This article is reprinted with permission from Pajamas Media, where I write a weekly column on music and culture.
Late in the film Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane sits for an interview with the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and he’s told that it’s always the first through the wall who suffers the bloody defeat. Baseball’s elite weren’t angry with him over fear he’d destroy the game, a laughably impossible thought. They were afraid that he was going to eliminate their livelihood, as they’d put decades into winning the game a certain way. Get in the way of that set-in-stone attitude, as Beane had done with the Oakland A’s in 2002, and you were asking for trouble.
As I watched that scene unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way the music industry has treated nearly every technological evolution in the last forty years. Any change in the way people chose to partake in music affected the way the industry executives who sat atop the mountain were able to secure their paychecks. Whether it was the advent of cassette recordings — which many feared would destroy the vinyl record once fans realized they could tape albums and share them with their friends — to the creation of mp3 recordings and the genie-less bottle which is the Internet, the industry has forever been behind the curve, fighting to sustain soon-to-be-dead sales models.
It’s a process as old as time: new products come along which challenge profitable products which have provided job security across the spectrum of an industry. Those who already have achieved success don’t want change; they want profits to continue to pour in with as little outside interference as possible. New ideas involve risk, risk involves potential loss, and potential loss means failure. And few industries are as risk-failure averse as the world of music executives.
Myth #1: “Thanks to iTunes, we’ll never have another “Dark Side of the Moon”!”
I hear it every day that the mp3 player and eventually the advent of the iTunes Store are responsible for killing off the album as an art form. Supposedly, thanks to the inventors of the mp3 codec back in the late ’80s, illegal downloaders in the ’90s and ’00s, and Steve Jobs in 2004, we’re now back to 1964 and the era of early Beatlemania, when singles ruled the roost and albums were an afterthought.
The problem with this false reasoning is that though singles are certainly alive and well, so are albums. We’re just not purchasing them on CDs. Just because casual listeners can go and buy random tracks off the latest Arcade Fire album doesn’t mean that anyone at iTunes is telling such bands not to record full-length albums. Rather, fans simply are being given a choice. Rather than having to shell out for a full album prior to hearing any of the music, we now have the opportunity to graze first, discover if an artist is producing music in which we’d like to further invest. If we like what we hear, we can buy the full album — and many do.
Furthermore, bands on the cutting edge are able to use campaigns through sites like Kickstarter, which go directly to fans to help fund the production of albums in a setting akin to the idea of commissioning a work as a patron of the arts. If a band wants to work on a concept album akin to “Dark Side of the Moon” and they fear there’s perhaps not as wide an audience for it as there could have been in the past, the band can recruit like-minded listeners to help fund the release. If successful, the album can then go on to the wider audience as a whole, allowing such a concept album to flourish.
In other words, comparing CD sales to full-album sales on iTunes and then saying that the sales of singles are cannibalizing the album as an art form is delusional. You’re comparing apples to oranges and perpetuating the idea that the only way an album can be an album is if it’s produced in hard-copy and sold for $18.95 MSRP.
Myth #2: “The music industry is in crisis solely because of illegal downloads, so we must stop piracy at all costs!”
The idea goes that as mp3 downloading became prevalent, CD sales dropped, therefore albums must be dying because piracy of music online is destroying the industry. Some variants of this argument suggest that the scourge of mp3 downloading illegally through various means is depriving artists of their livelihood, refusing to take into account the benefits of the distribution of any music via untethered digital files.
Yes, artists lose some money due to downloading. That’s a given. But what’s also worth noting is how much time the industry spent going after individual downloaders, attempting to label them as criminals when many were downloading music they’d never heard, spreading the word, and then going out to buy the music from artists they’d discovered and others of that ilk. The RIAA spent millions suing downloaders for outrageous sums, and when that didn’t work they attempted to copy-protect CDs people were buying legally, preventing listeners from being able to make copies, for personal use, of music they’d paid for, under the guise of preventing theft.
In the process they labeled an entire generation of potential customers as thieves, criminals, and degenerates, while providing few outlets for the fans to purchase the music in formats they were clamoring for. Buy these albums on CD, the industry shouted, because that’s the format which we feel is safer to protect our interests. We don’t trust mp3s because they can be stolen, and we don’t want you copying the music you already bought because it prevents us from hitting you up for another copy of the album when you wear this one out. If you feel you have the right to copy music you already own, you’re just like all the thieves.
