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Making Music Has Changed, Finding Music Is Changing

by Mark Tatum

We are in the midst of a revolution - a music revolution. No, it isn't some new style like rock 'n roll or disco or hip-hop that is sweeping the world. It is a major shift in how music is made, distributed and discovered.

Musicians have freedom

Musicians in all genres have found freedom from major labels and the mass-media distribution system we all grew up with. They can produce and record music in their basements without a marketing guru looking over their shoulder. They can self-produce their CD and sell it over the internet.

Mass media and big labels still account for the most successful songs and albums, but now there is an alternative. Before this revolution artists were stuck with the big label system. Many artists can now earn a modest living outside of the big label system, and many are finding they like the freedom it brings. The result is that more music is being produced than ever before. And because more musicians are able to make a living, some might argue more of them are becoming better at their craft.

Distribution has changed

The old system depended on marketing to the largest groups of people possible - through radio and television - and selling music in specialty stores. Now that there is an alternative this distribution system is beginning to crumble. Nearly all of the old record stores have closed and most physical sales are made through discounters such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

These retailers have a very limited inventory compared to the old Tower Records locations with 400,000 titles. Instead, people go to and other online retailers to search millions of titles - more than a physical record store could ever hope to carry.

This environment has bred hundreds of independent labels who are able to specialize in a genre or geographic location and nurture up-and-coming artists who might not normally have made it in the mass-media marketplace.

Also, small artists without any label support at all can still sell thousands of their records online through their own web sites, myspace pages or CD Baby.

It is easier than ever to distribute music, even if a lot of the profit has gone out of the distribution part of the business.

How to Discover New Music?

With all the changes in production and distribution, it has been difficult for most people to find good new music to listen to. In fact, this may be as big a part of declining music sales as other maladies such as illegal downloading that are more commonly mentioned.

Local radio is no longer the dominent tastemaker it once was. Can you name one radio DJ you trust to recommend music anymore?

Much of the music being made today doesn't fit into the sharply-drawn genres that radio formats were designed for. Because artists have more freedom when making music without a big label trying to force them into a more defined genre, radio has become a wasteland when compared to previous decades. The most critically-acclaimed album of 2005, Sufjan Stevens' "Illinoise," hardly received any radio play.

Instead of mass-media dominating music tastemaking, it is a larger group of small tastemakers who are recommending what we listen to today: mp3 blogs, automated recommendation sites like and Pandora, social webs like the music-oriented myspace or facebook and thousands of bloggers and reviewers who are getting the word out any way they can.

These avenues of discovery are just now being adopted by the music-buying public. Today most people are clueless about how to find good music they will like and how to get plugged into a community that meshes with their musical tastes.

As these new discovery platforms gain wider acceptance the old production and distribution systems will change even more. There will always be a place for mass-marketing of music. We will still have anthems that touch large numbers of us at one time. It just won't be the dominent force it once was.

So if you are confused about how to find good music today, begin checking out the new tastemakers. The mp3 blogs, recommendation sites and podcasts. They are home to thousands of music lovers who listen to and recommend artists and albums you have never heard on the radio. You might be surprised to find much of it is better than you could have hoped for.