Cutting Out the Middlemen

It's easier than ever for artists to reach audiences directly. But is that always a good thing?

It's a pretty safe bet that once Time magazine has taken note of a cultural trend or topic, it's on its last legs, if not totally over. After all, it took that earnest weekly until 1966 to finally pose the late-19th-century conversation-starter, "Is God Dead?"

Occasionally, however, Time stumbles onto something before it's completely yesterday's news. This spring, for instance, the magazine extolled the virtues of the vast increase in music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression made possible by ever-cheaper and increasingly widespread technology. While hardly a new phenomenon, cultural proliferation will only continue to grow over the coming years. (See "All Culture, All the Time," April 1999.)

Time's take on the phenomenon was a March 27 cover story titled "Do-It-Yourself.Com," illustrated with a picture of a grinning Stephen King reaching through a computer monitor toward the reader. "If [he] can do it, so can you," said the caption, alluding to the huge success of the horror author's Web-only novella Riding the Bullet. (King's fans downloaded more than 500,000 copies on the e-book's first day of availability in March, netting the author an estimated $450,000.) "Who needs Hollywood when you can make your own movies, books and music?" asked Time.

That's a fair—and highly relevant—question. It's also one that ranges far beyond purely cultural matters to include other sorts of information-based exchanges: Who needs Time, say, when you can assemble your own news magazine either by writing it yourself or, more likely, culling various Web sites and listservs for stories and discussions on topics that interest you?

Certainly in the cultural realm, it appears as though the Internet is finally delivering on what cyberspace pundits once touted as "disintermediation." That's a clunky way of saying that the Internet makes it easier for producers and consumers, sellers and buyers, and artists and audiences to find one another without having to go through—or pay off—a middleman. The ability to circumvent middlemen of one sort or another is at the heart of recording-industry anxieties—and hardball lawsuits—launched against companies such as MP3.com and Napster, both of which allow people to freely circulate music in previously unimaginable ways.

So far, most of the discussion, especially from artists' perspective, has focused on the liberatory aspects of cultural proliferation. At last, artists are saying, we can finally be totally free of the corporate types who sacrifice our visions on the altar of commerce, mass taste, conformity, or whatever. No more having to "sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic ware," as the Byrds put it years ago in "So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star," their widely covered, ironic slap at stultifying record labels. (It's not surprising that, at this stage anyway, much of the activity and rhetoric on the Web revolves around music. Not only are software programs and social protocols for distributing music currently more advanced than for other forms of art, but popular music, especially rock, remains a bastion of often unabashedly romantic ideas about the visionary artist suffering at the hands of unenlightened overseers.)

But the new terms of exchange are more complicated than most observers, certainly most artists, have generally acknowledged. The dreaded middleman—the publisher, the label, the editor, the producer—is often not simply incidental to the transaction, but an active participant who brings artist and audience together for a mutually satisfactory interaction. And the same developments that give an artist an unprecedented ability to directly engage his or her audience give that audience the ability to make greater demands on the artist, or to turn away completely.

"The middleman," announces Time, "is endangered. If you're unknown, you can avoid the middleman by using the Net to be discovered and attain stardom. And if you're already a star, you can avoid the middleman by using the Net to keep most of the money yourself." It's hardly surprising that Time, as a huge-circulation cash cow of a giant corporation, casts the promise of disintermediation starkly in terms of stardom and big bucks, rather than anything as impecunious as, say, self-expression.

But a similar message runs throughout virtually all thoughts on the matter, with artists almost univocally trumpeting Net-based disintermediation as a way of avoiding the suits who impinge on true genius and unfettered artistic expression. In a typical comment, rapper Ice-T, who has released an entire album online, recently told the ZDNet Music site, "I think the benefits of putting [music] online, from the artist's perspective, is that you have more control over your own music. You essentially have direct contact with your fans."

Musician Todd Rundgren, best known for such long-ago hits as "Hello, It's Me" and "Bang the Drum All Day," develops the same point on his subscription-based Web site (www.tr-i.com). "If I were to go to a record label and ask for a deal," he writes, "they would make a guess as to how many people would buy the record and give me an advance based on that number, in effect lending me some fraction of the money that my fans would eventually (2 or so years later) pony up. It occurred to me that with the aid of some modern advances I could go directly to my audience, ask them if they would commit to buying the music, and then deliver it to them as it is produced, thus eliminating the middlemen."

For fees ranging between $10 and $60 a year, Rundgren offers fans varying levels of access to his creative process. For $25, for example, subscribers get to preview and download new music, check out "rarities and oddities available to members only," have custom tapes or CDs made, participate in online chats with Rundgren, attend a "live" online event, and receive "something in the mail that looks and feels remarkably like an old fashioned album jacket." Rundgren also holds forth the possibility that the medium may fundamentally change and enrich his offerings. Unconstrained by "the limitations of manufacturing," he even suggests that he'll be able to "complete and deliver ideas that might not normally appear on a CD."

That's a pretty good deal if you're a devotee of a recording artist whose new music receives essentially no air time and who is, by his own admission, unlikely to crop up on MTV or VH-1 anytime soon. In fact, it seems a perfect arrangement for an idiosyncratic performer with a small but intense audience. According to the New York Times, about 2,000 subscribers have signed up for Rundgren's site, shelling out $60 each on average for a year's worth of access.

Long known as an early adopter of technology—he was among the first rock stars to get into video and he released the first interactive music CD—Rundgren's venture is surely only one of the first such experiments in direct contact between artists and audiences. If his grander plans pan out, he will be intimately involved in launching many such sites: Rundgren is a "founding father" of ArtistEnt, a Web site that will host artist-subscription services and other offerings.

However, despite its liberating effects, it's far from clear whether disintermediation is an unalloyed good when it comes to artistic production. There's no question that cheaper means of production and distribution grant artists important new ways of expressing themselves outside traditional channels that have often worked to stifle innovation and expression. Yet there's also no question that, as in more strictly economic exchanges, various sorts of brokers often add significant value to cultural offerings, especially for the audience.

For instance, simply by putting their name on a CD or novel, record labels and publishers convey meaningful information to potential buyers: You're unlikely to confuse an offering from Rounder Records with one from Warp.

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