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My Big Post on the music industry - again
Just received my Copy of Fleming and John, The Way We Are, which I would never even know existed without the help of peer to peer networks. The Zero 7 is growing on me after a half dozen listens. They were yet another band I found through downloads. I buy the actual CD's because they are a better product than what I can download, though I buy used when I have a chance. I realize that I don't necessarily represent the stereotypical music listener, or the people that simply see downloading as a way of getting their music for free. I am a snob about sound quality and while I enjoy having mp3's of my music on my computer I still like the sound of CD's.
The record companies don't really get it. Its smacks of irony that in one realm if debate we hear people saying that American workers should expect a decline in wages and job security as the market becomes more global yet on the other hand we should be horrified that new techniques for production and distribution of music is going to eat away at what can only be categorized as obscene profit margins for the layers of the music industry people.
It makes sense in the context of class division, one scenario drives shareholder value and one undermines it.
If you are about my same age you might recall that when the Compact Disc was first released there was a underlying promise that as they become more popular the price would drop. They did, but nowhere near where they should be. If I can produce a production quality recording with my equipment and have it on CD for is practically no cost how can an industry with vastly superior buying power not do so as well?
What causes the recording industry people to wake up in a cold sweat at night is the realization that many of them are just not needed anymore. Sure, it used to require vast amounts of capital to get an artist or group into a recording studio and thus there was an expectation that profits would be realized on that investment. But when you listen to bands like Fleming and John who basically made their own CD at their home studio, with vastly superior sound quality than some big time studio recordings, and when you hear Wilco's manager confess that they didn't even need the record companies money to make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you have to wonder just what purpose does this industry serve anymore?
The product that the record industry still has to sell is promotion. It still takes an enormous amount of money to get your song out there to the buying public to consume. Even if you make a sonic masterpiece in your home studio for pennies there is still no guarantee that you will ever make a dime off it. If your catchy tunes never hit consumer ears you have no market.
This is where the internet poses the greatest threat to recording industry profits. But does it have to be?
There are two models you can follow when releasing music for profit. The dominate model for the past few decades has been to focus promotion efforts on a few artists and recoup large returns with small investments. We might call this the superstar model. Here you make a record for a few bucks and spend millions to make that artist the current "star". You do this by saturating the media with the music, the image and the buzz. No matter who you are and where you live you will have heard of this "new" artist. They seem to be everywhere all at once and every time you turn on the radio there is "that song". By sheer power of exposure and repetition you create an audience and thus consumers for that product. A side benefit of this model is that you also create a demographic you can then expoit with copycat artists.
While this method is not "bad" per se it does have some, by my standards, unfortunate byproducts. Many "stars" have short life spans and never get a chance to develop as artists. Our attention span for music and artists is short as there is always something new pushing for our attention. This method has also made it extremely difficult for bands that exist outside the current marketable mold to survive. We should not forget that Wilco's YHF was dropped by Reprise because that label didn't feel that there was an audience for that style of music in the current consumer climate. A younger, less established artist might not have survived being dropped by their label. Wilco was able to get their recordings released on Nonesuch and get their album out onto the shelves. But you have to wonder just how many deserving artists and recordings have perished under a demographics driven method where being "too different" is the kiss of death? I hate to think...
Another bad side effect of this model is the effect that it has on radio. What we get now is a very streamlined process that leaves very little up to individual tastes and passions. Corporate owned Clear Channel and their ilk are products of this model. What it does is offers up the promise of low overhead, less time spend working artists that will never turn a profit and less room for error. Recoding company X signs hot artist Y, sends it out to hundreds of station nationwide that play the single for months until Z millions of dollars have been made and the next hot artist is ready to roll out. Its simple, its very methodical and it works. Most importantly it provides a predictable method of producing profit. Wall Street likes predictable.
The second model I'll call the "scattershot" model. Here, the record industry signs thousands of artists of all different stripes and varieties, throws them into the studio to make cheap records, they send out the singles to hundreds of small locally owned radio stations that each pick what they want for their format and choose to play. An artist might start to catch on in certain markets and expand into other markets and eventually turn into a national phenomenon. Once that artist is famous they send them back into the studio with more money to make another hit record which gets national rollout and a marketing blitz.
This model was more common a few decades ago but is still in use today. Sometimes labels will see a promising act, put them through the studio and send their album out with limited fanfare in the hopes that it will take off all on its won. Sometimes it even works. In some cases a band will garner a large enough following to justify their continued survival as long as they can guarantee a predictable amounts of sales per record. Metallica lived like this through the age of glam rock and eighties metal till the demographics came around and made it feasible for the labels to take them to the airwaves. Some artists however will never make it into the national spotlight for marketing reasons.
You can see the problems with the model if you think about from the perspective of record execs. You spend lots of time and money working with artists that won't bring in enough profit to make it worthwhile. Its much easier to limit the options available for people to choose from and concentrate on making your hitmakers VERY profitable.
Internet distribution of music, either through legal channels or illegal channels poses a grave threat to record company profits. It represents what could be very substantial leaks in the system. Consumers can now seek out artists they like in a vast network of available music instead of being focused on what is available in the limited world of corporate radio. It effectively fragments consumer demographics. If you have too many kids in prime buying ages moving in a thousand different directions it makes it much harder to hit them with your marketing bullet. You might spend millions putting together your "skater girl punk rock-like angsty teen" act only to find that your audience has been turned on to something else entirely - angry rappers with tattoos for instance. It was much easier when you controlled tastes and then delivered the product to fill that taste. I doubt that the record companies and radio station owners want to return to the game of chasing their audience.
Too some degree the record companies will always be able to control consumer taste and deliver products to fill that need. What we are talking about here is the SIZE of the profit being realized. Companies loath going backwards when it comes to profit. Its enough to make somebody run to Washington with a gaggle of lawyers in tow.
I too feel that we should not be of the mind that we can get our music for free without regard to the effect that this will have on artists. But at the same time I do not buy into the argument that giving in to highway robbery in form of inflated CD prices represents the most effective way of showing support for the artists that we love. Most of that money never reaches the artists and at best it buys them another chance to make their next album. During his speech at the Grammies the President of the Recording Academy referred to the "family" of the music industry. I couldn't help but think that many of the artists are treated little better than the child with the ten dollar allowance that is expected to do everything from mowing the lawn to washing the dishes. From their website about music downloading we get this statement.
Whatever we each might think about music companies and the profits they make on music, the fact is that making records is expensive.
The cost of actually recording an artist has been dropping and many artists have gone about creating their own home studios to get as much creative control as possible. Making a record is actually pretty cheap these days, especially as digital recording on moderately priced computer systems becomes more common. What cost money is the process I referred to earlier, creating that market cohesion and hitting it with the magic bullet. That expense is only considered essential if you think that the "superstar" model is the best practice. I don't.
If record companies still expect to spend millions to build a captured market in today's leaky environment they can expect to take hits to their bottom line. To their credit I think they realize this and are embracing legal alternatives like iTunes and its counterparts. In the meantime what we are seeing are the last attempts to keep a model that is quickly becoming irrelevant from dying. In the future we should aim at creating a market that gives as many artists as possible access to the buying public, more money directed to the people actually making the music and less going to the apparatus built up to drive consumer demand, and a reason to convince people to pay for their music by offering a better product in terms of quality, variety and convenience.
Dissolve into Evergreens