A few weeks ago I listened to Ryan Tubridy interview guitarist Barry “Bat” Kinane about the impact of illegal downloading on his band, the Wicklow-based Glyder. Barry reckoned that 30,000 copies of their most recent album had been illegally downloaded and was doubtful that the band could survive under these circumstances.
“Unless the internet gets policed…bands like us won’t be able to exist, we won’t be able to put out the music…bands years ago were able to make a living out of this…I’ll have to give it up and do something else.”
Glyder play a style of classic rock reminiscent of Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher. Throw in a dollop of Pink Floyd and Fish-era Marillion and you’re getting there. Their music is available to purchase on iTunes, eMusic, their website, and also streams for free on their Myspace page. This, along with steady touring and excellent reviews has seen them build up a solid following at home and abroad. According to their Facebook page “Glyder played their first headline tour in Spain in 2008 and headlined to 10,000 rock fans in India in October 2008.” They also opened for Metallica at Marlay Park at the beginning of August. Impressive!
They are one example of the thousands of niche bands worldwide that have become commercially viable with the move from the traditional music retailing model to the new disruptive digital one enabled by the emergence of the internet and broadband. Chris Anderson describes the phenomenon in The Long Tail (2006).
“The new niche market is not replacing the traditional market of hits, just sharing the stage with it for the first time. For a century we have winnowed out all but the best-sellers to make the most efficient use of costly shelf space, screens, channels, and attention. Now in a new era of networked consumers and digital everything, the economics of such distribution and changing radically as the Internet absorbs each industry it touches, becoming store, theatre, and broadcaster at a fraction of the cost.
Think of these falling distribution costs as a dropping waterline or a receding tide. As they fall, they reveal a new land that has been there all along, just underwater. These niches are a great uncharted expanse of products that were previously uneconomic to offer. Many of these kinds of products have always been there, just not visible or easy to find”
Glyder aren’t the kind of band that shift enough units to command shelf space in the major retailers. I wasn’t able to find a physical copy of any of their CDs in my local HMV or Tower Records. According to Anderson traditional retailers are “not interested in the occasional sale, because in traditional retail a CD that sells only one unit a quarter consumes exactly the same half-inch of shelf space as a CD that sells 1,000 units a quarter. There’s a value to that space – rent, overhead, staffing costs, etc. – that has to be paid back by a certain number of inventory turns per month. In other words, the onesies and twosies waste space.”
As we now know, what the internet gives with one hand, it takes with the other through illegal downloading. Barry is right to be miffed at not receiving a penny in royalties for the 30,000 illegal downloads. It’s not fair, the files are his property after all. But, as I outlined in another post, one illegal download is not the equivalent of a lost CD purchase under the old model. The people who download Glyder’s music from illegal p2p sites can be categorised as follows.
1. Those who use p2p file sharing networks as a substitute for buying the album. In other words they take the music. If it was impossible to file-share, many in this category would not buy the music. They are merely doing it because they can. That said, there are those who would have bought the music.
2. Those who sample the content and then, if they like it, make a decision to buy the music, go to concerts etc. Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor recently made the point that in advance of the official release of a CD he’s looking forward to he will always go to an illegal p2p site for a sneak preview. I did likewise before buying the most recent Wilco album.
The fight against illegal downloading has been going on for almost a decade without a satisfactory end in sight for either side. Record companies have not prevented illegal downloading, nor have they come up with a suitable model to make sure their artists are paid. In Remix Professor Lawrence Lessig calls for the decriminalisation of file sharing “either by authorising at least non-commercial file sharing with taxes to cover a reasonable royalty to the artists whose work is shared, or by authorising a simple blanket licensing procedure, whereby users could, for a low fee buy the right to freely file share.” This is not a perfect solution, but a license fee could go a considerable way towards paying for Glyder’s studio time and touring costs, ensuring that they continue to do what they love.
In a recent interview Trent Reznor, similar to Barry, bemoaned the younger generation’s lack of appreciation for the creative sacrifice involved in making good music, and was wistful for the “physicality and aesthetic experience” of the vinyl era. He accepted though that record companies had only themselves to blame for not realising the implications and possibilities of digital media “until the toothpaste was out of the tube.” He feels that there is no way back and musicians need to face up to this and “make the best of it.” Reznor has considerable resources that enable him to experiment with this new reality in a way that Glyder cannot. He was able to offer his latest release The Slip for free on his website and still make millions out of the physical release.
So where do Glyder go from here? It’s obvious they have a lot going for them musically, along with a growing fan base that many bands would kill for. My gut tells me that harnessing this following in a manner similar to the Grateful Dead with their radical marketing approach would be a good place to start. This style of brand building defied conventional wisdom at the time, is still unmatched, and well worth studying. Their unique relationship with their fans has endured and they still make millions even though they haven’t toured since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
For Glyder to succeed they too need to defy conventional wisdom and recognise the new terrain for what it is. Lawrence Lessig puts it better than anyone else when he says that “our norms and expectations around the control of culture have been set by a century that was radically different from the century we’re in. We need to reset these norms to this new century.”
The Long Tail (2006), Chris Anderson, P.6.
 Lawrence Lessig, Remix, P.271.
 Lawrence Lessig, Remix, P. 274.