The Music Industry may be on the verge of some big changes. What can we do to make sure everyone’s happy this time around? We could start by returning the album to prominence, changing distribution methods, and fostering musical talent from the ground up in a way that is more involved.
In case you didn’t know, the majority of 15 to 30 year-old’s don’t buy most of their music. And they definitely don’t buy it on a physical format. Last week, All Songs Considered intern Emily White bravely expounded upon this not-so-secret reality in a piece posted on the NPR program’s blog. White says:
I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused. But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and t-shirts.
Many of the replies in the comments section of the article, which contains over 100 responses at the time of this posting, are pretty brutal. Poor Ms. White, who goes on to unleash gems like “I didn’t illegally download (most) of my songs…” -(Yeah, okay)- and “all I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it…” is only relating the experience of the majority of her -and my- peers. Please, denizens of NPR.org, don’t shoot the messenger.
Come on, guys! This isn’t even a new thing, anymore. In the past year, new releases have consistently gained more traction as the result of online MP3 leaks (and straight-up “mixtape” giveaways) than from any conventional mode of dispersion into the public. Artists are moving on. Labels are moving on. With services like Spotify generating major footholds in the market, it seems that we soon will be able to “listen to what [we] want, when [we] want and how [we] want it.” But, with all this talk of getting what we want, are we sure that we know, exactly, what that might be?
Let’s wipe the drool from our mouths for a second- it’s beginning to spill onto our terabyte hard drives, and we’re in serious jeopardy of losing our MP3′s. I enjoy buying music, when I can. You can talk about the fact that many vinyl LP’s are “digitally mastered anyway” all you want, and I’ll still hear more warmth in them. You can clip a gig of Madonna songs to your running shorts and go for a jog; I’ll be sitting on the couch reading liner notes. For me, royalty payments are a non-issue; I don’t have to worry about artists not seeing any money because I crave the physical format. That being said, I download a lot of free MP3’s. I host a college radio show, and I play a lot of obscure, sometimes unreleased material. I would never be able to pull off the show without the Internet, and I’m sure this is true for many other DJ’s, as well.
In her ASC blog, Ms. White didn’t mention an important dichotomous ideal: “download to know, purchase to support.” This is the popular excuse, these days, for acquiring free music (assuming ones care enough to even seek one out). The word “know” smacks with the comfort of intellectual, informed taste. And “support” is used so positively, it’s like we’re all holding up this beautiful thing called Music together, in harmonious bliss. And for a second, one can fool his or herself into believing that this concept is real; that things would ever work out this way. But like most ideals, it won’t hold up in reality. After all, when did an ideal ever trump the power of Money?
In a Pitchfork feature published last year, musican/professor John Maus lent his voice to the matter at hand:
You don’t know how happy it makes me that the days of the record store are coming to an end. $20 for an LP? Do you remember going to the record store and not getting what you want because there was no other place to get it? Now we can get it all for free, and I think that’s wonderful. There was always something really depressing to me about record stores and music equipment stores. There’s something oppressive about them…I’m glad they all have little “closed” signs on their doors now.
I respect Mr. Maus’ opinion very much, and it is possible to live in a world where music is free for everyone. But we won’t have our Musical Messiah-raised heaven on earth without some kind of Holy War, above, or below ground, first.
The drama surrounding the FBI’s alleged mishandling of evidence involved in the Megaupload copyright infringement case, and the recent, serious threats to Internet privacy in general, has brought the fuzzy laws and dynamics of the online file-sharing world to prominent media attention. I get the feeling that the recording industry, which was so shaken by the rise of free MP3 distribution, is headed toward another period of major upheaval. If Megaupload -or Limewire, which also finds itself in compromised legal circumstances- proves to remain a fallen giant, and joins Napster in its lack of sustainability (consequently solidifying a heavy precedent for the failure of open media sharing online) it is possible to project the fall of other free data strongholds like Mediafire and BitTorrent. Indeed, Megaupload may be the flutter of a butterfly’s wing that spells destruction for the entire Internet piracy kingdom and the fledgling “Music For Everyone!” zeitgeist.
Currently, marketing execs and label heads are scrambling to adapt to their new surroundings, or, as is discouragingly often the case, burning resources in a wasteful, futile attempt to uphold outmoded strategy and tradition against established change. But if MP3 sharing does fade, if this monumental force in the music industry crumbles away in clusters of 320 bps swan songs, consumers will be forced to pay for all of their music again. Presented with such an event, the industry could relapse into familiar formulae, or it could seize the opportunity to put a new dynamic in place for producers and consumers; one that might change the way music is distributed, created, and enjoyed, for the better. Let’s finish the dialogue. Let’s reform the industry now, when it’s so shaky. Maybe, that’s when the most good can be done.
