I'm engaged in the great and good work of becoming obsolete. It's getting to be a habit.
Along about my 21st year, I fell or got shoved or voluntarily leaped from the bridge to academic servitude I'd been trudging dutifully and mindlessly along my entire student life. After rattling around a bit I sat myself down and asked me what I really wanted to do. I'd already chosen creative arts as a general field of inquiry and after some examination settled on musician as a more universally employable profession than, say, sci fi writer or comics artist. My mistake.
Street performing got crowded out by scheduled events, commercialized "street fairs" with amplified stages, ubiquitous debit cards subsuming the availability of spare change to throw, and about ten million homeless panhandlers dolefully rattling their paper cups. Bar gigs got inflated out of any useful return on investment ("A musician is someone who puts $5000 worth of gear into a $500 car to drive 50 miles for $5.")
And now they're coming for my CD business.
It shocks me to think back and realize that I've been making audio products for 30 years. When I started out, I was just trying to suppliment my busking take with a few strategically-sold cassettes. Emphasis on "few." I was thrilled to sell ten cassettes, but most duplication services started at 100 units and went up from there. After developing on-demand short-run techniques for my own supply, I quickly discovered there was steadier money in dupping other people's puny projects, and Bard's Cathedral was born.
When CDs came thundering onto the scene, I had to scramble to keep up. Cassettes were losing steam and I needed a new tiger to grab by the ears and ride into the future. With a used 1x burner, $3-a-pop CDRs and inkjet-printed paper labels, I was right on the tech sweet spot: just behind the bleeding edge and a step ahead of consumer inflitration. I could use a little credit, a squeeze of knowledge and a big heaping dollop of handwork to sidestep Big Disc and put on my own show. And the market was thriving. With CDs retailing between $15 and $20 apiece, even if I sold them to my customers for $6 each, they still made money.
Very quickly I went from an old SE30 burning discs in a corner at 1 minute/minute to two or three separate slightly younger Macs with built-in Superdrives. I'd load sound files and fire up burning software. Production, baby! Then it was a three-bay duplicator and inkjet printable CDrs, plus a home-office quality color laser printer for near-press quality graphics. And that was pretty much the top of the ladder — any further and I'd be looking at leased workspace and mult-kilobuck investment in durable goods of dubious durability. I wasn't about to go full-press industrial — my throughput wouldn't justify it. As a micromarketing specialist, I'd developed a simple rule: upgrade your capacity when your back's against the wall.
In my low-overhead retro-tech fashion I continued to, if not rake it in, at least beat the beast at the door back with a rusty shovel. For a time. But all things must change, and if you don't have a lounge seat on the steamroller of history, be prepared to be a long time flat.
First there was downloading. Then there was iTunes and its ilk, a can't-lick-em-join-em Hail Mary from the industry. LPs had eaten singles, cassettes ate LPs, CDs ate cassettes, and now downloading was taking a bite out of CDs. The real turning point came when the Majors, wilely MBAs that they were, came upon the strategy of completely subsuming physical, owned media, or even digital equivalents, with all-you-can-eat streaming services charging by the month. It was the Fall Of The Tower Of Records.
I watched from the sidelines, louchely horror-struck. As the attachment-averse tail on this particular mechanical donkey, I had little recourse but to keep an eye on the ass and ride out whatever swerves it dished up. But I couldn't help but observe that whenever the peons (in this case, artists) get any advantage at all, that's when the velvet gloves come off the iron fists of the owners. Whether it's breaking up strikes with Pinkertons with machine guns or reinventing distribution of music as walled-garden rental instead of sale, the Big Guys always seem to have another stinky maneuver up their bespoke-tailored sleeves.
So what's a poor boy to do? The blinding headlight of the oncoming train wasn't exactly lost on me, and I put quite a bit of thought and investment into moving into some adjacent line of work. I imagined starting my own download service for small artists, but there wasn't a suitable downscaling of what the Bigs did. I went into video for a while, but camera phones and editing apps were not only cheap but fun. Video, as I predicted, has exploded, but at my level of sophistication it's strictly DIY.
But in the midst of my desultory flailing in the murky swamps of commerce, something interesting happened: I kept selling CDs.
Throughout my blotched and splattered career, I've always aimed squarely at the far end of the long tail of the market, finding my customers through craft fairs and obscure genre subdivisions. Though "underserved" didn't regularly map to "nextl big thing," I was committed to Baby Gramps' addage to hit the smalltime, and while it was frequently more of a scavanger hunt than a profession, I got by. And now, while megabuck pressing plants are scailing back their cleanrooms and thinking about stripmall conversions, I'm continuing to serve the same small but doughty constituancy I always have. Not only that, but they're grateful, buddy boy, begging, begging me to pleeeeeeze not go out of business.
I may never get rich in the Lucrative Buggywhip Industry, but I provide a needed service that pays its own way and helps keep at least my hat afloat. And for a weirdo like me, that's aplenty.