It used to be that “making it” in the music business meant scoring a contract with a major label and doing what was asked of you. Since the labels dictated royalty arrangements, advances and rights, artists rarely saw much of their earnings from record sales and had to hit the road if they really wanted to get a taste of the action.

Then came the do-it-yourself revolution–put out your own records, book your own life and reap whatever came your way yourself. While not having a major label’s PR machine behind you meant less of a buzz and lower sales, bands were able to get a much better return on their time and energy and reach a much more receptive audience.

Now, thanks to the combination of the DIY attitude and cheaper means of recording and manufacturing CDs, the number of bands, albums and labels is mushrooming. While that’s a fantastic alternative to the majors’ tightly controlled world, the volume is making it difficult for even top-notch bands to break through. And, while the Web is helpful, it’s not necessarily the best way to judge someone’s music. A band can have a great Web site and still suck, and vice versa.

So what is the alternative to alternative? Given the new realities and technologies, what is the future of music? It’s doubtful that the majors hold any promise.

The music industry is going through all kinds of contortions–consolidating companies, milking stars in rapid decay, and suing downloaders while datamining their preferences for market research. While it has grown top-heavy over the years, focusing on big names, there are indications that the market is headed in a different direction. Though record sales were up in the last quarter for the first time in a while, sales of the big names are still in decline. Even for the big labels, the money is in a more diverse, less star-driven marketplace.

Too often, people in our business confuse music with the business of music. It’s easy when you get five or 10 phone calls a day pushing this or that band or CD or find your mailbox–e and snail–clogged with what is comfortably termed “product.”

Music at its essence, of course, transcends that notion, trumps it, even. But the business of music, or more accurately the economics of music, does have a big impact on what we listen to, how and where we experience it, and what kinds of enterprises–bands, labels, clubs, Web sites and so on–are sustainable.

As one observer states in this week’s cover story, “Anybody who says they know what the future is has an ulterior motive.”

We don’t claim to possess that crystal ball on the cover, but with a little help from our friends, we do take a few, perhaps not-so-wild guesses as to how new technologies and economic realities are affecting music and how artists are cutting through the clutter to get their music heard.

Throughout this year, we’ll continue to explore the future of music theme. We’re also gearing up for our first-ever music awards to be presented at a festival celebrating our local community this fall.

Oh, and we do have an ulterior motive.

We’ve been blessed here to have not just a fine music community but a fiercely independent one. Being partial to independence ourselves, we’d like to see that kind of community continue to flourish.