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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Death of the Music Industry?

The album format is dead.
That seems to be the growing consensus in the music industry.  And by ‘music industry’ I mean the universal set of labels, independent artists and those who fall somewhere in between.
Several reasons are cited for this, but the most common ones are listed below:

·         Declining attention spans from music fans;

·         The cost of studio time; and

·         The “death” of the CD.

I’d like to tackle this in reverse order, if I may.
Much has been made of the death of the CD, and it’s true that there has been a tectonic shift in music sales over the past decade but as of 2012 physical media still made up 50% of all music sales, with the bulk of these being on CD.  And while much has been made of the resurgence of vinyl, the old LP accounted for only 4.6 million units in 2012. That’s less than ¼ of 1% of all sales (1.86 billion units worldwide).

But it seems quite likely that this statistic is misleading.  According to industry reports, approximately 88% of all music sales were from major labels.  This is a record, historically.  It seems somewhat odd that at a time when music fans have greater access to artists than ever that the music industry’s monopoly on sales is growing rather than falling.  This would seem to go against all logic and reason, and would make one question why so many artists are now choosing to go it alone.
One possible explanation is that independent CD sales are grossly under-reported.  Anytime a fan downloads your album through Amazon or iTunes or another such service on-line, the revenue from that sale will be counted somewhere in year-end sales figures.  But as an independent artist, who do you report those 5 or 10 album copies you sell at a show?  I am certain that large, established Indie artists have avenues for reporting such things, but there are also benefits to under-reporting such figures (i.e. income taxes).  It’s impossible to judge the overall impact of this on sales numbers, but it’s worth considering.

The fact is that there will always be individuals who want to have the physical product of an album, whether on CD or vinyl.  Some of this is generational, but some of it is simply common sense.  Hard drives and clouds fail.  CDs can certainly become scratched, and if you have one of the early European produced discs you might lot your music to oxidation (the dreaded pinhole effect), but you can rip that CD as many times as you want.
This is why the industry (this time the Big-4) cheers the supposed death of CDs. If music is digital, and if people become more reliant on streaming, it ensures a constant source of revenue.  Why work under a model where you pay for an album once where much of the revenue is eaten up by distributors and retailers, when the industry can get you to pay for the same music over and over.  It’s simply an expansion of the same method that’s been used since the 1970’s.  Keep re-releasing the same album with new bonus material so that die-hard fans will buy it again and again.  Only under the digital model, nothing new needs to be offered.  It’s simply a matter of time before something fails and you’re looking to replace what you have.

Ultimately, the losers in this are the listeners, and believe it or not, the artists.  Independent artist revenue from streaming services is a pittance.  It is certainly a way to be heard, but it’s arguable whether this translates into significant sales.  The tried and true method still works: live performances with product available for sale on your way out the door.
The cost of studio time is certainly a concern for most independent artists, but in the day and age of cheap recording equipment and home computers, almost anyone can record anything pretty much anywhere.  Unless you really know what you’re doing you’ll need to involve an expert at some point in the process, but this problem is not as daunting as it was even 20 years ago.  And with the advent of crowd-funding it’s even less of a concern (although we’ll talk about the dangers of crowd funding another time).

The declining attention span argument has been around for every generation since World War II, but has been particularly dominant since the advent of MTV.  The argument seems to be that people just don’t pay attention for a full album anymore.  The age of music videos and quick downloads and numerous devices mean people have less time to dig into an album.

The beauty of an album is that you don’t need to listen to the entire thing at one sitting.  You can, and it may enrich your experience, but all relationships are different.  And that’s what an album is; it’s a relationship with your fans.  It’s a musical dialogue; a series of intellectual, artistic and emotional exchanges that can be subtle or profound depending on the combination of artist and listener.  A single is nice, but it’s the equivalent of a single dance at a nightclub.  One shot and it’s over.  You won’t find too many people who will remember where they were the first time they heard Debbie Gibson’s “Out Of The Blue” or Hanson’s “Mmm-Bop”, but there’s an entire generation of folks who can tell you where they were the first time they heard “The Wall” in its entirety.
Besides, art is not meant simply to cater to the whims of the lowest common denominator.  Art has always been about rising above the human condition; a way to allow people to stretch and grow.  As an artist you want to be a part of that process, don’t you?

I am afraid it is not the physical media that is dying, but the art form itself.
We have become a consumer driven economy.  There are still artists out there who would write and sing songs for free if it came down to that, but they are more and more in the minority.  We have become a culture obsessed with celebrity; we all want our 15-minutes, please.  What gets lost along the way is the art and the humanity.  Who profits?  The record labels.

That’s what you want out of your music, right?

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