Progress, Or the Lack Thereof…

Every now and then I'm reminded of just how frustrating the doggedly persistent notion of 'online empowerment' is for musicians. The insistence of the net as a 'level playing field', is trotted-out on a regular basis; a superficially axiomatic cliché, serving only to stifle further investigation. However, you don't have to try too hard to peel-off the fancy veneer and expose the same old mechanisms.

As you're aware, I've had the rights to my last two albums kindly returned to me since the closure of Benbecula, and have since sought to distribute my music directly. Through Bandcamp, this has been working remarkably well so far, even on a 'name your price' basis. Certainly, I've no doubt that my profile has been momentarily raised following the release of LBP2, yet I've been pleased to see the purchase-to-freeload ratio remain a steady 10-11%. For me, this is highly encouraging, and gives me hope for future releases, offered directly to fans through my site via Bandcamp. Bandcamp's 15% slice of each sale, plus PayPal fees (which end up being about 5-6%), is perfectly manageable and a realistic compromise as far as I'm concerned -- certainly worth the services provided.

When it comes to digital distribution outside the cosy sphere of Bandcamp, things have been decidedly trickier. This is not down to the actions of my own chosen aggregator/distributor; Emubands have provided a sterling service for me so far, and I can give them an emphatic recommendation without hesitation. Instead, it's the changeover from one aggregator to the next that reminds me of just how cumbersome our distribution system remains.

In a similar manner to physical distribution, you can't have multiple aggregators supplying the same stores, so your only choice is to wait for your releases to be removed by one aggregator, before going ahead and re-uploading them with another. Which means losing all your reviews, ratings etc. (though I'm hoping Amazon's will persist because of the physical versions available), along with a certain amount of unavoidable downtime. For the stores that had direct relationships with Benbecula, take-down was swift and painless. iTunes, for example, had Lemodie off the site within days (and has since been re-uploaded by me). However, for the stores supplied through a larger chain of mediation via the label's distribution network, things appear to have stalled. Not so much dropping the baton, more losing it completely.

I'd like to think I'm a patient chap, but I can't pretend to understand why it can take months for some stores to remove an album; why some chains of command can be so inefficient as to impede the seemingly simple action of removing a database entry (I don't know what the actual process entails, I admit). Is it simply a case of too many mediators leading to diminished individual responsibility? Perhaps. It's just a job, after all, and tending to the incessant stream of new music can probably result in the occasional overlooking of secondary requests such as release amendments and take-down requests.

But we could be a little more cynical and presume the processing delay allows the distribution network to squeeze a little more money out of us. If the contract between label and distributor has been terminated, then what's the rush in removing music? It's a little cream you don't have to pass on, isn't it? It's unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence -- distributors delaying or withholding payment to indie labels, which they may or may not ever see. While I am not accusing anyone of such practice in this instance, I can certainly think of a few labels that have been hung out to dry by their distribution network, causing their release schedules to stall.

So to cut to the chase, this is what irks me: a fan buys music through a store, thinking that they're supporting the artist. They don't know how much of their purchase reaches the artist, but they'll assume an arbitrary slice will be taken off for the store's 'overheads', with the remainder reaching the label, to be split between label and artist. But at present I have no idea what happens if you buy 'Like Dust' from Amazon mp3, for example, as Benbecula's affairs are all tied up in a bow. Does the customer's cash simply end up in a digital limbo while the distribution network catches on? So much for nimble disintermediation. The more things change...

© 2002–2023 Christopher Leary
Header image: Understory cover art, by Guy Warley.