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Music Industry Thoughts

I didn't do a "Grammy" post this year. Maybe I should have, considering they didn't get everything completely wrong - Esperanza Spalding winning Best New Artist (the first Jazz performer to ever win that award, if you can believe it) was one of the things they got right this time, despite all of the angst and anger from Bieber Nation. And not all of the performances laid an egg, so the show was pretty entertaining... including Cee Lo's Eltonesque performance of his Grammy winning "The Song Otherwise Known as 'Forget You'" with apparent Best New Artist candidate for next year's awards: Gwyneth Paltrow.

But today a friend linked me to this article about how the music industry is in dire straits at this point, and of course the piece and the ensuing comments from other readers started me thinking about the whole concept of where music is going nowadays, and here's basically what I said in response to the article (which if you don't want to follow the link basically states that things are much more difficult for the industry as a whole now than people even realize, based on the stats of CD sales and music downloads.)

If you know your history, you'll know that "recorded music" was actually looked down on in the ancient days of big band sound and concert orchestras. In fact, musicians actually resisted it for a while before finally starting to record material on 78s and eventually LPs and 45s. See, that was because musicians wanted people to attend their concerts and hear them live, but then realized that the people that didn't hear them and know who they were wouldn't bother traveling to Memphis or New York or Chattanooga to see them when they came into those towns. Recordings allowed their music to go where they never did, and also preserved their performances for future generations.

In addition, the people who ran the record labels were visionaries: they recognized great talent when they saw it, and matched up great songwriters with them... the "Brill Building" era was similar to the Henry Ford era for automobiles, with folks like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Ellie Greenwich, Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro, Lieber & Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and a bunch more crafting great, meaningful songs for the brilliant interpreters of their work. In a way, The Beatles' biggest impact was that Lennon & McCartney were self-contained... they could write and play and to my mind it's no coincidence that as The Beatles topped the charts with hit after hit, The Brill Building era came to a close, especially as the songwriters started recording their own material in earnest too, as Carole King and Neil Diamond eventually did.

But the question is where are the suits that have that same vision? Is American Idol the only hope for finding "talent?" And really, it seems as if the standard has become find someone young enough to mold into an "image," and "market" that to the kids who will buy it. Inherently, people know when they're being fed a bill of goods, and this hurts not just the sales for that performer, but the industry as a whole. Too often, it's not about "finding talent," as much as "cashing in" on a trend.

But people are somewhat angry at the music industry. In the 1970s there was a "vinyl shortage" claimed, and that was the cause of a hike in prices for albums. Really? Yes, really. And I'm sure anyone born before 1980 bought an album of songs for one track that was good, and 8-10 that you never play. Albums were a big money maker for the labels, but as music grew into the 1970s, this quality control ever so slightly started to erode the base, the foundation of the industry. Oh and then there was the small matter of rebuying: If you wanted Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then 8 track, then cassette, then CD, you bought the same album 4 times!

But it was the industry response to Napster that was a major turning point in how the public felt about the music business. When lawsuits were filed against individuals for file sharing, that was appalling. It's funny because record stores used to sell blank cassettes right in the same aisle as the recorded music, allowing anyone to create mix tapes, so certainly the message was, at best, unclear. Why punish the users for doing what they were already doing?

What I see is that the music industry had it pretty easy up until that point. And then, when they actually had to actively do something, their response was exactly wrong. They tried to stuff that Napster genie back in the bottle, rather than embrace the new tech for what it is: a part of the scene. Had they done so immediately, maybe the numbers might have been better from the late 1990s to now. And then they came out with "write-protected" CDs that you couldn't rip to your computer as mp3s. It just wasn't smart.

Finally, let's remember the two factors that have nothing to do with music itself: the economy and other services. Everything is changing now: television and film are also going through the same sort of process that the music industry is experiencing, so don't feel like it's just music that needs to adapt a new approach. The question is what will that be?


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 6th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
What you're missing here is twofold. 1. The concept of "live" music is utterly alien to most young people. When I taught as a sub in high schoo ten years ago, I would routinely ask classes if they'd recently seen a live gig, and the vast majority (apart from a few indie-rock freaks and stoners) had NEVER seen live music of any genre. And people in general often fail to make the distinction; if you ask them if they "listen to a lot of music" they will often say yes, but if you ask them the last time they went to a concert, you get a blank stare. "Music" to most people, is a 'virtual' thing that happens in their I-pod.

