March 5, 2008

How You're Killing the Record Industry

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This may be my last music column for the foreseeable future, and given the finality of the occasion I thought that instead of typing up my typical list of favored songs I’d substitute something halfway cogent — and maybe even coherent — instead. So this week we’re going to take a look at the future of the music industry, and why the future looks bright for music but cloudier for the industry.

I believe that what we’re seeing now is the death knell of the record industry, at least in its current form. The Internet (the series of tubes running through cyber-space, for my Luddite readership) has effectively subverted the industry’s hold on consumers as peer-to-peer filesharing and social networks have entered the mainstream. This change is better for everyone except the recording industry, which will have to either adapt or fade away. Surprisingly, the end of the record industry may not necessarily be a bad thing for musicians. While artists get a percentage of record sales, most musicians on a record label make most of their bank from touring revenue. Further, kicking labels out of the equation may mean that artists will wind up keeping more money from sales of their music then they do now.

As well as I can tell, the function these record companies fulfilled was threefold: finding and nurturing talent, facilitating the production of a record (booking studios, hiring producers), and then promoting and distributing the finished record. Now, artists don’t need to be “found.” As long as they have a laptop, an instrument and a relatively inexpensive recording program they can make a respectable demo at home. And as for promotion and distribution, I have two words: Myspace and iTunes (I’m not counting the “and”).

Myspace has already launched more than one successful career in music — albeit by the traditional notion of sucess, a recording contract — and anyone can get an album on the iTunes Music Store (now the second largest music retailer in the United States) by filling out a few forms and sending in some songs to see if they meet with Apple’s approval. That in itself is amazing; Apple certainly doesn’t accept every application, but the threshold to get a record on the iTunes store is a few orders of magnitude easier than getting a real record deal.

While the decentralization of music production and music sales may be the future, but the future isn’t here just yet and it probably won’t be for some time. As long as TV and radio exist they’ll provide a venue for the industry to promote new artists and records — though, if the current state is any indication, with diminishing success. What seems certain though, is that while the record industry may somehow limp onward, CDs are not long for this world. If you’re a college student right now, the odds are good that you’re part of one of the last generations to grow up with compact discs, and the last to remember a time without the cultural domination of the one-two knockout punch that is the iPod-iTunes monopoly. In some ways, though, the near future of music purchasing seems clear. I’m not much of a tech augur, but if I think that within the next 10 years your walls of CDs will be replaced by a small wireless external hard-drive which holds all your music and connects to iTunes (and maybe even wifi iPods) on any computer in the house. This vision is similar to what super-producer and Columbia Records president Rick Rubin predicts will be the future for popular music consumption.

In a Lynn Hirschberg piece in The New York Times Magazine last year, Rubin articulated a system in which you would “pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you’d like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere.”

This model sounds fine in the abstract, but I doubt it would work practically. Cornell offers Ruckus to its students for free, but how many of us actually use it instead of iTunes or P2P? Considering Ruckus’ price, I suspect it is a relatively small number.

Beyond the purchase of music, the Internet is also slowly bringing change to its production and distribution, and in doing so, is creating a more democratic, meritocratic system. To get signed to a label in the past, one need a look, a hook, a persona. Now, all you need are some catchy songs, a website and some moxie (that’s right, moxie) as well as a little luck. No record company required. So all you aspiring musicians hoping to make it big in the digital age, make those Myspace and Facebook pages, get some recording software and most of all, start making music.

As Jakob Lodwick, noted Internet entrepreneur put it, “musical success in 2008 will require a deep familiarity with three important concepts: art, commerce, and technology. I believe this truth stands without exception. A label that doesn’t ‘get’ the web will fail. A bedroom music producer who cringes at signing a contract will fail. A web entrepreneur who sees musicians as entertainers, not as walking gods, will fail … Technology gives us the power to do almost anything. This means making a profitable album no longer requires hundreds of people. It requires two or three. Big record labels, and large corporations in general, are no longer needed to make money from art.”

What I’m getting at, I think, is this: If this is my last music column I want to say that I think the next years are going to bring all sorts of new music through a whole bunch of new channels. Now that everyone can make music, it’s up to all of us to listen.