What are some new dynamics we can place within the workings of the recording industry that would make the symptoms of MP3 withdrawal more bearable? What would the reformed Church of the Dubplate look like? I’d like to see an industry more involved in the progression of quality art; one that is not only invested in its output, but in its environment, as well. This process would start with the labels. Record labels can repair the industry by changing the product they sell, and by changing the way we create and record music itself.
First of all, we should help return the album to its former prominence. Many have decried the full-length as outdated, and not very special in the first place. But If a recording artist’s output is marketed randomly (take this song, set it in a mix, and throw out the rest), then his or her expression is being limited dramatically. This applies, especially, to Pop and Rock. How much can you really express in four minutes, or less? I love to absorb a musician’s full discography; to try to grasp where they are coming from, year-to-year. And what is art if it is not contained by some means? -Music, even at its most basic level, is a product of the dynamic opposition between absolute constraint, and that which it is forced against: sound, thrown against an unforgiving backdrop of silence. Rather than letting music run free in the form of random recording snippets, the album expands the vacuum in which artist’s create, and forces them to adhere to such a void, at the same time. It allows them to step back, and really think about what they’re doing. But, saving music doesn’t end with cutting records. Distribution methods need to be changed, as well (just ask John Maus).
So much “stuff” has been made available to consumers for so long, now, that we’ve begun to define ourselves by what we like, and what we own. (“I saw on your Facebook page that you like the Misfits, and instantly knew that we’d make good friends.”) Labels want to make money, and post-modern, identity-less youngsters want to be given something to identify with. Record subscription services would make a lot of money for labels, and (hopefully) enhance the experience of listeners and fans. Such subscriptions exist, today, in a very pure, DIY format. They serve the purposes of personal catalog distribution (like Karl Blau’s Kelp Lunacy, out of Anacortes, Washington), or multi-artist bundles centered on the dissemination of various curatorial aesthetics (Social Music Records of Portland, Oregon). Labels would have to pay heed to the methodology of really special subscriptions like these if they wanted to be successful. The point of bringing back the subscription would be to pinpoint niche, informed audiences, not to bastardize some of the few legitimate production styles we have left. But, if handled in a delicate manner, record subscription services could seamlessly be integrated into these (probably unfortunate) circumstances. Such subscriptions, if produced on a large, mainstream scale, might foster a new sense of community within music. Now, you can record as many albums as you want, and you can come up with great schemes to get them to the public. But it would all be for naught if the music you recorded wasn’t actually good. The responsibility for signing and developing quality artists falls, again, on the labels.
Branch Rickey would’ve made a great record executive. The business of recruiting and promoting talent in all of the arts has always been very contained. It’s always been a matter of headhunting- picking the ripest goods, throwing them in the pot, and moving on to the next patch. This has worked fine enough in the past when kids set their minds toward what they were going to do at a young age, and did it. (Miles Davis was going to find a way to get in with Parker, one way or another. The horn was all he knew, and he knew that he was great.) But now, when kids are told to try a million different things and only settle into a trade when they feel ready, how many bands will collapse, unnoticed, when kids decide to finish that economics degree, or take their inspirations into other formats- (“hey, he was always better at theatre anyway”). Isn’t a musician’s creative capacity similar to a pitcher’s arm? Why does everything always have to be pass/fail in entertainment? Labels should expand their approach toward fostering talent by doing for music what the St. Louis Cardinals did for baseball in the 1930s. Are you lamenting the lack of funding for public Arts education programs? Wouldn’t it be great if Atlantic Records’ farm team took up the cost of teaching your kid to compose?
Two weeks ago, during the Summer Jam Concert Series, a legendary annual event hosted by preeminent NYC Hip-Hop station Hot 97, DJ Peter Rosenberg very publicly made it known that he thinks Nicki Minaj’s single, “Starships”, is “not Hip-Hop.” This remark led to a mass pullout of all artists signed to Young Money Entertainment (Minaj’s label, founded by rapper Lil’ Wayne) from the show. This action was disappointing for fans and Hot 97, and was an example of Hip-Hop’s infamous pension for petty beef. But I grinned every time Minaj, in interviews afterward, referenced “her team” and their pact to defend each other’s egos. The framework for the model of record label as sports organization has always been in place. A label showcase concert is just a one-sided off-season exhibition match. Labels have distinct character provided by their roster, as do sports teams. If record labels were to further their involvement with young talent in the manner of sports organizations, grouping talent –officially, instead of unofficially- in the manner of farm teams and training academies, Music would really benefit.
So, labels, it’s on you. The creation of a total musical environment, where quality control is enforced from the inception of creative output to the means in which it is distributed, is financially viable and acceptable to consumers. We just have to care a little more. And just think, if we never had to put up with another “Starships” again, it would all be worth it.