What is success in the new music industry?

Damian Kulash, lead singer and guitarist for OK Go, spoke about the music industry at the Future of Music Summit in Washington, DC in October 2010.  Saying that the old model (selling records) was broken, he stressed that the new model “doesn’t have to be just one thing.”

Damian went into more detail in a recent article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

For a decade, analysts have been hyperventilating about the demise of the music industry. But music isn’t going away. We’re just moving out of the brief period—a flash in history’s pan—when an artist could expect to make a living selling records alone. Music is as old as humanity itself, and just as difficult to define. It’s an ephemeral, temporal and subjective experience.

~ Damian Kulash Jr.

The idea that making money from recordings was just a temporary fluke has also been proposed by Brian Eno, who compared records to whale blubber in an earlier interview:

The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along.

~ Brian Eno: The Observer

When asked to define success at the Future of Music Summit, Jill Solube offered:  “Success means not having to work a straight job.  I’m a lifer.”  Craig Finn of The Hold Steady said he felt they achieved success when the whole band got life insurance.

So while success may not require a Gaga-sized fan base or bank balance, it does require some amount of income.  OK Go has been able to replace the investment from a major label with money raised from fans, licensing, and sponsorships.  Although they have sold a fair number of records, according to Damian “it’s the online statistics that set the tone of our business and, ultimately, the size of our income.”

In addition to gathering twitter followers, Facebook fans, and YouTube, views, Damian provided some other examples of connecting with fans and their wallets.  Amanda Palmer sold off tour memorabilia with a live webcam auction from her apartment, pulling in $6,000 in three hours.  Drummer Josh Freese included lunch at PF Chang’s with a premium version of his album.

Not every artist will be comfortable with these income boosters, one tweeted: “nice to have more direct access to fans but selling lunch w/them goes a little too far — kinda creepy.”  And there are other musicians who prefer to focus solely on the music.

Where will the money come from for those who don’t have the time, talent, or inclination to be involved with videos, social media, marketing, and lunch dates with fans?  The New Rock-Star Paradigm may not work as well for songwriters, composers, and the would-be stars of the folk, jazz, and classical music worlds.