango, Pandora), review sites (Pitchfork, Onion AV Club, MP3 blogs), and vendors (iTunes, Amazon.com) all employ filters that make it harder for musicians – even those with label affiliation – to get heard. But the good news is that once you get heard, you’re taken more seriously than you would be as one of millions of self-promoting unknown bands on some social networking site that does not discriminate between “serious” and “I have a computer so why not?” musicians. True, the latter sometimes has better music than the former, but that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that most people are not willing to be at the first stage of the filtering system. Rare are the people with the time and psychological fortitude and endurance to search through a thousand musicians of wildly varying levels of quality to find that one with whom they’d like to spend more time.

What made me want to write about this topic was an email I got recently from IAC, a streaming site that pays artists on a per-play basis and is funded by advertisers and artist subscriptions. IAC features artists ranging from hobbyists to professionals. Their email announced that they are going to start removing artists whose presentation doesn’t hold up to some standard of quality and might therefore scare away potential listeners. I’m all for it, and would expect that anyone who takes their music career seriously would be all for it.

I should point out that I respect and encourage people’s desire to record music and post it online. There are plenty of avenues for that, such as MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook. What I have a harder time with is seeing avenues through which serious artists can distribute their music becoming clogged with lazy, half-finished, amateurishly presented work that scares away potential listeners. It’s in all of our best interests to have a more stringent filtering system at places like iTunes, eMusic, Amazon.com, and IAC. Actually, IAC is the least strict of these. To be at those other places, you at least have to have an album, though recently this has just come to mean meeting certain requirements that no longer include having a physical CD (and only one song is needed to qualify as an “album”). As a vendor, iTunes doesn’t have to worry about a reputation for quality so much as quantity (though I assure you not just anyone will be included on their homepage), so we’ll have to see where an increasingly open-door policy takes them. Will they institute even stricter filtering systems like CDBaby (an exclusively “unsigned artist” vendor) has with their podcasts and newsletters?

Pandora, in contrast with iTunes, is a site that doesn’t sell music, but instead streams songs in full. It’s a place for discovering music, and, once you know how to use it, Pandora works really well to that end. Because they’re all about you discovering great new music based on artists whom you already love, they have to cultivate a reputation for quality in order to succeed. To ensure quality, they have a listening committee that evaluates submissions. They rejected my first two albums, in fact, and, although I do think that’s their loss, I’m really OK with it. My third album (Reattachment) was accepted, and I know that their users will give it more of a chance because they know there is a filter in place.

To be clear, musicians are not to blame for the situation I’m describing here. It’s the accumulation that’s causing the congestion, not the actions of any one individual. Musicians need to take this accumulation into consideration when planning their promotions and when being rejected by a filter like Pandora, or when being completely ignored by critics and the online public in general. I think what IAC has come to terms with is the fact that they are better off (i.e., better able to avoid bankruptcy) having fewer musicians selling a-little-to-a-lot of music to a loyal and potentially expanding fan base rather than having thousands of musicians selling zero-to-a-little music to a small circle of friends. In this way, a difficult filtering process makes us work harder as artists as well as marketers (an inextricable part of being a working musician).

The slippery slope argument against stringent filtering is that we would end up with only a small selection of new music to choose from, all of which has been selected based on the taste of an elite class gatekeepers. I believe that this would happen even less than it did before the digital age. In fact, now that the options are greater than ever, filtering could just be a way to help balance the scale to a more even slant in terms of which label-affiliated and “homemade” bands are being offered to the public at large for consideration.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the digital age has affected the music industry in ways other than making it easier to get a library of music for free and to carry that library around on an iPod. We have also seen an incredible decrease in what it costs to record and distribute music, which has resulted in an immeasurable increase in the amount of bands pushing their demos to record labels, reviewers, live venues, and the public in general. This increase, especially when coupled with ever-advancing communications technology, has resulted in a pickier than ever, jaded listening public with a short attention span (see my previous blog about the Slow Listening Movement). With this in mind, it seems it would be in the best interest of any serious musician to be in favor of stringent filtering processes that would attract audiences as opposed to repelling them.

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Dan Jacob Wallace

3 Comments

  1. I agree that music filtering is a good thing, but I think it’s really difficult to come up with a filter that isn’t biased in some critical way… It would be interesting to contemplate what are some good filters vs. bad filters.

    My favorite filter in the visual arts, believe it or not, is the application fee. I think this is a completely unbiased filter when it is priced so everyone can afford it.

    If listening fees of around $10 per album existed at record labels and places like IAC, several things would happen:

    1. The entries would be of much better quality. Musicians would stop sending out quick sloppy demos randomly for that rare case that someone might actually like them. When money is involved, more careful choices need to be made. Musicians would make sure that they did the best they could with the playing/recording/mixing/mastering process before submitting their work and spending cash.

    2. Musicians would be more selective about which labels to send their music to (on a budget of $50 a musician could only send to five labels/services). I don’t think that’s limiting. I think it would push musicians to do more initial research and find out which label or service would be the best potential match for them, instead of just sending out randomly to everyone.

    3. Record labels would never have to close their unsolicited submission process. They would get far fewer entries, and they would profit from listening.

  2. Vesna,

    The entry fee is a nice-sounding idea, but at least in the classical music world, it’s been shown not to work terribly well. It actually does have a bias: in favor of the egotistical and clueless: they are perfectly happy to send out lousy demos anyway. I don’t say it’s bad that it would weed out the shy or insecure, because the roughness of the marketplace would just weed them out in the next round anyway. :-) But I think that if someone is professional enough to take the time to make a good mix, they’re probably going to do it regardless of whether an entry fee is required.

    For-fee listening is now considered a fairly predatory practice in the classical music world — and even more so in the literary publishing industry, where there have historically been even more clueless wannabees (though the ease-of-music-production factors Dan complains about may have changed that). If someone is running a service like IAC, then they *are* getting paid to listen — by the profits their enterprise generates. If they can’t make that work, then … well, they weren’t a very good gatekeeper in the first place, were they?

  3. Leon,

    I agree that it doesn’t seem necessary to have an application fee in the classical music world. I was suggesting the fee for the pop world because many labels that used to be open to submissions have stopped accepting unsolicited submissions altogether. They claim that they receive 1000’s of submissions per week, which turns into chaos pretty quickly! It’s sad that there’s so much clutter out there… One or two of those submissions might have been something to consider, but when there’s 1000’s, there’s no way to know.

    I think that the small application fee would deter the random high school student with a guitar from submitting a quick demo recorded in a bedroom on a tape recorder… Why spend $10 if they can spend some time putting together a better presentation first: perhaps a band, instruments, recording equipment, mixing, mastering, pressing?

    It’s not clear to me how having an application fee would favor the egotistical and clueless over the shy and insecure… I imagine that the egotistical and clueless will submit something (fee or no fee), but at least the labels/services will get paid for listening! Would the shy and insecure be less likely to submit to an application with a fee? I just don’t see the correlation. Maybe that somehow makes more sense with classical music, but I don’t see how.

    Vesna

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