Thursday, December 3, 2009

Better Must Come

Despite the fact that there are so many compelling and gifted bands now active on the current US ska scene who are regularly playing out and releasing some excellent new music, ska is in trouble here in the States.

A majority of ska fans (and music fans in general) continue to acquire their music through illegal file sharing rather than by purchasing it, digitally downloaded or otherwise (old news, for sure, but absolutely worth repeating here, again and again). The fans who are inclined to go to shows and actually buy albums and merch have much less disposable income to spend, due to the crappy economy. And the independent ska labels, battered by quarter after quarter of poor sales--and who persevere despite their diminishing returns each year--continue to be increasingly weakened in their ability to finance much of anything beyond the very basics of printing up short runs of new releases to sell (forget about promotions to college/alternative radio, music press, and clubs; ad campaigns; tour support; music videos, etc.).

Ska bands all over the US are doing what they can to get by--local and regional gigs; releasing material via digital tracks on iTunes, CD-Rs, the occasional piece of vinyl or plant-manufactured CD, either self-financed or licensed to one of the indies--all of which is great, but probably won't lead to bigger things. It really makes one question whether or not the US ska scene will ever be in a position to rise beyond its present state.

Clearly, the scene is lacking an energized center, an organizing, hydra-headed entity with the cash, peoplepower, verve, and mad skills to produce, release, and distribute a steady stream of albums (digital or tangible); to put together larger package tours that are the bread and butter of both established acts and newcomers; and effectively promote everything to the core of fans and beyond in a manner that actually makes a profit (so both the bands and label peeps who do the work get paid) to keep it all functioning and moving forward. You know, a label like...Moon Records, which in a somewhat similar climate in the early 90s (bad economy; a fragmented, disorganized ska scene) was able to help successfully develop a nationwide syndicate of college radio stations, local newspapers and zines, and indie record shops to help promote and sell ska releases, as well as forge a coast-to-coast network of ska-friendly venues for the well-established bands to tour (and local acts to play).

But the Catch-22 of the matter is that the model of selling albums that worked well for decades is obviously no longer viable, since a generation of music fans have abandoned it for the '77 NYC blackout-like looting of the digital age. Where and how are the cash-deprived labels going to find the resources to invest in and promote new acts? The only bands that stand half-a-chance of earning a livelihood from their music are those who made their names in the pre-file sharing era (if The Specials come over to tour they will, no doubt, rake in the bucks--but a new release, however unlikely that is, would probably tank; and I'm really curious to see how the new Mighty Mighty Bosstones record will fare...). In this environment, the prospects for up-and-coming ska bands to take things to the next level are kind of bleak.

While no one that I've spoken with seems to have been able to formulate a reasonably viable solution to all this (and I have no radical new model to offer for successfully selling music in the digital era), let me offer this fairly simple suggestion--consider it a New Year's resolution for 2010: ska fans need to open their wallets if we want the scene to survive and thrive.

We need to change our ways.

I'm not admonishing anyone for past sins, real or imagined--and don't want to get into recriminations over this whole file sharing business. (Well, apart from the fact that it is illegal to do so, since it violates the bands' copyrights; denies musicians the opportunity to support themselves off their own blood, sweat, and tears; and is killing parts of the music industry that are worth salvaging, such as indie labels, record stores, local clubs, and your favorite ska band.)

If we want the ska scene to keep going, all of us who call ourselves fans need to collectively pay for it. In our capitalistic, free-market society, it's just how things work. So now is the time to turn off YouTube and get out to see a gig (and buy something from a band's merch table); yank out our iPod ear buds and wander into a record shop to pick up some releases (if one is left where you live!); and shun the file sharing sites in favor of ordering a CD, album, or download from Megalith, Jump Up, Stubborn, and Asian Man, or directly from your favorite ska band.

We've got to support (in every meaning of the word) ska bands and labels if we want them to keep on doing what we want them to do: make the music we love. The bills have to be paid to keep the scene going...or eventually the only thing left to do will be to decide who'll be the last one to turn out the lights after everything fades away.

10 comments:

Courtney said...

Hey man, great editorial! I agree with you on many of these points of the State of the Ska Union. I'd like to talk to you about this a little more. If everyone in the scattered ska communities would come to terms with the current state of things, we could band together and unite to create an entity that could do the kind of promotional efforts that Moon was able to do in the fragile 90's. It might lead to more people being interested in the music, which would garner more of a profitable potential to keep the industry of ska alive. Email me at mnskanews@gmail.com, because I'd love to talk more about this.

Steve from Moon said...

Courtney:

Thanks for your comments! I will drop you a line soon...

Steve

Adam Coozer said...

I'm a little out of the loop, but is the current scene worth saving? I think there are only two ska CDs released in the past 10 years that I listen to regularly.

Steve from Moon said...

Adam:

Always stirring up the pot! Yes, there are a lot of interesting bands on the scene and there were some really good releases that came out this year...(gonna have to put together some sort of year-end wrap-up, aren't I?)

We need to hang, mister.

Steve

The Reverend Evan said...

The other catch 22 at work is here relates to touring and access. Way too many bands stick to the Smiley Face tour route (down one coast, some southern dates, then back up the other coast), ignoring ska fans in the flyover states like Minnesota, where I host a local terrestrial radio ska show. When bands do come to town, we may not be able to get 1000 people at a gig, but the 100 or so kids that do show up are hungry for the music and more than willing to pick stuff up. But at the same time I can understand why bands from the coasts have a hard time getting here, with no guarantee of profit on the show.

