[Editor's note: Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Be sure to also check out the archives.]
It's hard to pinpoint the date when the music industry stopped speaking like a shell-shocked trench poet, but the sky quietly quit falling. Last year, album sales increased 3.2 percent from 2010. That's a first since Napster's Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning came through and crushed the buildings. Total music purchases, including digital singles, now equal the calories Rick Ross consumes in a single 12-month period: 1.6 billion, which is certainly more bawse than anyone expected.
The industry isn't back to pre-crisis highs, and probably never will be. It's like a reconstructed New Orleans: functioning but filled with immense wreckage. Major-label attorneys invented 360 contracts to bleed artists, while Adele and Lady Gaga proved that superstars could still be minted in the Internet era -- even if profit ceilings and common denominators stay low.
Indie labels haven't taken over the game as some predicted, but they've seemingly proliferated; someone needs to feed the blog-industrial complex, after all. The new business model is one of many models. Some labels are vertically integrated management companies. Some press limited-edition vinyl. Others are cassette-only, some strictly digital. Most wring revenue from an array of sources. Pandora. Licensing. YouTube. Spotify. iTunes. Kickstarter. eBay auctions of Skrillex's hair. (Surely coming soon.)
One of the most interesting new streams is Drip.FM, the brainchild of Sam Valenti and Miguel Senquiz of electronic label Ghostly International. The idea is simple: a subscription-based service that delivers releases to your inbox several times monthly for $10 to $15 per label. The efficacy lies in the execution. Ghostly's drip page operates as a hub for news, tours and special offers: subscriber ticket giveaways, fan-artist interactions, excavations into the back catalog.
"When you pay for HBO, you may only use 10 percent of it, but you want access to the perspectives they provide," says Valenti, who founded Ghostly during his days at the University of Michigan, around the start of the doomsday prophecies. Over the last decade, the Detroit-New York-L.A.-based label has launched the careers of numerous internationally hailed electronic musicians, including Matthew Dear and Dabrye.
"Good labels have quality, consistency and catalog. Even when HBO plays '80s comedies, it's a welcome reminder that they exist. Paying each time for content is like paying for every Game of Thrones episode."
Since emerging from beta last year, Drip has contracted with several local independent heavy hitters, including Stones Throw, Now-Again and Diplo's Mad Decent. Its most recent member is Domino, home of Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors.
Each label has put a unique spin on the service. Mad Decent has included a cappella stems to subscribers, many of whom are DJs looking for remix material. Now-Again founder Eothen "Egon" Alapatt has emphasized his label's sterling back catalog of rare world music, funk and soul.
In its first few weeks on Drip, Now-Again doubled the projected number of subscribers. Stones Throw web director Jeff Jank is even more bullish.
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"I've only thought two digital platforms were a good idea: iTunes and Drip. Everything else has been corporate-minded junk aimed at major labels and mass audiences," says Jank, who estimates Stones Throw's subscriber base in the hundreds. "I love Drip. We don't know the long term, but who knows anything long-term in music right now?"
The only real downside comes from the perspective of bigger-selling artists, who may lose out on record sales from the revenue-sharing model. But Valenti stresses that he has encouraged labels to split profits based on the number of downloads each album receives.
"We're not trying to take down the industry. No one wants to live in a world without Amoeba or Origami Vinyl," Valenti says. "Everyone wants to know the future: It's streaming downloads, live webcasts, SoundCloud, etc. People want to pay to support content and musicians. The enthusiasm for music hasn't died -- it's grown. We're just trying to create another special place for it."