Home / Music / The Alchemist at Work: The Music of Martín Perna in the Digital Era

The Alchemist at Work: The Music of Martín Perna in the Digital Era

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The alchemist at work is engaged with the world, taking materials discarded, thought useless, combining and recombining those materials and making something of value from them. My grandfather, a brick mason, found broken pieces of colored glass and tile and arranged them to create a mosaic that decorated the entrance to his home. My brother, a counselor in a methadone clinic, says that in every conversation with every client there's an opportunity to add something positive to the conversation, there's a chance to re-purpose the situation, to add value to the situation.

And that's the key. A lot has been made of an alchemist turning lead into gold, the emphasis being on the wealth, like the winning lottery ticket. But alchemy isn't about riches; it's about adding value. As Martín Perna, member of the bands Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds, explained to me, “It's not always in a valuable sense, like, 'I bought this baseball card for fifty cents and now I'm selling it for three-thousand,' because you didn't actually put anything into the baseball card.”

A positive force in music, Martín and his bands have been taking sounds and styles from throughout the world, recombining them with his alchemist's touch to create underground jewels that are rich, deep, raw and beautiful. But as with many musicians, the difficulty lies in the paper-chase, turning the music into money. “I've been a professional musician since 1996,” Martín told me, “and I've never made more than $20,000 a year. I'm married. I'm trying to do other things. But it's like if you have a car and you can only put an eighth of a tank of gas in your car at a time. You really can't go that far.”

“The music industry, people think it's big because it all over the place but there's actually not that much money in it,” Martín explained as we sat backstage in Antone's. “You divide the amount of money in the industry by all the different bands, all the different sound guys, all the different agents, managers, label people, and it's really hard.”

And the times we're living in have only made the paper-chase tougher. The Digital Age has changed the way music is distributed and it's changed the way it's viewed as a product. In the days when vinyl was it, there were albums that you owned and those that you did not. The music you collected was a physical thing; it represented your identity and served as a mirror of your taste. Then, in less than ten years, all of that changed. PCs became cheap and owned by most, dial-up gave way to high-speed, hard drive space grew along with processing power, base-model machines came with CD burners, iPods and iTunes swept through society, and file-sharing became an epidemic. As the barriers to music sharing fell, musicians like Martín, who were already struggling to make enough to fund their next project, were hit hard. As Martín said, “it makes it very difficult for an artist to make a living doing what an artist does best.”

As Informationisbeautiful.net pointed out in this graphic, the revenue stream change through legitimate online commerce is huge. Alternative streams have yet to develop. Consumer-wise, those who have immersed themselves in the online social ecology of music culture have made it clear that they expect music to be free, even when they're willing to shell out some good cash for concert tickets.

“There's no way to really correlate how many people you play to and how many CDs you sell,” Martín explained. “Like in my other band, Antibales, we put out a full-length album in 2007. It was on a label called Empire, nationally distributed label, with very good distribution, and we sold out venues bigger than this (500 occupancy) in twenty or thirty cities around the United States and played other, smaller venues, and at the end of the tour we had barely sold ten-thousand records. Our agent is looking at the concert attendance figures and said, 'Ten years ago, playing for this many people would've meant seventy-thousand records sold.'”

An advisor to Warner Music Group, Jim Griffin, spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about his plans to find a business model for digital music. Griffin explained that, “We are looking at a transition from product to service, where that service requires a kind of aggregation that has occurred in the past in the music business.” In the mid-nineteenth century, Griffin explained, musicians and authors formed a collective and had laws enacted which required payment when music was played or a book was read aloud in public. Music was a service.

“…what intervened,” said Griffin, “was a product business in music – the idea that you could put music on a piece of plastic or a piece of vinyl. The service promoted the product, and everybody was happy.”

I asked Martín about the revenue streams. “Seventy percent live, thirty percent CDs. It shouldn't be that way though, because playing live takes enormous energy, whether it's seven guys or twelve guys on the road, it's a lot of food that you're eating, a lot of gas, a lot of water bottles, it's a lot of miles. Just to make that money, the record should be out there making money for the artist, but it's not, it's not anymore.”

Griffin and his team are working with universities to develop new business models. “…take the prime example – peered sharing of music – because we know that music fans love to share music. Here we take peer-to-peer sharing of music and we put a flat fee price with unlimited access. We take those flat fees and we put them into a pool and then divide those pools based upon metrics that are derived from the use on the networks,” not unlike the Nielsen system used for TV shares. And instead of dealing with piracy as a legal issue, one business model being considered would give consumers payment options similar to the cable TV pricing structure.

If mobility is built into the bundle, these ideas might be the next step in getting artists like Martín paid but for now, as the alchemist explained: “You can get our music online for free at hundreds of places. We didn't put it up there but somebody did. I'm not mad, like I don't want to go bag on those people but at the same time it means that we're selling less records and so we have less money to make the next record, we have less money to pay our bills and be dedicated to music. It's changed a lot.”

With his bands Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds, Martín has a lot of music out there, all of it good for you, some of it so sublime it will stir your soul with joy. Check his discography here.

And he's going back in the studio this fall to make more. I'll see if we can get a remix teaser so check back but I ask that if you download it, you should promise that you'll make a concerted effort to BUY the new album when it drops.

This is music you should have. Please don't take it for granted.

If you’re a musician looking for online resources, you might check Reverb Nation
and The Future of Music Coalition.

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About Earl G. Lundquist

  • Gabriel

    Insightful article. We want to freely share with friends music we like, but on the other hand endless ripping might mean independent musicians go the way of the buffalo. Good thoughts.