Hey there. Remember me? I’m the guy who used to post here a lot before my job as a Defender of What is Right and Proper took full possession of my mental faculties. Still, here I am: battle-scarred, a bit fatigued but nevertheless prepared to deliver a new screed for your edification and amusement. We call this rant…
In Defense of Recorded Music
You may have heard that the recorded music industry is in dire straits. By “recorded,” I mean physical media, and by “industry,” I mean the record companies. Now, it’s very easy to make this about the majors vs. everyone else, but that’s not entirely accurate. Independent labels sold CDs, too, albeit with a serious barrier to entry in the marketplace due to the major label chokehold on distribution and retail.
Indie labels (and by extension, the artists on indie labels) have also struggled to make up for revenue lost from the declining physical goods marketplace. Download sales are on the rise (as is legal streaming), but the profit margins are much lower due in part to the decoupling of the album format and the inability of the industry to attract new customers — many of whom are members of a generation accustomed to getting music for free.
This is a problem for traditional industry players, as well as musicians and songwriters for whom the sales of recorded media provided a significant and mostly stable revenue stream. Not all artists see the “digital disruption” as a net negative, however. Many creators, this one included, have benefited tremendously from the removal of the gatekeepers that once stood between artist and audience. As has always been the case, talent, creativity, dedication and perseverance are important qualities in the new paradigm. Although we may never see the return of the rock star caste, there is now the possibility of a more diverse and dynamic music marketplace.
But we ain’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
There are some who suggest that musical artists will earn a living from live performances as well as the sale of “scarce goods” such as unique or limited edition music packages and road merch. I have a real problem with this theory for a number of reasons.
First, it puts a premium on live performance, an activity that many musicians enjoy but some — including this guy — don’t particularly care for. Neither did the Beatles. Or Steely Dan. Or Andy Partridge of XTC. Or Brian Wilson… I could go on and on, but the point is this: these artists depended on demand for their recorded music to propel their creativity. Even if they were in a shitty deal, that contract was an incentive to make new art. Perhaps the songwriting/publishing royalties paid the bills. Either way, it was the product that produced the return — creative or economic.
Second, the lack of revenue from recorded music affects the live music market, as more “successful” acts demand higher returns from performance — a cost that’s eventually passed on to consumers in the form of 15 dollar beers at the Enormodome. Smaller artists are forced to compete in an glutted marketplace in often less-than-ideal working conditions. Oh, and what if you’re a songwriter? Yes, they still exist. But they aren’t really known for selling t-shirts, are they?
Third, there are limits to how many “scarce goods” a developing or niche act can sell on its own. I do OK, but I also have a day job. Trust me, these goods take time, energy and capital to produce. Without the necessary investment and promotional expertise, it can be difficult to create and market specialty wares. Some artists may be at a disadvantage here, as doing so requires a different skill set than composing, playing an instrument or singing. I wrote a short story for one of my records, and I make videos for a lot of my songs. What if I was just a really amazing tenor saxophonist?
Is the new music marketplace a form of digital Darwinism, in which artists with certain skills thrive while others drop off? It might not be a bad thing if more people quit playing music, but I very much doubt that’s gonna happen anytime soon. What’s more likely is that we’ll see more part-timers and so-called “hobbyists,” a phenomenon that thrills some and annoys others. (I hate the term “hobbyist,” because I’m a seasoned professional, even if I don’t compose or record full-time.)
As I mentioned, many loathe the very idea of “amateur” artists existing on the same platforms as “professionals.” But given the manufacturing of consumer consent that took place at the industry’s peak, I’m not sure the distinction was ever more than arbitrary. Every generation has its Beatles, and every generation has its Milli Vanilli. Some folks need to be told what to buy, and some excel at that making the sale. The rarity is when art and commerce occupy a singular point in space-time. I call that the 1970s.
The real issue with the mainstream biz is that the major labels no longer know how to sell.
In all honesty, the majors’ true customer was never the fan. The customer was the corporate radio PD who determined playlists for entire swaths of the country due to the consolidation in station ownership. That guy required certain “enticements” to even consider spinning your Vertical Horizon track. The customer was the chain record store who could be cajoled into buying quantities of the new Good Charlotte album to keep shareholders happy. The customer was the promoter willing to pay more than 100 percent of gross to the act based on pay-to-play broadcasting and “units moved” (and ultimately returned to the warehouse).
In other words, the game was rigged.
Now the cat’s out of the bag, the genie’s out of the bottle, and you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube, no matter how hard you try. None of this is to say that recorded music doesn’t have value. It has tremendous value. It still makes people dance, cry, laugh, remember long lost loves, wanna kill, fuck, dream, drive, die, LIVE.
Which is why I refuse to give up on it. We will find a way to make sound captured in a fixed media a meaningful cultural/spiritual artifact. And when we do, the economics will follow. Until we realize that recorded music is ART, there is no hope. If it takes the entire collapse of the current industry, then perhaps it’s simply creative destruction. As a moderate, I don’t believe in the necessity or inevitability of such an outcome. I know too many good people who still work in the business of selling recorded music to wish further uncertainty upon that sector. And I’m heartened that these same good people are the ones who get the basic fact that music is expression first, commerce second.
We’re all in it together, us artists, fans and creative entrepreneurs. And together we will achieve what has eluded the “industry” for more than a decade. We will make recorded music matter again.