Robert Fripp is
the leader of the veteran British/American band
King Crimson, which since
1968 has maintained a sizable cult following around the world. While never
huge in the megaplatinum sense, Crimson has been popular enough to be
deemed commercially viable by several major labels over the years,
including Atlantic, Island and Warner Bros., and as a live act has proved
strong enough a draw to fill arenas and amphitheaters in the USA, Europe,
Japan and South America.
Crimson operated from the outset entirely within the traditional
major-label distribution and publishing system. But in 1991, Fripp decided
to cut out the middlemen. He formed Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), a
company that seeks new methods for getting its music heard by those who
wish to hear it, and makes fair remuneration to its artists a cornerstone
of its operations. Fripp envisions his venture both as an ethical endeavor
行 an answer for myriad major-label musicians who've ended up penniless
though their catalogs have sold in the millions 行 and a business venture
that will serve as a feasible model for what he sees as an imminent
Fripp perceives the state of the industry this way: "I think
two things are happening. One is that the mainstream is becoming
increasingly established in the mainstream, for example the acquisition of
Polygram by Seagram's, so you now have a whiskey company in Canada
ensconced with something like a quarter of the music industry. So the
mainstream is not going away, it's getting more solid in the middle. And
what tends to subvert that is the eruption, mainly supported by technology,
of artists outside the mainstream. Mainstream record companies develop in
the mainstream 行 they're very, very bad outside it. In other words, they've
a very small focus, and they're very broad-bound within that small focus.
"And my sense is technology is now enabling a discerning seeker
of a particular something to actually find it through the Net. So two
things are happening simultaneously: Mainstream record companies are
focusing in on the mainstream, and they're wafting all around."
As long as the major labels still exist, what responsibilities do
they have toward their artists?
He laughs. "Almost none. It's like the slave trade: 'We give
our darkies two big meals a day, and we only beat them on Sundays.' But
they're still 'darkies.' Artists in the mainstream are the niggers. It
really is that simple. And the function of A&R is to smile a lot and
persuade the artist that things are not actually as they see them as being.
"You reach a point where you have to accept responsibility for
yourself as a professional musician. The musician is one thing and has a
whole range of concerns, but a professional musician has a whole range of
other concerns. To be both at the same time is a supreme personal
Fripp elected to take on that challenge with the formation of DGM.
He made his ambitious goals of creating a new artistic model explicit in a
proclamation of DGM "Business Aims" which proposed in part that
it should be possible for a band to "operate in the marketplace while
being free of the values of the marketplace." In order to achieve
this, he says, one needs to address "the division of attention."
"As an artist," Fripp explains, "it was no longer
possible for me to work for major labels 行 there was no way to get around
this fact of copyright ownership, which I had always understood to be my
property. You can make a case for the royalty rates which majors pay. You
cannot make a case for record companies owning the phonographic copyrights.
"So the only alternative at that point is to form an
independent record label, which is the last thing any player wishes to do 行
only necessity will take you to that point. Most young artists say, 'I'm
not interested in doing my own label,' and I say, 'Well, I sympathize,
because I hate it myself quite substantially.' But anyone can be their own
record label as long as they can print up at least 10 cassettes and sell
them at shows, and then perhaps 500 CDs and sell those at shows."
Fripp feels that to work within the major-label system successfully
depends upon the "host," and the artist's relationship with the
host. "Up until '91 or '92," he says, "I was prepared to
find ways of working within that system, although the ends and the value structures
were entirely dissimilar. What I did was seek to establish personal
relationships with record-company people in particular roles; if you're
actually speaking to a person with a name, you've bypassed the role.
There's a lot of really nice people working in the record industry, because
they love music and have difficulties with what they see."
For DGM, the
future of the music business is in mail order and downloading via the
Internet. DGM is gearing up to handle both, but has not entirely severed
its ties with large corporations that have distribution systems in place.
"We have three tiers of distribution: We have access to record
shops in this country through Ryko, in England through Pinnacle, in Japan,
and in Europe through a number of different distributors in different
countries. America, although very big, is actually one unified market.
Europe is not one unified market, it's 10 markets at least, with their own
languages, cultural backgrounds, business practices."
Fripp says that DGM works through stores and mail order, but that
mass marketing really makes sense only for established artists. "For
the newer and younger artists on Discipline, the only money they're ever
going to make from the records is by selling them at gigs. Which is
entirely reasonable 行 the listening community will go and see them; if you
buy a record from Discipline in England, it's 5 pounds; you'll sell it from
13 to 15 pounds at the show. If you sell 10, you've made 80 pounds; if you
sell 100, you've made a lot more. And you'll probably find for those newer
artists whose records aren't quite yet released but will be within nine
months, they'll make more money when selling the records themselves than
they'll get from even mail order or distribution in shops."
In order to discourage bootlegging of live Crimson tapes and to make
the band's archival material available to fans, DGM has created its
Collectors' Club, offering digitally remastered live and studio music and
selling it by mail order; this will also eventually be implemented through downloading
on the Web, though there are still a few bugs to be worked out.
"America is currently in the first world. There are four
worlds: The first world is the information world, and the U.K. and Europe
are still really in the second world. In America, e-mail is now as
well-established and commonplace as faxes; all businesses in England have
faxes, but e-mail is something like faxes were 10 years ago. A very small
proportion of our mail-order business in Europe is through the