I Buy Music interview

Everyone knows that the music industry has seen stronger days. Sales for all formats are down from the 1990s — from a high of $14.6 billion in the U.S. in 1999 to just $9 billion in 2008. Digital sales increase annually, and vinyl has seen an impressive resurgence, but the totals are not nearly enough to make up for the double-digit drop in CD units moved.

Cory Brown would like to change that. Brown, owner of the Absolutely Kosher label, started the I Buy Music initiative as a means to galvanize music buyers and provide them with some pride and recognition for what they’re doing to support artists and labels. He also wanted to put a positive focus on an industry that has be subject to a lot of doom and gloom in recent years. Brown talked to us about why he started the initiative and what he hopes it will achieve.

1. What gave you the idea for the site?

I got the idea after reading a book by two Fast Company magazine columnists, Dan & Chip Heath, called Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard.  I’m not a big reader of self-help books in general, but they’d excerpted a chapter in the magazine that took (as  an example) a mammoth problem (child malnutrition in Vietnam), one that at first glance seems insurmountable without an incredible effort and expenditure, and showed how the problem was solved very simply (the diets and eating habits of the few bigger and healthier children were examined and then duplicated).  The lesson they drew from this was to find a bright spot and duplicate it.  Well, I’d been very down about work (running a label) and finding bright spots hasn’t been so easy.  For me personally, the New York Times headline that the music industry lost $1 billion last year was both sobering and also eased up some pressure that this wasn’t just about me and my performance (though I certainly accept my share of the responsibility).  I’ve read so much about the debates on piracy and the reports on industry losses that I, like many people, had been under the impression that the music industry was at death’s door.  I got curious — if the industry lost $1 billion last year (a stunning loss by any measure), how much did it make?  The NYT article doesn’t state it very clearly, but I did learn that sales slid below $10 billion for the second year in a row.  My jaw kind of dropped, reading between the lines.  Over $9 billion in revenue and we’re dying?  Sure, that money supports a staggering amount of people and when you see a one year loss of $1 billion and a decade loss of $6-8 billion, that’s a lot of people losing their jobs, going hungry, etc.  But who was spending this money?  Were these people a part of the debate on piracy?  Did they have any opinion on the debate or the state of the industry?  Did they have any awareness that it was their money that allowed so many musicians to continue making music?

It made me look at things in a whole new light and with the conviction that the whole business is looking in the wrong direction.  Music consumers are mostly looked on statistically and generally without a singular identity, at least at the macro level.  The industry has collectively failed to express their gratitude to these people and to empower them as patrons of the arts which they so clearly are, spending money because they have a strong personal connection to the music, not out of brand loyalty like a salad dressing or the make of car. The music industry has categorically failed to draw a direct line from buying music to supporting musicians (and their professional support network of labels, booking agents, record stores, etc) with actual income.  In doing so, it has thus far missed an opportunity to empower these consumers, to give them an identity that says (just as our logo does), “I love music, therefore I buy music.”  I Buy Music is a statement of pride.

2. It’s pretty clear what a campaign like this provides for music producers — but what benefit do you think it provides to consumers?
I think the value to consumers, those people already spending money on music, is clear: You should be proud. The initiative provides confirmation and clarity of what they already suspected in their guts — that buying music is the easiest and most consistent way to support the musicians they love. It conveys that they have fulfilled their responsibilities for listening to the results of a whole lot of time, effort and money invested and says, “I care about more than myself.  I support the things and people that matter to me.”  The treasure in the whole equation is music, to be sure, but many music fans think their love is enough, when musicians are struggling rather desperately.  By taking the pledge on our site, people are showing their personal value and their understanding that taking without giving back is a choice with only limited returns.

Ironically, I’ve found some general skepticism from among labels, retailers and industry organizations.  We’ve had some incredible initial support from some quarters, but many folks don’t yet recognize this as their opportunity to have their customers/consumers and supporters advocate for them with just a little more than their dollars.  Money is so tight for many smaller businesses and there’s a sense of denial or defeat about what it might take to change things, as if waiting it out will cure all our ills.  There’s an emotional aspect that doesn’t get discussed very often but one that plays an important role – it’s hard to get over the feeling of simultaneous abandonment by half of the people who support you (customers who’ve stopped buying music) and those who protect you (the government who holds the obligation to enforce the law).  I understand this acutely, but it’s time to look forward and make a plan.

