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The Rules of the Game 

Robert Fripp on the profession of music

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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Robert Fripp is the leader of the veteran British/ American band King Crimson, which since 1968 has maintained a sizable cult following around the world. While never huge in the megaplatinum sense, Crimson has been popular enough to be deemed commercially viable by several major labels over the years, including Atlantic, Island and Warner Bros., and as a live act has proved strong enough a draw to fill arenas and amphitheaters in the USA, Europe, Japan and South America.

Crimson operated from the outset entirely within the traditional major-label distribution and publishing system. But in 1991, Fripp decided to cut out the middlemen. He formed Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), a company that seeks new methods for getting its music heard by those who wish to hear it, and makes fair remuneration to its artists a cornerstone of its operations. Fripp envisions his venture both as an ethical endeavor — an answer for myriad major-label musicians who’ve ended up penniless though their catalogs have sold in the millions — and a business venture that will serve as a feasible model for what he sees as an imminent artists’ rebellion.

Fripp perceives the state of the industry this way: "I think two things are happening: One is that the mainstream is becoming increasingly established in the mainstream, for example the acquisition of Polygram by Seagram’s, so you now have a whiskey company in Canada ensconced with something like a quarter of the music industry. So the mainstream is not going away, it’s getting more solid in the middle. And what tends to subvert that is the eruption, mainly supported by technology, of artists outside the mainstream. Mainstream record companies develop in the mainstream — they’re very, very bad outside it. In other words, they’ve a very small focus, and they’re very broad-bound within that small focus.

"And my sense is technology is now enabling a discerning seeker of a particular something to actually find it through the Net. So two things are happening simultaneously: Mainstream record companies are focusing in on the mainstream, and they’re wafting all around."

As long as the major labels still exist, what responsibilities do they have toward their artists?

He laughs. "Almost none. It’s like the slave trade: ‘We give our darkies two big meals a day, and we only beat them on Sundays.’ But they’re still ‘darkies.’ Artists in the mainstream are the niggers. It really is that simple. And the function of A&R is to smile a lot and persuade the artist that things are not actually as they see them as being.

"You reach a point where you have to accept responsibility for yourself as a professional musician. The musician is one thing and has a whole range of concerns, but a professional musician has a whole range of other concerns. To be both at the same time is a supreme personal challenge."

Fripp elected to take on that challenge with the formation of DGM. He made his ambitious goals of creating a new artistic model explicit in a proclamation of DGM "Business Aims" (see below), which proposed in part that it should be possible for a band to "operate in the marketplace while being free of the values of the marketplace." In order to achieve this, he says, one needs to address "the division of attention."

"As an artist," Fripp explains, "it was no longer possible for me to work for major labels — there was no way to get around this fact of copyright ownership, which I had always understood to be my property. You can make a case for the royalty rates which majors pay. You cannot make a case for record companies owning the phonographic copyrights.

"So the only alternative at that point is to form an independent record label, which is the last thing any player wishes to do — only necessity will take you to that point. Most young artists say, ‘I’m not interested in doing my own label,’ and I say, ‘Well, I sympathize, because I hate it myself quite substantially.’ But anyone can be their â own record label as long as they can print up at least 10 cassettes and sell them at shows, and then perhaps 500 CDs and sell those at shows."

Fripp feels that to work within the major-label system successfully depends upon the "host," and the artist’s relationship with the host. "Up until ’91 or ’92," he says, "I was prepared to find ways of working within that system, although the ends and the value structures were entirely dissimilar. What I did was seek to establish personal relationships with record-company people in particular roles; if you’re actually speaking to a person with a name, you’ve bypassed the role. There’s a lot of really nice people working in the record industry, because they love music and have difficulties with what they see."

For DGM, the future of the music business is in mail order and downloading via the Internet. DGM is gearing up to handle both, but has not entirely severed its ties with large corporations that have distribution systems in place.

"We have three tiers of distribution: We have access to record shops in this country through Ryko, in England through Pinnacle, in Japan, and in Europe through a number of different distributors in different countries. America, although very big, is actually one unified market. Europe is not one unified market, it’s 10 markets at least, with their own languages, cultural backgrounds, business practices."

Fripp says that DGM works through stores and mail order, but that mass marketing really makes sense only for established artists. "For the newer and younger artists on Discipline, the only money they’re ever going to make from the records is by selling them at gigs. Which is entirely reasonable — the listening community will go and see them; if you buy a record from Discipline in England, it’s 5 pounds; you’ll sell it from 13 to 15 pounds at the show. If you sell 10, you’ve made 80 pounds; if you sell 100, you’ve made a lot more. And you’ll probably find for those newer artists whose records aren’t quite yet released but will be within nine months, they’ll make more money when selling the records themselves than they’ll get from even mail order or distribution in shops."

In order to discourage bootlegging of live Crimson tapes and to make the band’s archival material available to fans, DGM has created its Collectors’ Club, offering digitally remastered live and studio music and selling it by mail order; this will also eventually be implemented through downloading on the Web, though there are still a few bugs to be worked out.

"America is currently in the first world. There are four worlds: The first world is the information world, and the U.K. and Europe are still really in the second world. In America, e-mail is now as well-established and commonplace as faxes; all businesses in England have faxes, but e-mail is something like faxes were 10 years ago. A very small proportion of our mail-order business in Europe is through the Internet."

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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