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Future Directions for the Music Industry: Lessons from the Swedish Independent Scene

The last keynote at AoIR 2010 is by the fabulous Nancy Baym, whose recent work has focussed especially on the Swedish independent music industry. Nancy’s based in Kansas, but is now well connected with the Swedish music scene – and that’s just one example of the international cultural interconnections which we’re now seeing.

Her initial interest in Swedish music stems from exposure to independent music stores in the US which import overseas music; most of these stores are labours of love rather than significantly successful commercial enterprises – and they are now also selling music back to Sweden, in fact! Music Websites in the US and elsewhere in the world which focus on Swedish music are also popular in Scandinavia itself.

Sweden has long been a highly active country in terms of popular music output – and many people listen to Swedish bands without even knowing those bands are from Sweden, it seems. This is an example of rapid decentralisation: the four major labels still control over 70% of the global music market, but at the same time we have an incredible move away from these labels and towards alternative forms of music production and distribution. Notably, Pirate Bay emerged from Sweden, too – as has Spotify, which is now licenced in six countries.

Audiences now have affordances they’ve never had before – they’re still doing what they’ve always done, but can do them more effectively and more visibly. Not least, they can access more music than ever before – though of course this is also a problem for the music industry. Distance and reach is no longer an issue, and there are plenty of fan communities (which may be messy, but nonetheless bring many people together); listeners can also build archives of information and resources (including music) about their favourite archives, put together collaboratively authored playlists, write Wikipedia entries, and create direct relationships between themselves and the artists. This is exciting for the audience, but also very powerful for the artists.

From the music industry perspective, this tends to be described as an unmitigated disaster – and much of the financial data the music industry provides is cooked beyond recognition. The music industry has responded through litigation (of fans as well as various service providers), and – more chillingly – through substantial lobbying efforts that aim to enshrine its viewpoints in law.

Against this, the ‘Swedish Model’ group of independent labels has been established, which actively aims to identify the new business models for the music industry, rather than attempting to prop up old and outdated models by shutting down any development and innovation – the two key problems that this group has identified are 1) how to capture fans’ attention, amongst the abundance of choices now available to them, and 2) how to be everywhere across the vast variety of music sites in the Web 2.0 space, and beyond.

Collaboration between these labels, and even with The Pirate Bay, is one approach to this – some labels now seed high-quality versions of all their music on filesharing sites in order to ensure that it is spread as widely as possible; the aim is to make the music as discoverable as possible, in the assumption that this will also lead to sales to fans. The label isn’t enough of a filter any more, by that view – it’s the other spaces which help give the music legitimacy and reach.

There are also other imaginative and creative approaches to music publishing here: by creating gimmicks like music boxes of singles, compiling YouTube recordings of live performances and packaging this up as legitimate releases (and thus increasing the loyalty of fans whose content was included in such collections). There are lots of rewards for hardcore fans in this, and lots of rewards for labels – resembling a gift economy, but one in which substantial monetary income is also still generated.

Rewards for fans include the social interaction (between fans, and with artists) – the ability to form closer relationships, which motivates fan activities as well as artistic practices. Indeed, artists have trouble even still using the word ‘fans’ – they’re becoming more than that. So, we need to reconceptualise what ‘audiences’ and ‘fans’ are today. For the labels, music is seen as a contribution to culture more than to the market; they’re no longer interested in talking about filesharing, for example, in spite of the continuing media attention, but in the changing societal meaning of (global) cultural exchanges around music.

While the labels remain local and small-budget, they’ve got a global reach – and in fact, Swedish independent music clubs have popped up around the world (and there’s a club in Malmö which is named after a Washington-based site about Swedish music…). For artists, of course, travel has also become cheaper and easier.

There’s an idea that fans who participate in these activities are being exploited, but they, too, are actually economically motivated – for them, in part, it’s also about professional networking, and some of the major fans are working in various music industry positions. Others don’t care about the money at all, and don’t want it to interfere with their fandom; they don’t want to see their fan work as work, because then it’s no longer pleasurable.

Musicians often don’t mind not being rock stars – they take a middle-class attitude towards their music making, and don’t aim to build massive musical careers. Many are in it for the art rather than the earnings. Labels, of course, still need the money to fund their operations, but increasingly they don’t see that money as coming mainly from the audience – rather, they might try to licence their music to radio, TV, or film, or they’ll give away the music online but sell scarce physical products to hardcore fans. From their perspective, what we have in the wider music industry is not market failure, but imagination failure.

The question, then, is what new balances we can find, following the major upheavals which we have experienced in the music industry; these labels put more emphasis on social and cultural values than monetary ones, and are smartly using new technologies to explore their opportunities. This demonstrates our need to rethink the meaning of ‘fans’ and ‘audiences’; while many fans still identify as such, many artists and labels no longer use that term.

Also, the infrastructures we have now enable lots of exchanges that used to be very difficult. Fans can now ‘steal’ music – in mainstream industry language –, but that ‘stealing’ is completely different from conventional theft, and cannot be stopped, in spite of all the industry’s efforts. Music and other content sharing is much older than the content industries, and won’t go away. What needs to be rethought is what is ‘fair use’ now, in today’s environment.

And many artists, too, still don’t know how to operate in this environment yet – they don’t yet understand how to use social media for their purposes, and the social media environment also continues to change, of course. As corrupt as the older industry was, at least it was a stable system – today, the environment is a lot more complex and confusing. This also means that there’s a high potential for burnout amongst music industry players, from artists to labels.

Finally, of course, the entrenched interests are also still very powerful – at the moment, ACTA is being negotiated in secret, and appears to be moving ahead even in spite of substantial criticism from the European Parliament, France has passed its HADOPI three-strikes laws, and many other similar pieces of legislation are beginning to restrict culture. We need to reclaim cultural values from this legislation, but politicians continue to be influenced mainly by a handful of major industry lobbyists, and have no connection with how citizens actually engage with culture today. There will still be some significant black moments in the near future. And we need to think seriously about what are sustainable models for funding culture, of course.