Myth #3: “Decentralizing music distribution is killing record labels!”
In the 1990s, there were bidding wars aplenty for bands deemed “alternative” in the industry. Labels would fight and spend millions of dollars to lure in the latest band of the moment, even bands which hadn’t proven to be capable of sustaining long-term success or even recording an album. They’d ink contracts worth hundreds of thousands in upfront cash for artists, and then set to work trying to craft the next number one with radio.
Problem was, the stream of cash thrown at bands never seemed to end and the only people hurt by it were the artists themselves. A band given a $100,000 advance for an album rarely realized that this was essentially a long-term loan. You had to pay it all back with album sales. Album production costs would be the first thing billed to your account, from the recording of the album to the production and distribution of such. All expenses would also be added to the tab, as would touring expenses, bribes to radio execs to play your songs in the first place, and then if a music video opportunity came up, you’d pay the tab too.
The tab, it turned out in many cases, would be virtually endless. And many artists had multi-platinum albums the first time out, only to make a few thousand dollars themselves. And when the artist couldn’t repeat the success on album number two, they’d hit you with the remaining tab and drop you from the label.
What decentralized distribution means is now bands don’t have to sign with a major label. If I want to put out an album, I can book studio time for a couple thousand bucks or record it on my own time on a home computer. I can then upload the album to sites like Bandcamp, set my pricing for single or album downloads, and then tour like crazy to promote my work. Lower overhead means it is far less difficult to recoup any early losses, and the profits go directly to the creators of the music fans are buying.
Record labels don’t want you to know that you don’t need them to have a hit record. They don’t want you to know that you don’t need them to pick up the tab and then hold you to recording servitude. But there’s nothing to say that what the record companies want in this instance has anything to do with what either the fans or the bands have vested interests in.
Myth #4: “You need us as the gatekeeper!”
This is my favorite myth, the idea that our generation’s ability to bypass the industry gatekeepers means that, for whatever reason, good music is dead. It’s important for the major labels to believe that they know good music from bad and without them we in the record-buying masses are helpless to know what’s good. The argument goes that our generation lacks superstar acts to vie with those juggernauts of the past, the Michael Jacksons, the Rolling Stones. Radio stations tend to prop up the idea that “classic rock” lives on because modern rock is — for whatever reason — terrible and that today’s pop music is ephemeral compared to the classics of the Beatles.
Much of this could be true, and is rightfully up to debate among those of us listening to music. But the idea that record companies inherently know great music from crap is a fallacy. And there are many reasons why our generation may not have matched the superstar act successes of the past. Perhaps having a deeper pool from which to draw our musical choices means we’re never going to have those few juggernauts to lead the way. Instead we get a variety of artists who are successful, but not at “King of Pop” levels.
Think TV for a moment. We’re no longer in an era when three TV networks control the airwaves, so people don’t watch new network shows in groups of 50 million at a time. We can now go to cable channels and see a wider variety of programs, choosing how to spread our viewing time in whatever way we choose. Same goes for music. Fewer options in prior generations to achieve wide distribution for albums meant that those acts on major labels were pushed to a wider audience right out of the gate, and therefore were also more likely to have mainstream success. But there was always a “long tail” of artists outside the top few percent, which provided the bulk of the music industry’s album sales.
Today’s generation sees a much longer tail from which to choose what we listen to. The top few percent of artists don’t draw the same immediate and long-term sales as they might have forty, twenty, or even ten years ago. And if a band isn’t willing to get out there and work hard for the success they feel they deserve, they won’t find it. In today’s democratic world of “anyone can produce music and market it,” there’s no guarantee of success. You have to be good enough to get my attention, and then you have to keep it.
In the end, however, I at least get to be the one to decide what I want to hear. I don’t have to go to a record company big-wig to have it spoon-fed to me. The industry is free to follow where our generation is going, to seek out and discover new means of reaching audiences now that we have such a world of choice. But they’ll never get the old world back. It’s not our responsibility to prop up their dying system just because it worked in the past.