R.E.M., Open Source, and Staying Alive When an Industry Shifts

Over the weekend, Nat posted “Artistic License 2.0 and … REM?!” which noted that the veteran rock’n’roll band was releasing its new video under an open license (if not in an open format). It’s good to see an old band learn a new trick, and it suggests what those in the music industry might do if they want to have a future in it.

In “A rare post about the music industry that isn’t completely depressing,” I looked at Jill Sobule’s attempt to fund her next record via online contributions. It’s a savvy attempt that seems to be succeeding: she’s more than two-thirds on her way to meeting her not-so-modest recording budget. A performer like Sobule (and, as we’ll see shortly, R.E.M.) comes to alternate ways of funding or promoting new music with baggage — unlike younger performers, like Yael Naim, who can get lucky thanks to novelty (see “Steve Jobs rules the recording industry. Now what?”) These performers are experimenting with new ways to get heard because the old ways weren’t working. Prince, to cite one high-profile example, wouldn’t have started distributing his records via concert add-ons or newspaper inserts if the old distribution methods were still working for him.

R.E.M. can still be a thrilling band live, but its commercial heyday was long ago — back when the U.S. president was Ronald Reagan, in fact — and even diehard fans acknowledge that the trio’s recorded work has limped since the band’s original drummer, Bill Berry, left 11 years ago. The band’s decision to distribute the “Supernatural Superserious” video is, at its heart, an attempt to create buzz for the record. That’s something the band has been trying for months, in particular its attempt to hype the relatively rocking nature of the new record, after a number of ballad-heavy snoozefests.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial desperation can lead to innovation, both in terms of the art itself and the art with which you sell it. Everyone is eulogizing the death of the traditional rock’n’roll business, but the successful old rockers are still successful. Bruce Springsteen is selling out arenas and will move up to stadiums in the summer. Tom Petty’s Super Bowl halftime gig — timed right before his summer tour tickets went on sale — rejuvenated his record sales. And the hoary hard-rock band Aerosmith has turned to a new installment in a successful videogame franchise to keep up its profile. Even when radio and even video outlets have turned cool to these performers, there’s still an audience waiting to hear, see, or play with them. The lack of traditional intermediaries does not mean there’s a lack of audience.

Having emerged from the early-’80s Amerindie movement, an assemblage of rock’n’roll bands with a combination of optimism and hardheadedness that mirrored the very best of the open source movement, R.E.M. knows it can’t compete with what’s at the top of the charts. It’s unlikely that fans of the current flavors — Miley Cyrus, Flo Rida, or T-Pain — will be moved by R.E.M.’s music. But the band isn’t ready to rent its songs to Madison Avenue or diverge from the aesthetic that made them stars. If you can’t play on an even field, change the field. Just as open source projects reached critical mass by serving areas the proprietary vendors were ignoring or giving short shrift, the Amerindie bands — in love with punk’s sense of possibility — provided an alternative to the mainstream. Now, the thinking goes, we can’t get people to find out about our new record the usual ways, we have to find new ways. The future, as always, belongs to the clever.

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