2. this relates to the "commodification" of music (and art in general) with the advent of mechanical reproduction. And yes, in it's early days, artists were reluctant to record, lest their music be "stolen' and sold without any profit devolving to them. Mechanical and (to some degree) publishing royalties were meant to address this, yes, in an imperfect manner and we all know what pirates record companies are (as a professional musician I've been raped repeatedly by these people) but it's cold comfort to be lying in the street after being beaten and robbed by a major label, only to have Napster come along and kick you in the ass and steal your watch.

All of those people you mention expected quite realistically to be paid for their efforts, not just for live performances but for mechanical and publishing royalties as well, and in those days these last were where the REAL money was. Nowdays, musicians are told recordings are a "loss leader" to generate live audiences. Even back in the day, live appearances didn't generate much income (in fact by the seventies were often underwritten by record companies as a means to generate record sales). Nowdays, it's the norm to "tour" for beer money, and sleep in the van.

Next time you're tempted to gripe about music being better in the "old days," consider this. All those artists considered themselves professional musicians deserving of appropriate remuneration. If you confine the production of art to people who never expect to make any kind of living at it, what you get is music produced by amateurs.
Mar. 6th, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
1. I only mentioned "live gigs" as a reference point. I wasn't referring to today's music listeners at all; I was talking about people in the 1910s, 20s, musicians that wanted people to hear them play. In turn, that proves the point of how the concept of what is "good" in the music industry has changed and evolved over time. Now, of course, music is all about listening devices be it your phone, your computer or whatever!

2. It's a very difficult situation for the musicians to be in currently and it doesn't seem that anyone is really addressing it. Without the musician, there is no music, and with no music, there's no music industry. The question the article I linked to raised was about how the music industry is basically slipping away, but my argument is that long before Napster the industry was doing things to consumers that was pushing them away in a punitive manner. The suits didn't do the legwork and the performers didn't produce their best work.

Early on in the comments section, someone referenced the Grateful Dead model of music/commerce and how that worked. That's certainly a better model than arresting individuals and giving them unbelievable lawsuits.

I'm not griping at all about music being "better" in the old days. In fact, I think this is a pretty exciting time for music, if people have the vision to make the changes. The history references were just there to point out that everything always wasn't the way it was in 1985, and everyone survived before that. But what changes will happen to keep musicians from needing a "day" job to continue to hone their craft? That's my question.
Mar. 6th, 2011 11:13 pm (UTC)
I never know what you're going to write about, but it's always interesting.
Mar. 9th, 2011 04:44 am (UTC)
Thanks for a wonderful compliment!!
Mar. 8th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
These are some very important questions, and a nice exploration of them! As I understand it, everything is going digital--even the ultimate browsing reads like magazines--particularly now that people are buying less print things. There's even Kindle to encourage that now. Internet is THE resource for information. While various people have access to it and control over it, it's a little disturbing when one thinks about it this way: There is literally one go-to source now for entertainment, news, and other information. And it's constantly being edited and altered. In addition, there's not a physical record like there is with print, records, or DVDs. This reminds me very much of 1984.

I've digressed from the music focus, but I think that as more stringent controls are made, copyright laws are enforced, and websites are improved and innovated, there will be more cost for Internet downloading and entertainment, just as there used to be with print and other media. People will less often "keep" movies or music that will crowd their digital space but instead will stream them from websites that have a regular fee for monthly usage. We're already seeing that for many very successful websites such as Netflix and Hulu. For music, there are sites such as Pandora, though I don't know much about the success of these ones. So I guess the question remains for music. What I'd love to see is more of a shift toward live shows, but I think that it will be quite some time before we see what will happen with music. Television seems to be adjusting better and taking hold of the new changes so they can still profit. With music, it's really gotten out of control, and I'm not sure how they can fix it. Adopting a model like the television industry might help, though.
Mar. 9th, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
And I appreciate some great counterpoints, so thanks for responding!

The whole digital process thing probably isn't going to happen quite as quickly as everyone would believe. There is a tactile element to reading a book or newspaper that isn't available via a kindle or nook, and how could we sample the latest scent from Calvin Klein or Chanel if there wasn't a magazine insert? Can't get that from a computer (yet). It'll be a while before people give up books completely (especially when you look at how colleges are cleaning up with textbooks?!) so I'm not too worried about that.

