Kleenex Girl Wonder just released 13th LP The Comedy Album. Graham Smith, who’s been making pan-genre pop rock in bedrooms, studios, forests and everywhere in between under the KGW name with various people since 1994, joins MAGNET as guest editor this week. Climb inside his skull as he figures out what it’s all about, whatever “it” may be.
Smith: If you read articles on the internet about “the music industry”—a phrase I use in these posts and also in real life, despite the fact that I don’t like it at all—and how it has changed in the 22 years since I’ve been recording and releasing music, you might think that it is done changing. In my opinion, it’s kind of only just begun. But it’s also progressed a lot farther than just “people used to pay money and now they don’t,” which is the general thrust of a surprising percentage of the canon. I can’t claim that I have an accurate prediction of where this lunatic hydrofoil is headed, but I sure do have a lot of ideas. Some of them may even prove to be partially correct! I’ve learned to set achievable goals for myself, at least when it comes to editorial content.
When I started in 1994, it was a pretty ridiculously plush scene. I have no interest in talking about Nirvana, so I won’t, but insofar as they ushered in an era of large music corporations (and a few smaller ones) spending absurd amounts of money on bands for no apparent reason, other than curatorial largesse, it was, as they say these days, that a time to be alive. No really, they all say that, all the time. But it wasn’t necessarily an entirely different world. There was a reliable stream of income from record sales, but manufacturing and distribution meant that the margins were relatively thin—even before you factored in the ridiculous costs associated with recording a professional-sounding album. A large majority of the money came, as it still does, from live music. A few years earlier, Lollapalooza had kick-started the festival fad (or whatever) into motion (or back into motion; I didn’t live through it, but it seems like there was a similar vibe in the late ’60s/early ’70s, though I can’t be sure that it was as commercially motivated as what we’re currently living through, although it’s probably a safe bet, since basically everything is), and with a network of small, mid-size and huge venues across the urbanized western world, it was pretty easy to squeeze some wicked juice out of the economics of scale.
The main aspect of music listening that has changed over the past couple decades is not so much about the way that bands or musicians or songwriters or record labels turn art into careers or businesses or money, but rather the way that consumers interact with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of money the average person spends on music is roughly the same now as it was in 1994, it’s just distributed in different ways. And so is the value. When I was growing/coming up, listening to a record (or sometimes even just a couple of songs) was actually an action that involved strategy, choices, investment and, potentially, consequences. I mean, OK, you weren’t going to go to jail, but you might lose money or feel stupid or whatever. You actually could go to jail, if you stole a physical copy of a record from a store or from someone else, and that may have been the only option for some people. This had a profound impact on your relationship with a collection of songs; it seems unintuitive that paying more money for the same thing makes it more valuable, but such is the nature of capitalism or art or both, I guess.
I think that most musicians reacted to the proliferation of illegal download services and consequently paid or free streaming services differently than I did. I don’t mean as a consumer—I unearthed some of my favorite music as a result of download channels, and continue to find stuff on streaming services, which I would never have discovered otherwise—but as a musician. Perhaps this is because I’ve never really sold enough records, so it’s difficult to be all that upset about the fact that I make $5 instead of $20 profit when I release something. But I think it’s something more than that, which also may be somewhat peculiar to me: the best outcome, in my opinion, of spending the time and money to put my music out into the world is having someone connect with the sort of thing I’m trying to do (and seemingly somewhat often succeeding in doing) and wanting to hear more of it. So the more opportunities that I have to reach those people, the better.
This is why I think that things are just getting started in terms of a real paradigm shift in recorded music distribution/consumption. By and large, people are still doing the same thing(s) they did in the past, they’re just paying less money for it and not feeling as much of an emotional connection to it. As we all get past the novelty of omnipresent ubiquity, I hope we’ll rediscover our sense of wonder and get deep into the catalogues of the artists we choose as our favorites. And yes, I realize this is both reductive and potentially condescending, but hey, that’s just the pendulum-swing of a pop musician, baby.