I guess today’s the day to kvetch about the lameness of our digital age — at least where it has to do with making money from recorded music. (Or was that yesterday? And the day before? And the day before that?)
Now, don’t get me wrong, getting paid for your aural dribblings has always been pretty difficult. But the promise of the digital era was one of disintermediation — which is a fancy of saying we could finally “cut out the middlemen,” i.e., the “evil” record companies and tone-deaf radio PDs. No longer would an artist have to go through a series of bottlenecks to reach the marketplace; no longer would shelf space dictate whether a record could be found by a potential customer; no longer would expensive studios be the only way a musician could craft a decent-sounding recording.
These things are all very much true. Yet they haven’t necessarily translated into that digital utopia where fans are inspired and artists are paid. More often than not, fans are jaded and artists are broke.
You may have heard of the Long Tail theory of sales in the internet era. It states that, while the age of the blockbuster is over, content providers will readily survive by selling fewer copies of a wider variety of stuff. The concept is based on the internet’s relative abundance, where space is seemingly infinite and access is open. This is in contrast to meatspace, with its distributors, warehouses and brick ‘n’ mortar shops. Historically, scarcity worked quite well for the major labels, who banked on a few massive sellers to make up for the duds, which totaled some 90 percent of their releases. Can you imagine any other business using that model?
Well, the new models might not be so hot either. The Long Tail (originated by Wired‘s Chris Anderson) has come under a great deal of criticism lately — primarily from anyone trying to make a profit in an increasingly noisy online environment. Idolator has a nice post about a recent British study showing that “more than 10 million of the 13 million tracks available on the internet failed to find a single buyer last year.” Says one of the researchers, “I think people believed in a fat, fertile long tail because they wanted it to be true.”
Idolator’s Mike Barthel gets into the grisly details:
This should be a huge story for everyone that talks about digital music, because this is exactly the kind of evidence that’s been missing from the debate. We know what major labels do wrong, and we know what people think should be done differently. But we don’t know whether that works. This makes sense, in a way; it’s easy for a blog to reprint a press release for a new company whose model conforms to your ideological expectations, but it’s hard to do the legwork to see if those companies are actually successful months or years down the line. It’s easier just to assume that what you think will work will work, or if it doesn’t, to assume this is due to the big evil major labels manipulating things. But this is not how the world works. If the new model is better, it should be beating the supposedly failed establishment, and if we care about music, we should be asking ourselves honestly if the new model is actually working by checking back on things and assessing their success. If they’re not selling music, then they’re not working. Period.
Much of the new digital economy seems to be new ways to distribute music, not new ways to make music. Widgets that stream, unlimited download services, pop freeganism, yes; but the content is supposed to make itself magically. In creating our new model, we’ve taken the myth for the truth, assumed that the heroic lone artist is how music actually get made, when of course, it’s not. A single artist can always make music on their own, for free. But that’s not how most music gets made, and without an actual revenue stream, which can only come from selling music (even if the “long tail” exists, at that end of it no one would be able to actually turn a profit from touring), then all of that is lost.
This is one of the most astute descriptions of the hurdles artists face in the digital era. Sure we’ve got a jillion new ways to promote and distribute music, but where is the financial incentive? The old filter is broken, and a new one has yet to emerge. I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the major labels went bankrupt this year and sold its copyrights to some foreign pharmaceutical company. Or maybe the rights will finally revert back to the artists, who will probably sell them to some foreign pharmaceutical company. Does (recorded) music even have worth anymore? Should it? I don’t have a fucking clue.