As a big music fan, I look around at the state of the music industry and wonder what will happen. I’ve been tracking the digital revolution of music since the late 90’s – I did a research paper back in college that looked at what effect the downloading of MP3s had on music purchases. To get that accomplished, I had to trawl through Usenet groups to get enough people to take the survey.
At that point, people were using it as a sampling mechanism. They downloaded the free track(s), and if they liked it, they bought the album. It seemed like a great opportunity for the music industry, but they were too busy resisting the inevitable change that technology was bringing.
About six month later, Napster came along and all hell broke loose, and all the lawyers and Lars Ulriches in the world couldn’t stop things.
So now that we enjoy music in a world filled with the instant gratification of downloads and access to a lot of free music (a good amount of which isn’t "supposed" to be free), what effect does that have on the art? There’s been some studies that show that music has become commodified, but for the fans of a particular genre or artist, the value will always be there. The challenge for the artist however, is to make a living in the new paradigm.
One thought that I’ve had for a while now is that more musicians would have smaller but more loyal followings, allowing them to carve out comfortable livings for themselves while maintaining their artistic integrity. They may not sell a million albums each year but they will sell enough records and concert tickets be happy and allow them to keep creating the music that they want to make and the fans want to hear. Ironically, digital technology is what allows an artist to talk with the fans and if they want, distribute the music to them directly.
Someone who embodies this "successful with a relatively small but rabid following while maintaining artistic integrity" ethos is Matt Nathanson. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone – I hadn’t either until a little over a year ago when my girlfriend asked me to to go one of his concerts with her. Being the good boyfriend, I listened to some stuff, figured it wouldn’t be too bad, and went along for the ride.
I loved it. I mean, I really loved the show. Matt intersperses his heart-wrenching acoustic sing-alongs with some of the funniest* in-between song banter I’ve ever heard.
Anyway, Matt is a great live performer. I like him better solo acoustic, as the fans get nearly silent except for singing along to the song choruses and he has the ability to really talk with the audience. He plays in small enough places where he can actually interact with the people on the other side of the lights.
The last time we saw him was at a show at Babson College, just outside of Boston. He was an opener for Third Eye Blind** so he played an abbreviated set and was faced with a less than attentive crowd. While getting bored by Third Eye Blind and their generic heavy rock that was qualifying as "retro" for the college students and making me feel very old, we decided that we’d wait to try to meet Matt. I was with Meghan, her sister Kaitlyn, and their cousin, Beth. Meghan had met Matt, but neither Kaitlyn or Beth hadn’t, nor had I.
After a good hour and a half of waiting around, we were almost giving up and I was trying to entertain myself by looking through the Babson Athletic Wall of Fame for anyone even remotely famous. Suddenly, I heard a commotion behind me, and turned around to find Matt and the girls exchanging "Oh my gawds!" I sauntered over so that I could meet him and tell him that I had become a fan.
I wound up getting a man-hug (you know, one arm shaking hands, the other patting the back) and he noticed I was wearing an Aerosmith t-shirt. Next thing I know, we’re in a good 5-minute long conversation about Aerosmith deep tracks and the Joe Perry Project that only the wonkiest of music geeks could even come close to appreciating. At that point, Matt went from a musician I liked and respected, to someone I really wanted to just sit at a bar with and talk music over a couple of beers with.
We left the concert after getting autographs and chatting some more. The walk back to the car was a loud one, as Kaitlyn and Beth called all relevant people in their lives and shared the good news – loudly. I got some serious props for maintaining a conversation with Matt (we’re all on a first name basis now, of course) for longer than 30 seconds so that they could stare at him and his gorgeous hair or whatever.
But he’s more than a pretty face – he’s a solid muscian with great songwriting chops and a true ability to entertain his audience at his live shows. Matt has a new album coming out on August 14, 2007. It may be a good chance to discover his music and support an artist making music the way he wants to.
*Well, INTENTIONALLY funniest – I’ve been to a fair number of heavy metal concerts where the crazed lead singer attempts to say something meaningful but ruins it by using the f-bomb to the point of hilarity. Or listening to Ozzy say ANYTHING on stage is sadly funny as well.
**which was strange match indeed, and the whole night was stranger by the big "THIRD EYE BLIND" sign made out of lights that was behind the headlining band, but the letters were a little off, so it looked like it was "THIRDEY EBLIND" playing up there. I don’t know about you, but I would go see a band called "Thirdey Eblind."