The old-crown of the music industry are currently on their knees and may I be one of many to say, it’s about bloody well time. These relics of a bygone era have held back the industry for decades from both a creative standpoint and in terms of technological innovation. Struggling to cling onto outdated business models and pop-star formulas, the only thing surprising to most people about the downfall of the industry is that some major labels have managed to stay afloat this long. Still, it’ll only take a few more dead rockstars (looking in your direction Mr. Jagger) or pop-star breakdowns (I actually have a betting pool going on when Justin Bieber will be found playing with Tonka trucks in mountains of coke) to really hit the P&L of the remaining labels and ultimately have their parent companies cut the umbilical cord.
However, what is rising from the ashes of the old industry is an open, exciting and creative new world. Traditional genres have been blended and segmented to the point that they are barely even recognizable and while I’ll admit that the new fragmented music scene has produced a lot of crap, this type of experimentation has also stumbled upon musical genius. It’s a game of numbers now and if you’re patient enough to spend the time to dig through a lot of independent music, you’ll eventually turn up some amazing artists.
Incredibly, I would argue that this shift was brought about by 2 key technologies: mp3s and digital recorders. The first was used as a tool to tear down the foundations of a long-standing oligopoly on musical creativity. The second opened the doors to a creation of new music the likes of which has never been seen, in volume or diversity.
Sometimes you’ve got to destroy…
It’s the late 90s and the music industry is riding high. Labels are making unheard of profits and shipping roughly a billion albums per year. Who could blame them for wanting to cling onto their beautiful little nest egg? However, we all know that one of the few constants in life is change.
Suddenly new software allows individuals to rip CDs and create what many would herald to be the beginning of the end: mp3s. The Napster generation emerges and over a 10 year timespan from 1999 to 2009, revenue from music sales would be cut roughly in half. While I’m all for open sharing of music and creativity, I’m not one of those people who is naïve enough to think that piracy didn’t contribute to this shift in a big way, however, digital sharing of music was only half the tale of the downfall of the music industry.
The other half of this downfall came through an enabling of the way people actually wanted to consume their music. When Apple launched the iTunes store in 2003, soon followed the ability to download singles instead of albums. Low and behold, over the subsequent 5 years, single sales would skyrocket. This wasn’t a consumer base that didn’t want to buy music; they simply didn’t want to buy crap music. Long gone were the days of bands and listeners who believed in the album and at last, a technology existed – the mp3 – to shift the perception of recordings away from albums and towards singles. Listeners no longer had to shell out $20 for an album to hear 1 or 2 tracks they liked. This was yet another nail in the coffin for the big labels.
…in order to rebuild.
So, suddenly we find ourselves in a professional musical environment that is dying; rock stars don’t rock hard enough anymore and pop stars just don’t pop. Label after label begins to fail. The big six have been whittled down to the big three and I’m taking bets on who will go next. Was this the end of music as we know it? Were Don McLean’s lyrics even more prophetic than I already think them and did “American Pie” actually have nothing to do with a crashing plane and everything to do with a crashing industry?
No, that would be complete nonsense. Until a totalitarian regime is in place to moderate and control every aspect of our lives and deny us the very right to be ourselves, there will be music. It is simply too engrained within our society as a medium of expression, storytelling and enabling our most important evolutionary purpose: sex (thank you Isaac Hayes).
In fact, the music industry is more alive now than ever before; it just isn’t very profitable for 80 year old relic companies. The second technology I mentioned – digital recorders – have made sure of this. Digital recording has reduced the cost of capturing and creating music to such a point where nearly anyone with a few bucks and the desire to do so can write, record and release a song (note that talent was not a requirement mentioned in that previous list). Coupled with our good friends the mp3 and the internet and you suddenly have a distribution channel for your music, at a fraction of the costs needed to create music before the digital revolution.
The result, for better or for worse, has been a democratization of the music industry. It is rebuilding as a space where we are no longer told by a handful of labels what to listen to, but instead may cast our nets wide and find the most unique forms of music that appeal to our individual tastes. Pirate metal, nintendocore, chap hop, lowercase (it’s silence…just silence), crunkcore, speed reggae; if you can think of it, there is now both a porn and a musical genre for it.
I, for one, love the new music industry. As a passionate fanatic, I love nothing more than stumbling across obscure new music that I dig. However, I realize that not everyone is willing to spend hours scouring the web for their next musical. The next major hurdle the industry has is how to filter and recommend music to match consumer tastes, however, that’s another story for another technology and another time.
What matters now is that you – as a listener, musician or industry player – recognize the current state of the music industry and adapt appropriately. It has been destroyed and we are in the process of rebuilding it. You can either sit back and complain about this fact, or get involved in shaping where the future of music is headed.
Whatever you do, don’t blame the mp3 for destroying the music industry; it also may be the thing that saved it.