At the same time I wonder if the so-called Third Wave is an unfair standard to set. The music industry as a whole is incredibly different than it was in the 90's, both in terms of physical distribution and mass exposure. We are missing two things that were vital to the Third Wave as a whole, a viable music radio market and MTV. Without those in play, it is almost impossible to get a cohesive national scene going, especially if labels aren't willing to put forth the effort and adapt. Asian Man, Jump Up and others have a long way to go in terms of sending music up our way into those few remaining record shops and radio stations, and nearly everything you mentioned as part of Moon's syndicate can still be done for free or cheap if they wanted to.

Matt Wixson said...

The solution for older bands is definitely as you say. Fans need to spend money because those bands will continually operate on the old model of the music industry. What this really shows, though, is the inability of these bands to adapt. It would seem pretty naive for a band to form today with the expectations of becoming a career ska musician. The only bands doing this are the bands that did it before the industry changed, because their older fans have different habits. There is an awareness among the younger bands that music will almost definitely be a hobby, marginally profitable at best. These bands still tour, still release CDs and vinyl, still sell t-shirts... they just do so without the illusion that the career-sufficient money's still there. The labels Community Records and Open Hand Records, for example, each prominently feature downloads for donation only. In effect, they give most of their music away for free. But through networking and promotion in the new music industry (using the same internet that is sinking CD sales) bands can still book successful tours - sell many tickets, shirts, even recordings - to the hundreds of people who may never have heard of them if not for those free downloads. There ARE bands getting bigger on the national scale because of this, and this is the future of independent music.

The record label and the tangeable CD today are pretty much optional features of the modern industry. If I like a band, I will almost always buy music if it's for sale. I've bought many records from bands, and I don't even own a turntable. I've handed over a lot of money to King Django, Bucket, Chuck Wren, and Mike Park over the years, because I support the bands and labels in their endeavors. However, if suddenly all of the record labels closed up shop, what is lost? People don't buy music simply because of the label it's on, and I would still buy a Hub City Stompers or Deal's Gone Bad CD if it were self-released. Stubborn and Jump Up have some distro for quality imports, but that really doesn't have much of an effect on the scene in the States anyway.

I'm not saying it's OK to take things that aren't given to you, but if bands and labels can't work this reality into their business plan, they're not being let down by their fans. They're being let down by their own obsolete expectations.

Matt C said...

I don't buy magazines anymore because I read blogs. I can't remember the last time I bought a map because I either use Mapquest or a GPS. I don't know anyone who has bought a set of encyclopedias in the past 10 years or so.
It's all free now and I think many people are adapting this opinion towards their entertainment. It won't be long before we will as easily be able to illegally download a full res HD movie or stream live cable television as quickly as you can a single song. Heck, we are pretty much already there. When someone is eventually able to download the entire history of music EVER at the push of a button without any legal consequences (because it will be even simpler and risk free than making a tape cassette dub) it will be next to impossible to convince them that they should pay $15 or whatever for each album, especially when they see everyone around them doing it.
People making entertainment/art for profit, fame, and creative desires are now being replaced by people making entertainment/art for purely fame and creative desires alone and there is NO shortage of them. Yeah, most of it is crap but out of the barrel of shit will always rise some shining stars. Humans were making entertainment/art long before they were ever able to make a profit and will continue to after. Despite all the cynics there are a TON of great artists out there doing there thing with little to no pay.
With that said I still want to support the artists who I like. I personally do it by buying concert tickets, T-shirts and spreading the word about them to others I know.
We are all currently living in this crazy interlude between the old entertainment system and new and everyone is anxious about how it all shakes out. Personally I have faith!

Steve from Moon said...

Rev:

Thanks for your words. America's vastness is simply brutal on bands touring by van, so it's really left some small but vital ska scenes out of loop, since the distance between gigs, and expense getting there, works against them. It's nothing personal, but it stinks all the same.

And I agree that the 3rd wave of ska is an unfair standard for whatever may become the 4th wave. Too much of the previous music industry model is gone. Having said that, we can hope for better than what is transpiring now, right? And as the former promotions guy at Moon, I can attest to the fact that most of the things we did to promote releases and tours were not expensive (the exception being the music videos, but compared to what the majors were spending back then, we were spending spare change) and can be easily and successfully replicated today. The thing is you need an organized entity to be consistently promoting bands, tours, releases, and the scene--creating a foundation that everyone can build upon--and that's not happening right now.

Peace.

Steve

Steve from Moon said...

Matt W:

Thanks for your comments. Around 1999/2000, the music industry--both indies and majors--were really slow and incredibly resistant to adapting to new models for promoting, distributing, and selling music on-line. And they have paid dearly for it--since a generation of music fans expects to find their music on the web for free, all thanks to Napster.

I completely agree with you that older bands need to stay up with how the fans may want to consume their product--evolve or die and all that. (And I'm not necessarily arguing for the survival of all of the old US ska labels.) But the larger point that I'm trying to convey is that if ska fans want to see the scene begin to thrive even on the underground (which isn't a bad place for the scene to remain--mainstream acceptance is just not going to happen, nor is it really desirable), we need to create a more favorable environment for new and old bands to do their thing. And this means that we need to start spending a bit more money on them, whether buying their music or merch, or seeing them play live--our own ska stimulus package, if you will.

Best,

$teve

Steve from Moon said...

Matt C:

Your analysis of the whole shebang is spot-on! Thanks for sharing it. And there are tons of great bands out there making great music on their own right now!

Keep flying the ska/freak flag!

Best,

Steve