Protecting the music industry from those pesky consumers
If you like music, this is really important. The architecture of online music distribution has been amazing for the consumer. With iTunes or Pandora or eMusic, the savvy listener can get just about whatever she wants whenever she wants it, and for cheap. Of course, the problem of piracy was killing off the record labels, though it must be said that the record labels didn’t make themselves at all sympathetic. Most of us took comfort in the idea that the internet would flatten out the relationship between the musician and the listener. We believed that in the digital era musicians would make it on their own without the labels.
Those of us who believed such things? We were wrong. ~ William Brafford
This piece is reminiscent of the many warnings out there of the impending death of journalism as we know it. All this free information is going to kill the industry. Journalists are losing their jobs!
Which is sort of like all the talk we’ve heard in the past about those lovely manufacturing jobs being eaten up by machines or shipped overseas. And when those factories first reared their ugly heads, the agrarians all gnashed their teeth about the loss of farms and farm jobs. Indeed, for every age and every industry there have been such spasms of alarmism and the necessary protectionist inclinations which follow.
But, as Bastiat noted a long time ago, these concerns take into account only the supply side and its ingrained interests. They ignore the interests of the consumer.
Furthermore, what should we do? Erect barriers of protection against the consumer by banning all internet distribution of music? We could save the journalist by making all news online cost something and then banning all bloggers and new-media companies and anyone else who wanted to give their information away for free. I know in Canada there are a number of such protections in place – either against sites like Pandora, or requiring that a certain percentage of all airtime be devoted to Canadian artists. Maybe we could set something up like that here in the States…
Hell, let’s go back to the days of $20 CD’s distributed by a handful of big labels. There was lots more music to choose from then. Consumers were much better off back when music was far more expensive and the selection was far worse.
I don’t mean to be snarky, but this notion – or whatever notion the music industry may have in mind to save itself – just strikes me as horribly antithetical to the entire point of music. Who says music is around to make some people fabulously wealthy in the first place? When was there ever much of even a middle class of musicians?
Certainly musicians and record labels took some punches – some pretty devastating ones even – as the music industry began to change. The radio stations lobbied hard against upstarts like Pandora, and record labels dug the trenches rather than work with new distribution models like Rhapsody or iTunes. They only changed because it was necessary that they change – because they were unable to fully protect their interests. And make no mistake, the interests of the big record labels were never those of the consumers of music. Some surprise, then, that those consumers – having been ripped off for years – turned to piracy.
Of course, as new non-piratical models of distribution have surfaced – such as online radio or subscription services – piracy has decreased. And the supply of music has never been better. I subscribe to Rhapsody.com and I can’t imagine going back to the old days. Now, when a friend in Vancouver says ‘check out this great New Orleans band’ I can do just that, within seconds. Now if they come through my home town, maybe I’ll go see them at a show. This is how I was turned on to The Avett Brothers. I’m going to see them next week, spend cold hard cash on their concert. Maybe even buy some stuff at the show. Here’s a band I never would have heard of before had it not been for the internet. It’s not as though the radio stations around here actually play anything outside of the pop charts or endlessly regurgitated ‘classic rock’.
But what about this ‘middle class’ of musicians so badly worked over by the internet?
Well, first of all I would say that most musicians never really were able to make a decent living from their music. Many musicians had to have day jobs, just like many artists, writers, and actors. Who else would wait tables? (I kid, but not really.) The creative industries are often very profitable for those at the very top and almost impossible to eek out a living for those at the bottom. With better technology available to record, produce and distribute music, many more musicians than ever before are able to at least share their music with a wider audience. I am a musician, and for a few hundred dollars I was able to scrap together a fairly decent home-recording setup. I can produce pretty decent sounding tracks, and I don’t have to pay however much an hour the studios charge to record. I can upload my music to the internet any time for almost no cost whatsoever. If I were an ambitious musician, I could use all of these tools at my disposal to create a reputation and very likely get paid to go perform places.
Performing, after all, has always been the bread and butter of most musicians. Those record labels who have been so crippled by technology and open access to music never really paid most of their musicians all that much, getting rich from the creative class’s efforts. Most musicians never really made that much money on record sales to begin with. They made their money doing live shows. Now the creative class has to do more – but they reap their own rewards. Now musicians often have to be PR guys, businessmen, and sound technicians all at once, but at least they’re not shelling out 90% of their record sales to some fat cats in L.A.
All of which is to say that the world changes. The world is changing. The publishing world is changing, too. The way authors and publishers and readers interact may very well undergo a similar transformation, though I imagine that industry has learned a thing or two from the stumbling efforts of its musical cousin.
The worst step we could take for musicians and consumers alike would be for us to ‘do something about it’. Just look at the auto industry for an example of the ill effects of protectionism. When all we consider is the supply side and its interests, we not only do harm to the vast majority of consumers, we also enter into a voluntary state of self-delusion. Do we really think music is going to dry up and die out simply because musicians have to work at other jobs for a living? Has this ever been true?
Musicians may not become middle class from their record sales. They may not even achieve that playing the local music scene. But they won’t have to stop playing music just because they have a day job, any more than I have to stop playing music or writing or playing video games or any of the other things I love to do just because I have one. In this world, they can still get their music out there even if they aren’t rockstars or whatever sort of star you are if you happen to be middle class. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy this amazing new access to music I have at my fingertips, this unprecedented window into the music scenes of so many places – and my own unprecedented capacity to create my own music even if I never make a penny doing it.
Alarmism will come and alarmism will go, but music, dear readers, is here to stay.
P.S. – I also didn’t make this very clear in the post, but I don’t think music sales will be the determining factor in the success of professional musicians in the future. I think ticket sales will be. And I see no reason why ticket sales should decrease. My Avett Brothers example is anecdotal evidence of this, but I think people too often forget that it was always – historically – ticket sales that fueled musicians, or at least most musicians, not record sales. Record sales operated like subscriptions to magazines – as indicators of circulation. The higher the circulation, the more expensive the ads cost to run. For musicians, the more record sales the more likely they could get booked and sell out a stadium or whatever venue. Only the very very successful musicians could really rest on their laurels and rake in the record-sales cash.
In other words while I think this is all very good for the very little guys – the amateurs – I think it’s not at all bad for ‘professional’ musicians either. It’s only bad for record companies and super stars. Those are not cultural institutions I’m very concerned about protecting. The cultural institution that is quality music isn’t going anywhere just because professional musicians will have to earn a living going on tour.