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The Positive Economics of Live Acoustic Music
by Alex Cosper (revised 10/7/13)

We hear a lot of doom and gloom stories about the music biz these days, mostly relating to the declining CD sales of major label artists. As the music industry shrinks from the big 4 to the big 3, the labels will be looking to continue cutting costs in this period of economic uncertainty. One way to do that is go more acoustic since acoustic music is more organic and will never die. It's very refreshing compared with over-produced music. That's why songs like "Blackbird" by the Beatles live forever whereas big sounding studio pop music from last year is already long forgotten.

The YouTube revolution has created access to tons of content that people wouldn't otherwise find or even know about. The combination of search and broadband technologies have changed the game of music promotion forever no matter what anyone thinks. When online surfers search by songtitle a whole new sensibility comes into view with the search results. A wider perception of the musical landscape emerges as a song now takes on many more lives than it once did.

No longer do consumers expect to hear just one version of a song by one specific artist. When you Google search a classic hit song you're likely to discover acoustic or other alternative versions of that song by cover artists as well as the original hitmakers. Local artists are more likely to make a living off of acoustic covers than putting out a highly-produced expensive CD of all original songs.

Way back in the 20th century, which now seems like centuries ago, a common perception about music emerged that had never existed in previous centuries. It was the notion that a hit song, by definition, was a recording heard often on the radio. Of course, neither radio nor records were part of pop culture in previous centuries, which explains how technology can affect or even change society. Live acoustic music had always been the norm until the advent of electric PA sound systems first surfaced in the 1920s.

Acoustic music is engrained in every culture. It's probably never going away for that very reason. It has never really come and gone or been in or out of style. It's simply the foundation of where most artists begin their musical journey. A big reason musicians start out with acoustic instruments is because of the affordability and portability factors. Musicianship starts to become a big investment when you go electric or electronic.

During the 90s, which the mainstream press often mislabels as "the grunge era" there was a vibrant unplugged sound that MTV and VH1 stumbled upon. The unplugged versions of many alternative hits rivaled the studio versions in popularity, such as "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots. But the popularity of acoustic music didn't just pop up on the radar one day. Acoustic sound is embedded in cultural history. Bob Dylan and the Beatles had lots of acoustic hits in the 60s and Led Zeppelin crafted many acoustic gems in the 70s.

When electronic music became the norm in the 80s, some of the "hipper" music publications began to write off acoustic music as a dinosaur, assuming electronic music had outdated everything and would be the only sound that mattered from then on. But that myth didn't prevail long, as even top electronic artists began to offer unplugged versions as bonus tracks. Today acoustic music lives on and has become a part of every musical genre including hip hop. It's a good bet that acoustic music will continue to have powerful credibility in many music scenes the rest of our lives.

In most cases, artists have to be financed or pay for their own recording. Recording costs to make the kind of quality audio typically heard on radio across the nation can rival the cost of a house. This expensive barrier is what causes many musicians to give up their musical dreams and just pursue the safer odds of a day job. Even an indie CD project runs in the thousands, which to many people is too far out of reach, at least on a risky investment with no guarantee of returns.

But an artist can avoid high costs, especially on their first albums, simply by keeping the music simple with acoustic arrangements. Instead of trying to make an expensive elaborate sounding masterpiece, new artists are likely to advance faster by concentrating on songwriting and live performance. A more valualbe, less time-consuming and more affordable approach than booking months of studio time is improving the flow and groove of music as much as possible so that the live spontaneity factor forms the basis of audience attraction.

Acoustic music has many advantages over highly produced music. For one thing, many people have burned out on the predictable studio tricks of over-produced pop music and are exploring indie music as a relief. Aggregate indie music sites like ReverbNation are heavily populated with acoustic music. It's certainly more intimate than carefully-produced studio music and it even is considered a benchmark of musical credibility among musicians. In the live music scene it's definitely a lot easier to move in and out of a gig with just acoustic instruments.

Ultimately, acoustic music allows the artist to express themselves in a simple honest way that doesn't require extra bells and whistles. If artists can get fans to appreciate the power of their lyrical messages, then they are way ahead of artists who treat lyrics as throwaway. When melodic lyrics paint pictures, expensive flavoring becomes unnecessary. Acoustic recordings also make nice giveaways to fans on the path to building a following. Acoustic versions also can be used as free previews to upcoming produced versions that will be for sale. So when the masterpiece finally does come out, an audience will be in place to pay for it.

This article was originally written on 11/20/11 and updated on 10/7/13.

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