On the Download: The Industry, The Musician & The Internet – Part I

Last year our government attempted to block access to certain sites in an attempt to curtail illegal downloads. This year Megaupload was successfully shut down. Then there was the States’ Stop Online Piracy Act that failed to take off after an online worldwide protest. Digital download seems to be a two-faceted entity – a useful tool on one end for indie musicians and a bane to the industry on the other.

JUICE picks the minds of 3 local music acts on the issue in all its complexities. Twee band Ferns see digital download as an immense help to their career. Indiesoultronica solo act OJ Law is dubious of its practicality in a Malaysian context. And Flow Fam’s Karmal still believes in the record label…


One of the more celebrated indie acts from our shores to have made a name outside of Malaysia, Ferns’ On Botany was met with critical acclaim. Recent release Fairweather Friends impressed us just as much (see JUICE #117). Released in physical form as well as digital, the album can be purchased as a digital download through the band’s Bandcamp page. We talk to frontman Warren Chan about their decision to have the album available online and the potency of digital distribution.

Why did Ferns choose the digital route? 
Digital is just one of the possible channels to monetise your music, albeit one that’s even more accessible than ever to acts without a record label. Digital music aggregators are able to get your music on to a variety of platforms such as iTunes, Amazon mp3 – whereas services such as Bandcamp allow you to cut out the middle-man altogether and sell direct to the listener. All this is great for the unsigned artist because in effect, digital gives you complete control over your destiny, so to speak – the nature of the Internet is that sales reports are practically instantaneous and revenue or royalties are payable with very little hassle or delay.

How has digital distribution helped you with spreading your band’s music? 
Immensely. This is because a band of our nature depends on international support and networking. And the cheapest way for the people from the international indie pop scenes in Sweden, South America, UK, Spain, Germany etc are going to be able to get our music is through digital means. The good thing is, indie pop fans also have a unique attachment to physical products and packaging. So they also tend to buy mail order CDs from us in addition to digital. In terms of the promotional aspect, digital allows the ease of listeners of being able to sample a band’s music to see if they like it or not – and spread it to their friends if they do.

So you’re kind of beholden to the quality of your music as well, whereas in the past some fans might buy a bands CD purely out of loyalty without having heard a single track.

How’s the response for the album via digital vis-à-vis traditional physical release? 
About even actually. Unless you’re a non-performing artist – there’s no getting away from playing shows, selling CDs hand-to-hand and getting it into record stores. We look at online and offline efforts as complementary to each other, and that probably won’t change anytime soon unless the world gets taken over by robots.

With the shutdown of Megaupload and the failed SOPA act, the music industry has been busy trying to curtail internet downloads. As an artist, what do you really think of (legally and illegally) downloading music from the internet? 
That’s a complicated issue. The promotional possibilities to having your music distributed in an easily replicated format (whether legally or illegally) are endless. At same time, we would argue that it has the effect of devaluing music in the eyes of the consumer. It really is a grim reality for many working musicians out there. But human nature is not something you can change. Strong arm tactics on policing the Internet may stop illegal downloads, but it might also stop people from consuming music altogether!

With sites like Bandcamp, musicians can cut off the middle man (record label, distributors) and communicate with fans directly. Do you think record labels and the traditional physical release will be obsolete in the offing?
There are insights basically saying that fragmentation of media doesn’t necessarily decentralise power evenly into the hands of all the common people out there. The people with the most followers are still going to be the big media outlets or celebrities. So money, backing and resources are still going to be big driving factors in the music economy.

Traditional physical releases may be on its way out, but big record labels or engines of consumerism are still going to be around to capitalize on music and artists – no matter what form they may be in.

Support Ferns at ferns.bandcamp.com.