26 October 2007

What does the present sound like?

Matt Haughey wrote today-ish about his “half-assed” take on The Future of the Music Business, and after reading it I realized that the matter could stand more thought.

While I do not approach this subject as a musician aspiring to stardom, I have a number of friends — some of whom I’ve rejected as prospective clients by advising them to start out on MySpace — who are so aspiring. One or two of them have actually come tantalizingly close to notoriety, if not actual fame. (Only in Lawrence, folks.)

I care, and consider myself entitled to share my opinion, because:

  • I like music, to the point of its near-omnipresence in my life; and
  • I may well be one of the professional cohort who help bring about the form into which modern music marketing morphs.

[Say that last one fast ten times.]

What today looks like, from my perspective

You have these BigCorp entertainment companies who find the most marketable musicians, put them into straitjackets also known as “contracts,” and proceed to leverage the hell out of those same properties by recording, advertising, and distributing their creative product in the ways that maximize their return on investment.

[My choice of language is deliberately sterile here, especially when you consider that I haven’t yet mentioned the unfortunate consumers of this music.]

The end result is that traditional record companies — including indies — have the entire market for traditionally marketed music, between them occupying a vast but slowly shrinking majority of the sales graphs.

When I stop to game this out, I see three constituencies with entirely different (but not mutually exclusive) goals:

  • Record companies want to make the greatest possible profit at the smallest possible level of risk.
  • Musicians want to make a good living doing something they love, for wildly varying values of “good” and “love.”
  • Listeners want to get the greatest possible amount of enjoyable music possible per dollar of expenditure.

The way the system works now, most listeners buy Compact Discs with anywhere between six and twenty-plus tracks on each, amounting to a maximum of seventy four minutes of audio recordings. Of these, it’s typical that only half of them are good.

Musicians often wind up playing what they’re told to, of which half is typically crap they can’t stand.

Record companies, meanwhile, operate in a web of legal and political intricacies, which if navigated well result in receipt of the whole profits.

At least, that's what Steve Albini thinks, and he has no good reason to lie about it.

Meanwhile our three constituencies have devolved in parts to the following:

  • “Pirates” sit in one virtual corner, all of them merrily downloading stuff they only pay for as part of their Internet service bills, no portion of which go to the recording industry.
  • The recording industry sits in another corner, raising barriers of entry to music broadcasting in order to maintain control over their most important promotional medium apart from word of mouth. Simultaneously they make grossly negative examples of loyal listeners, forcing Internet service providers to spend on discovery what could just as easily have been handed over to the record companies without a ruckus.
  • Musicians run the gamut. Some whine and others innovate or experiment. Most just sit tight silently and do what they’re told while they wait for the dust to settle.

From all of this the writing on the wall is clear: the music industry as a whole must adapt to rapidly altering modes of distribution, and until it does, revenues will continue to drop.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss where things might go from here. Some of them might even put the lion’s share of the money where it belongs: in the hands of musicians and writers.

No comments: