So it’s official -- with the news that HMV has gone into administration, very soon we’ll have no way of buying music on the high street. While I feel bad for those affected by the closures that are set to come, forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the demise of HMV (and with it the last of the big record stores). As my fellow commenter Eadingas phrased it in a previous Spiels From "Them Below", “The high street electronics store as we know it is dying, and not a day too soon.” As a music fan and musician, I feel the same way about high street music retail.
I don't have to tell you that mainstream music has been slowly moving on from physical sales for the last decade, with 2012 being the first that digital sales exceeded that of physical copies. It doesn't take an economist to see that profit margins are a bit tastier with digital sales.
However busy we may be downloading or streaming music online, one thing that has been lamented more than anything else in the wake of HMV's news is the loss of independent record stores. The other day, an acquaintance was reminiscing about going into his local independent store (and I’m not talking about the oxymoronical jingly-jangly stuff on Radio One) in the hopes of discovering new music and hidden gems. When was the last time you saw an indie store in which you could do that? To me, rifling through the racks of a store sounds as ancient as John Cusack deciding how to organise his record collection. Most of us – well, the younger readers, certainly – will only ever have to click a mouse to rearrange our music collections.
It's easier and more affordable than ever before for bands in their infancy (or on a meagre budget) to record their music without having to spend a fraction of the big budgets splashed by a major record label. With the introduction of reasonably-powerful home PCs and readily, shall we say, available software, I can quite easily record my guitar tracks, vocals, keyboards and even put a passable virtual string or drum track to it, resulting in a pretty professional sound. With what you could call a democratisation in the recording world going on, you’d think the ability to share that music and possibly make a bit of cash from it would have kept pace, however that hasn’t been my experience having worked in various bands over the past 10 years. It could also be argued it often ends in a rush to record music -- especially with some over-enthusiastic younger bands -- before a song is truly ready. And the one thing the world needs less of is bad music.
My current band is not exactly what you’d call "accessible", but there’s a definite scene and audience for our music. The most important thing about us is that we don’t have any great ambition to become famous, nor do we take ourselves seriously. We’re never going to get played on prime-time radio or rake in a big pay cheque, and we’re fine with that. We take a DIY approach, from recording to promotion, and despite our lack of big budgets, we’ve always had the drive to try and make good-quality recordings with equally nice packaging. It's the little things that go a long way when it comes to physical media, I've found.
Naturally, one of the key elements when taking a DIY approach to music making happens to be social media promotion. Over the past three years we’ve become a well-oiled online machine, using -- deep breath -- Facebook; Twitter; Google+; Soundcloud; Tumblr; Reverb Nation; Last.FM; Songkick; Mailchimp, and even flog our wares via Bandcamp and Big Cartel. Strangely, MySpace refuses to delete our page, and keeps sending us emails like a love-lorn, emo teenager trying to win an ex back through pity by taking a ‘selfie’ of themselves crying, which they then put on Facebook while saying "they don’t want to talk about it."
I know some of you out there in commentland aren’t fans, but Facebook is great for interaction with bands; promoters; appreciative ears, and of course, it's a perfect tool for corralling people into dingy, dimly-lit rooms. They’ve gone a long way in the last two years, now allowing bands to link their Facebook page with external accounts from other services such as Songkick and Bandpage, which work a little like widgets. Through Facebook, we’ve somehow managed to snag fans in Argentina, Indonesia, the US and beyond.
While we're not too concerned about receiving radioplay, using Twitter managed to get one of our tracks played on BBC 6Music, so I’m definitely not one to complain about that.
When it comes to digital distro, It’s still pretty hard to get on iTunes unless you have some kind of deal. That’s not to say it can’t be done elsewhere; Reverb Nation offers a digital distribution service to do just that, but it’ll cost you, so that’s not really an option for us. After puzzling over this for a while, we then discovered Bandcamp, which has absolutely nailed it. Bandcamp allows us to sell digital and physical copies of our music and stream it to those who aren’t ready to make a purchase. You just load in your metadata, and hope people discover you. After using Bandcamp, I ceased to see the point in a stand-alone band site, so I gave our Bandcamp account a sprinkle of personalisation, and it now masquerades as our website and merch warehouse. And it gets better: there’s no Flash in sight!
So however sad I am over the demise of high street music retailers, having gone through the above dramas of becoming a 21st century band, we're thankful for the internet in so many ways. Sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are the new independent music store, just without the musty smell and paranoid feeling you're being silently judged by the cooler-than-thou shop staff. They, and sites like them, are forging new ways for artists to get directly to their audience, with an unprecedented level of control over the product. If you ask me, it would be liberating if all music could be released and consumed this way, free from intermediary interests and interference. I’m not sure I can see it happening any time soon, but a man can dream, can’t he?
Now, if only we could get rid of PayPal’s insanely high fees...
Bhenn plays bass guitar and does backing vocals for Sheffield-based band Great Deeds.
Spiels From “Them Below” is our new series of columns written by “them below”; the thousands of readers who comment tirelessly on Gizmodo UK. Have you got something to lament? Extol? Ponder? Get in touch at kat.hannaford[at]futurenet.com. Disclaimer: Spiels From “Them Below” doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Gizmodo UK or its editors.