Can Maltese music exploit the online lifeline?

How does U2’s release of a free album online foreground Malta’s musical scene – and more specifically, its methods of distribution and financial viability, TEODOR RELJIC asks?

Pro-Bono: U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, can be freely downloaded through iTunes until 13 October
Pro-Bono: U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, can be freely downloaded through iTunes until 13 October

As if Apple’s unveiling of iPhone 6 needed more online hype, in come the love-hate pop band of our generation – U2 – to drop a brand new album under Apple’s auspices. The added twist to the tale? The album, the 11-track Songs of Innocence, will remain entirely free to all iTunes users until 13 October.

Jabs about whether the bulk of music fans actually wanted this album in the first place (it landed automatically into iTunes download folders soon after its 9 September release) or arguments about whether it’s any good aside, this latest marketing gimmick is yet another reminder of how porous the commercial model for music has become. Exactly what kind of message this sends on U2’s part is ripe for potentially endless debate. Does it mean that Bono & Co. – arguably one of the most enduring and recognisable pop ensembles of the past few decades – have more or less completely given up on traditional methods of music distribution? Or is this simply more about PR and marketing than it is about welcoming the release of a new U2 album?

But after all is said and done – even though that phrase implies a kind of finality that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon as far as digital distribution and file sharing is concerned – the fact is that U2 were in a privileged enough position to afford to dish an album out for free (notwithstanding any agreements with Apple they may have struck behind the scenes).

A band even marginally less iconic than U2 wouldn’t be so quick to give their material away for free online in the same way, even if it’s more or less an open secret that piracy services plenty of music fans these days. But faced with the realities of online piracy, and more importantly, the fact that the current generation takes free music for granted, some musicians are trying to beat the system at its own game.

The release of U2’s free album coincided with the announcement that ‘cabaret-punk’ singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer (formerly of the Dresden Dolls) has made her non-fiction book The Art of Asking, available for pre-order. An expansion of her 2013 Ted Talk of the same name, The Art of Asking takes Palmer’s unabashed love of crowd-funding as its starting point. Inspiring as much ire as admiration, Palmer successfully managed to garner over $1.2 million for her second solo album, Theatre is Evil, on Kickstarter – an amount which allowed her to release the album independently, and some of which also went towards promotional overheads and music video production.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on – and luminaries like David Byrne and Trent Reznor have reacted to Palmer’s proposed alternative with barely-concealed hostility – what can’t be denied is that the online landscape has irrevocably altered the way music is both produced and consumed. 

Given the challenges local musicians face on a daily basis – lack of performance venues and an intrinsically tiny local listening public – could the internet provide them with keener possibilities to thrive and expand?


The impasse remains

Local musicians have gone on record to complain about the lack of performance venues countless times. There are a limited number of places to play in at any given time, they say, and even those that tend to be available are hampered by heavy-handed police enforcement. Gigs being cut short have become the order of the day, but though the reason for this is ostensibly related to after-hours noise pollution, the hand of the law appears to recede when faced with lucrative – and state-sponsored – events like Isle of MTV.

Neither did the appointment of former Eurovision singer William Mangion help matters much – in fact, the government bafflingly employed him to take care of the one thing that bands didn’t need help with: securing rehearsal spaces.

So in light of these ongoing problems – along with the fact that the Maltese audiences will always be limited by dint of the island’s size alone – it seems logical that local bands will seek solace online. But what kind of concrete benefits can local acts gain from the internet?

For some, the boost in promotion is already significant enough. Malta may be small, but you still need to make some noise to be heard, and as Jagged House Productions’ Howard Keith observes, “If, say, one would have needed to invest €4,000 in billboards to advertise an event, they would achieve same results with €400 spent on Facebook promotion”.

But while Keith – who manages the likes of Ira Losco, Tribali and Airport Impressions – flags up the internet’s ability to bring musicians closer to their fans by “creating awareness and interest in their latest releases”, other musicians are wary of seeing it as a quick-fix solution, particularly for local musicians.

Yes, the internet provides you with the opportunity to put your music out on an international platform, but generating enough buzz for you to get noticed is still an uphill struggle, in an oversaturated online landscape.

“The internet is always very good for exposure, but recognition and reputation require crowds, not a random person browsing and stumbling upon your song,” Josh Briffa from local indie rock band Three Stops to China says. His band mate David Grech Urpani suggests that, since the internet has frayed our attention spans, bands need to make an extra effort to remain relevant, which he suggests could be done “either by being relevant – which is far more complex than being an imitation (and why most local bands fall flat abroad), or by being just about unique enough while still being relatable”.

“The latter is the reason why certain acts like Beangrowers caused some type of ripple in their own genre as soon as they were dipped into the international pool with their contemporaries, and why other bands announce a ‘tour’, go abroad, play a couple of pub gigs, and come back home with not much gained except perhaps a dozen sold EPs,” Grech Urpani says.

But that’s not to say that the online dimension hasn’t had a beneficial impact on the local musical scene across the board. Toni Sant, Maltese music podcaster and one of the driving forces behind Maltese music archiving initiative M3P, says that “my main source of local material is the internet”.

“Aside from constant access to some very well produced music videos, especially via YouTube, my weekly Mużika Mod Ieħor podcast (now in its 9th year) would never have lasted this long.”

Brikkuni front man Mario Vella credits YouTube and Facebook with helping to foster a “diverse and eclectic” scene in Maltese music.

“Being able to disseminate your music through alternative channels rather than the usual PR sensitive corporate media is very liberating. Edgier music certainly benefited in this regard,” Vella says.

But the key question remains: “How do you make it work financially?”