3. What has the response been like so far from musicians? For music fans?

Well, I conceived of the idea less than 3 weeks ago and we launched only 9 days ago, so the word is only starting to get out.  So far, so good.  People have been very supportive and everyone seems to fundamentally “get it.”  Still, there’s a difference between clicking the “like” button on Facebook and taking action.  Continuing to buy music is the most immediate and desirable result, but if we hope to spread our message to more than just the folks already paying attention, people, and especially musicians, need to buy a shirt and some stickers.  Musicians have a history of fermenting change in this country, except when it pertains directly to themselves.  I think I Buy Music really conveys a sentiment many musicians have had a hard time expressing to their fans.  Nobody wants to drive ten hours in a van, play their heart out and then wag a finger at anyone who’s bought a ticket and come to see them perform.  Buying 100 stickers for $25 and giving them to everyone who buys a CD or LP, or even selling them for $1 or $0.50 or whatever, that’s action, that’s sticking up for yourself in the most productive and positive way.

4. Some people argue that they both download for free AND buy music — that downloading is a way to find out what they really want to spend money on. What are your thoughts on that approach?

I am not interested in judging people who are spending their hard-earned cash on music.  I do think that creators (as well as the people who work on their behalf) should have some reasonable say in how their music is disseminated and if they choose (as most do) to not sure entire bodies of work for free at the risk of losing sales, that should be their prerogative.  That’s pretty much the way it is in every other business.  Imagine a movie theater that only sold tickets after the movie was over or a market where you returned anything you ate but didn’t like.  I’m not saying it’s not a nice thought for the sake of immediate gratification, but it’s not a sustainable way to do things.

5. How do you feel when artists like Radiohead make albums available for free or PWYC? What effect does this have for indie musicians?

I think few people still discuss the Radiohead model because, ultimately, it was financially disappointing for even them (at least as compared to their previous sales), hence their subsequent signing with ATO and the members’ solo records on other labels.  It inspired a tremendous amount of discussion (which is almost always good), but it gave people the impression that this was a sustainable model for all musicians as opposed to just one of the biggest bands in the world.  I certainly think it was brave of them to try and, as I stated above, the prerogative of any creator.  I don’t think this is ever going to be the way a band just starting out distinguishes themselves.

6. You own an independent label, Absolutely Kosher Records. What does your label do in order to encourage fans to purchase the music they listen to?

This is a tough one.  We’re working on some things that show in a lighthearted way what we do for our bands so people understand that a label is an important part of the equation.  I have one employee other than myself and a small rotating army of dedicated interns who donate their time sheerly on their love of music.  We’re already paid so little to do so much work just to get our bands noticed (something that doesn’t always happen in a big way) and we’re obviously a business.  Part of the reason I kept I Buy Music separate from Absolutely Kosher (you’ll find no mention of the label at ibuymusic.net even though my involvement is fairly transparent out of the interest of disclosure) is that I don’t want the initiative to be about only buying our releases.  I think that comes across as a sales pitch.   My feeling is that things won’t get that much better at Absolutely Kosher until they get a little better for everyone.

7. What do you think the major labels need to do that they aren’t doing now in order to get people paying for music again?

My concern is with the musicians represented by all labels.  My own business model isn’t structured anything like that of a major label and it’s clear the philosophies are extremely different. Given that, it’d be naive of me to expect that anyone running a major label would take my advice on more than where to eat should they visit the Bay Area.  That said, supporting I Buy Music with their considerable resources to try and honor and empower the customers they still have left would be a really good start.

8. What do you hope to accomplish through the I Buy Music campaign by the end of 2010?

Right now, I’m just focused on getting the message out and garnering support through just circulating our logo, stickers and t-shirts.  It’s all funded by me right now, so it’d be nice if it could sustain itself by year’s end.  I’m hoping to recruit some like-minded folks to help out too with things like graphic & web design, mobile & app development, publicity, etc.  One day at a time, one sticker at a time.

Image courtesy of I Buy Music

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