I think some people would prefer the iTunes or Netflix model that is being offered up, especially in a place like Japan, where space is at a premium. But Americans love to own their own stuff, so I think that'll be a bit slower to change too. Or maybe that's just my old-fashioned sensibilities talking. Because if that starts happening, then maybe we start renting everything? Trade it in when we get something new. I wonder how much Apple would love seeing all those iPads coming back when the model that actually works hits the market?!

But to go back to the music point, I feel the industry had a ton of people just leeching off of artists, not contributing anything of usefulness but taking their piece of the pie, and had they been the visionaries needed to take music to the 21st Century, nothing would be in the state it's in now. But, we can't go back and fix it; we can only move forward from this point. But the question is what to do?

Clearly punishing users isn't a prudent move. And ultimately, we want the musicians to get the biggest share of the profits (they are the ones making the music!) so, the model has changed, and really it's changed to favor our music makers. Now you can shoot your own video with a flip camera, upload it to youtube, get a million hits, maybe even get invited to perform at the Oscars! It's a brand-new world out there!
Mar. 11th, 2011 04:51 am (UTC)
I don't know how much colleges make for textbooks. It depends on the books, but many introductory level books (e.g., calculus, anatomy, microbio, etc.) are so expensive because of the publishers. One of my students last semester asked me about getting the e-book version of their calculus text. They offer it at the university bookstore now, so there could more of a shift than we think very soon.

You're right about Americans wanting to own their own things. But with such a huge explosion in technology and so much information out there, I thinks Americans are becoming all too aware that their mental/digital space can become just as crowded as their physical space. At least it's that way for me. However, when I look at some of my very educated American colleagues, I don't see that happening. They still consume things at an amazing rate, including technology and all sort of entertainment. So maybe I'm a bit odd in this regard. I don't mind not owning things like movies and music and would be happy to have a small streaming device where I can create play lists and pay for a service that has X songs and adding more every day . . .
Mar. 11th, 2011 04:57 am (UTC)
P.S. Perhaps some of the technology is lagging in this regard. We are just getting to a point where use of small personal devices that are constantly connected to the internet (such as i-phones) is becoming widespread. But now that that is happening, it seems quite natural to move toward something like this for the music industry.
Mar. 11th, 2011 05:25 am (UTC)
It's kind of an interesting phenomenon. On one hand you have amazon pushing kindle/b&n pushing nook for a (now) reasonable price... or reasonable to many. But publishers are also dropping the cost of their hardcover and paperbacks so that folks who still can't afford those devices can read material.

The publishers do make the lion's share off of textbooks, followed by the authors, but college bookstores are definitely getting a slice of that pie, and I have to think even they will want to put the brakes on a e-book revolution because that will seriously cut into their profit margins. Really the only ones who will do about the same level of profit electronically as they did hard copy are writers, give or take.

Conversely, maybe bookstores will convert their stockroom and floor space to sell other stuff? Anyone for beer mugs and more university sweatshirts?!

Ultimately, you're right. At least for music, the movement is away from the physical and toward the Rhapsody/iTunes models, and that's both good and a little sad. The experience of opening up a CD (as annoying as that often was!) is going to be lost forever!

The situation with film and television is a bit more complicated, especially when you start examining 3D television, 3D movies as seen in theaters, the concept of blu-ray and how film studios would still like you to purchase those discs. But that's a whole separate issue that deserves its own post eventually!
Mar. 13th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
Does iTunes offer a monthly membership for streaming music? I haven't seen such a thing on their site, but I just checked Rhapsody and they have that. This is what I am suggesting, not the current iTunes purchase and own model. The site I'm envisioning should allow people to stream from a huge database of music and play whatever they like. People should be able to save their own playlists, for example. No owning or space to save songs required. Just music streaming from (perhaps) a tiny device specially created for this purpose or (as currently is already happening) an i-phone! :) I did not realize the Rhapsody already offers such a service. Perhaps I'll try it! I don't have an i-phone, though, so I would still have to download on my computer and load onto my MP3 player . .. .ugh.

Yeah, I think university bookstores could turn more into university stores, as you suggest. And 3D movies . . . hmm . . that's an interesting topic to bring up. It's amazing how quickly technology changes these days. I think it's very difficult for people who want to own things to keep up, and that's one reason why I'm seeing "non-owners" as dominating future trends in consumption. Not only that, but space, time, and money-wise, it just makes more sense.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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